efficiency versus “receptivity” in politics

I’m just back from a meeting on how to mobilize young people to vote. Techniques for that purpose are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the 1990s, you might just mail people flyers reminding them to register. Then organizations began to test various messages with focus groups before they printed their flyers. Now they do true experiments, randomly selecting some addresses to receive one flyer instead of another and keeping track of the response rates. (The most effective messages often perform worst in focus groups.) This is just an example of growing efficiency in public-interest or nonpartisan politics. The end–maximizing the number of voters between the age of 18 and 25–is generally taken for granted.

I should emphasize that my organization, CIRCLE, has funded and organized such experiments and collected the results in a user-friendly document (pdf).

Meanwhile, back in my hotel room, I was reading Romand Coles’ article entitled “Moving Democracy: Industrial Areas Foundation Social Movements and the Political Arts of Listening, Traveling, and Tabling” (Political Theory, 2004). Coles argues that democracy means more than participating and expressing opinions (e.g., by voting). He emphasizes listening or “receptivity.” Listening is a source of power–you can strengthen your networks by being attentive to others. But it is also an ethical stance; it opens the possibility that you might need to change your ends, your interests, and even your identity. Coles goes on to argue that literally listening is not enough. You have to move your body to other people’s environments. “It is very easy, when the other [person] is speaking from a place–or places–you have never inhabited nor experienced them inhabiting, to shed inadvertently all too many of their words, expressions, and gestures, or to fail to absorb their depth, register their weight, and taste them, or to dismiss them altogether.” By “tabling,” Coles refers to the practice of literally moving the discussion table around from venue to venue within a community.

Sitting at the table at Wingsread, looking at data on dollar spent per vote cast, I was constantly struck by the contrast.