April 14, 2011

John Gaventa on invited and claimed participation

Today, I will be interviewing John Gaventa at a Tisch College forum to which all are welcome. Gaventa has been a major figure in democracy and popular education since his student days in the early 1970s. One of his recent contributions is the PowerCube, a simple device that activists can use for analysis and planning:

I am especially interested in the dimension that runs from "closed" to "invited" to "claimed." Much of my work has involved trying to get powerful institutions to "invite" public participation by, for example, reforming elections to make them more fair, enhancing civic education, advocating changes in journalism, or recruiting citizens to deliberate about public policy. Increasingly, I believe that democratic processes must be claimed, not invited, if they are to be valid and sustainable.

For instance, in 2009, angry opponents of health care reform deliberately disrupted open "town meetings" convened by Democratic Members of Congress. The Stanford political scientist James Fishkin published an argument for randomly selecting citizens to discuss health care instead of holding such open forums. That was a classic proposal for "invited" democracy. The New York Times chose to give his essay the headline, "Town Halls by Invitation." I would now say that democratic participation cannot be by invitation--it must be a right claimed or created by ordinary people, whether elites like it or not.

On the other hand, when officials do invite participation, that is often in response to public pressure or demand. In such cases, formally "invited" spaces are actually claimed ones. One of the most important innovations is Participatory Budgeting (PB). As I understand it, the Labor government of Porto Allegre, Brazil, invented PB to reduce political pressure on itself as it faced hard budget choices. But PB became so popular that it survived changes of party control in Porto Allegre and spread to many other municipalities around the world. In such cases, reform begins with an invitation but becomes an expectation.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , democratic reform overseas

February 8, 2011

educating for civility

I am concerned about civil society and active citizenship, not about civility per se. I think an obligation to be polite can suppress engagement or can favor one side over the other (normally the side that is invested in the status quo). Sometimes, an angry critique is just what we need.

But there is a sense of "civility" that means a willingness to listen to others and learn from them. Civility in that sense is vital unless one is certain one is right. Only a few people should enjoy that certainty. (For example, Frederick Douglass appropriately refused to hear or answer arguments in favor of slavery.)

Anyway, I have generally avoided debates about civility, but I was persuaded to write a chapter on the topic for a volume entitled Educating for Deliberative Democracy, edited by my friend Nancy Thomas. The book is now out. It is not available online, but Wiley has chosen my chapter as their free online excerpt (PDF).

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October 19, 2010

deliberation on campuses

"Public deliberation" is a positive synonym for "talk"; and definitions of "public deliberation" tend to list positive characteristics like fairness, non-coercion, freedom of speech, seriousness, relevance, use of valid information, and civility. Since these are supposed to be characteristics of academic discourse, as well, it is natural to try to bring public deliberation to college campuses as a form of civic education and as a service to broader communities.

The Journal of Public Deliberation devotes a whole new special issue to the topic, with articles on everything from an overview of the prevailing practices to academic libraries as hubs of deliberation. For full disclosure, eight of the authors are friends and collaborators of mine, but I think the quality is objectively high.

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August 12, 2010

what is the best participatory process in the world?

The Bertelsmann Foundation--the largest foundation in Europe, I believe--will give its Reinhard Mohn Prize in 2011 to the best project anywhere in the world that "vitalizes democracy through participation." I am serving on an advisory board for the prize, but a major aspect of the competition this year is open and public. You can go to this website and nominate a project or read and vote on the nominees (or both).

I personally nominated the Unified New Orleans Plan, which was written after Hurricane Katrina by thousands of citizens whom AmericaSpeaks convened for town meetings; Community Conversations in Bridgeport, CT; and deliberative governance in Hampton, Va. These are strongly institutionalized, politically significant examples of public deliberation in the US. They have recruited diverse and representative citizens in large numbers, addressed real problems, and strengthened their communities' civic cultures.

There are 78 other nominees right now. They include clever ideas, like an online space for citizens of different EU countries to agree to vote together. Promising work comes from unexpected places, like a deliberative polling exercise at the municipal level in China. There are many e-democracy platforms, most of which seem to be suites of online tools for following the government and discussing issues. The Danish Board of Technology, which has an impressive track record of public engagement over many years, convened people in 38 nations to discuss global warming together--an impressive experiment that yielded news reports in many of the countries.

Participatory Budgeting (which gives citizens the right to allocate public funds in deliberative meetings) has spread from its homeland of Brazil to places like Tower Hamlets, London and the Indian state of Kerala. Some important legislative reforms have been nominated and should be celebrated, although I am not sure they meet the criteria of the prize. The Central Information Commission in India is an example.

I am not sure that my own nominees are the best, but I am most enthusiastic about all the examples that are multidimensional, lasting efforts, driven by several institutions instead of only the government, and involving work, cultural production, and education as well as dialogue and advice. Some examples other than my own nominees would include Co-Governance in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, perhaps the Abuja Town Hall Meetings in Nigeria (if they are genuine democratic spaces), and Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System.

Vote for your favorites!

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , democratic reform overseas

June 3, 2010

AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy

My post for the day is over at usabudgetdiscussion.org, the blog for the National Town Meeting on Our Budget, Our Economy that AmericaSpeaks is organizing for June 26, 2010. This national deliberation will occur simultaneously in about 20 large venues "across the country, in many Community Conversations, and online."

I conclude my post by saying, "I am confident [that citizens] will address this difficult, divisive, and complex topic just as they handle equally challenging questions at the local level--with maturity, civility, and collective wisdom. They will model a whole new form of politics that we desperately need."

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May 12, 2010

creating informed communities (part 3)

This is the third of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 3: Invest in Face-to-Face Public Deliberation

Today I focus on a particular recommendation in the Knight report, number 13, which is: "Empower all citizens to participate actively in community self-governance, including local 'community summits' to address community affairs and pursue common goals."

Face-to-face discussions of community issues have been found to produce good policies and the political will to support these policies, to educate the participants, and to enhance solidarity and social networks. In the terms of the Knight Report, they turn mere information into public judgment and public will. I'm still moved by the Australian participant in a planning meeting who said, "I just can't believe we did it; we finally achieved what we set out to do. It's the most important thing I've ever done in my whole life, I suppose" (quoted in Gastil and Levine 2005, p. 81).

I agree with the Report: "As powerful as the Internet is for facilitating human connection, face-to-face contact remains the foundation of community building." The whole array of online communications contribute to civil society, but dedicated online deliberative spaces--despite some potential for improvement--have been basically disappointing so far. The open ones are subject to pathologies that you don't often see in the physical world. For example, the White House open government forum on transparency was almost hijacked by proponents of legalizing marijuana (PDF, p. 9). In a face-to-face setting, especially in a discrete physical community, it would be very difficult to swarm a public session in that way.

In order to make real-world deliberations work, several conditions must be met. There must be some kind of organizer or convening organization that is trusted as neutral and fair and that has the skills and resources to pull off a genuine public deliberation. People have to be able to convene in spaces that are safe, comfortable, dignified, and regarded as neutral ground.

There must be some reason for participants to believe that powerful institutions will listen to the results of their discussions. They may be hopeful because of a formal agreement by the powers that be, or even a law that requires public engagement. Or they may simply believe that their numbers will be large enough--and their commitment intense enough--that authorities will be unable to ignore them.

There must be recruitment and training programs: not just brief orientations before a session, but more intensive efforts to build skills and commitments. Ideally, moments of discussion will be embedded in ongoing civic work (volunteering, participation in associations, and the day jobs of paid professionals), so that participants can draw on their work experience and take direction and inspiration from the discussions. There must be pathways for adolescents and other newcomers to enter the deliberations.

We have examples:

I would draw the conclusion that is also implicit in the title of Carmen Sirianni's recent book, Investing in Democracy. You can't get "community summits" and other forms of excellent engagement on the cheap. They take a long-term effort and resources that are normally a mixture of money, policies, and people's volunteered or paid time.

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April 30, 2010

community organizing and public deliberation

Matt Leighninger, director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, has written a wise and inspiring paper called Creating Spaces for Change for the Kellogg Foundation. It is the product of several meetings in which community organizers interacted with people who define their roles as promoting public deliberation. The tensions between these two conceptions of "democracy"--and the potential for melding them--have interested me for many years. I've addressed the topic in published writings, e.g., here. But Matt's report breaks new ground.

Deliberative democracy first arose as a response to a blinkered notion of politics as mere power. The dominant view of political scientists during the 1950s and 1960s was that individuals and organizations want things. They have options, such as to vote, to contribute money, to run for office, to strike, to sue, or to threaten violence, and they make their choices in order to get as much of what they want as possible. Political outcomes are the result of many simultaneous choices.

Deliberative democrats criticized that theory from a moral perspective, saying that we should not be satisfied with policies that arise because individuals and groups try to get what they want. They may not want good things; their power is starkly unequal; and some of their tactics are unethical. Besides, people don't know what they want until they have communicated with others. So we should talk and listen before we try to get things.

But talk can be very harmful, as when evil dictators talk their followers into murderous action. Thus a crucial second step for deliberative democrats is to define some kinds of communication as better than others and to name the better kinds "deliberation." Typically, the hallmarks of deliberation include the diversity of the participants, their equality of influence, freedom of speech, openness and transparency, reasonableness, and civility.

There is now a field devoted to organizing tangible public deliberations at a human scale: meetings, summits, "citizens’ juries," community dialogues, moderated online forums, and various hybrids of these. They all involve convening diverse groups of citizens and asking them to talk, without any expectation or hope that they will reach one conclusion rather than another. The population that is convened, the format, and the informational materials are all supposed to be neutral or balanced. There is an ethic of deference to whatever views may emerge from democratic discussion. Efforts are made to insulate the process from deliberate attempts to manipulate it.

In contrast, activism or advocacy implies an effort to enlist or mobilize citizens toward some end. At their best, advocates are candid about their goals and open to critical suggestions. But they are advocating for something. Many advocates for disadvantaged populations explicitly say that deliberation is a waste of their limited resources. They note that just because people are invited to talk as equals, the discussion will not necessarily be fair. Participants who have more education, social status, and allies may wield disproportionate power. Individuals and groups who are satisfied with the status quo have an advantage over those who want change, because they can use the discussion to delay decisions. (They can "filibuster.")

Talking with people who hold different views can cause us to temper or censor our sincere views in order to avoid confrontation; and such self-editing reduces our passion and our motivation to act. Social movements that oppose injustice seem to arise when "homogeneous people … are in intense regular contact with each other." (Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, 1996).

For their part, proponents of deliberation often see organized advocacy as a threat to fair and unbiased discussion; hence they struggle to protect deliberative forums from being "manipulated" by groups with an agenda. One tactic for this purpose is to select potential participants randomly (like a jury), so that it is impossible for an interest group to mobilize its members to attend. Overall, deliberation seems cool, cerebral, slow, and middle-class. Activism seems urgent, passionate, effective, and available to all.

Community organizing is a type of activism. It is concerned with just social outcomes (not just processes). But many community organizers have deep concerns about respecting all voices, including ideologically diverse ones, building trust and networks among fellow citizens, and developing civic skills that include skills of listening and collaborating. Thus the gap between deliberation and community organizing can be very small. After one meeting that Matt describes, Eduardo Martinez of the New Mexico Forum for Youth and Community (a community organizer) remarked, "We may use different terminology and have different local issues, but most of the discussion was about how similar our work is."

Another organizer, Jah'Shams Abdul-Mumin, nicely articulated the limitations of both fields in making a case for combining them: "The organizing community often treats people in a pejorative manner. Meanwhile, the deliberative democracy crowd includes a lot of extremely intellectual types. Neither group owns up to the things they can do better to relate to people."

There were, evidently, tough discussions about the value (if any) of neutrality and whether concern for social equality needs to be built into deliberative processes. There were also debates about what to call the whole field that includes both deliberation and community organizing. "Civic engagement" seems too dry; "citizenship" can be understood as exclusive and merely legal. Nobody knows what "deliberation" is, and "community organizing" has perhaps "been stretched so far over the last forty years that it has lost much of its meaning." But overall, there seems to have been much enthusiasm for the idea that issue advocacy, community organizing, deliberative democracy, and racial equity may be parts of one larger cycle or ecosystem--a "wheel of engagement," as some called it.

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April 14, 2010

AmericaSpeaks national discussion of the budget and the economy

AmericaSpeaks, a group that promotes public deliberations, will organize a national discussion about the budget on June 26, 2010. Americans will meet in large groups in up to 20 different cities, and also in online discussions and smaller community conversations. All the discussions will be linked, which is a new frontier in public deliberation.

The topic is of fundamental importance, because we cannot avoid deep decline as a nation unless we make difficult choices regarding the budget. Our political leaders and institutions are plainly incapable of doing the hard things, like cutting entitlements or raising taxes. And the public seems to want them to do nothing painful. As a board member of AmericaSpeaks, I will vouch for the neutrality and high-quality of their background materials and facilitation. This national discussion should yield truly thoughtful, informed public opinion and public will.

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April 9, 2010

classroom practice from an ethical perspective

(Madison, WI) I am here for one of a series of meetings organized by University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess and funded by the Spencer Foundation. Diana and her colleagues have assembled remarkable empirical data about high school students and their social studies classes. From their longitudinal surveys--which follow the students into their twenties--they can draw inferences about the effects of various school experiences. Their elaborate interviews of students and teachers and their classroom observation notes help to explain the quantitative data and also provide numerous interesting anecdotes. The interviews, in particular, draw attention to dilemmas. Should you deliberate issues in a classroom that may be offensive to some students? Should you allow students to deliberate issues that should be settled? Should a teacher disclose his or her personal views?

The empirical data are relevant to these questions. For instance, it might turn out that teachers' disclosing their opinions affects students' opinions. But the data cannot settle these questions, which also involve value judgments about both means and ends. The appropriate ends, in particular, are by no means clear.

Therefore, Diana and her colleagues have assembled professional philosophers to discuss the empirical data with the researchers. There are actually three kinds of background in the room. Almost all the participants have personal experience as teachers. The quantitative data is more general and systematic but less rich than personal experience. And everyone has some level of philosophical training or interest. This seems to me a model for how to think about thorny issues.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , education policy

April 7, 2010

participatory budgeting in Chicago

Participatory budgeting started in Brazil, when residents of poor urban neighborhoods were given control over capital budgets. They now meet in large groups and decide how to spend government funds deliberatively. The outcomes of participatory budgeting in Brazil include better priorities, greater public trust in government, and much less corruption. The last benefit might seem surprising, but it appears that when people allocate public money, they will not tolerate its being wasted.

Participatory budgeting is one of many important innovations in governance that have originated overseas and that should be imported to the US. Now is a time of great creativity in democratic governance, with the US generally lagging behind. We suffer from too limited a sense of the options and possibilities.

I believe there has been some participatory budgeting in California cities. And now Chicago Alderman Joe Moore announces:

I am strongly opposed to discretionary budgets for legislators. That's just a way for them to buy reelection with public funds. But the fact that Alderman Moore has such a budget is not his fault, and he is using it for an excellent experiment.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , democratic reform overseas

March 17, 2010

public deliberation news

In lieu of a substantive post on this busy day, some links about public deliberation ... A new CIRCLE study finds that reorganizing a high school to encourage daily meetings about school policy boosted voluntary service. ... The deliberative democracy field responds to the Coffee Party movement. ... Detroit has a new plan for school reform that was developed in a highly deliberative way.

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January 22, 2010

student conference on deliberation

One of the highlights of last summer was a fascinating conference called No Better Time, which convened scholars, activists, leaders, and students who are committed to deliberation. Hundreds of people met at the University of New Hampshire for a rich set of discussions and working groups.

The student participants banded together and decided to create a national conference of their own. It's called Connect the Dots, and it will be held on March 3-6, 2010, Point Clear, Alabama. They are calling it "A national student conference on public dialogue, deliberation, community problem solving and action." It should be fantastic. Students, faculty, and practitioners should apply to present.

The host of the conference is the David Mathews Center. David is now the president of the Kettering Foundation and was the president of the University of Alabama in the 1970s. The center named for him is located in Tuscaloosa. Its "purpose is to foster infrastructure, habits, and capacities for more effective civic engagement and innovative public decision making."

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December 7, 2009

what the leaked climate change emails tell us about our politics

Imagine that you are a specialist in climate science. Like 82 percent of your colleagues, you believe that "mean global temperatures [have] risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and ... human activity [has] been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures." You worry about the consequences, which may range from acute suffering in the world's poorest countries and loss of natural species to global catastrophe.

You also know what science is like--it is always uncertain and provisional. Every article has a "limitations" section, every data table has margins of errors and sources of bias, and rarely do two articles precisely agree. Nevertheless, you know that to change the course we're on will require millions of people to alter their political and consumer preferences. But people are fairly selfish and short-sighted. Besides, we have lots of other things to worry about, from our day-to-day practical struggles to spiritual concerns, plus all the alarms we receive from the mass media: serial killers, terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, swine flu.

Given all this clutter, you, the climate scientist, decide that you'd better become much more effective at communicating a sense of alarm. You are constrained by ethical limitations (no outright lying, for instance, even to save the planet), but simplification, evasion of complexity, exaggeration of certainty--all that seems necessary.

These are the habits that one can see in the leaked private emails of climate scientists. Their messages include mentions of "tricks" in the presentation of data, data withheld from direct public inspection, and references to skeptics as "idiots." Reactions to the emails range from George F. Will (the documents "reveal paranoia on the part of scientists ... [N]ever in peacetime history has the government-media-academic complex been in such sustained propagandistic lockstep about any subject") to Paul Krugman ("all they show is that scientists are human, but never mind").

In my view, the emails reveal a shift from one kind of communication to another. Borrowing a distinction from the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, I'd distinguish strategic, instrumental, means/ends communication from deliberation or dialog. When communication is strategic, you know what your goals or ends are, and you use efficient means to convince others. When communication is dialogic or deliberative, you reason with the other party about what the goals and means should be.

The leaked climate emails show scientists becoming strategic rather than dialogic. The reason is clear: modern society is so structured that strategic communication generally beats dialog, at least in the short term. It simply works better.

