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Some Opposition to Deliberation Day

Patricia Wilson of the University of Texas sent me an email the other day suggesting that I bring two articles that oppose Deliberation Day to the attention of people in the D&D community. As Patricia says, “it’s important for our community of practice to see how others perceive us, and to see if we can find the grains of truth in their views.”

Some of you have heard of Deliberation Day, a proposed national holiday that would take place two weeks before election day (and will, this year, be run in conjunction with MacNeil/Lehrer’s By the People project). The Day is being spearheaded by Jim Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman, who recently published a book on the subject. On Deliberation Day, registered voters would be called together in neighborhood meeting places, in small groups of 15 and larger groups of 500, to discuss the central issues raised by the campaign. Each deliberator would be paid $150 for the day’s work of citizenship…

According to Fishkin and Ackerman, “if Deliberation Day succeeded, everything else would change: the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fundraisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties. All would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public. When the election arrived, the people would speak with a better chance of knowing what they wanted and which candidates were more likely to pursue the popular mandate.”

This may ring true for many of us, but not everyone agrees. At http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/January-February-2004/feature_ackerman_janfeb04.html, you can read an overview by Fishkin and Ackerman for Legal Affairs magazine. From links at the top of that page, you can also access articles by Richard Posner and Arthur Lupia. I’m sure some of you are already very familiar with these articles.

Below are short quotes from each of these opposition articles.

Lupia:
“The Achilles’ heel of Deliberation Day, like so many philosophical proposals to make deliberation a remedy for perceived civic incompetence, is the fact that it is based on idealized versions of human nature rather than on basic scientific facts about how people think about politics and what, if anything, they learn from interactions with others…. THE KEY TO INCREASING COMPETENCE is not putting people in a place where they and others get to state their opinions; it is putting them in situations where they are motivated to pay attention to information that will help them make competent choices. If deliberation advocates focused on the latter as well as the former, they would find that science provides mixed messages about the relationship between deliberation and competence. Many studies reveal that some group interactions actually decrease competence; one example is the organizational malady known as “groupthink.” Other deliberative interaction, as the Harvard political science professor Jane Mansbridge points out, “accentuates rather than redressing the disadvantage of those with the least power in society.”

Posner:
I will be called cynical for doubting the value of political debate among ordinary citizens, for casting them in the role of passive onlookers of a struggle among ambitious politicians, and for questioning the possibility of meaningful reform of policy. I am merely being realistic. Reform does not well out of deliberation, but reflects passions and interests. Abolitionism, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the rise of free-market ideology, welfare reform, and the gay-rights movement were not the product of discussion among voters debating on the model of the academic seminar (the implicit model, naturally, of academic reflection on the political process by the proponents of deliberative democracy, academics all). They were the product of moral and political entrepreneurs tapping into wells of discontent among minorities and eventually getting the attention of the politicians.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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