This morning, I was on “Radio Times” with Marty Moss-Coane. That’s a call-in program of WHYY-FM in Pennsylania. The MP3 file is here, for those who like to listen online or download podcasts.
My fellow guest was Martin Carcasson from Colorado State, a great proponent and practitioner of deliberative democracy at the grassroots level. I think we agreed that the protesters are exercising free speech, expressing views that belong in the political debate, and should be treated respectfully as citizens (not as robots operated remotely by special interests). On the other hand, a format for discussion that encourages angry individual speeches is pretty alienating for most citizens and is a poor source of information or enlightenment. We could do better–although both Martin and I noted that the political and media environment work against deliberative politics; and even good forums might be vulnerable to hostile takeovers.
One great model is Oregon Health Decisions, an elaborate series of public discussions that created the Oregon Health Plan. Citizens were able to make difficult tradeoffs–for example, between preventive and palliative care–and produce a durable policy. The question is whether that would be possible under the harsh and competitive conditions of national politics today.
After the show, we got a long email response from a listener who wanted to document (with 17 links to stories on TPM and Huffington Post, among other sources), that “these disruptive and anti-democratic tactics were designed and spread by right wing organizations and vested industry and Republican interests.” I think some angry speakers have been mobilized by interest groups. (By the way, mobilization is a legitimate democratic technique, as is the technique of arguing that one’s opponents have been manipulated.) At the same time, I believe that deep and broad skepticism about government is another major cause of these protests. It isn’t all manufactured, even if some of it is. We progressives ignore that skepticism at our peril.