Yet strategic communication is unethical, insofar as it tries to manipulate the other person's reasoning capacity. It uses him or her as a means, not an end. It is also self-destructive in the long term. Our views of matters like climate change depend fundamentally on trust. I cannot directly sense changes in the climate, let alone their causes. Neither can scientists--despite their fancy equipment. An account of how and why the climate is changing requires aggregating the research of many scientists and collaborative teams. To use the aggregated information, you must trust all the contributors. Then, to make matters even harder, people like me don't read any of the scientific literature on climate. We read what we regard as high-quality news coverage of the scientific literature, which means that we must trust some reporters, as well as the scientists they cover. And we must trust the reliability of the relationship between them.

All of this works if we assume that scientific discourse and high-quality journalism are not strategic forms of communication. They are not supposed to pre-judge the outcome and try to convince. Rather, they are supposed to explore the truth in the company of their readers. To the extent that they communicate strategically, they are just interest groups, basically like all the others. They have goals; they may be willing to negotiate; but they cannot persuade on the basis of trust.

This analysis suggests a real dilemma. Dialogic communication won't change mass opinion, and counting on it may put the earth at risk. But strategic communication is unethical and ultimately self-defeating. It's the nightmarish side of modernity.

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November 9, 2009

Senator Coburn v. the online town meeting experiment

I have enthusiastically summarized a recent NSF-funded experiment in which Members of Congress deliberated with randomly selected citizens about the hot-button issue of immigration. I presented this experiment as "the right way to do a town hall meetings." I noted, as one of the positive outcomes, that participants increased their favorable views of their elected officials as a result of the online deliberations. (We know that is a real effect because there was a randomly selected control group that didn't deliberate.)

I should have seen the objection coming. In fact, it came on the floor of the US Senate, presented forcefully by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Texas), and was then picked up by prominent blogs and mass media. One of the study's authors, David Lazer, has even graphed the way Coburn's speech diffused across cyberspace:

The critical argument is nicely summarized on the Heritage Foundation's web site: "This report urges Congressmen not to actually interact with their constituents, but to avoid them altogether by holding safe townhalls they can completely control. ... Congress is actually using your tax dollars to pay social scientists to find ways they can avoid actually talking to their constituents while improving their chances of reelection." Senator Coburn even used this project as an example of why the NSF should not fund political science at all.

On his blog, Lazer summarizes the various criticisms and responds with commendable civility. For my part, I would say: It was not a good thing in itself that participants became more supportive of Members of Congress. Some Members deserve low support--their reelection rate is, if anything, too high. But it is a good thing that people were able to exchange ideas and values in a civil format with national leaders. This is an educational process for both sides.

I mentioned the fact that politicians' approval ratings rose because I do not think they will be instinctively enthusiastic about this kind of format. Contrary to the fears of the Heritage Foundation, politicians cannot control a true deliberative forum.* Thus we are not likely to see many online deliberations unless Members of Congress stand to gain somehow from participating. It was helpful to learn that their approval ratings rose, because that might motivate them to do more deliberations.

I can grasp a purist argument that any government is prone to protect its own interests, and therefore we should be vigilant about any effort that uses tax dollars and improves the reputation of incumbents. But if we are concerned about the unfair advantages of incumbents, the obvious issues to address are gerrymandered electoral districts, the huge fundraising imbalance, and free mailings for Members of Congress (the "franking privilege").

When incumbents choose to do things that citizens actually like--such as deliberating online; or passing good legislation--their approval is likely to rise, but we can hardly complain. In Federalist 27, Hamilton writes, "I believe it may be laid down as a general rule that [citizens'] confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration." If deliberation is a form of "good administration," it will increase confidence in and obedience to the government. That sounds like a good sign.

*Heritage is concerned that "off-topic, redundant, unintelligible, or offensive questions were screened." They're worried that an angry opponent of federal policy would be blocked. Lazer responds, "As noted in the report, the possibility of screening anything as 'offensive' was theoretical. We did not actually exclude any questions for this reason. ... That said, it is worth noting that the medium is potentially manipulable, and there is nothing to stop someone who is doing an online townhall from excluding difficult questions. (Of course, all communication media are manipulable in some way, so it is not obvious that this is an advantage or disadvantage of online townhalls.) We had a neutral moderator, and included all questions that time would allow, in the order that were posted. This included some that were pretty hostile to the Member. Our assessment (and recommendation) was that these very confrontations made the events more effective, because they reflected the authenticity of the event. In short, the Members approval ratings increased because they had done the right thing."

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October 27, 2009

the right way to do a town meeting

Last summer, Democratic Members of Congress fanned out across the country to conduct "town meetings" on health care. They already knew which policies they supported, so these events were not actually the public deliberations that the term "town meeting" implies. They were opportunities for highly motivated individuals to sound off, one at a time, with an elected official in shouting range and cameras rolling. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and not only for the Democratic politicians who organized the "town meetings." I presume that most of the citizens who attended--including the most conservative ones--were pretty dissatisfied as well.

Not long before, the Congressional Management Foundation and a crack team of researchers had conducted an entirely different kind of congressional town meeting--on the equally controversial topic of immigration. People were randomly invited to participate, so as to create a representative group. Balanced materials were provided, and the discussions were moderated. Members of Congress participated but did not moderate. Everything took place online.

The researchers evaluated this experiment carefully, using a randomly selected control group. Here are the findings that I found most striking:

Use a sham process, and you will pay a price. Risk a real discussion, and people may agree with and respect you.

Download Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century here. And here are some related blog posts by me and others: why have town meetings at all?, responses of the deliberation community to last summer's events, and another important academic study by the authors of the new "Online Town Meetings" paper.

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October 8, 2009

who wants to deliberate?

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey have written a really important paper entitled "Who Wants to Deliberate - and Why?" It is a rich and complex document that reports the results from a new national survey plus an experiment.

Overall, the paper complicates and challenges the "Stealth Democracy" thesis of John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (my review of which is here). The "Stealth Democracy" thesis is that people have the following preferences:

On the basis of their survey data, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse conclude that "getting people to participate in discussions of political issues with people who do not have similar concerns is not a wise move." Deliberative democracy "would actually do significant harm." According to the new paper, however, citizens hold ambivalent and complex feelings about each of the options listed above; and they are quite supportive of a fourth choice--deliberative representative democracy (a conversation between citizens and elected officials.)

One way to get a flavor of this fascinating paper is to compare survey questions from Hibbing and Theiss-Morse with new questions from Neblo et al:

By asking questions that are opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's items, Neblo et al. reveal that even most people who hold anti-democratic views are actually quite ambivalent. Most of those people also hold pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people are in favor of real dialog and deliberation, but unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress. That, by the way, would be roughly my own view.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. They were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they don't reject deliberation in principle but dislike the official debates that they hear about or watch on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if they showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, "95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are 'very valuable to our democracy' and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues." These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments. So are the open-ended responses of participants:

The short answer to the question, "Who wants to deliberate?" seems to be: "A lot of people, but especially those who are most alienated from politics as usual." That suggests that real deliberative democracy, as organized by the National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, and others, may be the best antidote to deep skepticism and alienation.

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September 30, 2009

much better than a town meeting

If you or a group that you're part of wants to discuss health care policy without descending into the kind of shouting matches that dominated August, the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums have just the tools you need. Click through to a work book, other background materials, and a guide to holding a neutral, productive dialog in your community.

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August 12, 2009

why have town hall meetings at all?

Members of Congress are doing their usual thing--holding "town hall meetings" that are really public Q&A sessions on major pending issues. This summer, the main topic is health care reform. What is unusual is the hostile reception that politicians are experiencing (although I'm not sure what proportion of the negative comments are truly inflammatory ones, like those covered in the media). As a result, some Members have already decided not to hold town hall meetings at all, and the whole practice might soon disappear. That prospect leads Matt Yglesias to reflect:

Yglesias is asking how politicians benefit from these events (in a narrow sense). A more important question is whether town meetings have public benefit--which would offer a different kind of reason for holding them. I would say ...

On one hand, there is no good reason to hold the kind of "town meetings" we are used to. That phrase invokes the old New England deliberative forums in which citizens come together to make collective decisions. The reality, however, is a public hearing with a small group of self-selected activists who ask questions one by one. That format is easy to manipulate and likely to turn unpleasant; it rewards strategic behavior rather than authentic dialog; and it reinforces a sense that the politician and citizens are profoundly different. (The politician has responsibility but cannot be trusted; citizens have no power but only a right to express individual opinions.)

On the other hand, we need real public discussions that include politicians along with other citizens. The purpose of such discussions is not to find out what the public thinks already. As Yglesias says, a random-sample poll is better for that. And its purpose is not to sell the public on a position; for that, mass advertising works better. The purposes of discussion are rather to encourage people to see issues from other perspectives from their own, to develop new and better ideas, to enhance voters' ability to judge their representatives as deliberators, and to strengthen local ties and relationships that lead to civic change. For example, citizens who discuss health care reform might not only develop opinions about federal legislation but also decide to launch a new initiative in their town.

Without deliberation, as Madison warned, "The mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlarged and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain."

To achieve deliberation, process is important. People need to talk among themselves in diverse groups, whether in study circles, National Issues Forums, or at tables in a 21st Century Town Meeting organized by AmericaSpeaks. There must be moderators and good background materials. Elected representatives should be observers, or maybe peer participants, but not lone figures on the stage.

The Obama Administration could have used public deliberation as a way of getting a health care bill. That would have required a large-scale, organized public discussion with moderators and rules. The Administration chose, instead, to drive the bill through Congress quickly, using their mandate. They may succeed, and there was a case for speed. But they have encountered--not only organized ideological opposition--but also deep public distrust of government. If they fail, this will be the cause.

Here are two potential "theories of change":

1. Run a presidential campaign promising to expand the role of government in health care, get more than half the electoral votes and seats in Congress, write and pass the bill, and trust that the results will ultimately be beneficial enough that people will come to like and trust the new federal health care program.

2. Try to build a health reform plan in dialog with the public by organizing a large-scale deliberation about the content of the bill and by considering participatory mechanisms for the ongoing delivery of health care. (Co-op insurance plans might have potential for that purpose.)

The Administration chose the former strategy, and we'll see if it works. I hope it does, because I think the House bill will benefit the public if passed. It is also possible that a deliberative process would have been subverted by partisan and ideological forces (although there are techniques that can protect deliberation to a degree). At any rate, I hope the Administration will try a deliberative approach to some other issue.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

July 31, 2009

private opinion polls

These results from the latest New York Times survey are supposed to be evidence that "the public continues to be ill-informed and hypocritical."

People want lower taxes, no spending cuts, and a smaller deficit. It's like the citizen who was quoted in a newspaper many years ago saying, "It's the government's deficit, not ours. Why can't they pay it off?"

Others have already made the following technical point. Few individuals in this survey probably gave inconsistent responses. The overlap between those who wanted "no new taxes" and those who opposed spending cuts may have been fairly small. It was the aggregate result that was incoherent, and that was no individual's fault.

Which brings me to a second, more substantial point. We must aggregate public opinion to get democratic outcomes. But we can aggregate in many different ways. One of the stupidest ways would be to call people on their home phones, out of the blue, and ask them a series of abstract questions. "Do you want lower taxes, yes or no?" "Do you want service cuts, yes or no?" If you tally up the answers and call it public opinion, that is a recipe for incoherence. You will get much better results if, for example, you ask a group of people to think, talk, and develop a consensus plan.

Nina Eliasoph's comments from Avoiding Politics (p. 18) are relevant:

In the case of the New York Times poll, the context is a very cerebral, information-rich, nonpartisan, published forum in which authors and readers are expected to think like ideal legislators and make all-things-considered judgments under realistic constraints. In that context, you look like an idiot if you call for lower taxes, more spending, and a reduced deficit. Into that august forum are dragged innocent citizens who were telephoned randomly without notice and asked to say yea or nay to a bunch of sentences. No wonder that, when their responses are tallied, they look "ill-informed and hypocritical." I guarantee you that if the same people were told they needed to come up with a public position on the federal budget, their response would not only be better--it would have a human face and would be presented with some mix of seriousness, uncertainty, regret about difficult choices, and pride in their accomplishment.

To be sure, the poll gives meaningful information. It tells us what people want when they don't reflect--and most of us do not reflect on national policy very often. So the opinions in the poll pose real problems for national leaders, who cannot deliver desirable outcomes that are practically incompatible. On the other hand, people rate their own understanding of national policy very poorly. They expect good leaders to make tough calls. They realize that the situation is difficult and there are no perfect answers. If you conclude from these survey results that the public is stupid and should be treated accordingly, you misread their mood and their expectations.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , populism

July 28, 2009

deliberation and the California budget mess

A concrete proposal for a deliberative public forum made it to today's Times op-ed page. Chris Elmendorf and Ethan J. Leib call for a "citizens assembly" that would meet when the legislature deadlocks on a budget. The California legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass a budget and labors under many constraints created by initiatives. It has a chronic problem of failing to pass decent, reasonable budgets on time, a problem that reached a critical stage this year when the largest American state issued IOUs in lieu of real checks.

Other activists are causing for a constitutional convention--which could be called the "nuclear option" of public deliberation, because it would enlist a deliberative group in blowing up the whole constitution and starting over. The Elmendorf and Lieb proposal is much more modest. In fact, it might cause elected officials to propose moderate budgets in order to avoid a deadlock and then a loss of power to the citizen's assembly.

I presume citizen participants would be randomly selected and paid for their time. They would consider various alternative budgets, hear from experts, talk (a lot), and decide. As a populist reform, it beats the initiative and referendum on two grounds. First, it's deliberative--people exchange ideas and evidence before they vote. Second, the subject of deliberation is the whole budget, not an individual yes-or-no proposition like capping taxes or reducing class sizes. You're really not acting responsibly as a participant in self-government unless you are willing to make tradeoffs.

Whatever one thinks of this particular proposal, I would argue that California's problems are civic, not economic. Legislators could balance the budget by raising taxes and/or cutting spending; they don't need aid from outside, which would only encourage them to continue their irresponsibility. Their civic problems lie partly in the rules of the formal political system, but another cause is a relatively weak civil society. The newspapers that cover state and metropolitan issues are inadequate, for example. Californians have plenty of civic assets, as well, but they need to mobilize them much better.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

June 3, 2009

on the limits of online forums

The White House recently created a space where anyone could post "ideas and comments on how to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative." More than 2,000 ideas were posted. I was happy to participate; my ideas are here.

The site is a gesture in favor of openness, deliberation, and interactivity. But the results so far are at least somewhat problematic. They underline the importance of deliberations or discussions in which the participants are representative of the whole population and there is some moderation.

The very top vote-getter was proposed by "republicanleaderjohnboehner." It is a "72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills." I do not know whether that is a good idea. The explanation seems a bit partisan: the main example of a "taxpayer-funded outrage" is "the empty 'Airport for No One' in the congressional district of Democratic Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)." (Note the double identification of Rep. Murtha as a Democrat--both before and after his name.) 1201 people voted for this idea, 187 against it.

The Republican House leader had a right to participate in this dialogue; arguably, it is a good innovation to create an open space where he would be able to weigh in. But without prejudice against Mr. Boehner's idea, I suspect that it got so many votes because someone activated an an online Republican network to support it.

The second-rated idea was to legalize marijuana, which seems unrelated to the purpose of the site and must also reflect the activation of a network or a mailing list. It could indeed turn out that the number of votes was proportional to the size of one's network. (I used my blog and facebook page and got a total of 139 favorable votes.)

There were many cranky "proposals." For instance, 53 voted for, and 10 against, a proposal headed, "Obama may be Kenyan. His father is Kenyan. Obama is not natural born! Release [birth certificate]." My proposal to engage young Americans got comments like this one: "Stop spending money on racist preemtive genocidal wars. We need education not war." Whoever wrote this comment had a right to express himself. I disagree that the current US wars are "genocidal," but I'm not on the opposite side from this person. I would question whether (a) the comment was germane and relevant, and (b) whether a dialogue in which such views are prevalent can possibly influence national policy.

The important next step of the White House process is a "discussion phase." It will be very interesting to see how this works.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

April 1, 2009

controversy in the classroom

University of Wisconsin Professor Diana Hess has published Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Routledge, 2009). The longitudinal study of high school students that is a major source of data for this book was partly funded by CIRCLE. Hess argues that planned, moderated discussions of controversial issues teach essential democratic skills. She provides research-based advice about how to define "controversial issues" and handle them in classrooms.

According to my blurb on the back cover:

permanent link | comments (0) | category: advocating civic education , deliberation , education policy

February 24, 2009

the politics of negative capability

Zadie Smith's article "Speaking in Tongues" (The New York Review, Feb 26) combines several of the fixations of this blog--literature as an alternative to moral philosophy, deliberation, Shakespeare, and Barack Obama--and makes me think that my own most fundamental and pervasive commitment is "negative capability." That is Keat's phrase, quoted thus by Zadie Smith:

Other critics have noted Shakespeare's remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness," and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." Hazlitt said that the "striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds--so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men." Keats aspired to have the same "poetical Character" as Shakespeare. Borrowing closely from Hazlitt, Keats said that his own type of poetic imagination "has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character. … It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion poet.” When we read philosophical prose, we encounter explicit opinions that reflect the author’s thinking. But, said Keats, although "it is a wretched thing to express … it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature [i.e., my identity]."

In Shakespeare's case, it helps, of course, that he left no recorded statements about anything other than his own business arrangements: no letters like Keats' beautiful ones, no Nobel Prize speech to explain his views, no interviews with Charlie Rose. All we have is his representation of the speech of thousands of other people.

Stephen Greenblatt, in a book that Smith quotes, attributes Shakespeare's negative capability to his childhood during the wrenching English Reformation. Under Queen Mary, you could be burned for Protestantism. Under her sister Queen Elizabeth, you could have your viscera cut out and burned before your living eyes for Catholicism. It is likely that Shakespeare's father was both: he helped whitewash Catholic frescoes and yet kept Catholic texts hidden in his attic. This could have been simple subterfuge, but it's equally likely that he was torn and unsure. His "identical nature" was mixed. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare learned to avoid taking any positions himself and instead created fictional worlds full of Iagos and Imogens and Falstaffs and Prince Harrys.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama? As far as I know, he is the first American president who can write convincing dialog (in Dreams from My Father). He understands and expresses other perspectives as well as his own. And he has wrestled all his life with a mixed identity.

