“Deliberative democracy” is a compound term. In both theory and practice, it connects deliberative influence through reason giving, reciprocity, and publicity to a family of political systems that broadly enable popular control of the state and government through empowerments such as voting, petitioning, and contesting, as well as the electoral and judicial systems that enable them. These empowerments are democratic when they are distributed to, and usable by, those affected by collective decisions in ways that are both equal and equitable.

While deliberative influence is best protected and incentivized by democratic political systems, not all deliberation is democratic, and not all approaches to democracy are deliberative. We should distinguish and relate these terms: we need to differentiate the practice of deliberation from the contexts of democratic enablements and empowerments in which it occurs. We can then focus on the pre-deliberative conditions that will enable or limit the extent to which deliberation is democratic. Two pre-deliberative democratic features stand out as particularly important in this context: popular participation—how individuals come to have standing and voice as participants, and agenda-setting—how concerns come to be defined as issues. We further argue that since deliberation typically occurs downstream from agenda-setting, and since popular participation both shapes and is shaped by this practice, theorists and practitioners of deliberative democracy should pay close attention to each well before deliberation begins.

To make this case, we first theorize the democratic dimensions of deliberative democracy through the concepts of equity and equality. Second, we focus on agenda setting and popular participation as important, though not exclusive, pre-deliberative determinants of equality and equity during deliberation. Finally, we offer suggestions about how theorists and practitioners of deliberative democracy might think about responding to the challenges generated by the tension between equality and equity prior to democratic deliberation.