Thursday 25 February 2010

‘Democracy’ without politics

When The People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation, James S Fishkin (Oxford University Press)

The upcoming general election will see the political class fighting for the attention of voters who appear to have given up on politics all together. It almost seems like a waste of time having an election in the first place. After all, when you ask the public to give their opinion, it always comes out wrong. James Fishkin’s new book proceeds from the premise that the public, like children, say a lot of stupid things that we don’t really think. Luckily, Fishkin has the system to smarten us up.

Fishkin identifies four problems with mass opinion. Firstly, it is difficult to motivate citizens in society to become informed about an issue to the point that their view becomes valuable. In a system where every vote certainly does not count, it becomes rational to remain ignorant, rather than waste your time forming opinions about issues which will never have any impact. Secondly, where respondents do not know about an issue they are more likely to pick an answer at random, and distort the final results of the poll, than admit to their ignorance. Thirdly any genuine opinions that emerge tend to be as a result of closed political discussions with a close group of friends or family who usually share the same views. People rarely put their relationships at risk by discussing politics with people they may disagree with and consequently, are rarely put in a position where their own orthodoxies can be challenged. All of this leads to mass opinion, which is highly vulnerable to manipulation through sound bites, emotive headlines and expensive advertising campaigns.

Fishkin imagines that in order to remedy these ‘problems’ with public opinion, people should be incentivised to come together on a given day to discuss a political question and be given proper time to think about their opinion. The aim of the discussion is for the public to achieve ‘high quality deliberation’ in ‘good conditions for thinking about public issues’. You may say ‘so far so good’, but it is these ‘conditions’ that expose Fishkin’s subtle prejudices about the electorate and raise questions as to how ‘deliberative democracy’ changes the relationship between representative and represented.

Fishkin’s perfect debate is one in which each side nominates an expert to argue their corner and prepare briefing materials for the participants to be taken through. It is important that no-one presenting in the discussion ‘dominates’ or ‘polarises’ as these will ‘distort’ the view of public opinion that emerges at the end of the debate. Through providing information, insuring that a diversity of opinions are represented and by weighing the arguments on their merits the participants emerge with opinions that they are motivated to act upon, which may have unseated some of their lazier orthodoxies and as ac consequence will be less susceptible to manipulation by weak arguments. The participants’ views are registered at the end of the day as an accurate reflection of the public’s thoughts on an issue. Ideally this should then be acted upon to make the deliberators feels as though ‘their voice matters’. The democratic process is complete.

The first point to recognise about deliberative democracy is that it is driven by prejudices about the electorate. By arguing that meaningful political discussion and debate can only take place if each drop of information is fed to the participants by expert, Fishkin implies that we are unable to properly consider political argument in the real world. In reality, political debate takes place in all kinds of environments where the discussions are frequently dominated, polarised, misinformed and bigoted. Over time, though, the ideas that succeed are those that prove persuasive in spite of the ‘distorted’ environment they are discussed in. No doubt bad ideas can hold sway for a time, but it is only by defeating these in the cut and thrust of debate, however polarised, that better ideas ultimately convince people. The aspects of political debate that Fishkin identifies as ‘distortions’ are in fact essential to real world debate.

The second point about deliberative democracy is that it provides an easy route for the political class to obtain legitimisation from the public, without actually winning any arguments themselves. Historically, political parties have had to convince the public that their vision of society is the correct one in order to be elected or re-elected, with legitimacy coming after this battle of persuasion and leadership had been won. With deliberative democracy, the process is inverted, in that the political class seeks legitimacy from the public prior to arguing any ideas of their own. This not only demonstrates a profound delegation of authority from the political class to the experts who are charged with extracting these anaemic opinions from the public, but also represents a deeply cynical rejection of democratic principles.

Fishkin is not apologetic about these aspects of deliberative democracy; in fact he celebrates them. He tells an anecdote about a deliberative poll in China that sought to obtain a scientific sample of public opinion about where and how investment in infrastructure should be distributed. He begins:

‘The…case highlights the issue of how deliberations by the people might be connected, institutionally to deliberations by actual decision makers…formal authority is not necessary to have an input…both formal authority and advisory connections to decision makers are worth experimenting with to make the thoughtful and representative voice of the public consequential’

He then quotes Mr Jiang (the minister who commissioned the poll) explaining how he had gained legitimacy through this process, ‘I gave up power and found that I got more’. This is surely a degraded idea of ‘democracy’. Fishkin seems more interested in extracting approval from the public in order to legitimise the power of the elites, than in giving the public a role in political change. Democracy should mean that power is challenged and limited in response to political decisions, not confirmed in advance of them. The remarks of the Chinese minister illustrate how deliberative democracy relegates the public in the democratic process to an advisory role to the ‘real decision makers’; this widens the gap between the political class and the electorate rather than bridging it.

At a time when political culture has reached its lowest ebb, it is tempting for politicians to try and tease ‘opinions’ from an uninterested public through managed and inclusive exercises such as deliberative polling. But it is not a replacement for politics. Fishkin’s theory of ‘deliberative democracy’ is imbued with prejudices about our own ability to deal with tough political arguments, and also has the potential to alter the role of the electorate into one of a political consultancy. Whether or not this election is fought on the basis of any ideological conflict remains to be seen; we should be wary about accepting the scientifically sterile debates which constitute deliberative democracy as a substitute.


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