Smith is a very acute reader of Obama:

The challenge for Obama is that he doesn't write fiction (although Smith remarks that he "displays an enviable facility for dialogue"), but instead holds political office. Generally, we want our politicians to say exactly what they think. To write lines for someone else to say, with which you do not agree, is an important example of "irony." We tend not to like ironic leaders. Socrates' "famous irony" was held against him at his trial. Achilles exclaims, "I hate like the gates of hell the man who says one thing with his tongue and another in his heart." That is a good description of any novelist--and also of Odysseus, Achilles' wily opposite, who dons costumes and feigns love. Generally, people with the personality of Odysseus, when they run for office, at least pretend to resemble the straightforward Achilles.

But what if you are not too sure that you are right (to paraphrase Learned Hand's definition of a liberal)? What if you see things from several perspectives, and--more importantly--love the fact that these many perspectives exist and interact? What if your fundamental cause is not the attainment of any single outcome but the vibrant juxtaposition of many voices, voices that also sound in your own mind?

In that case, you can be a citizen or a political leader whose fundamental commitments include freedom of expression, diversity, and dialogue or deliberation. Of course, these commitments won't tell you what to do about failing banks or Afghanistan. Negative capability isn't sufficient for politics. (Even Shakespeare must have made decisions and expressed strong personal opinions when he successfully managed his theatrical company). But in our time, when the major ideologies are hollow, problems are complex, cultural conflict is omnipresent and dangerous, and relationships have fractured, a strong dose of non-cynical irony is just what we need.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , Shakespeare & his world , deliberation , philosophy

January 19, 2009

discussion and service on MLK Day

USA Service.org, the official site that promotes service activities on Martin Luther King Day, was kind enough to ask me to post a blog entry over the weekend. I reproduce it here as an appropriate offering for today:

Between now and January 19th, we’ll feature a series of guest bloggers on USAservice.org. Today we’re pleased to share a post by Peter Levine, Director of Research and Director of CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement).

Just a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he said:

“It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from our day-to-day demands and the struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of goodwill all over our nation.”

We have lost Dr. King, but we must continue that discussion.

I'm Peter Levine from CIRCLE at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service. I also represent a consortium of groups that organize nonpartisan discussions and deliberations in communities around America.

My colleagues and I believe that service is essential, and that it is best when it involves reflection and discussion. This weekend, volunteers can meet to choose their issues and plan their service. On January 19th, after completing a service activity, volunteers can reflect on what they learned and what they should do next. Such discussions can help turn thousands of MLK Day service events into powerful opportunities for learning, analyzing issues, forming human connections, and addressing serious, long-term problems.

Americans who volunteer on MLK Day may plan to conduct additional service together in the months ahead. They may decide to recruit others to join their efforts, conduct research, create public art and media to inform people about their cause, make changes in their homes, companies, and careers, advocate for policy changes, or even launch new organizations. They may reflect together on profound issues, like the ones that kept Dr. King thinking, conversing, organizing, and learning all his life.

USAservice.org has posted a great new toolkit to help Americans organize “Citizen Action Conversations” connected to service. The guide is flexible, but it has contains practical ideas for how to organize a productive conversation.

President-elect Obama has said, “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program--this will be a central cause of my presidency.” It is up to each of us to serve and to make our service as meaningful as possible. A great way to start is by combining a service event with a Citizen Action Conversation on this Martin Luther King Day.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

January 3, 2009

partisanship and civic renewal

In The American Prospect, Henry Farrell argues that partisan activity is helping to restore "civic engagement"--voting, discussing, and grassroots activism. This is ironic, in his view, since Barack Obama emerged out of a nonpartisan movement for civic renewal and presented himself as somewhat post-partisan on the campaign trail. In the 1990s, Obama had joined Robert Putnam's Saguaro Seminar, one of the important gatherings of intellectuals who tended to view citizenship in deliberative or communitarian terms and who decried hyper-partisanship. According to Farrell, "when Barack Obama speaks about how citizens can transcend their political divisions to participate in projects of common purpose, he is drawing on the arguments and ideas from these intellectual debates of a decade ago." Yet Obama won by tapping the energy of a highly partisan grassroots movement that may now challenge his administration from the left. "Scholars have misunderstood the basis of civil society," Farrell claims. They have hoped for civility, deliberation, and solidarity when competition and debate are more to the point.

I personally believe strongly in the value of political parties, which have the motives and resources to draw people into politics. Parties also provide opportunities for activism and leadership and offer choices to voters on Election Day. As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, "Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote." At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.

Thus I wouldn't say that Farrell reaches the wrong conclusions, but he does stereotype other scholars of citizenship. He writes, "None of the civic-decline academics, whether they focused on voter participation, social capital, or the quality of deliberation, saw much use for political parties or partisanship." In fact, parties and competition got a lot of positive play within what Farrell calls the "academic movement to reverse civic decline." His list of academics is selective, and some of the ones he mentions are favorable to parties. For instance, Theda Skocpol has written voluminously on parties; she advocates reforms to make them more participatory and competitive. Perhaps, as Farrell says, Robert Putnam "underplayed" the role of parties by depicting them "as merely one form of civic participation among many"--but Putman took a communitarian line that many of his colleagues criticized. For instance, what about Bill Galston, who is not only a political scientist who favors reforms to enhance party competition, but also an active strategist for the Democratic Party? Or what about Barack Obama, who has moved strategically from nonpartisan community organizing to elected office?

Jane Mansbridge was a participant in the discussions that Farrell briefly recounts (including a well-known meeting with President Clinton); and she is perhaps the most famous critic of a narrow definition of "politics" as party competition. Her great early book is entitled Beyond Adversary Democracy. Yet a quick online search of her work yields characteristic passages like this one (pdf):

Compared to Mansbridge, political scientists like Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Diana Mutz, Dan Shea, Nina Eliasoph, Marshall Ganz, and Sidney Verba and colleagues are far more favorable to parties and sharp ideological debate. A particularly clear example is Nancy Rosenblum, who was a scholarly adviser to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a ubiquitous participant in related discussions in the 1990s, and author of a book called On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.

My own ideal is a variegated political ecosystem that provides opportunities for ideological and partisan competition as well as neutral fora for open-ended discussions and traditions of collaborating across party lines. These varieties of politics check and balance one another. They also provide individuals with choices--which is important because different circumstances and temperaments require different styles of participation.

I think Farrell might share this goal. He writes: "Political conflict between parties with clearly diverging political platforms has its own pathologies, just as does the bipartisan-consensus politics it is replacing." This seems like a balanced view, much in keeping with the mainstream discussion of civic engagement. I only object to his effort to portray his own position as original and iconoclastic, when it is actually quite standard.

An emerging view seems to be that Barack Obama uses post-partisan rhetoric, either naively or vacuously, but his actual effectiveness is as a mobilizer of Democrats for liberal causes. In my interpretation, Obama has a richer and more comprehensive idea of "politics" than we have seen for a long time, from either left or right. His ability to see the value of parties and trans-partisan networks was one reason his campaign was so successful. It was also characteristic of the academic discussion that was one of his many influences.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Barack Obama , deliberation

December 19, 2008

what if you hold a deliberation and corporations show up?

I come out of the movement for deliberative democracy. My first job was with the Kettering Foundation, which launched the National Issues Forums; and I have also worked with AmericaSPEAKS, Study Circles, and other organizations that promote public deliberations. Deliberative forums vary in size, duration, organization, and methods of recruitment, but all try to draw representative (or at least diverse) groups of citizens. Since people attend to decide what should be done, not to represent interests or advance causes, their statements are presumably sincere. In contrast, participants in negotiations may have ulterior motives. Deliberations usually seem better than "politics as usual"--more civil and constructive, driven by better motivations.

But is this because they are "deliberations"? Or is it because they are low-stakes affairs, with no direct consequences for policy? As the stakes rise, what happens to deliberations and deliberators?

According to Robert Pear in the New York Times, volunteers from the Obama Campaign are organizing 4,200 small meetings ("house parties") to discuss health care. I wouldn't call these events "deliberations," because one side in the debate has set the agenda. But they are somewhat deliberative in structure and intent--and they are open to anyone who wants to come. Whether or not we call them deliberations, they are participatory free spaces for open dialogue, and they have the potential to strengthen neighborly connections. So they are Good Things.

In response, the insurance companies are "encouraging [their] employees and satisfied customers to attend" the Obama house parties. Insurance companies have First Amendment rights to petition and assembly. If someone organizes an open discussion, corporations are entitled to send their members. An obvious counter is to make sure that even more people come who have pro-reform beliefs. At that point, a "house party" starts looking like a conventional democratic assembly, caucus, or election, in which the point is to turn out the greatest numbers. That is not, of course, a bad system: we tend to call it "democracy." But we already have a structure for it, composed of numerous electoral districts, levels of governance, and rules for open meetings, oversight, judicial review, etc., etc.

My point is not a skeptical or cynical one. I think pure deliberations are valuable, and so are the quasi-deliberative "house parties" that the Obama volunteers are organizing. I also think town meetings and legislative assemblies are good. I simply expect different norms to arise when there are different kinds of stakes. We should not romanticize entirely voluntary events that have wonderful atmospheres but don't affect policy.

permanent link | comments (3) | category: deliberation

July 7, 2008

California Speaks

I'm proud to be a member of the board of AmericaSpeaks, which organizes very large deliberative town meetings, facilitated by technology, in which groups of citizens discuss pressing social issues and reach decisions. The organization is busy with numerous projects. One of the recent ones was "CaliforniaSpeaks," a simultaneous discussion of health care reform that involved 3,500 citizens in eight California cities. This short evaluation of the event is interesting because it is written by a tough-minded and independent scholar, Taeku Lee from Berkeley, and it appears on the World Bank's blog for civic participation. (The very idea that the Bank has a blog, let alone a blog on democratic engagement, may shake some stereotypes.) Lee finds that participants--representative of California citizens--held highly sophisticated discussions of health reform and came to have more trust in politics and more political engagement.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

February 11, 2008

what publics do

In Publics and Counterpublics, the influential cultural critic Michael Warner writes,

All of the verbs for public agency are verbs for private reading, transposed upward to the aggregate of readers. Readers may scrutinize, ask, reject, opine, decide, judge, etc. Publics can do exactly these things. And nothing else. Publics, unlike mobs or crowds, remain incapable of any activity that cannot be expressed through such a verb. Activities of reading that do not fit the ideology of reading as silent, private, replicable decoding, curling up, mumbling, fantasizing, gesticulating, ventriloquizing, writing marginalia, etc. also find no place in public agency.

One one hand, Warner is right (and brilliantly astute) about the meaning of the word "public" in a certain literature, one in which the German theorist Jürgen Habermas plays a leading role. In this literature, the democratic public assesses, judges, opines, etc. All of this highly cognitive and verbal activity is much like reading--as we teach students to read in our schools and colleges. (It is not like reading in church, or reading a love letter.)

On the other hand, this whole literature misses functions of a democratic people that Tocqueville, Dewey, and many important current thinkers have emphasized (sometimes using the noun "public"). These functions cannot be performed by solitary readers, nor by the "mobs or crowds" mentioned by Warner. They include:

I find the notion of "the public" as a body of judicious observers completely implausible, both politically and psychologically. What would motivate people to serve as detached "readers" of public issues? Why would powerful institutions honor their opinions, once they had gone to the trouble of forming them? And how would they obtain knowledge of issues if they never did any public work?

[Disclaimer: I have not yet read Publics and Counterpublics. I came across the passage quoted above in a fine article by Warner entitled "Uncritical Reading," where he quotes his own book. A major theme of "Uncritical Reading" is the narrowness of our assumptions about how to read, e.g., our rule that one should always interpret passages in the context of whole books. Nevertheless, I must and shall read Publics and Counterpublics to grasp the whole argument.]

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

November 29, 2007

public deliberation: research & practice

I'm attending (and helping to host) the third in an interesting series of annual meetings. The Deliberative Democracy Consortium has convened researchers and practitioners who organize and/or study public deliberations. At each conference, the whole group develops a research agenda that would be useful for practice, forms small teams to work on projects, and actually funds the projects. All of this is done deliberatively. This year, to get ourselves started, some of us have written a report about the meetings and projects so far and what has been learned about public deliberation. This report is on a "wiki" (an editable, online document). This afternoon, in small groups, conference-participants will edit and add to the wiki, which you can also read if you are interested in public deliberation.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

October 4, 2007

America's civic core

Today, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual Civic Index report, which we worked on heavily. The most innovative aspect of the report was a decision to focus on a new set of civic activities--not ones that we should hope everyone would undertake (such as voting and volunteering), but relatively demanding forms of engagement. We defined a group that does "citizen-centered work" (using the terminology of Cindy Gibson's white paper for the Case Foundation). This means a combination of talking about issues and working directly to address problems. Look at how heavily engaged this group of millions is:

We also defined groups of "deliberators" (who participate in diverse discussions of issues) and "netizens" (who participate heavily online). They too are heavily engaged and well-informed.

I can describe how I got to this approach by way of an imaginary dialog:

Realist: Americans are resistant to conflict and controversy. They opt for consumerism and limit their political conversations to people just like themselves in order to avoid the tensions that arise when serious issues are on the table and participants have diverse values. ("Realist" may have been reading books that present impressive and depressing empirical evidence, written by Diana Mutz, Nina Eliasoph, and John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse).

Idealist: We know how to recruit diverse people for deliberative forums, train them to hold respectful, productive discussions, moderate these discussions, reach constructive conclusions, act voluntarily, and bring their experience back into discussions. ("Idealist" may have been reading the Deliberative Democracy Handbook, edited by John Gastil and me.)

Realist: What powerful, large, well-funded institutions have incentives to organize these forums? Not political professionals, corporations, parties, or the mass media. Deliberations will always be small-scale experiments, organized by boutique programs, and limited to highly civic communities.

I've struggled with Realist's rejoinder for a while, and this is what I'm now prone to say:

Peter (the chastened idealist): Everyone has the right and the intrinsic ability to participate, but we'll never have the resources or incentives to achieve a truly deliberative democracy on a mass scale. Yet our new survey shows that a significant minority of Americans actually do deliberate with other people and use the results to guide their civic behavior, such as their volunteering. Our strategy should not be to raise that proportion to 50% or 100%--although 25% might be achievable. Instead, we should strive to make the civic minority in America fairly representative of our nation's diversity. We should give those people the tools, institutions, and resources they need. We should increase their political clout. We should build networks to connect them with one another. And we should make sure that all Americans have a shot at entering this civic minority even if they come from very disadvantaged backgrounds.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

September 7, 2007

mark your calendars

At CIRCLE, we're working on two reports whose contents are embargoed, but both contain a lot of interesting new findings about Americans' demand for civic participation and their engagement in relatively impressive forms of civic work:

On October 4th in Washington, the National Conference on Citizenship will release a major national poll. It helps to reveal how many and which Americans are currently involved in deliberation and public work.

On November 7th in Washington, CIRCLE will release the results of a major national study based on our interviews with 386 college students on 12 four-year colleges and universities. Like the NCoC study, but in different ways, it probes deliberation and attitudes toward politics and civil society.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

July 17, 2007

polarization in American communities

At yesterday's conference, someone in the audience raised a question: Why are public discussions so polarized and dominated by hot-button issues? The questioner came from Kansas, and she specifically mentioned local discussions of education. Thus I suspect she was thinking about the well-publicized evolution/creationism debates in her home state. Abortion would be another example of a "hot," divisive issue.

Her question wasn't directed at me, but this would be my tentative answer. First of all, we have actual disagreements that split us into groups, and we sometimes have to deal with these issues. But they seem over-represented in our public life.

This is partly because most of us lack practical experience in mobilizing people except when issues are polarized. From countless news stories and movies, we know the "script" for angry, adversarial politics. We know how to organize our allies when we are angry at another group: we can call for a march or a rally, put up flyers, alert the media. There are also techniques for organizing people around less contentious issues--ways literally to get citizens out to meetings and then to achieve social change without relying on polarization. These techniques include the "one-on-one" interviews popular in community organizing; Study Circles and other deliberative forums; and volunteering opportunities that are connected to discussion and reflection. But such techniques are not widely reported or described in fiction; even less are they taught in schools.

Another reason for polarization is the narrowness of the topics about which we invite public discussion. I believe that citizens have deep and diverse moral concerns about schools: how students treat teachers, how boys relate to girls, what topics are presented as especially important, and how competitive our schools' teams are. We do not agree about these issues, but we aren't necessarily polarized about them, either. For example, most of us want more orderly schools, although we may disagree about the means.

These issues are considered the province of professional educators--teachers, administrators, school psychologists, test-writers, and others. Communities aren't invited to discuss them, let alone act on their discussions. But no one can stop activists from suing or organizing a political slate on a hot-button issue, such as prayer in school or evolution. These issues pay off for political partisans and organized ideological interests. Consequently, some citizens channel their political energies into fundamentally unproductive topics that serve as proxies for deeper discontents. (For instance, I'll bet that most proponents of prayer in school would trade that objective for schools that were more orderly and less sexualized.) Most other citizens simply stand on the sidelines, unwilling to clash on the hot-button issues but not sure how else to engage.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

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."

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May 14, 2007

new article on activists' views of deliberation

Rose Marie Nierras and I have just published "Activists’ Views of Deliberation", Journal of Public Deliberation (vol. 3, no. 1, article 4). We interviewed more than 60 practitioners from more than 20 countries to explore the tension between activism and deliberation and to propose some compromises.

We define an "activist" as someone who tries to advance a substantive political or social goal or outcome. A clear case would be someone who seeks government money for a new health clinic. Activism is always an attempt to exercise power, yet some activists' motivations are highly altruistic. They try to develop and employ power for ethical ends. To complicate the definition, we note that many activists feel constrained by democratic procedures or principles. For example, they may drop their demands when they see that they have been outvoted or have lost a public argument. They may be sincerely interested in learning from rival perspectives; and they may try to help other people to become independent political agents with goals and interests of their own. In all these respects, activists can be democratic, not merely strategic.

