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The reefs of mass cognitive incompetence

For John Dewey ‘Democracy begins in conversation’, but for Thomas Hobbes democracy was ‘The aristocracy of orators’. Social scientists have experimented with different kinds of discussion forums to test the strength of the Hobbesian view, and to see how the Deweyan ideal might best be achieved. They have created citizen panels, juries and assemblies, focus groups and forums, community councils, planning cells and consensus conferences, and the series of deliberative polls devised by James Fishkin and his colleagues. For once, the outcome of the various experiments is comparatively clear-cut and unanimous. Given the right circumstances, ordinary citizens are capable of proper deliberation, of changing their minds as a result of discussion and information, and making judicious decisions that take account of the public interest. This point is made loudly and clearly in the chapters by Kriesi, Fishkin, Rucht, Talpin and Geissel in this volume (see also Cronin 1989; Lowndes et al. 2001; Fung 2003a; Fagotto and Fung 2006a: 11; Ferejohn 2008). Moreover, the conclusion is the same whether it is based on experiments with citizen assemblies and deliberative polls, which try to create the conditions for high quality citizen deliberation, or on observations drawn from Californian initiatives and direct democracy in Switzerland, which are real-world events. If the real world is the best test of Sartori’s assertion, then Kriesi’s conclusion in this volume is the most telling where he states that ‘the Swiss experience amounts to a powerful empirical rebuttal of the arguments raised by sceptics like Sartori’.

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