Deliberation Day

— A year or so ago, I took a great course on democracy with my advisor Chris Morris. Toward the end of the term we went through some works on “deliberative democracy.” The deliberative camp colors themselves as adversaries of social choice theorists who emphasize the rationality of voter ignorance, the impossibility of constructing an unambiguous “will of the people” through voting mechanisms (different voting mechanisms give different results and none is the “right” result), and the manipulability of the democratic process by special interests. The deliberative democrats hold onto a strongly procedural conception of the legitimacy of government, democracy being the legitimating procedure. Against the social choice theorists, they argue that democracy is not simply a matter of adding up people’s raw preferences and weighing them against each other. Rather, the ideal of democracy is one in which communities of citizens engage each other in conversations that shape their preferences. The expression of deliberatively shaped preferences through the democratic processes is what is supposed to give democratically chosen institutions a special sort of authority over us. Trouble is, just as social choice theorists would predict, we squander so much time working, shopping, and filching music from the internet that we leave little for mutually tailoring our policy preferences through painfully earnest civic deliberation. Solution? Deliberation Day!

Deliberation Day is the brainchild of professors Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. “Deliberation Day will, of course, be expensive,” they tell us. So what can we expect to get out of it? (Will there be presents?)

Well, Ackerman and Fishkin think voter ignorance is a huge problem, and it is, sort of. And they think paying folks $150 to spend two days in a middle school gym to talk it out with the neighbors will have a transformative effect on American politics. Our Deliberation Day gift is an informed electorate, and more enlightened and just policy. I’m doubtful. I think I want what we’ll likely get about as much as I want some shitloaf fruitcake.

They cite experiments of Fishkin’s in “deliberative polling” that show that people change their policy preferences after these little forums.

The research that has come out of deliberative polls suggests not only that participants change their political attitudes but that these changes are driven by better information. It suggests not only that these changed attitudes generate different voting intentions but that these preferences become more public-spirited and collectively consistent. These changes occur throughout the population and aren’t limited to the more educated. Finally, deliberation is intrinsically satisfying once people are given a serious chance to engage with one another in an appropriate setting.

OK. I’m setting aside the imporant matter of how much these changes matter, given the overall structure of the system. So, that aside, is there any reason to expect an actual Deliberation Day to look like Fishkin’s experiments? I can’t think of any. The fact that his test polls are not actually a part of the institutionalized political process undoubtedly lends these mock proceedings with an unrealistically civil and pleasant tenor. Why not be nice? Nothing’s at stake. However, instead of realizing the dream of ideal deliberation among inquiring citizens, a real, institutionalized Deliberation Day would quickly degenerate into a shrill cacophony of ideological strife.

Here’s how they set the thing up:

In preparation for the event, the participants receive briefing materials to lay the groundwork for the discussion. These materials are typically supervised for balance and accuracy by an advisory board of relevant experts and stakeholders. On arrival, the participants are randomly assigned to small groups with trained moderators. When they meet, they not only discuss the general issue but try to identify key questions that merit further exploration.

It is simply incoceivable that this process would not become a quickly politicized Pelennor Fields of ideology. Fundamentalist conservatives, leftist activists, and party operatives will battle to the death over control of the preparation of “briefing materials,” over the constitution of the “advisory board of relevant experts and stakeholders,” and over the training of “moderators.” The Day itself will become one of mobilizing ideological interest groups to dominate the local forum, and discussion itself will devolve into heated argument between activists will incomensurable conceptions of the world. I can imagine few for whom this would be worth two days and $150. And as the Day becomes overrun by people with already deeply entrenched preferences hoping to propagandize or otherwise “raise the consciousness” of the masses, the people most likely to change their minds on the basis of informed conversation will stay away.

Judge Posner, in his concise, spot-on critique spies what he thinks is the underlying motivation of Deliberation Day:

I think that what motivates many deliberative democrats is not a love of democracy or a faith in the people, but a desire to change specific political outcomes, which they believe they could do through argument, if only anyone could be persuaded to listen, because they are masters of argumentation. I infer this secret agenda from the fact that most proponents of deliberative democracy advocate aggressive judicial review, which removes many issues from democratic control; are coy about indicating what policies they dislike but would accept; and are uncommonly fond of subjecting U.S. citizens to control by international organizations of questionable, and often of no, democratic pedigree. I sense a power grab by the articulate class whose comparative advantage is—deliberation.

I think there’s more than a little something to this. And this is precisely why Deliberation Day, if it should be realized, will simply become one more battleground of ideology and special interest. It is hard to believe that deliberative democrats are interested in the expression of deliberative preferences per se, rather than the expression of their deliberative preferences. Else, why is it that deliberative democrats are almost uniformly soft-socialist welfare state liberals? Where are the conservative and libertarian deliberativists?

While I don’t think it’s all in bad faith, I think Fishkin and Ackerman at least hope that their people can control the process–control the briefing materials, the advisory boards, the moderators, etc.–and thereby induce preferences and votes that align with their own. I conjecture that they’re frustrated at the left’s failure to produce a more Swedish America, not to mention the failure of the people to demand it (it’s for them, don’t they see?), and so why not give this a try? At some level, I think they really must think that if people only understood, we’d all think more like Fishkin and Ackerman. But at another level, I think Posner must be right.

This really isn’t about a just procedure that confers legitimacy on whatever outcomes it produces. There is little reason to believe that a real Deliberation Day will nudge people toward more informed and reasoned preferences. It’s hard not to see talk of deliberative democratic procedure as rhetorical veneer over ideological realpolitik. If social conservatives effectively co-opted Deliberation Day and “deliberated” their way to huge majorities in favor of the abolition of abortion, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, or the privatization of social security, I don’t think the Ackermans and Fishkins of the world would rest content knowing that the deliberative will of the people, and thus justice, was done.

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]