Omar Flores / UnsplashOmar Flores / UnsplashDeliberative democracy has a fraught history. The theory’s foundational principle – that rational discussions across differences are normatively laudable and beneficial to democracy1– has wide support. Yet critics challenge deliberative democracy as an idealistic, unachievable utopia that privileges the powerful over the marginalized.2 Connective democracy is our answer to these concerns.

Connective democracy is not meant to replace deliberative democracy but rather to help enact it in everyday life. Connective democracy seeks to build bridges between divided groups3 so that they can hear each other in a deliberative manner, but it also appreciates that sometimes this is impossible. Scholars at the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin put forth the concept of connective democracy to offer a more practical response to the divisiveness that plagues our society.4 Connective democracy takes into account the inequities between groups that can privilege dominant voices. It allows for an imperfect democracy, compared to deliberative democracy’s aspirational view. It also takes a broader look than deliberative democracy by harnessing the power of the news media to connect people across differences. In this essay, we theorize what connective democracy is, interrogate how it enables deliberative democracy, and outline how it may help the problem of divisiveness in our society.

Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy hearkens to the salons and cafes of 18th century Europe, where the newspapers united the “dispersed crowds” to debate the seminal issues of the day.5 Habermas’6 concept of the public sphere reified this idea of a communication space of civic engagement and rational discourse that is open to all, invites diverse viewpoints, seeks to bring consensus out of disagreement, facilitates reasoned discussion, and makes people feel as if they can affect political change.7 This kind of discourse, however, is elusive. Deliberation, as envisioned by deliberative democracy, is “infrequent, unrepresentative, subject to conscious manipulation and unconscious bias, and disconnected from actual decision making.”8 Consequently, it is not happening frequently in face-to-face political discussions and is even less likely in the disembodied online sphere.9 Related critiques assail the theory for over-prioritizing rationality and de-emphasizing emotions. This could result in shortchanging the “democratic merit of robust and heated discussion”10 or failing to appreciate the value of emotions to motivate political action.11 Critics also charge that deliberative democracy does not fully take into account the unequal power distributions in society that result in some voices getting heard over others, so it may promote elitist, hegemonic viewpoints.12

Connective Democracy

We offer connective democracy as deliberative democracy’s grittier, more down-to-earth cousin, if you will. Both theoretical frameworks seek to reach across differences, but connective democracy offers a less sanitized view of this process. It acknowledges that democracy is messy – sometimes very messy – and it accepts that political discussions are not always rational or civil but that does not necessarily negate their value.13 Connective democracy also tries to address one of the thornier challenges of deliberative democracy. This challenge is that people who have more diverse political networks may hear from the other political side more, which is normatively good, but they also may be less likely to engage politically, which is normatively bad.14

Connective democracy tries to address these challenges by encouraging people to build bridges with those they disagree with, rather than merely hear their viewpoints. Theoretically, connective democracy draws support from Allport’s15 intergroup contact hypothesis, which urges that contact between groups can diffuse stereotypes and lessen mistaken impressions. As a result, connective democracy can enact deliberative democracy by helping people connect with those with whom they disagree. It urges that people not just hear the other side but truly listen to it. Relationships between political opponents thus become not merely admirable but essential.

Yet, connective democracy is pragmatic. It realizes that some divides are too deep to bridge. In those cases, the goal becomes having compassion for the other side’s struggle. Connective democracy leaves room for democracy to stumble as it urges that bridging divides imperfectly is better than leaving a nation in schism.

Taking Action

So what would connective democracy look like in practice? Imagine if people took the time to know their neighbors well enough that they were willing to listen to each other, regardless of political differences. Imagine if people could talk about politics with an open mind, without trying to convince their opponents to change their views or prove that the other side is wrong. These scenarios demonstrate a vision of connective democracy. Connective democracy could also emerge in online discussion groups that focus on non-political topics, such as sports or parenting, that allow the discussion of politics to seep in once inter-group connections have already been established, an approach that has shown some success.16 Connective democracy is also apparent when newsrooms reach out to their most disenfranchised audience members and ask: What could we do better to engender your trust? It could appear when newsrooms try to cover marginalized communities better so their voices are heard.

Our point is not that deliberative democracy lacks merit. We do not believe that. We also do not argue that connective democracy should replace deliberative democracy. Rather, connective democracy allows the ideals of deliberative democracy to take shape and live out in people’s political lives. With a problem as vast as political polarization and the divisiveness and inequity it spawns, multiple ways of looking at and solving this problem are required. Bridging social and political divides is, therefore, more important than ever, and that challenge is at the heart of connective democracy.


