Deliberation vs. participation in blogs

by Henry Farrell on March 3, 2008

Bloggingheads have posted a dialogue I did some days ago with Cass Sunstein (I’ve embedded it below; if it doesn’t work for you, go “here”: instead). As “John Q.”: noted a few weeks ago, Cass is pretty skeptical about the virtues of Internet communication; he believes that it is quite likely to lead to political polarization and perhaps extremism, and not to the kinds of thoughtful, deliberative exchanges between left and right that he’d like to see. I suspect that he’s largely right on the empirics – but as I argue in the bloggingheads, there’s a strong case to be made that deliberation isn’t the only aspect of politics we should treasure. We should also be interested in increasing political participation. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that the two may be partly antithetical to each other – exactly the kinds of cross cutting exchanges between people of different political viewpoints that Cass wants to promote may decrease people’s willingness to participate in politics.

Here, I’m riffing off the work of Diana Mutz (her most relevant article is available as a PDF “here”: ; a somewhat more user-friendly version of her claims can be found in her book, _Hearing the Other Side_, available from “Powells”:, or “Amazon”: Mutz looks at individuals’ personal networks, and the extent to which they have political discussions who share their political perspective, and people who have different ones. Much of her evidence supports Sunstein’s claims – that is, she finds that there is a strong relationship between people’s direct exposure to other viewpoints, and their willingness to acknowledge that other ways of looking at things may have a genuine rationale. She also finds (as Sunstein claims) that one of the most important way in which people get exposed to differing points of view is via mass media – people’s intimate personal networks involve far less exposure to alternative points of view than you might expect.

Where she differs from Sunstein is that she points out that this cross-exposure _may make people less likely to participate in politics._ Her evidence suggests a quite substantial negative correlation between exposure to cross-cutting views and willingness to participate – furthermore, there’s some reason to believe that the arrow of causation points from the networks to participation rather than vice versa. This suggests, as she argues, a real trade-off – more participation is likely to go together with less deliberation among people of different points of view, and vice versa.

It’s still an open question as to whether these effects apply to online networks as well as offline ones (my initial strong suspicion is that they do; I hope, together with my GWU colleagues Eric Lawrence and John Sides to have some empirical work to present on this Real Soon). If so, this would offer a different argument against Sunstein’s claims – which is that a more deliberative blogosphere is likely to have less impact on political participation than a less deliberative one.

You could take this, if you want, as a “best lack all conviction while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity” kind of result, but I think from a pragmatic point of view, that’s precisely the wrong way to go about it. You take the citizens that you’re given, not the citizens that exist in some idealized democratic heaven. There are going to be circumstances under which you might want to encourage more deliberation, and circumstances under which you might prefer a greater degree of political participation. My purely personal take on it is that given the political circumstances of the last several years, it’s no harm at all that the left blogosphere has had significant consequences for the forging of a more self-consciously left-of center political _movement._ Even if this has clearly had some costs for deliberation, I think that it’s been worth it. I’ve linked “before”: to this “piece”: from dKospedia which suggests that some netroots types at least are aware of the trade-offs.

the line between disagreement and trolling often isn’t an easy one to define. … This site is primarily a Democratic site, with a heavy emphasis on progressive politics. It is not intended for Republicans, or conservatives. … This is not a site to debate conservative talking points. There are other sites for that. This is not a site for conservatives and progressives to meet and discuss their differences. There are other sites for that, too. … Conservative debaters are not welcome simply because the efforts here are to define and build a progressive infrastructure, and conservatives can’t help with that. There is, yes, the danger of the echo chamber, but a bigger danger is becoming simply a corner bar where everything is debated, nothing is decided, and the argument is considered the goal. The argument, however, is not the goal, here. This is an explicitly partisan site: the goal is an actual infrastructure, and actual results.

If Mutz’s findings extend to the Internet too, then this is a quite plausible account of the trade-offs that movement builders face. NB that this doesn’t at all _undermine_ the findings of pro-deliberation people like Sunstein – but it does suggest that people who value other goals, such as increased participation, may reasonably choose structures of debate that don’t maximize deliberative opportunities with the other side, but instead place a premium on movement building activities.

