Cato Unbound

by Henry Farrell on February 9, 2009

My response to Nancy Rosenblum is “up at Cato Unbound“: as is that of “James Fishkin”: It would be fair to say that we have significant political disagreements …


[Rosenblum] argues that these implicit biases also afflict the arguments of contemporary political theorists such as James Fishkin (also participating in this seminar), who prize political deliberation.

Again, blogs provide an interesting test case. Fishkin harks back to a Madisonian vision of politics that he suggests has been corroded by political parties more interested in winning elections than in thoughtful deliberation. He seeks to structure deliberation so as to minimize what he sees as disruptive partisan extremism and maximize the potential for disinterested discussion. Blogs are anathematic to this vision of politics. Bloggers are typically at least as interested in winning the argument as in discerning the truth. The empirical evidence that political bloggers and blog readers are sharply divided along partisan lines is emphatic. However, as Rosenblum suggests, partisan argument of the kind that blogs engage in can play a valuable democratic role. They help structure a “system of conflict” in which “discordant values, opinions, issues, and policies” are “identified, selected, and refined.


if one is concerned about some minimally rational process of collective will formation, the impact of party ID is to make voting and policy choice predictable, not to make them thoughtful. A thoughtful process of collective will formation, whether by elites (representatives) or the mass public themselves, requires a disposition not to make a partisan judgment, but an independent judgment about the public interest. Of course, real world judgments reflect some mix of partisan interests and independent judgment. But to the extent one is just focusing on what will serve one’s party, what will contribute to electoral competitiveness and effective mobilization, one is not acting on the disposition that will assist deliberation in the public interest. Competitive elections can be won by misleading the public, by demobilizing it with negative ads (as my colleague Shanto Iyengar has demonstrated) by the MAD politics of the trivial but sensational sound bite — a politics of Mutually Assured Distraction. These techniques win elections and mobilize participation, but they do not add up to any collective weighing of substantive arguments about what should be done. Rather they add up to pseudo-mandates and a very thin form of democracy.

I’m pretty skeptical about many claims for the empirical benefits of deliberation, for a variety of reasons that perhaps I’ll cover in a future post. But it seems to me that much of this disagreement turns on a fundamental divergence as to what politics is about. I see it as involving stark divergences between people with very different interests and ideals, where the room for common agreement on the public interest is limited. Fishkin sees it as a realm where the potential for rational identification of extensive shared values and the public interest is obscured by television advertising and the other paraphernalia of competitive electoral politics. Different understandings of politics give rise, unsurprisingly, to different normative prescriptions.



harry b 02.09.09 at 9:06 pm

It’s about both. How much it is about each varies, both by circumstance, and by institutional arrangements (eg, in the US where the public space for deliberation is already set up on the assumption that interest groups are simply competing, that makes politics less about discerning and pursuing the public good than it might be).
You shouldn’t underestimate the value of deliberation for actually figuring out what one’s own interests are (I’m not suggesting you do, but there’s a lot to be said for deliberation of Fishkin’s sort even within an interest competing/conflicting polity).


Ben Alpers 02.09.09 at 9:32 pm

Especially in a system that is rigged to limit competition to only two parties, there’s another problem: party elected officials can often afford to ignore their supporters’ views. Thus Bush and many Republicans in the Senate disagree with their party’s base on immigration issues. And the Democratic leadership disagrees with its base on civil liberties issues like FISA and the War on Drugs, and on holding the Bush administration accountable for its crimes (whether through impeachment, in the past, or prosecutions in the present).

On issues about which there is broad bipartisan agreement among the leadership of the major parties–the War on (Certain Classes of People Who Use) Drugs, so-called free trade, rejection of single-payer health care, deregulation (at least from the late Seventies through the middle of last year), a broadly interventionist foreign policy, and so forth–there is very little that citizens can do to change policy, even if a majority of the grassroots of one or the other major party comes to disagree with the inside-the-Beltway consensus.


Sebastian Holsclaw 02.09.09 at 9:58 pm

Strangely I feel that you are both right. Is that possible?


kid bitzer 02.09.09 at 10:20 pm

madison may have spoken against parties (“factions”), but is there any reason to think that madison held the view that deliberation would lead to convergence if not thwarted by faction?

this seems to be the favorite fantasy of the broderites–that if we could only be bipartisan enough then we’d arrive at a universally-acceptable solution–but is there any evidence that madison agreed?

i mean–the competing vision is just that, with respect to many deep values, people disagree about stuff and are going to keep disagreeing, but still have to live together with minimal bloodshed. that seems like an equally madisonian outlook.

i’m just asking: is fishkin’s outlook really madisonian at all?

(and i’m happy to accept answers of the form, ‘yes’, provided they’re substantiated with the follow-up ‘and here’s the quote from federalist 51’ or whatever.)


MH 02.09.09 at 11:56 pm

I read Fishkin’s book years ago and my thought was whoever runs his deliberation groups would run the country within six months. .


MH 02.09.09 at 11:57 pm

Three months if they read any Kahneman and Tversky.


Henry 02.09.09 at 11:59 pm

Harry – agree completely on the figuring out what one’s interests are (but that is not only a much more reasonable claim than the ones that strong deliberation proponents make, it’s a different _kind_ of claim I think).


Maurice Meilleur 02.10.09 at 1:42 am

Sorry, MH–did you mean ‘run’ or ‘ruin’?


Maurice Meilleur 02.10.09 at 1:44 am

‘The country’, that is.


StevenAttewell 02.10.09 at 2:05 am

I have to agree with Kid Blitzer that this doesn’t sound very Madisonian to me. After all, Federalist No. 10 argues that factions (parties for all intents and purposes) are natural, inevitable, and preferable to the draconian controls necessary to prevent them.