1. James S. Fishkin, Democracy and Deliberation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); John Gastil, Political Communication and Deliberation, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008); Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

2. Simone Chambers, “Deliberative Democracy Theory,” Annual Review Political Science 6 (2003): 307–326.; Lincoln Dahlberg, “The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere.” Information, Communication & Society 4, no. 4 (2001): 615–633; Michael X. Delli Carpini, Fay Lomax Cook, and Lawrence R. Jacobs, “Public Deliberation, Discursive Participation, and Citizen Engagement: A Review of the Empirical Literature.” Annual Review Political Science 7(2004): 315–344. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.7.121003.091630; Rousiley C.M. Maia, Danika Cal, Janine K.R. Bargas, Vanessa V. Oliveira, Patricia G.C. Rossini, and Rafael C. Sampaio, “Authority and Deliberative Moments: Assessing Equality and Inequality in Deeply Divided Groups.” Journal of Public Deliberation 13, no. 2 (2017): 1-32; Michael Schudson, “Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 14(1997): 297–309.

3. Natalie J. Stroud and Gina M. Masullo, “Building Connective Democracy to Combat Polarization,” in Democracy and Civic Life: What is the Long Game for Philanthropy, eds. Knight Foundation/Kettering Foundation, (Miami, FL: Knight Foundation, 2020), p. 157; See also Christian Staal Bruun Overgaard, Anthony Dudo, Matthew Lease, Gina M. Masullo, Natalie J. Stroud, and Sam Woolley, “Building Connective Democracy: Interdisciplinary Salutation to the Problem of Polarisation.” in The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, eds. Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (New York: Routledge, 2021).

4. Sunil Ahuja, Congress Behaving Badly: The Rise of Partisanship and Incivility and the Death of Public Trust, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2008); Shanto Iyengar, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhorta, and Sean J. Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States,” Annual Review of Political Science 22, no. 1(2019), 129–46.

5. Gabriel de Tarde, On Communication and Social Influence, ed. Terry N. Clark, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1889/1969).

6. Jürgen Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy,” Democratic and Constitutional Theory Today 1, no. 1 (1994): 1–10.

7. Fishkin, Democracy and Deliberation; Gastil,Political Communication and Deliberation; Gutmann and Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement; Lawrence R. Jacobs, Fay Lomax Cook, and Michael X. Delli Carpini, Talking Together: Public Deliberation and Political Participation in America Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

8. Delli Carpini et al., “Public Deliberation, Discursive Participation, and Citizen Engagement,” 321.

9. Zizi Papacharissi, A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age , (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010); Dahlberg, “The Internet and Democratic Discourse”; Gina Masullo Chen, Martin J. Riedl, Jeremy L. Shermak, Jordon Brown, & Ori Tenenboim, “Breakdown of Democratic Norms? Understanding the 2016 US Presidential Election Through Online Comments.” Social Media + Society 5, no. 2 (2019): 1-13.

10. Zizi Papacharissi, “Democracy Online: Civility, Politeness, and the Democratic Potential of Online Political Discussion Groups.” New Media & Society 6 (2): 260.

11. George E. Marcus, Michael MacKuen, and W. Russell Neuman, Affective Intelligence Theory and Political Judgment, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gina Masullo Chen, Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

12. Maia et al., “Authority and Deliberative Moments”; Schudson, “Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy.”

13. Gina Masullo Chen, Ashley Muddiman, Tamar Wilner, Eli Pariser, and Natalie Jomini Stroud. 2019. “We Should Not Get Rid of Incivility Online.” Social Media + Society 5 (3): 2056305119862641.

14. Diana C. Mutz, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

15. Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, (New York: Doubleday, 1954).

16. Magdalena E. Wojcieszak and Diana C. Mutz, “Online Groups and Political Discourse: Do Online Discussion Spaces Facilitate Exposure to Political Disagreement?” Journal of Communication 59(2009): 40-56. See Overgaard et al., “Building Connective Democracy” for an overview of efforts.


  • Gina M. Masullo is Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Media, and Associate Director and Knight Faculty Fellow, Center for Media Engagement, Moody College of Communication, at The University of Texas at Austin.

  • Christian Staal Bruun Overgaard is a doctoral student, School of Journalism and Media, and Knight Research Associate, Center for Media Engagement, Moody College of Communication, at The University of Texas at Austin.