(Cross-posted to “The Monkey Cage”: )

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Bruce Baugh 03.03.08 at 5:25 pm

I’d be more worried about deliberation being a casualty of activity if I thought there actually was or is a lot of meaningful online deliberation to lose. But the history of net debate as I’ve experienced it this decade is mostly the history of conservatives posturing or just ranting and moderates, liberals, and others offering increasingly broad concessions that get slapped down until the whole thing collapses. The relative handful of conservative individuals who actually do wish to discuss anything at all honestly end up pushed out of their own community, while those willing to spin and lie get the accolades. As in other venues, the conservative movement’s worked hard to destroy actual dialogue in Internet exchanges.

I can imagine productive deliberation, easily enough. Occasionally I find it. Far more often I find conservative sabotage defending itself with justifications appropriate to deliberation. I prefer action to that.


Bruce Baugh 03.03.08 at 5:58 pm

To expand and/or clarify a bit: One of the hallmarks of the modern conservative movement is the corruption of forms. They take functional government agencies and make them into vessels for graft, cronyism, and nothing else; they take diplomacy and make it a prop for warmaking and extortion; they take the courts and make them channels for naked self-interest. And they take formal and informal frameworks for conversation and make them weapons of confrontation – they use politeness as cover for abuse, fairness as an opportunity to lie without challenge, on and on. “Deliberation” seems to me just one more bit of camouflage over their general hostility to actual ideas and values broader than “what we want, when we want it”. It’s handy because many other people actually do believe in these things, but the essence of movement conservatism has no use for exchange and never did, and it’s still got plenty of lackeys out in netland.


Matt 03.03.08 at 6:24 pm

It seems to me that we might distinguish whether blogs (or whatever) promote “reasoned deliberation” on the blog itself (i.e.- in the comments) and whether they promote a larger amount of “reasoned deliberation” in general. I’m fairly skeptical about the first, in part because it’s so easy for blog comments, even on the better blogs for comments, to degenerate into garbage. Comments can be useful but it’s often the exception, I think. But, the type of information made avaliable via blogs and the like can, I think, promote more deliberation. For example, I found out about Eugene Volokh’s work on free speech and “hostile workplace” claims via his blogging on the subject and then was able to make use of some of his writings on the topic in a class I taught dealing (in part) with free speech. Having this material avaliable certainly helped to promote something that can plausibly be called “resoned deliberation”, but I would not have found out about it without his blog. Given this, it seems that even if we think blog comments are often a bad place to engage in serious deliberation that blogs (and similar things) might still help promote greater deliberation over all.


bicyclewarriorwith314 03.03.08 at 6:31 pm

I’m a less worried about people voluntarily isolating themselves in Fox News bubbles than I am about a “mainstream” completely shutting out certain viewpoints. Sunstein doesn’t even seem to address the second possibility, which inclines me to dismiss his arguments altogether. The whole point of not being in bubbles is to weigh and consider foreign viewpoints. But if the “broader” conversation has gatekeepers that block out viewpoints it considers too extreme, that defeats the purpose.

Another interesting thing I noticed, his repetition of certain terms like “red state”, “blue state”, “right”, and “left” sounds very stilted to me, as if he’s not quite engaged with the whole conversation.

Since you must be able to sway other people to your point of view to have any success in politics, there is already an incentive to try and reach out to people who don’t see things your way. Thus, “polarization” of the type Sunstein fears may not permanently lock people in bubbles, so much as ensure that there is no predetermined “center” position. That could mean weighing ideas more on their merits rather than a contrived evaluation of them as “conservative” vs “moderate” vs “far-left”…


Ben Alpers 03.03.08 at 6:38 pm

Is there any evidence that polarization (necessarily or in fact) leads to extremism? This is part of (Sunstein’s) argument that you mention in passing but that doesn’t come up in your discussion of Mutz.


bicyclewarriorwith314 03.03.08 at 6:43 pm

Or to put my point in a slightly different way, fragmentation might mean there is less deliberation in some sense, but the quality and significance of the deliberation is greater, because the positions people bring to the discussion are more well thought-out–that is, they are more well-researched and a better reflection of people’s goals and interests.


