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July 12, 2007

an appetite for deliberation?

Several recent studies have argued that Americans are resistant to controversy. Therefore, we tend to avoid voluntary opportunities to exchange ideas with people who are different from ourselves. [See three Cambridge University Press books: Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (1998); John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work (2002); and Diana C., Mutz, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy (2006).]

Based on some quite ambitious current empirical work, I'd propose a different hypothesis. College students (at least) are hungry for a particular kind of conversation that is serious and authentic, involves diverse views, but is free of manipulation and "spin." They want discussions that are open-ended in the sense that everyone is truly trying to decide what should be done.

Today’s young people are barraged with messages that have been designed to persuade them to do things that someone else wants. They experience an unprecedented amount of commercial advertising: companies spent $17 billion to advertise to children in 1992 (when our college student sample was entering grade school)--up from $100 million in 1983. Commercial advertisers use increasingly sophisticated techniques of persuasion, based on detailed public opinion research. The government, political candidates, parties, interest groups, and reporters and pundits also use such techniques. For example, political messages are now pre-tested in randomized experiments to measure their impact on specific demographic groups.

I believe that college students are aware that they are targets of manipulation; they resent it; and this is one reason that they are reluctant to engage in politics. They see such manipulation at work in several domains--the news media, political advertising, and their fellow students who are activists for social causes. However, a considerably proportion of college students can recall particular conversations that they've had that seemed open-ended. They seem grateful for those discussions, which took them out of what they call their "bubble."

July 12, 2007 2:37 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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