Meanwhile, an organizer of a public deliberation is someone who helps people to decide on their collective goals and outcomes. A clear case would be someone who organizes a forum to discuss how much money the government should raise in taxes and how the funds should be spent. To organize such a deliberation means suppressing or deferring one’s own views about state spending in the interests of promoting an open-ended conversation.

Nevertheless, organizing a deliberation is also an exercise in power. It requires making substantive decisions that can be controversial. Even to invite people to a deliberative session, one must give oneself the right to define the scale and scope of the community, to identify certain issues as important, and to select a method or format for discussion. Even if the process is very open-ended, organizers may rationally predict that a particular outcome will emerge. In such cases, they may use deliberation as a tool to obtain support for the outcome they want.

In short, activists and organizers of deliberations are not sharply distinguishable. It is not only activists who have agendas, desired outcomes, and some degree of power. However, the two groups cluster at opposite ends of a spectrum. At one end, politics is strategic and oriented toward policy goals (albeit constrained by procedures or ethical principles). The main evidence of success is achieving the desired outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, politics is open-ended; the main evidence of success is a broad, fair discussion leading to a set of goals that may be unanticipated at the outset.

If one stipulates that an activist has the right agenda and fully appropriate plans, then it may seem unfair to saddle him or her with the norms of deliberation, which require listening to other people, providing neutral background materials, sharing control of the process, etc. But it is generally unwise to assume that one's own agenda is right. The value of deliberation lies as much in the listening as in the speaking; as much in the opportunity to learn as the chance to persuade. Learned Hand said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias." That is the best argument for deliberation, although there is certainly also a case to be made for forceful political action.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: deliberation

April 6, 2007

the Clean Air Act and democracy

I am certain that global warming is a serious problem. By regulating carbon dioxide emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency may ameliorate the damage a bit. However, I don't dismiss the arguments of the dissenting conservative justices in the recent global warming decision, Massachusetts v. EPA.

A responsible blog post would be based on my careful reading of the majority opinion and the dissents, relevant portions of the Clean Air Act, the best current commentaries, and a famous law review article by Cass Sunstein about the Clean Air Act (Michigan Law Review, 1999). Despite good intentions, I can see that I'm not going to pull that off. Instead, here is a simplified argument:

1) Major decisions in a democracy should be made by the elected branches of government. Legislatures are accountable, they are deliberative, they can balance costs and benefits across the whole federal budget, and they can choose among all constitutional remedies to a problem. For example, to address global warming, Congress could enact carbon taxes, import/export taxes, cap-and-trade regimes, tax credits, or regulations on producers or consumers.

2) However, Congress has a tendency to duck the tough decisions by writing deliberately vague statutes. For example, I am aware of a section of the Clean Air Act that empowers the EPA to set ambient air quality standards at levels "requisite to protect the public health" with "an adequate margin of safety." No amount of air pollution has zero potential impact on safety or health. "Adequate" safety means some amount of risk that's greater than zero--but not too much. That's not a scientific or technical judgment; it's a value-judgment about what level of safety is worth the cost. Congress avoids making such value-judgments, because then it would be responsible when some people suffer--or even die--from whatever pollution is left in the air. Congress would also be directly responsible for the financial cost of any regulation. Instead, it passes the responsibility to EPA, which can then be blamed for both the costs of a regulation and the environmental harms that are left over. Unfortunately, EPA lacks democratic legitimacy, and it can only regulate (not tax or take other actions). Regulation may be a highly inefficient response to global warming.

3) When the EPA or other regulatory agencies fail to deliver adequate policy, it is tempting to sue them. But then a court's judgment substitutes for that of a legislature. Courts lack democratic legitimacy, expertise, and the ability to impose such policies as taxes or cap-and-trade systems. They are set up to hear cases and controversies between parties; they are not good at balancing one person's interests against the common good. For example, they are not responsible for the overall budget, so they cannot decide whether a decision that has costs to the government is worthwhile, all things considered.

Thus the only really satisfactory solution is for Congress to pass laws on global warming. Massachusetts v EPA will actually be counterproductive if it lets Congress off the hook or allows Congress to delay.

Jamison Colburn argues that the case is not very significant, anyway. "What it comes down to is this: if EPA is going to refuse to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as 'air pollutants' under the Clean Air Act, and it chooses to do so in some discrete 'agency action,' it must do so on better grounds than the (lame) argument that the statute wasn’t enacted with the specific intent to regulate greenhouse gases or similar calamities. That is all it comes to, though." If Colburn is correct, then populist/democratic concerns about judicial activism are misplaced--but only because the court didn't do much at all.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

April 3, 2007

public participation in planning: lessons from New Orleans

Abigail Williamson, a graduate student at Harvard, has written a study of public participation on the Unified New Orleans Plan (pdf). Here I assume that her narrative is accurate and comprehensive; I use it as the basis for some thoughts about civic engagement and planning.

According to Williamson, there have been three main planning efforts in New Orleans since the hurricane. The first was called "Bring New Orleans Back" (BNOB). It was ordered by the Mayor and run by local experts and leaders--an elite. It has been praised for its technical excellence, but it became highly controversial because it rejected rebuilding some of the flooded neighborhoods that were poor and largely Black. Because it was controversial and lacked political legitimacy, the Mayor distanced himself from it, and it died.

The second planning process was run by a firm called Lambert Advisory. Williamson's interviewees told her that Lambert's process truly reflected input from diverse citizens; but the resulting plan was not satisfactory. (I'm not sure exactly how it failed to measure up.)

The third planning process was designed to be broadly inclusive and technically satisfactory. It started off with some failed public meetings, but then AmericaSpeaks was brought in to organize demographically representative, deliberative sessions involving hundreds of people at once. In the interests of disclosure, I must note that I am a member of AmericaSpeaks' board. But Williamson's study was independently funded and she finds that the meetings truly were representative, substantive, and constructive. One observer recalls:

More than anything, I think the thing I was most impressed with about Community Congress II, in addition to just the sheer numbers they were able to reach, when I went and I walked around, I saw people sitting at tables together of different socioeconomic backgrounds, different parts of town, having healthy discussions. Not necessarily always agreeing, but actually having conversations. Not just rhetoric, not yelling and screaming, but really just having healthy conversations about what they saw as the issue here.

The resulting plan appears to have legitimacy--meaning not that it is necessarily just or smart, but that people believe it arose from a legitimate process. Just for that reason, it appears likely to pass.

This is a major achievement, and it would have been impossible without demographic representativeness and high-profile, large-scale, public events. These events took skill and commitment to pull off. Those are conclusions to emphasize and celebrate. Nevertheless, I'd like to point out some limitations and challenges:

1. Framing the deliberation is tricky. If citizens are asked to produce a truly comprehensive plan (with a map and a detailed budget), then they will essentially govern the city. But no one has elected them, nor will the political leaders yield without a fight. If, on the other hand, citizens generate a plan without details, then they can avoid tradeoffs; and in that case, they aren't really deliberating. Likewise, if citizens are told to work within very "realistic" constraints, they cannot demand justice. For example, if they are told that there is only $x of state money available, they are blocked from saying that the state should be more generous. If, on the other hand, citizens deliberate without constraints, they can invent unrealistic scenarios.

2. A process like this could be manipulated to get results that someone wants. The organizers could manipulate it, or an outside group could get its own people into the meetings. In other words, the legitimacy could be false. I'm committed to AmericaSpeaks and will vouch for this particular process. But the more such deliberations are used to make important decisions, the more people will try to manipulate them.

3. The organizers had to make a prior decision about the definition of "the people." They chose the population that had lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina. Consequently, they aimed for a demographic mix that looked like the traditional city, not like the city today; and they organized town meetings in major diaspora cities from Houston to Atlanta. They could have chosen a different benchmark--current residents, or residents of the whole state, to name two examples. This is essentially a question of values, and it cannot itself be deliberated.

4. Planning is work. That's what was evident at the tables during the Town Meetings--not just talk, but work. However, planning is only one aspect of public work. Buildings must be built, trees must be planted, money must be raised, newsletters must be written, and so on. It's important for this work, not merely the talk, to be democratic and participatory.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Katrina , deliberation

March 6, 2007

deliberative democracy in California

I missed a big meeting last week at Pepperdine in California. (I couldn't afford the air fare.) The conference combined talk of electoral reform with discussions of public deliberation. Electoral reform was on the agenda because our legislative districts have been drawn to minimize competition and accountability. Public deliberation seems a powerful response; it can generate reform ideas that have legitimacy because representative citizens have chosen them (whereas all elected officials have some kind of stake in the status quo).

The Canadians have some useful experience in this area. The British Columbia Citizens Assembly proposed a redesign of that Province's electoral system. Gordon Gibson covered the Pepperdine conference from a Canadian perspective for the Globe & Mail:

One of the most surprising things is that randomly selected panels (drawn, say, from the voter's list) are actually far more representative than the so-called representatives we elect. If you look at the face of Canada, you do not find it reflected in the House of Commons. And, for some things, these random panels are far better than elected representatives or groups of experts. They are not partisan and they do not play games.

This is not to disrespect elected representatives, who will and should do the bulk of the work of governance. They are paid to be experts on our behalf. But citizen panels on policy issues can be highly imaginative. They have been used on environmental cases in Texas, on what to do with the Roma in Bulgaria, on reconstruction planning in New Orleans and on public works prioritization in China (really - and it worked). A gathering of 600 "ordinary citizens" is scheduled to appear in the European Parliament chamber in June to discuss the future of the union.

The big excitement, however, is likely to come down south, just because the United States is so big, so powerful and so governmentally messed up. The key will be to use citizen panels as we have done in B.C. and Ontario to get around the conflicts of politicians and reform the very machinery of democracy. For the good of the world, that most needs doing in the United States.

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February 28, 2007

manipulation versus eloquence

Here are two conflicting ideas that both have some appeal to me:

1) Our political system is too manipulative. The techniques of persuasion have become too effective. Instead of just sending out a mass mailing, we design several messages and test them each with a random sample of the target audience to measure its impact. Instead of sending organizers out into a neighborhood to talk to people, we give them pre-tested scripts to recite. Persuasive political advertisements are slick, scary, and produced for particular niche audiences. As a result, there is not enough listening going on, not enough two-way conversation. Real needs and good ideas cannot bubble up from below. Communication is also too strategic--not designed to explore and address problems, but to get people to do what the organizers want. Finally, the techniques of effective communication are for sale, so they tend to benefit organized groups and interests with money rather than diffuse or poorly funded interests.

2) We should prize eloquence as a skill and virtue of political participation. We teach people to express themselves effectively in writing and speech because that is part of being a good citizen. Americans need a "public voice" that can persuade others who are different from themselves on matters of common concern, not just a "private voice" that works among friends and family. As Francis Bacon said, "it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life." Modern techniques (such as randomly testing messages) are natural refinements of traditional methods for assessing the impact of speech on audiences. They are not especially threatening, nor are they always effective; sometimes, people prefer spontaneity. When speech is free, some will be better at it than others. If their persuasiveness can be bought, that is nothing new. Protagoras sold his services as an orator in ancient Athens.

permanent link | comments (1) | category: deliberation

January 22, 2007

problems with "stakeholders"

Today, my colleagues and I discussed a paper on assisted human reproduction in Canada. In passing, we learned that the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies "took advice from about 40,000 individuals and organizations with interest [sic] in the matter"--collectively known as the "stakeholders." Consulting stakeholders is a popular way to enhance the quality and legitimacy of state decisions. It is most often used in the writing of regulations. Laws are written by legislatures, which claim legitimacy on the ground that their members have been elected. But laws always require detailed regulations; and regulators are not elected. Rulemakers and administrators appear more democratic if they consult "the stakeholders" before they make decisions.

Another phrase for "stakeholder" is "interest group." Whereas consulting people who have "stakes" in a given matter sounds wise, giving access to interest groups sounds problematic. Indeed, consulting organized interests raises several concerns:

1. A set of interest-group representatives (no matter how numerous) will not represent the whole population. To form an organization takes resources. Thus people with more money will have more interest-groups per capita. Also, people whose interests are more clearly defined and pressing will be more likely to organize themselves. For example, there may be lobbies for various types of medical specialists, but only a weak lobby for patients. Diffuse and subtle interests may be completely lost. For instance, as consumers of food, we might have interests when the government is considering health regulations. (Maybe more state funding for in-vitro fertilization means less funding for agricultural research.) But it is unlikely that a lobby would form to represent the health-policy interests of eaters.
2. Because of the "Iron Law of Oligarchy," the representatives of interest groups may not reflect the opinions of their own members. For example, someone who claims to represent thousands of nurses may not share the views of average actual nurses.
3. Most "stakeholders" arrive with instructions from their organizations. Sometimes those instructions are rather narrow. For instance, a stakeholder may work for a firm with a fiduciary obligation to maximize returns for its shareholders. When people hold rigid but conflicting instructions, they have trouble deliberating as a group. They may negotiate to get the best possible deal, but they cannot learn or change their aims in response to principled arguments. Faced with conflicting demands, public officials may well try to "split the difference." The result is policymaking as bargaining.
4. Impressing policymakers takes skill. The relevant skills are for sale. Groups with more money will have better powerpoint presentations, more timely polling data, a better grasp of the regulatory timetable and process, more contacts with other groups, and so on. Thus they will tend to prevail.

There are two alternatives to stakeholder consultations--neither of them foolproof. One is to force legislatures to make all the really serious and controversial choices. The other option is to delegate decisions to regulatory agencies but require them to consult representative samples of the public.

[Two classic treatments of this problem are Theodore Lowi's The End of Liberalism (1969) and Robert Reich's "Policy Making in a Democracy," a chapter in his 1990 edited volume The Power of Public Ideas.]

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December 8, 2006

new work from AmericaSpeaks

I'm especially proud to be a member of the board of AmericaSpeaks at this moment, when the organization has completed two remarkable projects.

In Northeast Ohio, deep in the Rust Belt, there is an urgent need for vision, coordination, and civic participation to reverse decades of economic decline. (I know that general scene from my own experience growing up in Syracuse, NY.) AmericaSpeaks recently convened 21,000 citizens of 16 northeastern Ohio counties to deliberate about their region's future. "Voices and Choices" was an intricate project with numerous components and partners. The final report is here.

In New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, profound controversies about values, tradeoffs, and cultural identities immediately arose. There was a crucial need for public deliberation, or else decisions would be made by elites--or mere inertia would prevail. As it turned out, the various layers of government did little to engage citizens. But AmericaSpeaks planned and launched an elaborate series of public deliberations involving 2,500 citizens. It took courage to begin this project without firm funding or commitments from local institutions. No one else was ready to step into the breach, and AmericaSpeaks succeeded. The organization produced an overall report from "Community Congress II." Readers of this blog may be especially interested in the work with youth; see the video report of deliberations among New Orleans high school students. See also Joe Goldman's personal report on "The Democracy Movement."

This work can be filed under "deliberation" and "reflective public opinion," but it is at least as valuable as community organizing and civic education.

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August 14, 2006


I don't have a firm opinion about whether Ned Lamont's victory in last week's Connecticut primary was good or bad news. However, as someone whose job is to study deliberative democracy, civil society, and related issues, I would like to address the thesis that Senator Lieberman's "moderation" was good for democracy.

"Not necessarily," is the short answer. I think one's position on the political spectrum is independent of one's impact on deliberation and the political culture. Moderates are no more likely to help the quality of our politics than are liberals or conservatives.

It's worth recalling what kind of political debate we need:

1. We need choices among real alternatives. Sometimes, citizens are better served by relatively sharp choices than by a mushy middle. Also, it can be better for leaders to be motivated by strong principles than by mere party membership. Some people's principles happen to land them in the center of the current American political spectrum, and that's fine. But other politicians head for the center because they want to attract the median voter, not because of any principles that they can defend in public discussions.

I don't know why (or whether) Senator Lieberman has been a centrist, but I do welcome the debate sparked by the Connecticut primary. As Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, said, "I think because the Connecticut primary was driven by real, deep issues that our nation should be grappling with, it's exactly what our politics ought to be like, rather than nasty, gotcha bickering. ... It was about big ideas and big challenges facing the country."

2. Although we want real alternatives, we don't want partisan animosity to rise to the level that members of the rival parties cannot cooperate, even when they happen to share the same principles (as they often do). Legislatures pass more bills when there is more "comity," which can be defined as an ability to cooperate on topics that do not provoke ideological disagreement. Thus, to my fellow progressives who want Democrats to play more aggressively, I would say that's not a path to passing progressive legislation. Without some Republican support, nothing will pass.

On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that moderates are always better at comity than strong liberals and conservatives. Some moderates (the ones who are hunting for the median voter) may be so strategic that they shun cooperation when they think they can score partisan points or make the other team look bad. Conversely, some real ideologues are so motivated by principle that they are happy to work with members of the opposite party when they see common ground. An example is Bob Barr, the right-wing former US Representative, who works well with civil libertarians because they share a skepticism about government. Senator Kennedy, despite a reputation for liberalism, is famous for working with Senator Hatch and others on the Republican side.

3. We need free and frank criticisms of the public performance of people in power. For example, criticizing the Bush Administration's handling of Katrina, the budget, or Iraq does not harm democracy, deliberation, or civic engagement. On the contrary, it is wrong to try to shut down such criticism by suggesting that it helps terrorists. On the other hand, we don't want people to commit the ad hominem fallacy, which is to reject an idea because those who defend it are flawed in some way (e.g., hypocritical or incompetent). Nor do we want criticism to focus on politicians' private lives and private views, because that can simply discourage good people from entering public life. (Besides, we usually have very unreliable information about people's private opinions.)

It's not obvious to me that moderates are less likely than radicals to use ad hominem arguments. Senator Lieberman has used as many as Mr. Lamont.

4. We need to hold politicians accountable for what they promise on the campaign trail. On the other hand, we want them to be able to learn, listen, evolve, and negotiate after they are elected. Thus we shouldn't go hunting for inconsistencies in their records as if those were always signs of bad faith.

Again, it's not obvious that moderates are less likely to play "gotcha" when they spot changes in their opponents' records. Maybe there is a pattern, and maybe there isn't. Regardless, we know that some strong ideologues are also good deliberators who focus on issues, not personalities, and who allow their opponents to evolve. That means that moderation is not good in itself.

