Deliberative Democracy: what and why?

Can a public-consultation toolkit enliven Europe's argument? Jim Fishkin kicks off our dLiberation blog
James Fishkin
25 September 2007
Professor James Fishkin

Professor James Fishkin of Stanford University, the mastermind of deliberative polling, kicks off dLiberation's coverage with a look at the thinking behind deliberative democracy, and the ways in which such a method of public consultation may be able to help the European Union both address its democratic deficit and its current ongoing stagnation:

There is a basic, and recurring problem of public consultation-if we ask elites, we have deliberation without political equality. If we ask the people directly, we can have political equality but usually without deliberation. Can we have both... can we have a method that represents everyone under conditions where the people can become informed and can think through difficult issues?

There is the outline of a solution lying in the dust of history. In ancient Athens deliberative microcosms chosen by lot made important public decisions... last year, we brought a modern version of this idea, which I call Deliberative Polling, to Marousi, a suburb of Athens, thus returning - for a weekend - Athenian democracy to Athens after 2400 years.

The microcosm chosen by lot embodies political equality because every citizen has an equal random chance to take part in a process in which each person's views count equally... It embodies deliberation through carefully-balanced background materials, moderated small group discussions, plenary sessions in which the questions from the small groups are answered, and then a final confidential questionnaire. The deliberative poll results are then contrasted between the poll results on first contact and those at the end of the process...

There are three basic problems that the deliberative poll responds to... all of these apply to European issues to a high degree.

1) Rational ignorance...

If I have only one vote in millions, why should I pay attention to the details of public policy or the positions of parties in elections? My individual vote will not make much difference - and we all have more pressing things to do...

2) Non-attitudes or phantom opinions...

When people have not thought about an issue, they rarely want to admit it, so instead of saying don't know, they randomly choose an alternative.

In the US, people offered answers to the question of whether they approved of the Public Affairs Act of 1975 - but there was no Public Affairs Act of 1975... it was fictional.

Then the Washington Post decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1975 Public Affairs Act, and asked about its repeal - telling half the sample that then President Clinton wanted its repeal and half that the Republican Congress wanted its repeal. They got quite different answers from each group - but of course it never existed in the first place...

3) Even when people talk about politics and even when they consult the media about it, they tend to talk to people like themselves and they tend to consult sources that are congenial to them and that they agree with...

In the case of Europe it is obvious that the French talk to the French, the Germans to the Germans, the Bulgarians to the Bulgarians. There is no European-wide dialogue at the mass level. People often have little in the way of opinions about complex European matters and each citizen has one vote or voice among half a billion citizens...

The Deliberative Poll offers a solution to these problems.

For those in the sample, it overcomes the problem of rational ignorance - each person knows that his or her voice counts, as rather than one in millions they now become one in fifteen or so in small discussion groups, made up of about 400 or so respondents to the questionnaires...We give people a reason to become informed...

When we did the first British deliberative poll a woman came up to me and said she wanted to thank me. Her husband was in the sample... and in thirty years of marriage he had never read a newspaper. But she said that once he was invited to this event he had started to read every newspaper every day - and he was going to be much more interesting to live with in retirement...

We are replacing non-attitudes - or very much off-the-top-of-the-head impressions of sound bites and headlines - with real opinions, considered judgments formed under transparently good conditions, from balanced materials, good information, responses from experts and leaders in balanced panels, to questions from the small groups... And unlike most political conversations, people will have come in contact with competing points of view.

When we did the Danish deliberative poll before the Euro referendum, the country was split almost evenly between yes and no factions. We found that the yes people knew the yes supporting information the no people knew the no supporting information. But when we gathered them in randomly assigned small groups, the yes people learned the no supporting information and the no people learned the yes supporting information... At the end of the day, people got the essentials of the argument on both sides....

As a social scientist, I believe that we need to experiment with different modes of democratic consultation and use social science to ensure that processes are balanced and representative. Only with experimentation can be surmounted the dilemma: elite processes can be deliberative but unequal, plebiscitary processes can be equal but not deliberative....

In my own country, there was only one state that had a referendum on the US constitution - that was Rhode Island... The federalists objected to the idea, saying that a referendum would not be deliberative and people would not be motivated to learn the competing sides of the argument.

Rhode Island went ahead - it voted down the US constitution and, in a little known chapter of history, Connecticut threatened to invade from one side and Massachusetts from the other... Rhode Island changed its mind, had the required convention - and joined the union... Elite processes, constitutional conventions had deliberated and produced one answer, plebiscites another.

My view is that we need to supplement the tool kit with modern improvements on an ancient Greek idea - and broadcast the deliberations of a representative microcosm of the people themselves...

It turns out that in every case we have done it, the people have shown that they are very smart... Why not for Europe?

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