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Dan Gauss

Schudson’s “Why Conversation is not the Soul of Democracy” is another reading that challenged what I have been in school. Similar to the way Iyengar challenged traditional conceptions of the media as the Agenda-setter or Gatekeeper, I saw Schudson’s critique of conversation’s role in Democracy to be a challenge to another well-received communication theory- Milton’s Marketplace of Ideas.

The idea behind the marketplace of ideas is that it protects all types of speech because even untruths or hate speech spur public debate and add value to true, rational statements (their true value revealed partly through comparison). As it pertains to democracy, an open marketplace of ideas should mean a more informed electorate and thus lead to them making better voting decisions.

I don’t think that Schudson would disagree with any of this, at least in theory. However, I think he has seen the disconnect between such theories, and real-world practices. Schudson makes a key move distinguishing between sociable and problem-solving conversation, as well as the proper application and context for each. Additionally, Schudson offers that the idea type of Democratic talk is conversation that is not egalitarian, but public.

To more aptly define the most important essence of democratic conversation, Schudson cites the constitutional convention and the various roles of engagement and civility, to ensure equal access to the floor—most importantly, this shows that primal American political conversation was carefully structured to be deliberative and democractic. Therefore, Schudson claims, it had to be anything but spontaneous, thus distinguishing problem-solving conversation from the spontaneous elements of social conversation.

I agree with Schudson that structured deliberation is an important part of democratic debate, however, I do not think this tells the full story. Social movements are an integral part of democracy, and their power can set the agenda, frame debate and spur real policy change. These could absolutely be called spontaneous, as they are oftentimes in response to other events, such as the Occupy movement. Social movements do not have strict frameworks that decide access and ensure deliberation.

In fact, social movements are evidence of Schodson’s conception of political conversation as flawed and narrow-minded, in that such structured deliveration is not inclusive nor does it provide equal access to all citizens. Social movements arise in response to people feeling they do not have a voice, such as student protests at UNC and other schools over rising tuition. These unstructured, spontaneous movements are proof positive that political conversation deserves a more inclusive definition than simply structured deliberation. Spontaneity does have a role in the public sphere, too.

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