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July 2, 2006

more on spinning Hamdan

The scramble that I predicted last Friday--to fix the meaning of Hamdan--has begun. The Post's headline on Saturday read, "GOP Seeks Advantage In Ruling On Trials: National Security Is Likely Rallying Cry, Leaders Indicate." Just as I suspected, there have been efforts to link the Supreme Court's ruling against Bush to the New York Times' decision to publish national security leaks. "It will be worse for the Democrats to be seen as favoring the terrorists than favoring the New York Times," says one talk-show host.

The administration will want the following to be the popular interpretation of Hamdan: Five justices of the Supreme Court (a bunch of lawyers) found various technical grounds (including treaties negotiated by foreigners) to make life more difficult for the military. Congress now has a duty to support the Commander in Chief by creating military tribunals by statute. In the future, presidents will have to cross their t's and dot their i's in cases very similar to Hamdan. But in cases with significant factual differences from Hamdan, they can go ahead and act unilaterally again, and the Court ought to rule for the executive.

That reading of the case would be very bad for majoritarian democracy, the rule of law, and limited government--values of special concern to principled conservatives. (See, for instance, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances). Just as true conservatives should want to restore the balance of powers, so partisan Republicans should see the importance of reimposing checks on the executive branch--otherwise, a Democratic president may use federal agencies to suppress rights that they value.

In my opinion, it's a rhetorical mistake for Members of Congress to emphasize their own prerogatives, as Senator Spector did by saying that from now on decisions will be made by Congress, "because it's our constitutional responsibility." That sounds like a matter of turf--and Congress is none too popular. I'd rather hear that the Court required us, the American people, to make difficult decisions about how the United States shall handle captives in the current struggle. Such decisions cannot be made by presidential fiat but must be debated openly, because they are our responsibility. Because Congress has the formal power to pass legislation, we must follow the Congressional debate, deliberate, express our views, and vote accordingly in November. That, after all, was how the framers intended us to govern ourselves.

permanent link | comments (0) | category: Iraq and democratic theory , deliberation

June 20, 2006

looking for deliberation in new places

I recently came across a very interesting paper by Nina Eliasoph entitled, "What if Good Citizens' Etiquette Requires Silencing Political Conversation in Everyday Life? Notes from the Field." It's drawn from a large project and contains numerous insights, making it hard to summarize but worth reading all the way through. The title does not do justice to its breadth.

Eliasoph starts with Michael Schudson's four types of good citizen--ideals that Schudson finds dominant at various points in American history. The "loyalist" citizen was a dutiful member of a community, contributing to collective projects (like barn-raising) without arguing or expressing explicit self-interests. The "partisan" citizen belonged to a movement with an ideology, and loved to compete as a member of his team. The "knowledgeable" citizen of the Progressive Era formed judicious, independent judgments on matters of public policy. And the "rights-bearing" citizen of today understands that the personal is political and constantly monitors institutions (including the family) to protect his or her rights.

The problem that Eliasoph observes is our inability to combine these forms of citizenship, at least in the obvious settings. For instance, in the voluntary associations that she observes (such as PTAs), members are supposed to be consistent loyalists; disagreements and expressions of self-interest are considered inappropriate:

Volunteers assumed that the purpose of speaking in meetings was to encourage each other and other people in the community to think that regular people really can make a difference on issues that are close to home. As one volunteer put it to me, more than once:

"The way to get a volunteer is to say 'who has a drill bit and can drill 8 holes on Saturday. Maybe you'll get someone who's never volunteered and maybe they'll come again.'"

Information was considered something that people might have unequal access to, as well, so discussing something that might require too much knowledge would be elitist and therefore not good for promoting this fellow feeling

So this goal of creating solidarity meant avoiding talking about issues that might be divisive, that might require debate; and it meant avoiding exposing people's ignorance about politics or their inability to be articulate; and it also meant avoiding noticing everyday politics.

On the other hand, in settings where self-identified "activists" operate, participants are expected to express nothing but self-interests. Opponents of a toxic incinerator privately hold complex and nuanced views. They tell Eliasoph that they don't want to practice NIMBY politics. They care about other neighborhoods and want to find basic solutions to environmental problems. However, they are only familiar with a script for public participation in which one expresses self-interest:

Americans assume that people who speak in public contexts--demonstrations, meetings, press conferences--are, just by the very fact they that are speaking in public, acting self-interestedly. There is, in American culture, no other obvious reason for speaking in public; the public sphere is a "spoiled moral environment" (as Vaclav Havel put it, describing pre-1989 Czechoslovakia) and anyone who enters it must be, according to conventional wisdom, be doing so for immoral reasons. The implicit etiquette for public speech demands that speakers "speak for themselves" and only for themselves. Speaking in terms of self-interest is the only way to enter the public arena; and that talking in terms of rights in public was not moral--they could not figure out how to get from "rights" to "justice" (as Pitkin puts it).

Each form of citizenship is flawed on its own. "Colonial [i.e., loyalist] citizenship without the others too readily avoids discouragement and debate; partisan politics without the others becomes self-righteous and too separate from fellow citizens (and is too easily controlled by money, if citizens are not already firmly organized in opinion-forming groups or independently mindful); information is too discouraging without the other two; personalized, rights-bearing citizenship without the other three could be too isolating." What we need is to combine the benefits of solidarity and loyalty, partisan debate and mobilization, judicious reasoning, and concern for individual interests.

Our public institutions do not encourage or even allow such combinations; nor do we learn useful habits in schools or from the media. However, Eliasoph finds partial combinations in unexpected places. For example, "In public library-sponsored story hours for pre-schoolers, parents often debate the politics and morality of the stories." On their own email lists, librarians "endlessly" discuss whether telling stories about the Holocaust and other horrors will cause children to despair, or whether omitting such stories would be dishonest.

These debates are political and concern profound moral questions. They do not occur, as conventional political theories would predict, in the voluntary associations of "civil society," nor in the press, nor in a legislature. Librarians are not volunteers; they are "paid by the state." However, even though the library is a state institution, storytime is connected to the "intimate domestic sphere."

Eliasoph asks whether it is adequate to have genuine public deliberations, but only about intimate matters such as which stories to read to small children. On the one hand, many of our problems--Eliasoph cites consumerism, workaholism, sexism, and racism--have cultural dimensions and must be addressed by the way we raise our children and interact with our peers. Deliberations among librarians, parents in playgroups, and officemates can address these issues without either disrupting solidarity or suppressing genuine differences. But, as Eliasoph notes, such discussions are not adequate for generating power, which is one of the chief virtues of political parties, unions, churches, and other conventional elements of "civil society."

I wonder whether it would make a difference if we had better political leadership. Today's official political debate is indeed a "spoiled moral environment." It provides few models for public speaking that are partisan or controversial but also concerned with the common good; that acknowledge interests but also seek solidarity. RFK's Indianapolis speech, which I described recently, was an excellent model, and so were other important speeches of that era. Barack Obama gained renown for his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention because people are hungry for such examples.

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May 3, 2006

sites for youth discussion and debate

Several ambitious websites try to give young Americans a voice in politics and policy:

  • The Youth Policy Action Center is an elaborate site that supports discussion of issues, provides links to opportunities for voting and volunteering, puts people in touch with like-minded peers, and shows off youth-produced videos and other media. It's a product of about 80 leading youth-oriented organizations.
  • The Association of Young Americans is an "AARP for youth," an idea that I floated in an earlier post. The AYP website provides issue briefs, mostly on economic matters of special relevance to the younger generations of Americans, and forums for discussion.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation--a group that I work with fairly often--has launched CRF Forum: For Youth, by Youth. Again, there is a discussion forum, a set of issue briefs, and opportunities to become involved. CRF is also running a photo contest. It's great to organize contests for young media-creators, because their lack of audience is a big problem.
  • WireTap is part of the AlterNet network, and it dates back to 1998. Its large audience consists of young (18-25) progressives. Its website provides blogs, news stories, and columns--often on economic issues like the prices of textbooks.

  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    November 21, 2005

    civic opportunities

    Two emails arrived over the weekend that advertised important civic work.

    First, in hard-hit industrial northeastern Ohio, the Knight Foundation is supporting an elaborate process called "Voices and Choices." Through this process, thousands of residents will help to set a new course for the region. The centerpiece of the project is a deliberative forum called a 21st Century Town Meeting, organized by the great people at AmericaSPEAKS. I'm from the Rust Belt myself (Syracuse), and I think nothing is more challenging and important than creating good jobs and a general sense of optimism in such places. On a visit to Youngstown, OH during the trial of former Rep. Jim Traficant, I was struck that civic problems may be partly responsible for the region's economic deficits. Far too many Youngstown people were proud of Traficant as a colorful local character who had stuck his finger in the eye of the rich and powerful. But he had done nothing for Youngstown, and I thought his popularity was evidence of civic hopelessness and defeat. If the "Voices and Choices" process builds civic confidence and capacity, it will be enormously valuable.

    Second, J-Lab, the Center for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, is once again offering funds for "innovative citizen media projects." I helped to pick the first round of projects in 2004; they were a fascinating mix of youth-media websites, community blogs and podcasting services, online civic databases, and other good ideas. Up to $17,000 is available for each project that receives New Voices funding from J-Lab.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    November 8, 2005

    open-ended politics

    A good citizen may certainly fight hard for a political position. However, there is also an important kind of political work that does not pursue any particular policies. It attempts to strengthen our capacity for self-government by being deliberately open-ended. Instead of defining problems and solutions in advance, such work creates open forums, networks, and institutions in which diverse groups of citizens can make their own decisions and act effectively.

    Often we think of discussions, meetings, and other deliberative processes as examples of open-ended politics, because good democratic conversations are open--not constrained by predetermined outcomes. However, talk is not the only political activity that can be open-ended. People can also work together on practical projects without committing to predetermined ends. For example, they can found, fund, and physically construct a library or a school without deciding all the purposes that it will serve over the long run.

    "Open-ended" seems a better term than "neutral," because neutrality is something of a chimera. Most political interventions have more or less predictable consequences for left and right. For example, someone might register young voters to increase participation. However, if one registers students on my campus, experience suggests that 70 percent will vote Democratic--a partisan consequence. Even in a simple public discussion, someone must issue an invitation that may somehow shape the ensuing conversation.

    Nevertheless, there is surely a difference between trying to inspire, persuade, or manipulate people to adopt a view, versus helping them to form and promote decisions of their own. For example, imagine that a community must decide whether to build a mall or a school in a location downtown. An individual who favors the school could respond in the following ways, among others ...

  • Try to get a school built by mobilizing the pro-school members of the community to vote or protest

  • Try to get a school built by organizing a meeting, open to everyone, at which the pro-school message will be highlighted.

  • Fight to delay a referendum out of fear that the mall might win if the vote were held right away, whereas support for the school would grow over time.

  • Try to get a school built by organizing a meeting at which there are balanced presentations by the pro-school and pro-mall forces -- in the expectation that the arguments in favor of the school will prevail.

  • Fight to delay a referendum, on the ground that public decisions are better when they are preceded by deliberation.

  • Organize a meeting that is structured to be as informative and balanced as possible, and commit to implement any vision chosen by the group.
  • These options grow increasingly open-ended. That doesn't necessarily mean that they get better as we move down the list. If a school is objectively superior to a mall in this situation, then the last two options may be a mistake.

    Indeed, if one endorses a full-blown political ideology (complete with appropriate policies, arguments, institutions, constituencies, and tactics), then it may seem morally compelling to further that view rather than to promote open-ended civic processes. However, I doubt that any of the available ideologies, from libertarianism to socialism, is in good enough intellectual condition today to merit anything more than lukewarm support. In that situation, pragmatic, open-ended, participatory civic work is especially important.

    In would be unwise to adopt an open-ended approach to politics if public opinion generally reflected deep inequality of knowledge, status, power, and other resources. We would have to reform the economic structure of society before we could trust public deliberations to reach just or wise conclusions.

    Indeed, there is such a thing as "false consciousness"a set of views contrary to peoples own interests that they adopt because they are manipulated by cultural norms, status differentials, advertising, state propaganda, schools, religious bodies, and other large forces. However, we are not respectful of our fellow citizens if we diagnose them as having been so manipulated. It requires a remarkable belief in the superiority of ones own views to attribute false consciousness to others. Again, given the weak intellectual condition of all major ideologies today, such arrogance seems misplaced. Besides, it is generally more effective to begin with a sincere attitude of respect and, having genuinely listened, then to express one's own dissenting views.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    October 26, 2005

    deliberative democracy in the Wikipedia

    Most readers of a blog will know what the Wikipedia is. For those who don't, it's an extraordinary encyclopedia whose entries are written by anyone who wants to participate. There are no editors--just peer editing by the millions of people who visit. The quality is quite high and it's a model of a certain kind of deliberation.

    Until this weekend, the Wikipedia's entry on "deliberative democracy" contained this paragraph:

    It is usually associated with left-wing politics and often recognizes a conflict of interest between the citizen participating, those affected or victimized by the process being undertaken, and the group-entity that organizes the decision. Thus it usually involves an extensive outreach effort to include marginalized, isolated, ignored groups in decisions, and to extensively document dissent, grounds for dissent, and future predictions of consequences of actions. It focuses as much on the process as the results. In this form it is a complete theory of civics.

    The Green Party of the United States refers to its particular proposals for grassroots democracy and electoral reform by this name.

    I disagree with this slant on deliberation and consider it potentially damaging. In fact, I've heard of a situation in Oklahoma in which some people were trying to organize a deliberative event and encountered opposition from residents who had Googled "deliberative democracy" and found the paragraphs quoted above about left-wingers and Greens. Therefore, I added the following to the Wiki entry:

    On the other hand, many practitioners of deliberative democracy attempt to be as neutral and open-ended as possible, inviting (or even randomly selecting) people who represent a wide range of views and providing them with balanced materials to guide their discussions. Examples include National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polls, and the 21st-Century Town meetings convened by AmericaSPEAKS, among others. In these cases, deliberative democracy is not connected to left-wing politics but is intended to create a conversation among people of different philosophies and beliefs.

    This was my first foray into the Wikipedia, and I decided to be respectful of the existing text. If you think the page should be written differently, click over there and edit away.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    September 7, 2005

    a review

    The book that John Gastil and I recently published (as editors), The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, has received its first review on Amazon. I hope it's not the last review, because someone called "environmental planning professor (Virginia, USA)" has written:

    I ordered this book hoping that it would indeed be a handbook that would be appropriate for teaching college undergraduates about this exciting approach to problem-solving and capacity-building. With gathering dismay I leafed through the chapters, finding one after another to be merely a collection of breezy comments, written principally by the originator of one or another slightly varying technique, that uncritically promoted the value of that technique. The material appears plucked from a foundation grant proposal. Surprisingly, considering the deep familiarity of the authors with these techniques, the book contains little in the way of actual operational advice. Rather, most of the chapters are unsupported and grandious [sic] claims for the utility of each approach, presumably designed to entice the reader to sign a lucrative consulting contract with the author. Folks, this is why we have academic research - to avoid empty and meaningless self-promoting efforts like this one.

    I can't respond without seeming defensive, but this is really quite unfair. First of all, the suggestion that that the authors are after "lucrative consulting contracts" is just mean. Our book has 42 contributing authors, about 38 of whom I know personally. Very few ever see a dime for consulting. All the ones I know struggle at low pay to create constructive opportunities for democratic participation in their communities and countries.

    While the Handbook does not provide step-by-step advice, anyone who reads it with any sympathy will recognize a variety of methods and choices. Some chapters describe jury-style deliberations of randomly-selected citizens. Others are voluntary meetings embedded in local associations. Some are online. Some have the power to make binding decisions; others are discussion forums or study circles.

    It's true that the chapters are (with roughly three exceptions) written by people who are involved in the projects under discussion. Since they have invested sweat and passion in this work, they are probably biased in its favor. Thus there would have been advantages if we had used independent evaluators. However, that was impossible, since there is not enough money in the field of deliberative democracy to support extensive independent evaluation. Besides, independence has its disadvantages. These chapters are useful--in part--because they clearly express the practitioners' perspective on what they are trying to do. Each chapter is a statement of goals and principles, and each is different from the others.

    Moreover, the authors do not simply provide favorable anecdotes, although we did encourage them to begin each chapter with a compelling story or example. The authors also assemble whatever data and evaluation exists, and often they take pains to note drawbacks or unresolved challenges in their work.

    In the field of deliberation, it would be useful to have more controlled, experimental studies. Such research could measure the effects of deliberation on individuals' attitudes and behaviors. However, proponents of deliberative democracy are not solely interested in effects on individuals. We also hope that public deliberation will produce better policies, strengthen communities, and educate policymakers. A randomized experiment is not a good tool for assessing such broader outcomes. A combination of normative argument and case studies strikes me as the better approach. Again, there would be advantages to more independent research, but it is also valuable to let practitioners describe and defend their own experiences.

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: deliberation

    August 10, 2005

    the September Project (Year II)

    I mentioned the September Project last year. On Sept. 11, 2004, people met in hundreds of libraries to conduct civic events as a positive, democratic response to the attacks of 9/11/01. There were voter registration drives, discussions and citizens' forums, performances, and art projects for people of all ages. This page provides many examples, wonderful in their diversity.

    The organizers are back at work preparing for Sept. 11, 2005. Their website has evolved to include a blog and other interactive features. (This is the homepage: www.theseptemberproject.org.) Co-director David Silver, formerly a fabulous graduate student at Maryland and now a professor at University of Washington, tells me that 2005 will be different and better than 2004 in the following ways:

  • The number of countries involved is up from 8 to 16, and includes Cuba, Bangladesh, India, and others in the Global South. Multiple libraries are participating in many countries: for instance, 11 in India.

  • In 2004, most of the participating libraries were public. This year, many academic libraries have joined.

  • There are more collaborations between libraries and other groups, such as schools, the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    August 2, 2005

    the EPA and public involvement

    On several occasions, the US Environmental Protection Agency has managed to involve a wide variety of citizens in addressing local problems. This approach was already evident in 1983, when EPA Administrator William Rickelshaus created a deliberative forum that allowed the citizens of Takoma, WA to make their own collective decision about whether to close a dangerous copper smelter at the cost of local jobs. Recently, EPA launched a Public Involvement website that summarizes the Agency's experience and provides questionnaires and other tools for practical use.

