Conditions vs Topics vs Issues in Deliberative Politics

Politics runs on issues, which are questions about what should be done. Deliberative politics runs on issues that are widely seen as shared and critical. Yet, in public discourse, conditions, topics, and issues are often conflated.

    • Conditions are societal: norms or pathologies in how individuals or groups behave. Example: a state of division, or divisiveness, is a condition in society or a community.
    • Topics are conceptual descriptors: collections of issues which serve to separate one general field from another. Example: education is a topic area.
    • Issues are the specific domain of politics: shared problems on which collective action is possible and about which a decision must be made. Example: Addressing opioid addiction is an issue.

In preparing materials to prompt public deliberation, it can be a challenge to distinguish between these things. But there is no decision to be made, nor collective action to be taken, on conditions or topics. We cannot deliberate over “education.” What aspect of education? Disparities in achievement? Shortfalls across the board? The subject matters to be taught?

Finding Issues

Over time, in our work at the Kettering Foundation we developed heuristics that have proven helpful in distinguishing such issues.

    • Is there broad agreement that a decision must be made?
    • Is there disagreement over the cause of the issue?
    • Will any solution require a range of actors, including citizens working together?
    • Do potential solutions threaten the things people hold dear?
    • Are there institutions and other organizations that could be a part of that acting, but which do not have sole responsibility?

These are not the only such questions, nor are they definitional.  But they help point the way towards materials that can be helpful.

Often, concern over a condition or a topic prompts us to explore whether there is an issue that might productively be deliberated over. Two recent examples:

In 2018, Kettering began to research “divisiveness.” We began to wonder whether this was a problem of democracy — that divisiveness was getting in the way of our democratic functioning. However, divisiveness itself cannot be deliberated over nor politically acted on: it is a societal condition. There is no democratic policy that could be made “against” division. Research suggested, though, that there is a question for communities to deliberate over: Given the divisiveness we face, in which people increasingly behave in uncompromising ways, what should we do in order to have a functioning political system? This resulted in the issue guide, A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Have the Political System We Want? (2019).

In 2015, the “economy” was prominent in public discourse and was a consistent worry in communities. But this is a topic area, there is no question to be answered. Public research led us to see that at issue was the increasing difficulty in getting by coupled with the growing disparities between those who are thriving and those who are not. What should we do to make sure all Americans can achieve economic security? This resulted in the issue guide, Making Ends Meet: How Should We Spread Prosperity and Improve Opportunity? (2016).

Note in each case, the title of the issue guide is in the form of a question at issue.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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