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:

    Best: government by disinterested, trustworthy elites. Second-best: direct democracy (referenda, etc.) to keep the actual corrupt elites in check. Worst: Participatory democracy that requires a lot of talk and work by citizens.

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:

  • Hibbing and Theiss-Morse: “Elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems. [86% agree]
  • Neblo et al: “It is important for elected officials to discuss and debate things thoroughly before making major policy changes.” [92% agree]
  • Hibbing and Theiss Morse: “What people call “compromise” in politics is really just selling out one’s principles.” [64% agree]
  • Neblo et al. “One of the main reasons that elected officials have to debate issues is that they are responsible to represent the interests of diverse constituencies across the country.” [84% agree]
  • Hibbing and Theiss-Morse: “Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.” [31% agree, which Hibbing and Theiss-Morse consider high.]
  • Neblo et al: “It is important for the people and their elected representatives to have the final say in running government, rather than leaving it up to unelected experts.” [92% agree]

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:

    “It was great to have a member of Congress want to really hear the voices of the constituents.” / “I believe we are experiencing the one way our elected representatives can hear our voice and do what we want.” / “I thought he really tried to address the issues we were bringing up instead of steering the conversation in any particular direction, which was cool.” / “I realized that there are A LOT more sides to this issue than I had originally thought.”

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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