    Perhaps the most interesting feature for a non-specialist is the list of case-studies, and particularly the cases of "community-based environmental protection." When environmental problems broaden beyond "point-sources" (such as factories and large sewage pipes) and include homes and small businesses, it is necessary to get whole communities involved in environmental protection. Participation must be voluntary or it will never work. Fortunately, it is sometimes possible to find common ground among people with different interests and cultures--for example, environmentalists and ranchers in the West. The by-product of such successful deliberations and collaborations can be stronger communities. The EPA's database is full of good examples.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    June 23, 2005

    The Deliberative Democracy Handbook

    It's out! I have my copy of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook, co-edited by John Gastil and myself. There are 19 chapters (mostly co-written, so there are about 30 authors in all). For the most part, each chapter is devoted to a different, practical process for engaging the public in deliberations and influencing policy. The processes come from all over the world. The book has its own website with more information.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    June 22, 2005

    a totally new fundraising strategy for civic engagement

    Deliberative Polling is an important innovation in "civic engagement." Citizens are randomly selected to meet as a kind of large jury for several days. They hear testimony from experts, deliberate at length, and finally vote their opinion on a contentious issue. Deliberative Polling has been used by television broadcasters in the US, Britain, and Australia. The participants deliberate, interview national political candidates, and report their results on TV. Deliberative Polling has also been used as part of the formal process for regulating public utilities in Texas, among other cases.

    Deliberative Polling is relatively expensive, and everyone in the civic renewal field constantly struggles with money issues. But get this--the Texas prosecutor who is investigating Rep. Tom DeLay, Ronnie Earle, has forced Sears, Cracker Barrel, Questerra, and Diversified Collections Systems to contribute large amounts of cash to the Center for Deliberative Polling at UT-Austin. These companies were accused of making illegal contributions in connection to the DeLay case, as part of what Earle called "an effort to ... control representative democracy in Texas." But they settled out of court by agreeing to support deliberative democracy in the state.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    June 16, 2005

    a researcher-practitioner meeting

    Yesterday, I spent an interesting day talking to some people who work in the world of public broadcasting about a project to produce high-quality news shows for use in high schools. A lot of the discussion was about how young people might contribute to the shows as well as use them.

    Today is the second annual Researcher & Practitioner Conference of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. That's a mouthful. It's also an interesting and unusual project. Last year, we convened a bunch of people who organize citizens' deliberations at a human scale--in towns and cities. We also invited some scholars who study the process of deliberation. The whole group spent two days developing a shared research agenda and planning some valuable research projects that could be conducted by teams of scholars and practitioners. Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation, we had more than $100,000 to allocate (through a competitive process) to teams that formed at the conference.

    This is the second year, so we will be hearing reports from the teams that received funding. We will also revise our research agenda and allocate another batch of funds from Hewlett. As a by-product of these conferences, I believe we are strengthening a network that consists of academics and practical folks--something that's not nearly as common as it should be.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    May 19, 2005

    Archon Fung: "Deliberation Before the Revolution"

    My friend and colleague Archon Fung has published an article entitled Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005: pdf).

    "Deliberative democracy" is an ideal: people are supposed to exchange ideas, values, and arguments freely, in a variety of formats and genres; and their discourse (alone) is supposed to determine the outcome. In real life, social inequality, bureaucracy, secrecy, force and threats of force, bargaining, prejudice, and many other non-deliberative factors influence outcomes. How should someone who is committed to the ideal of deliberative democracy behave in an imperfect world?

    Fung rejects two options. The first is to act in a purely deliberative way despite injustice. He thinks it is naive to commit oneself to give reasons and arguments (and nothing but reasons and arguments) even when powerful people refuse to listen. Strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, voter-mobilization campaigns, nonviolent protests, and even occasionally violent uprisings may be necessary. At the same time, Fung believes it is a mistake to abandon deliberation altogether until the "revolution" comes--in other words, until there is enough political equality and until institutions are well enough designed that deliberation can prevail. If one waits for the "revolution" before becoming a deliberative democrat, then the imperfections of our current order can justify abandoning all pretense of deliberation and simply trying to amass power. That is a path to cynicism and corruption.

    Fung favors a middle course. The realistic (yet idealistic) deliberative democrat should try to make the world more deliberative through effective political activism, but he or she should be ethically constrained by certain deliberative norms. Specifically, the activist should keep in mind the goal of making institutions more fair and more influenced by reasons. He or she should assume that others will deliberate in good faith until they show by their behavior that they will not. The activist should exhaust deliberative forms of politics (e.g., giving arguments, organizing open meetings) before resorting to non-deliberative tactics. And any non-deliberative responses should be strictly proportional to the situation. Just because my opponent has been somewhat deaf to my arguments or somewhat secretive and authoritarian, it doesn't follow that I may abandon deliberative norms altogether and simply use force.

    Fung's article covers other ground and very usefully analyzes a case-study (the "living-wage" campaign at Harvard). I endorse his argument and will use it in my own work--specifically, as Rose Marie Nierras and I continue to interview activists from the developing world to learn their attitudes toward deliberation.

    I would only differ from Fung in emphasis. I think there are very serious dangers to abandoning deliberative forms of politics, even in the face of injustice. Some activists say, "Social inequality is so bad that people don't know, or cannot effectively express, their own interests. Therefore, there is no point in trying to organize deliberation or in heeding its results. Social change first; talk later." I think this attitude (which is not Fung's, certainly, but a common one) is arrogant, because the activist assumes that he or she knows what a just society would look like. He grants himself the right to manipulate others to get the social change he wants. Not only is this unethical, in my view, but it can be foolish (if the activist misconceives justice) and unsustainable. Mobilization campaigns that pit the disadvantaged against the strong may win tactical victories, but they tend to peter out. To achieve lasting social change, one typically needs partnerships, social trust, shared information and ideas, and some degree of consensus.

    Thus, although I agree with Fung that we should steer a middle course between idealism and Realpolitik, I think we too often overlook the power of deliberation and the dangers of abandoning it.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    March 28, 2005

    Journal of Public Deliberation

    I am proud to announce the debut of the Journal of Public Deliberation, a peer-reviewed, free, online, "open access" publication that will include scholarly articles and essays aimed at practitioners. I serve on the editorial board and have spent considerable time over the last six months reviewing articles and discussing matters of editorial policy. The first issue contains five articles:

  • Christopher F. Karpowitz and Jane Mansbridge, "Disagreement and Consensus: The Need for Dynamic Updating in Public Deliberation" (This is a version of a chapter from the Handbook of Public Deliberation that John Gastil and I are editing. It tells a cautionary tale about a deliberative process that went wrong because the pressure to obtain consensus about the "common good" was unfair to the less advantaged people in the meetings. A standard public hearing turned out, in this case, to work better.)

  • Peter Muhlberger, "The Virtual Agora Project: A Research Design for Studying Democratic Deliberation" (This is an essay on an important experiment in online deliberation.)

  • Ethan J. Leib, "The Chinese Communist Party and Deliberative Democracy" (A report of an extraordinary meeting that convened some of the West's leading authorities on deliberative democracy along with leaders of the Chinese CP.)

  • Ramon Daubon, "A Primer for Promoting Deliberative Democracy and the Dynamics of Development at the Grassroots" (An essay by a Kettering Foundation colleague on deliberation as a tool in economic development)

  • Peter Levine, Archon Fung, and John Gastil, "Future Directions for Public Deliberation" (A longish piece by yours truly and two friends.)
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    March 11, 2005

    an experience of globalization

    Today, a group of teachers from Azerbaijan visited my office. With help from Streetlaw (on whose board I serve), they are teaching their students to deliberate about current issues, as a form of civic education. Since I have long worked on deliberation and civic education, both separately and in combination, I was interested to hear their experiences. Meanwhile, Professor Gabriel Murillo from Colombia, a leading proponent of public deliberation, happened to be visiting. I know Prof. Murillo from past work with the Kettering Foundation, so I accompanied the Azeris to his talk. He lectured in English on the role of deliberative democracy in development. An Azeri interpreter provided simultaneous translation into Russian, since not all of the delegation from Azerbaijan speaks Azeri. Dr. Murillo said at one point that he thinks in Spanish; I sensed that he was translating words like "consentimiento" into English as he spoke. The Azeri translator presumably had to think in his own (Turkic) language as he generated Russian words from Dr. Murillo's English. And some of his colleagues who know Azeri better than Russian may have had to translate into their native language to understand what he was saying. At one point, an Azeri of Russian ethnicity stood and bravely asked Dr. Murillo a question in Russian, which several people helped to translate into English so that Dr. Murillo could reply. The whole point of his speech was the need for communication in a pluralistic society, and that's exactly what we experienced--albeit through the medium of English.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    February 8, 2005

    handbook of public deliberation

    John Gastil and I are busy organizing the production of our co-edited volume, The Handbook of Public Deliberation: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century. Jossey Bass will publish it this summer. Of the 19 chapters, 16 describe very concrete and practical approaches to public deliberation; thus the book will offer a diverse menu of choices for civic groups, governments, school systems, and others to use. (The three remaining chapters are overviews of the field.) Since almost all chapters have been written by teams, usually comprised of both scholars and practitioners, there are 44 authors in all. Coordinating everyone's participation has been quite a job for John and me. However, we'll reach a milestone tomorrow when we submit a fully edited and complete manuscript.

    The cover design to the right is preliminary. We've asked for more people, more evident diversity, and less office ceiling. (Apparently, that's the publisher's office, and one arm belongs to our editor.) Still, I like the informality and zest of the basic design.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    October 6, 2004

    deliberation blogs

    I don't like to resort to listing blogs, but a lot of my readers are seriously interested in public deliberation, and they may want to consult other blogs specifically on that subject. I recommend:

  • The National Conference for Dialogue and Deliberation's Happening's Blog

  • Rich Harwood's blog, "Redeeming Hope"

  • Brad Rourke's "Public Comments"

  • The Deliberative Democracy Consortium's group blog (currently moribund, but open to new participants)

  • Mike Meotti's Civic Tech

  • Dr John Gtze's Gotzeblog

  • e.thePeople: a site for public deliberation, rather than a blog about that topic
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    September 27, 2004

    deliberative democracy and tolerance

    Last Friday, I heard a colleague present a good paper on tolerance and deliberation. I don't want to summarize his position here, but I think that mine would be different. I see a tension between public deliberation and tolerance. In a true "deliberative democracy" (which, in practice, we can only approximate), everyone who is potentially affected by an issue discusses it together, without limitations as to topic or outcome, giving reasons and considering underlying values and principles. Deliberation can increase tolerance as people come to understand one another's perspectives; but that's hardly guaranteed. Such conversations often reveal profound differences of principle, which are closely connected to identity. Karl Mannheim argued that "political discussion" characteristically turns into a fundamental attack "on the whole life-situation of the opponent." He exaggerated, but he had a point.

    If you want people to get along, to "live and let live," then you may want to take certain issues off the table. For example, the Constitution bans state-sposored religion. This narrows the range of serious discussion but probably increases tolerance. You may also want to create mechanisms for reaching decisions without direct interaction among people who disagree. Elections and markets provide such impersonal interactions.

    Many proponents of deliberative democracy are upset by the profound gap in values between, for example, Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi. They'd like these two "communities" to sit down together and come to understand each other's values. I also favor diverse and inclusive conversations, but not because I expect them to increase tolerance. I think the best way to help Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi to coexist peacefully is to keep them separate and allow their elected representatives to logroll and compromise their way to a deal. Some federal money can go to arts subsidies, some can go to farm supports, and both sides can purchase goods on the same market. If they don't deliberate, neither group has to think too hard about the other.

    By bringing disagreements to the surface, deliberative democracy threatens tolerance, but it also depends on it. Without a basic willingness to put up with people who disagree, conversations will go badly. Thus, if we are committed to public deliberation (perhaps because we believe it will create better policies and help people to develop and refine their own opinions), then we're going to have to work hard to keep the peace.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    September 1, 2004

    why study real-life deliberation

    John Gastil and I are co-editing a book, probably to be called The Handbook of Deliberation. Most of the chapters describe particular processes that bring diverse people together to discuss and reach judgments about public issues. These projects range from Brazilian participatory budgeting schemes (in which hundreds of thousands of people collectively determine portions of their city's budget), to Danish consensus conferences of 10-25 randomly selected citizens who report to Parliament on technological issues.

    Meanwhile, scholars are busy writing about deliberation. In fact, it would be difficult to exaggerate their interest in this topic. There are too many substantial books to mention, but perhaps one indicator of scholars interest is the recent publication of at least five anthologies on the topic, most of whose contributors specialize in deliberation.*

    Yet the academic literature pays remarkably little attention to the practices described in our book.

    In many fields, there is a gap between research and practice, a failure to communicate between the academy and civil society. However, I detect particular reasons for the gap in this case. First of all, most academics are interested in deliberation that has a clear influence on political outcomes. They therefore focus on deliberation in powerful bodies like courts and legislatures, or they study long-term discussions that involve millions of people and play out in the mass media and major institutions. For them, a gathering of a few hundred citizens is not important enough to study. Scholars of deliberation see themselves as too practical and realistic to devote serious attention to idealistic experiments like those described in our book. The Brazilian experience is a notable example, precisely because it has achieved scale and political impact.

    Practical projects could be used as laboratories to test hypotheses about how people discuss issues. However, only a few projects are controlled enough to serve as ideal experiments for the kinds of questions that researchers have pursued. For example, if social scientists want to study whether groups converge toward consensus positions, they may feel more confident experimenting with a random sample and a carefully chosen topic, rather than observing a messy and context-dependent process like a Study Circle or a National Issues Forum. The main exceptions are Jim Fishkin's Deliberative Polls, which have been used as formal experiments. The insights derived from Deliberative Polls are interesting, but they may not generalize to other practices.

    One objective of our book is to demonstrate that there is a sufficient body of diverse practice to merit serious academic investigation. These projects are valuable experiments precisely because they exist in real-world contexts. If you want to know how deliberation works when people are motivated to attend because they care about the problems in their community, then you must observe a real deliberation, not a group that you pay to participate in an experiment. Both contexts are interesting, but motivated groups should be not be overlooked. Similarly, if you want to observe how interest groups, politicians, and citizens deal with each other in public meetings, then you need a real-life practice, not an experiment with a pre-determined topic and structure.

    *Anne Van Aaken, Christian List, and Christoph Luetge, Deliberation and Decision: Economics, Constitutional Theory and Deliberative Democracy (Ashgate, 2004), James Bohman and William Rehg (eds.), Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (MIT Press, 1997); Jon Elster and Adam Przeworski, eds, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, 1998); James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett (eds.), Debating Deliberative Democracy (Blackwell, 2003); and Stephen Macedo, Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement (Oxford University Press, 1999).

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    August 13, 2004

    the September Project (revisited)

    I've mentioned the September Project before. It's an effort to organize discussions and other civic activities in local libraries all across America on Sept. 11, 2004. I'm delighted to report that 267 libraries in 42 states are now onboard, and there are opportunities for YOU to organize in your own community.

    One of the best things about America (although it's not unique to us) is our tradition of gathering in local public spaces to talk about issues and common concerns. Meeting in that spirit on Sept. 11 is a great way to respond to terrorism and violence.

    Eszter Hargittai announced the September Project on Crooked Timber back in April. Virtually all the responses were negative. One person wrote, "Do these people not realise that 'earnest' is a pejorative term?" Another was offended that the list of recommended topics for discussion did not include "Islamic terrorism." A third commented:

    Uh huyay yay USA, go Team Democracythats what Ill be doing on 91104, Im sure.

    Libraries are best for subversive purposes, not to prop up an empire that needs to die. 911 has, ever since, been a shining example of some of the differences between liberal apologists and radical critics of power. I dont mean to be too nasty about it, Im usually a very personable fellow, but the patriotic left leaves me awfully dissapointed [sic].

    It's never smart to take a few comments as representative of public opinion. However, I admit I was slightly shaken when I read these remarks several months ago. I guess I'm so deeply enmeshed in activities that resemble the September Project that I forgot how they can alienate some people. My first instinct was to wish that the person who wanted to discuss "Islamic terrorism" and the one who wanted America's empire to "die" could meet (preferably at a library, where shouting is forbidden) to hear one another's arguments. That's an awfully "earnest" hope, I realize.

    (You could reasonably ask whether I plan to participate myself. The answer, unfortunately, is that I'll be sitting in a New York City skyscraper on Sept. 11, discussing "transnational student activism.")

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    July 30, 2004

    deliberation when the stakes get high

    John Gastil and I are editing a book that will be published early in 2005, probably with the title Handbook of Public Deliberation. Each chapter is written by people who organize a different form of meeting or online discussion about public issues. The authors constitute a small but impressive international community of practice.

    I've been thinking about the future of this movement and the challenges it will face if it really gains traction. To date, most public deliberation in the US has low stakes. In some cases, there is no serious effort to change public policy to match the results of the public conversation. The goal of a meeting may be to build networks of citizens, to develop new ideas, to teach people skills and knowledge, to change attitudes--but not to influence government. In other cases, deliberation does have direct consequences for policy. For example, the budget of the District of Columbia is much influenced by the annual Citizens Summit organized by America Speaks. However, such cases arise under especially favorable circumstances, when the local political leadership is either very enlightened or has special incentives to share power with a deliberating group of citizens.

    If public deliberation ever becomes a (non-partisan) political movement, then citizen deliberations will be able to achieve concrete influence even when the conditions are unfavorable. But then I think deliberation will face challenges that have not been difficult so far, because the stakes have been low.

    First, who's at the table? In a low-stakes deliberation, it's fine to recruit volunteers, as long one aims for diversity of background and opinion. However, as soon as the stakes go up, organized interests will start to send their own foot-soldiers, armed with instructions. Interest-group politics is an acceptable and unavoidable part of democratic politics: "sewn in the nature of man," as Madison put it. But interest groups are not evenly distributed; for instance, there are effective national groups for developers and landlords, but not for renters or the homeless. Second, some groups are not internally democratic or transparent; they don't represent the groups in whose name they speak. And finally, because of basic collective-action problems, interest groups tend to form around narrow concerns rather than broad ones. Narrow concerns can be legitimate, but interest-group politics introduces a bias against general values.

