Do transparency and publicity have the power to civilise politics? In deliberative democratic theory this is a common claim. Publicity, it is argued, forces actors to switch from market-style bargaining to a behaviour more appropriate for the political sphere, where the proper way of reaching agreement is by convincing others using public-spirited arguments.
Daniel Naurin has conducted the first comprehensive analysis and test of the theory of publicity's civilising effect. The theory is tested on business lobbyists - presumably the most market-oriented actors in politics - acting on different arenas characterised by varying degrees of transparency and publicity. Innovative scenario-interviews with lobbying consultants in Brussels and in Stockholm are compared and contrasted with a unique sample of previously confidential lobbying letters. The results are both disappointing and encouraging to deliberative democratic theorists. While the positive force of publicity seems to be overrated, it is found that even behind closed doors business lobbyists must adapt to the norms of the forum.
Social Movement Studies 9:4 - Book Review
This book makes a refreshingly empirical contribution to discussions of the European Union and its democratic deficit, specifically on the possible role of increased transparency in alleviating the latter. Naurin rightly challenges us to think about transparency and its effects – to 'take transparency seriously' rather than merely assume its panacea-like effects for European Union democracy and legitimacy. With this in mind, Naurin's work focuses on investigating what deliberative democracy theorists label the civilizing effect of publicity.
The study begins with a discussion of the merits attributed to transparency, especially among theorists of deliberative democracy, who argue that it will lead to better decisionmaking by shaming actors into avoiding purely selfish behaviour. Transparency, which may lead to publicity, will force actors out of a market or individually-oriented logic into one where they must defend their positions before those affected. It is this theory that the author seeks to test, in particular in light of two challenges to its veracity from existing research on European Union comitology procedures, where deliberative qualities were found to take place despite secrecy, and on activists whose rhetoric becomes less civilized and more selfish when speaking in public.
Naurin tests the theory of the civilizing effect of publicity by focusing on business lobbyists in the European Union and Sweden – with Brussels representing a secretive and opaque system and Sweden an extremely open one where all communications made between lobbyists and government departments are publicly available. The challenge of finding out what is said in secret lobby meetings is overcome in an inventive way, through interviews with top lobby professionals in the two locations asked to comment on how they would go about lobbying a fictional case, after being presented with different types of possible arguments. Confidential letters from industry lobbies to the European Commission, later made publicly accessible, and similar documents from the open Swedish context, are also analysed to check the interview results. The author thus devises a method for systematically comparing industry lobbyists' behaviour 'backstage', in private, and 'frontstage', in public, by coding the different arguments as self-, other- or ideal-regarding.
The study concludes that the theory of publicity's civilizing effect does not bear out in either of the cases. Indeed, private lobby letters to the European Commission are found to be more civilized even than Swedish equivalents, which are freely available to the public.
When market actors speak in public, conversely, they tend to use even less civil ('other- or ideal-regarding') arguments than they do in private. Naurin points out that the civilizing effect as theorized within deliberative democracy does not therefore lie in rendering politics public, but in a forum effect exerted when market actors enter the political forum.
That is, the civilizing effect takes place earlier than imagined, and is a forum effect.
Paradoxically, the findings against this reasoning of deliberative theory end up supporting one of its basic assumptions – politics is empirically demonstrated to be different from the market, as supposed by economic views of politics, and indeed much pluralist literature on interest groups.
This empirical contribution to the debate on the possibilities for improving democratic legitimacy in the European Union is especially useful in making us think about concepts we often assume to be beneficial without any real consideration. The research design is thorough and convincing, and the book is very readable and informative, especially on the mechanics of how lobbying takes place on a day-to-day basis in the European Union. The interview data from professional lobbyists provides particularly interesting insights from actors that are not often heard in empirical studies on this subject. The findings are timely and useful at a time when the European Union is seeking to improve its democratic credentials, and the author is careful to point out their practical connotations in his warnings against ignoring input legitimacy at the expense of output quality.
Extending the analysis to comprise other actors involved in European Union policy processes would undoubtedly improve its robustness and generalizability. The author correctly points out that business lobbies are the hardest test for this theory, since they are the most self-interested actors present in the field. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to analyse the discourses of NGOs and SMOs to draw comparisons with the literature the author cites as the basis for his investigation of the theory of publicity's civilizing effect, or even those of member state government actors. The analysis of the discourse could also perhaps have benefitted from the literature on framing. This book will appeal to many: students of the European Union in general and its democratic deficit in particular; students of deliberative democracy, and especially its practical applications; and interest representation scholars of all persuasions.
Louisa Parks, Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute