Another deliberative polling experiment

Roger Hickey writes in the Huffington Post about a recent deliberative polling experiment:

In Deficit “Town Meetings,” People Reject America Speaks’ Stacked Deck

On Saturday, the group known as America Speaks (funded by Wall Street mogul Peter G. Peterson and two other foundations) brought together several thousand people in meetings in 18 cities. They gave participants misleading background information about the federal deficit and economic options to achieve fiscal “balance” and future prosperity.

Peterson cannot be pleased with the participants’ mainly progressive policy choices, which will be presented on June 30 to the Deficit Commission that Peterson encouraged President Obama to create.

According to America Speaks’ own press release, when a scientifically selected group of participants picked up their electronic voting devices, they overwhelmingly supported proposals to

* Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
* Reduce military spending by 10 to 15 percent,
* Create a carbon tax and a securities-transaction tax.

This pretty progressive set of solutions emerged from the process many feared would be skewed to the solutions of conservative deficit hawks.

America Speaks was certainly not pushing the discussion in a progressive direction. The background materials — and policy options — provided to participants were anything but fair and balanced, as analysis by economist Dean Baker demonstrated.

[...]

On the face of it, this would seem like a case of democracy in action: the people were given a chance to study an issue and they spoke their minds. They did so despite attempts by the organizers to manipulate them by disseminating misleading information and by attempting to limit the set of policy options being discussed.

But in a complex system, the elites have many opportunities to exert power. Peter Hart of the media watchdog group FAIR comments:

Given the media’s general enthusiasm for Peterson’s propaganda on austerity and Social Security, it’s striking how little coverage these town halls have received. But it’s hard not to conclude that the public rejection of the media’s conventional wisdom is the explanation.

Using deliberative polling on a haphazard basis, rather than as a systematic way to form binding public policy, allows the elites to utilize the polls as a way to legitimize their choice of policy, by highlighting a finely selected subset of the poll results, and ignoring the rest.

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3 Responses

  1. Archon Fung, who is a big fan of these deliberative polls, offered the following defense of them:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/archon-fung/public-deliberation-the-l_b_627983.html

    I posted on FB the following response to the article:

    “It makes sense, but I don’t see why the following 2 claims might not be true at once: 1) the American people will come to reasonable and fair opinions about how to deal with the deficit crisis when given the chance to deliberate, and 2) the political class will selectively use the results of such deliberations to place the entire burden upon the working class and poor and not corporations and the rich.”

    I still think I’m right :)

  2. Peter, while your comment is certainly spot-on, I don’t think we should assume that the organizers cannot significantly bias the outcomes of the deliberation itself (even if in this particular case the attempt mostly failed).

    This is like attending a magic show: as long as the illusionist is running the show, inviting some members of the audience to take part in it will not make it any more real.

  3. I attended a similar America Speaks event a few years ago in California, on the issue of health care. The short list of alternative proposals being debated did not include a single payer solution – despite the fact that a large percentage of California’s population favored it. I was very bothered by this, and so were many other participants.

    However, I ended up concluding that it would be a big mistake to dismiss their whole methodology because of this. America Speaks has developed a method that makes it possible for several thousand people to deliberate meaningfully, in a way that was impossible maybe 20 years ago (I’m pretty sure that there are a number of other organizations with their own methods to do the same thing). That seems to me to be hugely important.

    I’m very enthusiastic about the democratic potential of sortition plus deliberation, but I also think it’s worth exploring how other democratic techniques (such as large scale deliberation, participatory budgeting, and the New England town meeting) could add to the mix.

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