    We are used to these problems in conventional representative political institutions. Public deliberation is supposed to be an alternative. But interest groups may be at least as effective in high-stakes citizens' deliberations as in Congress or the town council.

    Proponents of random-selection use all these points in their favor. Since meetings of recruited volunteers can be stacked with committed partisans, they advocate randomly selecting citizens to participate. But random selection has its own problems. It's expensive and practically difficult. It's not embedded in local networks and associations, so its legitimacy may be questioned. And even in the best cases, the agenda and framing of the discussion can be biased, or perceived as biased.

    Then there's the problem of fairness and equality within a discussion. In a paper entitled "Against Deliberation" that should be read by everyone in the movement (see Political Theory, vol. 25. no. 3 [June, 1997], pp. 347-76), Lynn M. Sanders notes that some citizens are better than others at articulating their concerns in rational, reasonable terms." Some are more learned and practiced at making arguments that would be recognized by others as reasonable ones." Some people are simply more willing to speak; for example, studies of US juries show that men talk far more than women in deliberations.

    Furthermore, some people are more likely to be listened to than others." For instance, studies of US juries show that they tend to elect white males as forepersons. Studies of US college students show that white students have much more influence than Black students in joint collaborative projects, even controlling for age, socioeconomic status, height, and attitudes toward school.

    I have observed the organizers and moderators of low-stakes public deliberations overcome these problems. They deliberately support participants who might be disadvantaged in the conversation. Today's public deliberations are likely to be more equitable than juries or teams of college students, because moderators are trained and focused on equality. But what about tomorrow's deliberations? When the stakes go up, individuals with more status or skill will fight back against efforts to support less advantaged participants. They will depict such efforts as "politically correct" or otherwise biased, and they will use their status, confidence, and rhetorical fluency to win the point.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: deliberation

    June 11, 2004

    deliberation and advocacy

    Rose Marie Nierras (of the University of Sussex) and I conducted a kind of focus group today. The participants were activists from the United States, Canada, the Phillippines, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, and Denmark. Rose and I have been studying how deliberative democracy looks to people who work in social movements, especially in the developing world. This was the fourth and final day of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium/LogoLink meetings, and Rose and I have been interviewing the participants individually. Today's group discussion will give us additional data; and we will conduct several more such events in several countries before we finish the project.

    We are not ready to digest our results so far, but I have a few stray thoughts: It's more difficult to mobilize lots of people for procedural reforms than for specific social causes--except when there is a dictator in the way of social progress, in which case "democracy" becomes a rallying cry. It's easier for social advocates to embrace democratization if they believe that their cause is supported by a large majority of their fellow citizens. It's harder to disentangle social causes from democratic reforms in new democracies than in "mature" ones.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , democratic reform overseas

    June 8, 2004

    Deliberative Democracy Consortium

    All day today, I'll be participating in Steering Committee meetings of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, so I don't anticipate being able to write anything here.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    May 10, 2004

    the September Project

    The September Project is a great idea for promoting public deliberation. Libraries across the country will hold public discussions on the third anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. The library systems that have already signed up are shown on this map. Here's an overall description of the project, written by its organizers:
    On September 11, 2004, citizens across the U.S. will come together at their local libraries to discuss ideas that matter to all of us. Through talks, debates, roundtables, and performances, citizens will share ideas about democracy, citizenship, and patriotism. What better way to spend September 11th, recently designated "Patriot Day," than by participating collectively, thinking creatively, and becoming a part of the well-informed voice of the American citizenry?

    Public libraries provide all citizens open and free access to information. Almost all communities in the US have at least one library. There are over 16,000 public libraries in the US, and that's not including university libraries, K-12 libraries, and church libraries. In other words, libraries constitute an impressive national infrastructure. Moreover, 96% of public libraries have computer technology that can serve to connect events across the nation, thereby constituting a national and distributed media infrastructure. In this way, the September Project will foster a national conversation with, for, and by the people.

    The September Project has three goals:

    1) To coordinate with all libraries -- big and small, urban and rural -- to host free and public events on September 11;

    2) To work with all forms of media -- mainstream and alternative; corporate and independent; print, radio, film, and digital -- to foster and sustain public discourse about issues that matter;

    3) To foster an annual tradition for citizens around the world to recognize and give meaning to September 11th.

    The aim of The September Project is to create a day of engagement, a day of community, a day of democracy.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    February 18, 2004

    deliberation book

    John Gastil of the University of Washington and I are co-editing a book on deliberative processes. We have the chapter authors lined up and are about to sign a contract. Each chapter will describe a concrete experiment that involves citizens in structured discussions of public issues or problems. A non-exhaustive list of these experiments would include the National Issues Forums, Study Circles, Deliberative Polling, and America Speaks in the US; several online experiments; and very important non-US cases such as the participatory budging process in Porto Allegre, Brazil (in which very large citizens' councils actually allocate a portion of the city's budget).

    permanent link | comments (2) | category: deliberation

    January 6, 2004

    activism and deliberation

    Along with Rose Marie Nierras of LogoLink, I'm applying for a small grant to interview political activists and people who promote public deliberation, to get some sense of the differences between these approaches.

    On a simple definition, "deliberation" means convening a diverse group of citizens and asking them to talk, without any expectation or hope that they will reach one conclusion rather than another. The population that is convened, the format, and the informational materials are all supposed to be neutral or balanced. There is an ethic of deference to whatever views may emerge from democratic discussion. Efforts are made to insulate the process from deliberate attempts to manipulate it. In contrast, the simple view of "advocacy" implies an effort to enlist or mobilize citizens toward some end. At their best, advocates are candid about their goals and open to critical suggestions. But they are advocating for something.

    To be sure, there are versions of advocacy that incorporate genuine deliberation, just as there are deliberative exercises aimed at policy goals. Nevertheless, there is at least a potential tension between the two approaches. Many advocates for disadvantaged populations explicitly say that deliberation is a waste of their limited resources. And some proponents of deliberation see organized advocacy as a threat to fair and unbiased discussion; hence their efforts to protect deliberative forums from being "manipulated" by groups with an agenda.

    Our full proposal is available online, and comments are welcome on a dedicated website.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    October 23, 2003

    competing forms of deliberation

    We are now two days into the "Researcher & Practitoner" meeting that I described yesterday. We tried to get consensus (among 40 people) on a set of factual statements about public deliberation that we could post on a website for public use. For the most part, the academics in the group rejected the statements that the practitioners proposed, on the ground that the research base was too weak. Therefore, we harvested a very long list of plausible, informed hypotheses about deliberation. This may be a more useful product than a set of consensus propositions.

    The conversation has generally been very rich and disciplined (and hard to summarize). Instead, I'll report the following thought that occurred to me. We seem to have a choice between two general approaches. We can randomly select people to deliberate on a public issue (giving them incentives to participate, as if in a kind of jury); or we can try to motivate a large and diverse segment of the population to seek out voluntary opportunities for deliberation. Both approaches are widely used by practitioners in the field of Deliberative Democracy.

    Randomly selecting a small sample cannot change the habits or skills of the overall population, who are not involved. Furthermore, if a random group is given the power to make public decisions, then other citizens may feel that they have no right or means to influence the results. And the random group must get its power as a grant from some authority, which can always withdraw that power. In short, deliberation by randomly selected groups generates very interesting results, but it cannot change the overall dynamics of a society.

    Mobilizing people to attend (or demand) various kinds of public meetings can change the overall power structure. However, this approach is subject to manipulation. Special interests can make sure that their people show up and speak from a script. Voluntary participants tend to be privileged, because deliberation is easier for people with more education and higher status. Therefore, good organizers deliberately work to increase the participation of disadvantaged people. Unfortunately, if it's possible to influence who attends, then it's possible to stack the deck in favor of one's own position.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    October 22, 2003

    call for papers

    I'm on my way to the National 4-H Center for a meeting organized by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. We're calling it a "Research & Practitioner Meeting," because it combines leading scholars who study public deliberation with practitioners who run actual public discussion forums. Our goals are to set an ambitious research agenda for the field, and also to pick some small projects that can be funded out of our existing money. I was on the planning committee for the conference, so I'm excited about it.

    Connected to this conference is a proposed book that John Gastil has organized, although I'm the co-editor. Anyone who might like to write a chapter on a particular approach to public deliberation should check out the Call for Papers that John has written.

    On a completely unrelated note, I had a chance last week to meet Maryland's Senator Barbara Mikulski. With the loss of Senator Wellstone, she is the only community organizer in the Senate. Not knowing anything about me, she said that America needs a new progressive era. I couldn't help replying that I had written a book with that very title. I'm sure this made me sound like a self-promoting academic; and if I were going to promote myself, I would have preferred to tell her about our community work in Prince George's County. In any case, she then made a speech in support of Americorps, which she has championed since it was created.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    August 25, 2003

    what's wrong with the California recall

    (Written in Camden, Maine) On August 16, the Washington lawyer Robert F. Bauer wrote an interesting opinion piece on the California Recall election. He noted that the recall is competitive, largely non-partisan, short, and intensely engaging to the public and the media. These are the very qualities that reformers usually find lacking in our long, partisan, low-turnout elections. Thus, Bauer says, reformers should be delighted with the recall as an alternative to "politics as usual." Instead, they rail against it as a "circus" or even a "tragedy." That is because it is not "the controlled, tidy, deliberative politics that some of them profess to care about: 'serious' candidates engaged in 'serious' debate mediated by political 'experts,' such as themselves, in an established, familiar setting." Bauer thinks that reformers are sanctimonious and also impractical; normal politics is much better than they believe. The specific progressive reform that led to this election—allowing governors to be recalled—was really an attempt to banish "politics." That is what progressive reformers always want, Bauer thinks, and the results always backfire.

    Implication: progressives should rethink their support for campaign finance reform, regulation of lobbying, and other "anti-political" ideas that will, like recall elections, create disasters.

    I think Bauer's criticism applies to Ross Perot and some Nader-type reformers, who really are anti-political and therefore would like to see less campaigning, weaker parties, less campaign spending, and less ideological mobilization. Hence their support for term limits, initiative and referendum, and spending limits. I have never belonged to this camp, and neither do some of the leading reform groups, such as Common Cause. I think parties are good, and that it is helpful for them to mobilize mass support. I don't believe that elections last too long; in fact, I think the presidential primary season may soon become too short. And I don't think that too much money is spent on elections. Last time I checked, the total amount was not more than $16 per capita, which is not much to communicate to a mass public.

    However, we do not have just two alternatives: the California "circus," and politics-as-usual. We could have a political system that was less influenced by private money, more "serious" (in the sense of being more closely connected to weighty choices that we need to make), fairer, more competitive, and more engaging to all people, including those with less money and education.

    To me, the California election is a fiasco, because it represents a failure of Californians to control their own futures. If Arnold Schwartzenegger wins, it will not be because a plurality of Californians are moderate Republicans (which would be a tolerably democratic result). Instead, he will win because a plurality of Californians don't have any idea what is going on in state government, so they imagine that a macho new leader can simply banish all their fiscal problems. This will show that they have no grasp of the ideological differences that have led to a budget impasse. Democrats oppose deep budget cuts, and Republicans oppose tax increases—principled positions that create huge deficits when put together. Citizens need to choose one position or the other (or split the difference). But Schwartzenegger claims that he can just clean up the mess: a totally unprincipled position that sounds impressive only to people who have never seriously considered the difficult choices implied by a budget crisis. Thus, if Arnold wins, it will show that many Californians feel no personal responsibility for the way their own government has acted in the past.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    August 11, 2003

    Arnold and stealth democracy

    Saturday's Washington Post quotes a California citizen who supports Arnold Schwartzenegger's gubernatorial bid: "His eyes brightened behind his glasses as he discussed how someone like Schwarzenegger would bring fresh ideas and an eagerness to correct the state's problems. "'I'm hopeful that he will be independent enough in his thoughts that he thinks like a citizen and not as an experienced politician,' [the citizen] said, 'so that he can do the right thing." Echoing Schwarzenegger's 'Tonight Show' line that he could not be bought, [he added]: 'Everyone who comes to work with him knows that they're going to get nothing in return except the satisfaction. We know he's not looking for money, and that's a plus.'"

    This quote perfectly exemplifies what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse call "stealth democracy" (See my review of their book.) According to them, Americans believe that there is no need for debates about policy, because all reasonable people share the same goals. The fact that heated debates actually take place proves that professional politicians are trying to gain some kind of advantage over each other in a competitive game. And the reason they play this game is that they want to obtain personal wealth from holding political office.

    I have no doubt that some Americans believe all this (including some highly sophisticated people whom I have met). We'll see from the California recall campaign whether it's the dominant view in that state.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    August 7, 2003

    politicians are sometimes sincere

    Since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation is clearly benefiting Republicans and harming Democrats, why did most Republicans vote against it and most Democrats support it?

    There are cynical explanations. For example, maybe neither party predicted the effects correctly. Maybe they all assumed that campaign finance reform would have to be good for Democrats, and they voted pro and con accordingly. Or perhaps the reform was viewed as bad for incumbents as a group (which it is). Republicans may care more about protecting incumbents, since they have majorities in both houses.

    However, I think that a non-cynical explanation is at least partly true. Republicans stood to gain from McCain-Feingold, but most were still against it, because philosophically they oppose state regulation of a financial exchange that they consider completely legitimate. Democrats stood to lose from McCain-Feingold, but most voted for it, because philosophically they oppose private financing of campaigns and they want to regulate donations. Sometimes, arguments and reasons count.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    July 16, 2003

    Stealth Democracy

    A new book is causing quite a stir among people who work for in civic and democratic reform. John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that the public doesn’t want a bigger role in government and politics. In fact, people would like to have a smaller role, but they suspect that elites are corrupt, so they believe that citizens must periodically intervene just to prevent sleaze. These are some of the themes of Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

    According to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, people do not rate their fellow citizens as informed or intelligent. They do not want to participate in government or politics themselves, nor do they want a political system in which there is much public involvement. They do not dislike the policies adopted by our government. In fact, they have few policy preferences and are generally satisfied with the policies that are in place.

    Yet people strongly dislike government. This is because they suspect very selfish and greedy behavior on the part of political elites. For instance, they think that elected officials get rich from government service. People dislike disagreement and debate and view these things as evidence that elites are self-interested. They believe that there is public consensus on issues, yet agreement is mysteriously absent in Congress.

    A majority of people (about 70%) agree with two or three of the following propositions, which is enough to make them believers in “Stealth Democracy”:

    • “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems” (86% agree)
    • “what people call compromise in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles” (60%); and
    • “our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people” (31%) or “our government would run better if decisions were left up to successful business people” (32%)

    Although people do not want much public involvement in government, they think that both Democrats and Republicans want even less. They consider the parties to be more elitist than they are. Therefore, they support reform ideas such as devolving power to the states (63% support); using more initiatives and referenda (86%); and limiting campaign spending (91%). Fifty percent would like the government to be run more like a business. There is also considerable support for billionaire politicians and technocratic experts, since neither can profit from their own decisions.

    Hibbing and Theiss-Morse append two whole chapters in which they argue that deliberative democracy (in its various forms) will not solve the problems that they identify from their survey results, and may make matters worse. These chapters are useful as a compendium of hopeful hypotheses advanced by proponents of deliberation and negative empirical results. However, the evidence here is selective and the argument is separate from the meat of the book, which is a set of claims about mass public opinion in the US.

    One can quibble with these findings. For example, I thought that several of the key survey questions were somewhat ambiguous. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse stress that the results are tentative. However, let’s assume that the results are roughly right. How can proponents of deliberative democracy, civic engagement, participatory democracy, strong democracy, or public work respond?

    First, we can speculate that some of the phenomena described in the book are features of our very specific political circumstances, rather than traits of Americans’ character. For example, people say that private money has an enormous influence on politics. It does. Money has always been the mother’s milk of politics. But what we have today is a system of massive private contributions plus quite complete disclosure. In my view, this is a recipe for public dissatisfaction with the process of government. It is natural to tune out all the details of policy debates if one is presented with a list of special-interest groups that fund each side. No one seems credible.

    Likewise, there is a dearth of political debate at the local level, because congressional (and often state legislative) districts have been jerrymandered to be dominated by one party. No wonder people think that there is a consensus at home and discord only in Congress. Districts have been engineered to have no discord at the local level.

    The upshot is that we might be able to get quite different attitudes from a reformed political system, one with competitive election districts and public financing for campaigns. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse favor campaign-finance reform, but they don’t think it will make much difference. We can afford to be more hopeful.

    A second reply is more radical. It says: Of course people opt out of “politics,” considering what they’ve been served under that name. We can’t poll people about whether they would like to participate more, because they have no way of knowing what active citizenship would look like in a better regime. Reform political institutions, improve civic education, change the way the news and entertainment media cover public life, and experiment widely with new forms of participation (often outside of the state sector)—and then ask people what they think of “politics.”

    This is not a foolish answer, but clearly it requires very ambitious, systemic reforms. And those reforms will be harder to achieve given what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse say about public attitudes.

    A third reply would emphasize equity (something that’s largely overlooked in Stealth Democracy). It’s all very well to have a system with low public participation and little public interest in politics—if the policies that result serve your interests. But laws and institutions tend not to serve low-income people. Moreover, knowledge is not evenly distributed. As Scott Keeter and Michael Delli Carpini showed in What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters (1997), wealthy people have a good grasp of politics, ideology, and issues; poor people don’t. But if people generally don’t want to get more involved, then we can’t expect a great upsurge of support for participatory or deliberative democracy. What we may need, instead, is a small set of powerful organizations that have political power and answer to less advantaged citizens.

    I doubt that people were much more favorable toward “politics” 50 years ago. However, in 1953, a third of all non-agricultural American workers belonged to unions, and 47 percent of voting-age Americans identified themselves as Democrats. The top brass of the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party knew how to play politics, even if the rank-and-file did not. Union membership has been halved since then and both parties are much weaker. Reviving these institutions or creating substitutes would be an answer to the problem outlined in Stealth Democracy.

