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.

Delibartive polling experiment

Keith Sutherland’s article Chinese Democracy: ‘scientific, democratic and legal’ enthusiastically introduces James Fishkin et al.’s paper Deliberative Democracy in an Unlikely Place: Deliberative Polling in China. My own, less enthusiastic, opinion is in the comments to Keith’s article.