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II Deliberative democracy

Deliberative polling. Reflections on an ideal made practical

James S. Fishkin

Democratic innovations have tended to move in two conflicting directions. Some aspire to increase inclusion and some to increase thoughtfulness.1 Ultimately, I believe the movements toward increased inclusion are supported by the value of political equality. And the movements toward increased thoughtfulness are supported by the value of deliberation. Is it possible to have both at the same time?

In what is arguably our oldest continuing democratic system, the US, the original design for the constitution was conceived by James Madison as a ‘strategy of successive filiations’ of public opinion. Representatives would ‘refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens’ as Madison noted in Federalist 10. This refinement of public opinion was to take place in the Senate, the Constitutional Convention, the ratifying conventions, even the Electoral College in its original form. The people would select state legislators who would select senators, states would select electors who would select the president, conventions would approve constitutional changes. This Madisonian vision spawned numerous innovations of democratic design in the name of deliberation.

But the indirect filtration of elite deliberation was soon challenged by attempts to consult the people directly. Instead of the requisite ratifying convention, Rhode Island proposed a referendum on the US Constitution so all citizens could vote on the proposal. The Federalists objected on grounds of defective deliberation. Only in a small representative body, like a convention, could arguments offered on one side be answered on another and then could all the arguments be weighed together by those making the decision. The Federalists boycotted the referendum, the Constitution was voted down and the resulting crisis was only resolved under threat of force. Connecticut threatened to invade from one side and Massachusetts from the other. Under such threats Rhode Island agreed to ratify via the required state convention.

The Rhode Island referendum was an indication of the impulse toward involving the people directly in a way that would lead to mass democracy. Progressive and later reformers led to a wave of innovations - referendums, mass primaries for candidate selection, initiatives, expansion of the franchise - which would all promote political equality. However, the result of bringing power more directly to the people has been that the people have, increasingly, less and less incentive to think about the power they are supposed to exercise. We seem to face a forced choice between politically equal but relatively less informed and thoughtful masses or politically unequal and relatively more thoughtful and deliberative elites. Our dilemma is ultimately an apparent forced choice between inclusion and thoughtfulness.

I believe the aim of escaping this dilemma provides a good agenda for possible political innovations. I will report on two strategies, which I call Deliberative Polling and Deliberation Day, both of which provide ways out. How well they do, as in all attempts at innovation, depends on empirical issues. I will try and summarize some of those here.

I will treat the combination of political equality and deliberation as the defining perspective of deliberative democracy (see also Geissel in this volume).

Concrete applications of ‘deliberative democracy’ raise three basic questions:

a Who: Who is doing the talking? How are they selected? To what extent are they a representative of some larger population? b How: To what extent and in what ways does the discussion satisfy deliberative and democratic aspirations?

c To what effect: What difference does the discussion make? To what extent do the results have sufficient legitimacy and connections to the policy process to be implemented? Is it just talk or can it effect action?

As we have seen, policy makers who wish to consult the public face an apparent dilemma. On the one hand, if they consult mass opinion directly, they will get views that are largely uninformed. Most citizens, most of the time, in most political systems, know little about the details of public policy (Converse 1964; Luskin 1987; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Kinder 1998; Price 2000). But policy elites and organized interests, which may have different interests and values, may not speak accurately for the people. Any effort to consult the public faces a parallel dilemma. Who should be consulted? How should they be selected? In open town meetings, only the passionately engaged or mobilized - unlikely to be anything like a representative sample - tend to show up. In scientific polling, random sampling can be applied to yield representative samples, but their views, on most complex policy matters, are apt to be non- or minimal attitudes, closer, in truth, to ‘don’t-knows’ than to serious opinions (Converse 1964; 1970: 168-89; Achen 1975, 1983; Hill and Kriesi 2001; for a recent overview see Bishop 2005).

Deliberative Polling helps solve these dilemmas, increasing both political equality and deliberation, both representativeness and considered judgements. The basic idea is to assemble a random sample to discuss a set of policy or electoral issues, having first sent them carefully balanced briefing materials and then giving them the chance of questioning panels of competing policy experts or policy makers. The small groups are randomly assigned and led by trained moderators. The participants answer the same questions before and after deliberating (see Fishkin 1991; 1997 for the idea and rationale; Luskin et al. 2002 for a detailed analysis; Fishkin and Luskin 2005 for an overview). The random sampling serves equality and representativeness. The balanced information, moderated discussion and questioning of balanced panels provide good conditions for deliberation.

In theory the Deliberative Polling research programme provides a distinctive answer to the three questions with which we started. First, by using random sampling we provide an answer to the who question that satisfies political equality. A random sample of the mass public, particularly if its representativeness is vindicated by who actually participates, can plausibly constitute a microcosm of the whole population. And it does so by providing everyone an equal chance of participation. Second, the process embodies good conditions for this random sample to come to considered judgements. The process employs balanced briefing materials, small group discussions with trained moderators, plenary sessions with competing experts who answer questions from the small groups from different perspectives, and opportunities to reflect on the information and share competing points of view. The participants express their views in confidential questionnaires, insulated from social pressures.

Deliberative Polling’s answer to our third question, to what effect, has usually been less clear. The results may be broadcast and taken seriously by the media and even inform the debates among policy makers, yet fall well short of determining policy. That may trouble those wishing to restrict ‘deliberative democracy’ to processes culminating in binding decisions.[1] [2] We would dispute such a requirement, but, in any case, there have in fact been Deliberative Polls culminating in binding or all but binding decisions. Notably, Deliberative Polling led to the implementation of major investments by electric utility companies in Texas, instructed to follow the results by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.[3] It also was recently used by PASOK, the Greek Socialist party, to choose its candidate for Mayor of Marousi (a large municipality in the Athens metropolitan area) (Fishkin et al. 2008). In addition, a series of Deliberative Polls in China have been employed to make decisions about local infrastructure and budgeting matters (Fishkin et al. 2010).

A Deliberative Poll could be evaluated in various ways. It is usually several things at once - a social science investigation, a public policy consultation, a contribution to the media and public discussion. As a public policy consultation, some reasonable criteria for evaluation would be (see also Geissel in this volume): d The extent to which the participants learn. e The extent to which the learning drives the opinion change.

4 The extent to which the post-deliberation opinions or changes of opinion influence public policy.

  • [1] The extent to which the sample is representative.
  • [2] The extent to which there are significant changes in opinions, particularlyabout policy attitudes.
  • [3] The extent to which the changes of opinion exemplify normatively desirableprocesses of deliberation: a In particular the extent to which the process avoids distortions frominequality. b The extent to which the process avoids any predictable pattern of smallgroup polarization. c The extent to which there is a development of public spirited preferences.
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