    In fairness, I should say that the authors’ own answer is sensible enough, in its way. That is to reform civic education so that students are taught to expect and even value controversy. Then they would be less offended by the sight of debate in Washington.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: deliberation

    July 7, 2003

    the Hatch/Wyden bill

    The Senate has passed a bill that would represent a very important experiment in public deliberation. It is the Wyden-Hatch bill, now section 620 of S. 1, the Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003. If this provision survives the rest of the legislative process, it will "provide for a nationwide public debate about improving the health care system to provide every American with the ability to obtain quality, affordable health care coverage; and .... provide for a vote by Congress on the recommendations that result from the debate."

    A large and diverse commission of stakeholders, experts, and citizens would be appointed that would hold hearings; issue a public "Health Report to the American People"; hold facilitated public deliberations across the country (based on the Report); and then generate final recommendations. The President would be required to comment formally on the results, and Congress would have to hold formal hearings. The bill embodies the most advanced thinking about how to organize public deliberations, and it would be a wonderful showcase.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    June 17, 2003

    educational standards and deliberation

    Standards and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile, many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion as possible before any vote.

    Educational standards can be beneficial for deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing, on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed by small groups in private. They can't be public documents and still function well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than public judgment.

    The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e., those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control, and cannot even debate, their content.

    Such tests are bad for public deliberation. Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don't know how to enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good for either education or democracy.

    (By the way, I have been asked to announce: "After a mini cyber-disaster, Amitai Etzioni Notes is back up and running.")

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: deliberation

    June 10, 2003

    deliberation and the scope of the public sphere

    I spent the day at the semi-annual meeting of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium's steering committee. We were brainstorming about what would compose the infrastructure of a deliberative democracy in the United States—everything from physical meeting spaces, to networks of trained facilitators, to formal mechanisms for injecting the results of citizen deliberations into government decision-making. An interesting philosophical question arose at one point. Assume that you want a fully deliberative democracy. Which path seems better?

    1. Make governmental institutions more deliberative. They alone represent everyone, and they are already committed to egalitarian deliberation (a form of "voice") as a method of decision-making. Allow the market to remain mostly non-deliberative, because it reflects other values (such as efficiency and freedom of "exit.") However, remove any arbitrary constraints that would prevent the state from regulating the market if that's what people want. They may choose market solutions, and that's fine. But we should consider democratic institutions to be plenipotentiary, and leave it up to the public to decide how to use the state.
    2. Try to make market institutions as well as the state more deliberative. Perhaps even seek to reform other institutions too, such as families, religious congregations, and nonprofits. Do not consider the state to be sovereign or plenipotentiary. Imagine, instead, that power ought to be divided into several distinct sectors (state, market, and civil society), none of which rightly rules the others. But make all these sectors as deliberative and democratic as possible.

    In my view, this is really a difficult choice, and there are numerous reasons for and against each option.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    May 21, 2003

    discipline or cooptation?

    Here is an issue that arose several times at last week's Argentine/US conference on deliberative democracy. Citizens who are given the power to deliberate and make formal decisions often learn about legal, political, and economic constraints and recognize the necessity of making changes one step at a time. They tend to drop their radical ideas and become critical of outsiders who do not understand the process that they have mastered.

    There are at least two ways to interpret this change in attitude:

    First, we could say that giving citizens real power is a form of civic education. Deliberators develop discipline and an understanding of real, unavoidable constraints. They gain the skills, knowledge, and networks needed to make tangible improvements in their communities. Civic Innovation in America, by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, is (partly) the story of some "sixties radicals" who gained civic skills and discipline by working within democratic institutions, and thereby become highly effective agents of change.

    Alternatively, we could say that incorporating citizens into a system of constrained deliberation co-opts them. The process is biased in favor of moderate, meliorist policies and cannot embrace radical proposals. Yet there are good arguments for radical change, especially in a country like Brazil, where the world's most interesting experiments in deliberative democracy take place in the context of massive inequality.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    May 14, 2003

    deliberation in Argentina

    I have just spent a very interesting two days at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy and the Fundacion Nueva Generacion Argentina on the subject of "Deliberative Democracy: Principles and Cases." Essentially, the conference brought together four groups of experts into fruitful dialogue:

    1. The Fundacion sent Argentines who are deeply embroiled in their country's convulsive political crisis.
    2. Innovative grantmakers and aid experts talked about new approaches to development assistance that help democracy (or good governance) and civil society.
    3. Practitioners who organize human-scale deliberative experiments (e.g., Carolyn Lukensmeyer of America Speaks) talked about their work. Also, Gianpaolo Baiocchi contributed ethnographic research on participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre (which is turning into the Mecca for progessive and populist reformers); and Andrew Selee described participatory and deliberative experiments in Mexico.
    4. Several American theorists and social scientists gave papers on deliberative democracy. Jane Mansbridge argued for the significance of practice for deliberative theory, drawing some theoretical conclusions about the importance of self-interest and passion. Henry Richardson talked about the corrupting effects of being powerless, and the discipline that comes from having to make practical decisions together. Noelle McAfee distinguished three types of deliberative democracy. And Joel Siegel provided evidence that democracy contributes to economic growth in developing countries.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , democratic reform overseas

    April 23, 2003

    deliberation and philosophy

    I have been thinking a little about the contrast between public deliberation and the professional discipline of philosophy. Philosophers like to make and explore novel distinctions. In part, this is because they pursue truth, and an ambiguity or equivocation is an obstacle to truth. Philosophers can do nothing about faulty or inadequate data, but they can show that A is logically different from B, even when it has hitherto been seen as the same.

    A second reason is that philosophers, like academics in general, need to say something new. Only original arguments can be published and otherwise rewarded. Since the most obvious distinctions are well known, philosophers get ahead by finding obscure ones.

    In contrast, citizen deliberators tend to gravitate toward language that is vague enough to suppress distinctions, when possible. This is because there is always some pressure to gain agreement, and distinctions drive groups apart. Citizens may care about truth, but often their top priority is to reach acceptable agreements, and to that end they may be willing to overlook vagueness. There is even an art to devising rhetorical formulas that can accommodate different positions. (Diplomats speak of "creative ambiguity.") Also, unlike philosophers, deliberating citizens don't care much about novelty or originality. Sometimes a new perspective can have a powerful effect in a public conversation, because it can break a deadlock or reinvigorate the participants. But at least as often, novelty per se is an impediment, because people don't have time to absorb a completely new idea. Besides, a novel argument may be associated too closely with its author, so others will not endorse it wholeheartedly.

    Thus it will often be easy for professional philosophers to tear apart a consensus statement issued by a large and diverse group of deliberators. But professional philosophers would not be able to run a democratic community.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation , philosophy

    April 3, 2003

    ideology and deliberation on campus

    At the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference on "Discussion, Dialogue, and Deliberation," some of us watched a video advertising a University of Michigan program that involves students in "sustained dialogues" on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It struck me that the video would drive conservatives up the wall, because of the choice of topics, the assumption that the personal is political, the psycho-therapeutic style, and the attempt to raise consciousness by unrooting hidden prejudices even among apparently enlightened students. It also struck me that there were hardly any conservatives at our conference. This is a common experience in my life. I'm a "progressive" on most issues myself; yet almost all my professional projects are defined in strictly nonpartisan, nonideological ways; yet practically everyone I meet and work with is on the left. I raised this issue at the conference, illiciting diverse and interesting responses. I won't try to characterize other people's views of this matter. For myself, I think we have three choices:

    1. We could decide that dialogue or deliberation, properly understood and worked out, isn't neutral. It's a form of politics that's inherently more attractive to the Left than to the Right. (For example, some people think that it must deal with racial and gender oppression, because these topics are at the root of most important conflicts.) Thus, although conservatives should be welcomed and respected if they choose to participate, we shouldn't expect them to join in large numbers, nor should we adjust our styles and topics to attract them. To a considerable extent, deliberation (at least on college campuses) will attract the traditional blocks of the Democratic Party: liberal whites, racial and ethnic minorities, gays. They have plenty of diagreements and plenty of hidden mutual animosity to work though, so it is worthwhile to bring them together to deliberate.

    2. We could decide that a properly deliberative approach requires the participation of underrepresented groups. In the case of this conference, there was pretty good participation by people of color, but to my knowledge there were no Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people with any current connection to the military. Just as we would act affirmatively to increase the representation of an underrepresented minority group, so we should take affirmative steps to invite the Right to participate. We should make sure we identify potentially interested conservatives and ask them to participate. We should evaluate our public statements and image to make sure that they don't appear hostile to the Right. We should include conservatives as partners from the beginning of our projects, asking them to help us frame our questions and concerns. And we should not presume to speak for them in their absence. I sense, for instance, that they would dislike the University of Michigan's dialogue program, but it is up to them to express their own views of it. I thought some of the characterizations of conservative views at the conference were stereotyped and inaccurate.

    3. We should do a bit of both. Some useful exercises (for example, dialogues on racial identity) are going to be dominated by leftish participants, and that's fine. Others will naturally attract conservatives.

    Choice #3 seems attractive because it is moderate, but I believe it is impractical. Given very limited energy and resources, the movement for deliberative democracy is going to have to choose between #1 and #2, I believe, and not imagine that we can manage a bit of both.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    April 2, 2003

    the evolution of deliberation as a field

    I made a presentation today at the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference at a beautiful rural retreat in northwestern Connecticut. This was my outline:

    Deliberation is a hot topic in philosophy, law, and political science, generating shelves of books and articles. I believe that there are three reasons for this:

    1. Until the 1960s, many scholars assumed that politics was mostly a struggle among groups with fixed interests. Often, groups' goals were assumed to be selfish, although the really important point was that they were inflexible. Therefore, discussion, argument, and reason-giving were inconsequential. This was the Marxist view, but it was also the view of "pluralists" and "realists" in political science, many of whom were quite conservative. So it a broad ideological spectrum agreed that rhetoric was politically insignificant. Politics meant the deployment of power in competitive situations.
    2. Then the power of argument, persuasion, and rhetoric was rediscovered. But rhetoric is not always a good thing; people can be persuaded to hate others against their self-interests. Conceivably, a society of rational individuals who maximized their own interests would not be racist, since racism is irrational. People are persuaded to be racists.

      If persuasion is politically significant, but often harmful, then we clearly need to figure out how to improve it. "Improved talk" is a rough definition of "deliberation."

    3. Until the 1960's, the positivist distinction between facts and values held sway in English-speaking countries. Facts were testable and debatable; values were just subjective matters of opinion. There was no debating morality.

      Then, around 1970, moral philosophy was revived, demonstrating that there can be powerful, rational arguments for moral conclusions. However, almost all contemporary political philosophers are democrats. They do not believe that philosophers can decide what is right by sitting in their studies and applying philosophical methods. This approach would be undemocratic; it would also be foolish, since good decisions require the input of many people with different backgrounds, values, and experiences.

      A belief in rational moral argument plus a belief in democratic participation yields a commitment to deliberation.

    4. "Civil society"—an old term—suddenly became hugely influential in the 1980s and 1990s, for various reasons. Definitions of "civil society" vary, but a core idea is that societies form "public opinion" in nongovernmental groups such as clubs, civic associations, newspapers, and political parties. This means that no public opinion can form at all where civil society has been suppressed or destroyed (e.g., in Iraq?). It also means that democracy depends upon having a good institutional base for civil society. Thus there has been a lot of research into what institutions support good discussions and valuable public opinion.

    These three trends have led to a lot of research on two types of deliberation:

    1. Deliberation in formal, decision-making bodies such as legislatures, official juries, and appeals courts. The research mostly asks: "Do good arguments count in these fora?" and "How could we make them count more?"
    2. Society-wide deliberations occuring in civil society and the media, e.g., America's discussion of gender-roles since the mid-1800s.

    Meanwhile, there have been many interesting experiments that involve actual citizen deliberations at modest scales outside of the government. Many of the groups that promote such experiments are now gathered into the . Their work is influenced by the intellectual trends described above, but it also continues an American tradition going back to the Chautauqua Movement, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.

    These experiments have not been much studied. We need to ask: What is the point of convening a group of citizens to discuss a public issue, if the group is not a legislature or some other decision-making body? What outcomes should we hope for from such experiments? Are they intrinsically valuable, or only valuable as part of a movement that somehow "goes to scale" or changes official institutions? What are the best ways to structure citizens' deliberations? And what makes them successful?

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    March 12, 2003

    the value of deliberating historical narrative

    In our high school class, we spent almost two hours editing the text that accompanies the first seven pictures in this slideshow on the history of school desegregation in Prince George's County. We had planned to cover much more ground, but I believe the editing exercise was extremely useful.

    First, I don't think the students usually edit what they write, so this was a valuable experience for them.

    Second, there are profound political differences implied by small changes in the way you describe events. It sounds very different to say, "African American students were required to ride buses to predominantly White schools," or "The NAACP forced the County to bus students to promote integration." Both are true; but the political implications are hugely different. Trying to write narrative text is a wonderful way to learn skills of historical interpretation.

    Third, I kept pressing the class to make sure we had evidence for our claims. They wanted to say, for example, that busing led to White protests in Prince George's County. This turned out to be true, but at first nobody could remember any evidence to support the claim. I tried to persuade the class that we have an obligation to prove to ourselves that our assertions about specific places and times are right.

    The text that is currently on the Website does not yet reflect the students' latest edits. They were eager not to focus too much on their own high school (which used to exclude Blacks as a matter of law). Our students themselves would all be excluded today, but they still don't like the negative focus on their school. They also want to avoid a simple Black/White narrative, since the communities they know are more ethnically and racially diverse. But it's hard to figure out what to say about other races in the 1950s. It appears from old yearbooks that some people who would today be called Latinos attended all-"White" schools. We have no data on Hispanics/Latinos, since the Census did not use that category until the 1970s. As for Asians, there were only 283 in the County in 1950, according to the Census, so we don't know what happened to their kids.

    I also had an interesting conference call with NACE members and participated in an "audio press conference" sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: a high school civics class , deliberation

    February 27, 2003

    civic work

    I participated in an interesting conference call with members of the . Although I'm a bit embarrassed because I haven't done any work on it, I'm listed as the co-editor of a proposed book that would describe recent experiments in real-world citizens' deliberations. The Consortium, meanwhile, is committed to holding a conference for researchers and practitioners during 2003. The purpose of today's call was to explore the possibility of using the conference to create the book—by inviting authors to present preliminary drafts of their chapters. There are potential advantages to collaboration for both the Consortium and those of us who are working on the book.

    I also met with the two students and two professors who are conducting a project on journalism, funded by the Kettering Foundation (I am Principal Investigator). Their project is to create a website with material drawn from political theory that's of practical value for working journalists. The more fundamental goal is to explore ways that political theory could be more useful to journalism, and vice versa. They have decided to focus for now on two pressing issues: the role of the press in covering a war; and arguments in favor of conscription. They are finding more good political theory relevant to the second question, but more news coverage of the first.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    January 16, 2003

    in DC

    My commute to the University of Maryland takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes each way (I live in Washington and take the Metro to work). Therefore, I like to cluster my downtown meetings on the same days, rather than shuttle back and forth between DC and Maryland. Today—the coldest day so far this winter—I had a string of meetings neatly arrayed across downtown. The first was a breakfast with my good friends from the Study Circles Resource Center. They support thousands of local "study circles" around the county—groups of citizens who meet face-to-face to discuss issues. We ate in an Irish-themed hotel restaurant near Dupont Circle and talked about ways to promote a national deliberation for young people on the topic of young Americans' role in public life. As a researcher, I am interested in what would happen if several organizations that promote deliberation in very different ways all conducted a deliberation on the same topic at the same time. For example, there are online deliberation sites like E-ThePeople; grassroots networks of citizens involved in face-to-face discussion like the National Issues Forums; groups that convene randomly selected bodies of citizens for intensive, lengthy conversations; and groups that manage very large summit meetings of citizens all convened together in a single place. I am interested in the differences among these methodologies. However, as a result of the discussion with Study Circles, I realized that the important differences are not really in methods. There probably isn't even a huge difference between online and face-to-face conversations. The important distinction is the way that these groups fit into a larger social context: how they recruit people, who participates, and what outcomes potentially result from the deliberation.

    Next stop was a meeting with United Leaders, a Massachusetts-based group that has a Washington outpost in a major law firm. So I found myself sitting in the lobby of an elegant office building, decorated with scupltures that looked like Henry Moore's. (They weren't.) The flagship program of United Leaders is a summer internship for young people, and they wanted me to help them get some support from the University of Maryland. I'm going to do my best.

    Then on to the Council for Excellence in Government, a major nonprofit, where my colleague Deborah has an office. I wanted to camp out there for a little while, get Internet access so that I could catch up with the latest developments with The Civic Mission of Schools, and talk to Deborah.

    At 3, my colleages Margaret and Carrie and I met with Dorothy Gilliam, a distinguished Washington Post reporter who now manages the Post's programs in journalism education. Our goal was to acquaint Ms. Gilliam and her colleagues with our work with high school students in Prince George's County—work that involves a lot of journalistic skills (from interviewing citizens to interpreting news articles). We were not well prepared and did not have a good answer when we were asked what we wanted from the Post. I blurted out that we were simply hungry for guidance from people who had more experience than we do in journalism education. I don't know how we came across, but I did enjoy the conversation about young people of color and their relationship to news and newspapers.

    Margaret and Carrie and I then had a quick coffee near my house to debrief, and that ended my work day.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

    January 14, 2003

    relationship mapping

    In the midst of a hectic and bleary day, I participated in a conference call for members of the steering committee. I proposed an idea that seemed to get a lot of support. Sociologists sometimes survey individuals or organizations, asking them with whom they interact most. They create a database showing all the individuals and their mutual relations. They then use "relationship-mapping" software to spit out maps that cluster all the most closely related individuals together and use lines to show how they are linked. If we did this to all the groups involved in the field of deliberative democracy, then we could see which ones work together, which ones are completely separate, and which organizations serve as bridges between clusters of groups. This is the kind of analysis that political organizers have always used; software can help to do it more easily and thoroughly.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: deliberation

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