Reason Writers Around Town: Cavanaugh on Deliberative Polling at Zócalo


In-depth discussion of the important issues has one voter ready to nod off.

With its robust public referendum process and dysfunctional political class, California inspires more than the average amount of complaining about how the clueless masses are to blame for the failures of government. In an attempt to cure California voters of their supposed ignorance, academics and activists are putting together a "deliberative polling" campaign that will hit the Los Angeles County town of Torrance this weekend. 

Deliberative polling is a combination poll, focus group, expert panel and symposium designed to promote "Athenian democracy." The idea is that you poll people while also letting them speak with experts and get better educated about issues that officials claim are important. At the end of the two-day process, we're told, we'll have a better idea how people would think if they were properly educated or re-educated. The Torrance event will bring together 300 randomly selected voters, along with experts from a range of think tanks. 

The good folks at Zócalo asked for my views on this process, which you can find here, sandwiched between two pieces by proponents of the process. While I don't feel especially strongly about deliberative polling, I do think it's a pretty good example of the misguided notion that public officials know better than the people who pay their salaries what the important issues are and what constitutes a proper understanding of those issues. Excerpt:  

By combining polling with top-down instruction from a panel of "experts," deliberative pollsters hope to determine how voting would change if voters' opinions could be forced into compliance with establishmentarian thinking – sorry, I meant to say, "if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues," as Stanford's Center for Deliberative Democracy puts it…

Voters don't need more be-ins with panels of self-interested experts. They see their taxes going up. They see the ever-expanding number of "For Lease" signs in their neighborhoods. They see the state economy falling apart under the misrule of the very same good-government types who organize events like this. And they are either resigning themselves to the collapse of a state government that plays no positive role in their lives, or (in increasing numbers) fleeing the state for places like Texas where the government does not prey upon them quite so eagerly.

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