Bruce Baugh 03.03.08 at 6:46 pm

That’s a good question, Ben. In one of his best moments, Kevin Drum had a good piece a while back on the differences between polarization and extremism. He rightly noted that while the liberal blogosphere has gotten much more overtly partisan in response to Bush, it hasn’t radicalized at all. Folks like Kevin, and Kos, and a bunch of others aren’t out saying “yeah, 90% top tax bracket would be good, and 100% better, and let’s bring back the Fairness Doctrine with teeth in its enforcement, and make all regulatory fines a percentage of gross receipts, and nationalize the oil companies”, and like that. They’re being vigorous about very center and center-left positions.


norbizness 03.03.08 at 7:43 pm

Michael Jeter lives! It’s a miracle!


John Emerson 03.03.08 at 8:14 pm

I keep saying this, but the people who keep talking about dialogue between Left and Right are always people who reject dialogue between the Center and the Left, and what they want to do is rebrand the center-left as Left in order to freeze out the actual Left. Political history since 1980 has favored their project, but it would be nice for them to admit that that’s what they’re doing.

The American Right now consists of religious Armageddonists waiting for the sevenheaded monster to rise from the sea; secular Armageddonists hoping for a decades-long war against whomever; freemarket anarchists who want to drown the government in the bathtub; and nativists and racists, less sane and temperate as these others, who are unhappy at the moment.*

These are the people Sunstein wants to dialogue with. Someone should intervene — the poor guy seems to have lost it.

The thoughtful conservatives Sunstein dreams of are either chimeras or extinct species. McCain is a hard core rightwinger, and he counts as moderate because he was never a zombie slave of Karl Rove. The few actual moderate Republicans in the Senate (Specter, Snow, Collins, G Smith, and Coleman) vote mostly with Bush. They’re tolerated because they come from sane states which would not elect a true Republican, but even so they spend most of their time cowering in their burrows begging not to be whipped.

*No, I’m not exaggerating. Look at the things Ginrich, DeLay, Norquist, Hagee, Robertson, Dobson, Perle, Bolton, Cheney, and dozens of others are saying. These are the ward Churchills of the Republican party, except that a.) they’re very powerful figures, and b.) they’re all really Republicans, the way Churchill is not a Democrat.

I realize that this is off topic trolling, but Sunstein is an idiot and his premise is ludicrous and harmful. Ypu can’t say that often enough.

Hi, Cass, you moron! These people let you be an imbecile because you’re a colleague, but I’m not a colleague! Quit being silly!


laura 03.03.08 at 8:17 pm

I haven’t quite finished with the BH clip, yet, but I can’t resist a quick comment.

I’m worried about making assumptions about online behavior based on offline behavior, because bloggers and blog commenters are a very usual group of people. They are much, much more likely to be highly educated and to be high participators, even before they start blogging. The internet isn’t the ordinary main street that Cass talks about. Maybe it’s a main street in a university town, but it’s not Main Street, USA.

A couple of years ago, Toni and I actually asked bloggers a series of questions about political participation. What they did before blogging and after blogging. Overall, we found no difference in their participation levels. In some areas, participation actually dipped. I can’t remember off hand, but I think we found no differences across ideology. All bloggers were very high participators before they even started blogging.

We never sent the article out for publication, because we got distracted with our solo projects and teaching responsibilities. Maybe we should look at it again.


John Emerson 03.03.08 at 8:20 pm

“…nativists and racists, who are less sane and temperate than these others, and who are also very unhappy at the moment”.*


Dan Goodman 03.03.08 at 8:24 pm

I wonder if this has been taken into account: Political blogs often urge their readers to look at opposing views. “Here’s what those liberal/conservative/grapochian bastards are saying!”


Brett Bellmore 03.03.08 at 11:14 pm

“freemarket anarchists who want to drown the government in the bathtub;”

I think at this point we’d be delighted if it would go on enough of a diet to fit into the bathroom, and take a good long shower.


John Emerson 03.03.08 at 11:30 pm

Brett, Norquist is crazier than you, and people listen to him.


christian h. 03.03.08 at 11:45 pm

By the way, what’s wrong with extremism? As importantly, what is extremism? It seems to me that the term is employed to denote any political position outside the very narrow spectrum that is ever even mentioned, let alone debated, in mainstream public discourse. At this point in time, that means any viewpoint to the left of, say, Krugman, is designated extreme.

To that I say: bring on the extremism. We need more of it!


Steven Poole 03.04.08 at 12:02 am

I suspect that he’s largely right on the empirics

Has Sunnstein actually done any empirics worth speaking of on what happens in blogland, or has he just quickly decided to take a handful of the most heavily trafficked partisan blogs as representative of the whole phenomenon? I found little empirical argument, and a lot of mere hand-waving, in his new chapter about blogging in Republic 2.0, for example.


bicyclewarriorwith314 03.04.08 at 3:10 am

Something else… the fact that he has titled his book “ 2.0” reminds me of when older adults try to imitate teen slang and come across sounding stilted and awkward. To wit, version numbers like “2.0” are for software, not websites, right? “ 2.0” sounds contrived and forced to me.


Josh Jones 03.04.08 at 4:37 am

As a blogger, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in trying to calculate how many people read my blog and how many people I am “influencing.”

Like I imagine most bloggers (maybe not all, but most), I started blogging to have a conversation. I had all these ideas in my head and I wanted feedback on how they would “live” in the real-world.

The person I am trying to influence? Me. I want to be able to get feedback on my ideas. Why do I want feedback? Because I have ideas. Tautological? Yes. Why do people climb mountains? Because they’re there.

Anyway. The deliberation vs. participation is a good discussion, and I’m pretty sure that I will deliberate as well as participate.


Righteous Bubba 03.04.08 at 6:02 am

To wit, version numbers like “2.0” are for software, not websites, right?

Only lions are leonine?


Orin Kerr 03.04.08 at 6:54 am

Interesting exchange, Henry (and Cass). Thanks for posting it.


bicyclewarriorwith314 03.04.08 at 7:38 am

18: I mean, there’s nothing logically wrong with that title, just my impression that it sounded very stilted and poseur-ish. As a friend put it, ‘a shade below 2000’. Also, it sounded a bit awkward and disengaged, not unlike the way he referred to the “red state” and “blue state” factions in the interview. When somebody is theorizing how factions work in a political process, and the words they come up with to describe those factions are vague media cliches, that to me is a tell-tale sign of sloppy thinking.

Anyway, this is just my impression, not a factual dispute. It could be important, or not, depending on the rest of the picture. But at least one other person has pointed out “mere hand-waving”. So I get the sense that this book may not be serious, engaged scholarship so much as an effort to defend a cherished status quo from a threatening new phenomenon that can’t just be written off as a fad. More an effort to draw fellow-travelers back to canonical venues of discussion than an attempt to seriously engage with people who have already begun to carry their conversation beyond those venues.


Martin Wisse 03.04.08 at 8:30 am

There was a vogue for “2.0” titles a few years back, but that was a few years back. It’s a symptom of how much of an ignorant fucker Cass Sunstein is.

We’ve had the whole discussion about how blogs encourage extremism and how dialogue between left and right needs to be protected, ad nauseum, five frigging years ago. that this fossil thinks it makes sense in 200-bloody-8 to drag it up again does not mean we should indulge him.


Barry 03.04.08 at 1:23 pm

“Brett, Norquist is crazier than you, and people listen to him.”

Posted by John Emerson

Firghtening. And worse, Norquist is probably even slimier and more dishonest.


Henry 03.04.08 at 4:32 pm

Steven – there is a bit more in his piece on blogs in the Jan 2008 issue of _Public Choice._ I am in the throes together with GWU colleagues of writing a piece that looks at some new data on these issues – hope to have more to say about this soon.


Steven Poole 03.04.08 at 5:49 pm

Thanks for the reference, Henry. It still seems awfully hand-wavy to me, with vague uses of “some”, “many”, and so forth, repetition of the “In other words” nonsense sentence, citations of a few small-scale studies, and the very odd conclusion:

In this way, real deliberation is often occurring across established points of view, but only infrequently. [p94, emphases added]

Well, er, is it often or infrequently? And what value of infrequently should make us dreadfully worried?

The larger problem, it seems to me, is that Sunstein is still writing (as in 2.0) from an apparent assumption that the great unwashed blogging/blog-reading masses are stupid and incurious, which prejudice is reflected in the strange form of the questions he asks, eg: “Do blogs allow people to check information and correct errors?” To which the correct answer is: what is this “allow”? Blogs do not stop anyone doing that, and it is in fact exactly what some blogs do.

If blogs really were the ineluctably polarizing force he guesses they are, what should we expect to find right about now, having had blogs for many years? Nothing, I suppose, but neo-Nazis on one side and anarcho-communists on the other.


John Quiggin 03.04.08 at 8:40 pm

To repeat myself and previous commentators, Sunstein is generalizing from a single case,that of the US Republican party and its network of thinktanks, news outlets, blogs and so on. Ever since Nixon, the Republicans have devoted themselves to the promotion of a deep partisan split in the US (“cut the country in half and take the bigger half” as, from memory, Pat Buchanan put it). This trend is independent of any particular medium, though obviously it worked well when the media were playing by the kinds of rules Sunstein recommends, in which Republican viewpoints are regarded as being automatically legitimate, regardless of whether they are factually false, morally repugnant etc.


clarencegirl 03.05.08 at 3:54 am

Deliberation vs participation? No idea. Enjoying the arguments that are being put forward though.
We entered the blogosphere last year simply to have an indentifiably Northern NSW regional voice out there, as locally we were drowning not waving in a sea of urban political opinion.
Compounded by the fact that the local print media has always been unwilling to undertake any critical evaluation or discussion of issues for fear of scaring the major advertisers.
We’re barely computer literate but we know our patch.
Guess you could say that we are ‘participating’.


bicyclewarriorwith314 03.05.08 at 6:48 am

That goes back to the issue of gatekeepers which I think is a lot of the motivation behind this:

This trend is independent of any particular medium, though obviously it worked well when the media were playing by the kinds of rules Sunstein recommends, in which Republican viewpoints are regarded as being automatically legitimate

When the “far-left” is shut out of the media, high-profile centrist or center-left figures (I think that would include Sunstein?) become gatekeepers to the ideas of the far left. I wouldn’t want to lose that status if I were him. Also, there seems to be a tradition of U of Chicago professors playing the public intellectual game saying things just to be controversial. See Leon Kass.


dsquared 03.05.08 at 7:40 am

I think John Emerson makes the right point; as far as I can see, Cass Sunstein is trying to promote dialogue and openness on a scale which runs the gamut from liberal Republicans to Republican liberals. I really, really, don’t see any evidence of him going out and seriously engaging with or anything similar. It’s another version of not needing to control what people think if you can control what they think about.


Steven Poole 03.05.08 at 2:26 pm


There is also no reason, as far as I can see, to accept Sunstein’s bizarre insistence that citing an opposing point of view in order to pour scorn on it somehow doesn’t count as really or authentically citing the opposing point of view.

Since Sunstein thinks that blog-readers are such easily brain-washed idiots that they can’t evaluate quoted material for themselves if someone else is pouring scorn on it, then they must also be so idiotic that they couldn’t make up their minds if presented forcibly, as he wants them to be, with opposing points of view and no commentary, or reasonably argued opposing points of view.

So what Sunstein proposes cannot possibly work, owing to Sunstein’s own theory of the intractable idiocy of the multitude. We would just be left with an internet full of Buridan’s asses.

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