Madison’s solution wasn’t to make the political process more deliberative to the mass of the electorate, but to A. encourage more elitist institutions where reason and the general good might prevail, and to B. establish a constitutional order which limits the potential damage done by the inexorable forces of self-interest. This isn’t particularly democratic, but neither was Madison.

I’d also point out that Madisonian political theory really puts a damper on the very idea of a general good achievable by enlightened statesmen.


MH 02.10.09 at 2:18 am

8,9: I meant ‘run’.

Quoting Fishkin at the link above:
“My own work has focused on what I call Deliberative Polling, in which scientific random samples are surveyed and then recruited with incentives to participate for an extended period, say a weekend, in both small group discussions and plenary sessions with competing experts and policymakers.”

If Fishkin’s idea was applied, my guess is that the experts and policymakers for these sessions (or whoever selects them) would come as close to running the country as any group has.


Doctor Science 02.10.09 at 2:47 am

I’ve been trying to read all the stuff in this discussion, but am baffled because you-all seem to be arguing that the opposite of partisanship is deliberation, or ideology, or something. Yet what I observe is that the opposite of partisanship is *celebrity*. People either align themselves first with a party, or first with a charismatic and/or familiar individual. In both cases they will claim their alignment is ideological, but I am not convinced.

I think this is why the same Beltway Villagers both make a fetish of “bipartisanship” and endorse nepotistic succession in US politics. I think this is why the UK and Canada, which have strong political parties, have had less charismatic and well-born political leaders in the past 40-50 than the US has had.

Of course there can be charismatic, aristocratic party leaders — and such men are very, very dangerous. But generally speaking, the opposite of party is *personality* (under which I include aristocracy, where “knowing the family” stands in for “knowing the person”).


Maurice Meilleur 02.10.09 at 3:10 am

Forgive me, MH, but that does sound a lot like ‘ruin’. By the way, you forgot to include the ™ behind Deliberative Polling(tm). Fishkin, as I understand it, has registered the name.


MH 02.10.09 at 3:18 am

Maurice, I expect it that ‘run’ would turn to ‘ruin’. But, these days, what isn’t?


Maurice Meilleur 02.10.09 at 3:20 am

Snark aside, there’s another dimension along which we might consider whether Fishkin’s approach is ‘Madisonian’. Madison would probably have thought that the purpose of political conversation should be to craft sound policy. The problem with factions was that they would pursue their interests independently of (probably at the expense of) the interest of the whole. The mechanism of ‘ambition checking ambition’ was arguably to limit the bad sort of conversation, about self-interest, in order that the good sort of conversation, about the common good, could continue.

In that sense, then, since the whole point of Deliberation(tm) for Fishkin is about getting participants to see past their self-interest–to, as it were, set those bad conversations aside–then his approach is Madisonian. Still, the point about the role of conflict is a good one; you do get the strong sense from reading Fishkin that he, like a long list of American progressives before him, thinks that conflict in politics is a mistake, an artifact of not doing it right.


Keith M Ellis 02.10.09 at 7:05 am

But it seems to me that much of this disagreement turns on a fundamental divergence as to what politics is about.

That makes it sound as if it is a disagreement about method, when it is really a disagreement about facts. Your position seems to be that the competing interests in the political process are informed and rational about pursuing their interests, and that those interests conflict; while Rosenblum et al believe that most participants in the political process are neither informed nor deliberative enough to adequately identify their interests and support policies which further them.

In general, I think the latter view is correct. But, of course, the truth is some combination of both (with emphasis on the latter, however).

What’s interesting to me about this is that your respective positions seem to be inverted from the stereotypical liberal and conservative views (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll equate libertarianism with conservatism). Liberals tend to be more optimistic about human nature and peoples’ ability to compromise and reach solutions that are beneficial to the majority. Conservatives think of themselves as realists who recognize the people have competing interests and that conflict is inevitable. I think this inversion is more a product of the fact that these affinities are multidimensional and not merely bivalent—for example, the further to the left one looks, the more one sees a more pessimistic and confrontational viewpoint.

At any rate, my personal experience and observation is that very, very few people are adequately informed and deliberative such that they are able to assess and support policies that favor their interests. This is most obviously true when one looks at the class of voters who are not otherwise actively engaged in the political process; but what’s more telling is that it’s also true of the political class, as well. You can clearly see this with many current GOP politicians who are stupendously ignorant and thoughtless about the macroeconomic issues at hand. Certainly, a few of them are lying and posturing in devious political scheming; but it seems apparent to me that many of them are simply ignorant and probably stupid, to boot.

I like to believe that the majority of people are well-intentioned and would support policies that benefit the majority were they sufficiently informed and deliberative—but the sorry truth is that so few are sufficiently informed and deliberative that we can’t know what the world would be like if most people had a clue. It seems to me that political theory that assumes that actors are informed and rationally act in their self-interest is just as simple-minded and factually wrong as the equivalent economic assumption. Obviously, in both cases, some people are informed and deliberative and most people are partly informed and deliberative…but not sufficiently so such that the process can be accurately described assuming informed and rational agents acting in self-interest.

That said, I think there’s a limited context in which a political rational choice theory is accurate: politicians acting within the context of their own political self-interest (i.e., power). Politicians are well-informed about their political self-interest and they certainly are deliberative about it. But public policy, and the aim of policy, are for the most part outside this context. Politicians have an incentive to confuse their political self-interest with the interests they are supposed to represent; and, worse, the press has greatly exacerbated this by making the focus of their reporting the maneuvering of political self-interest at the expense of reporting about policy and the interests manifested in policy.


JoB 02.10.09 at 10:56 am

Henry, Harry,

Interesting, not a debate I was familiar with. My gut instinct would be to go for neither of the above. I don’t think deliberation can be put in practice without getting into the kind of things MH was talking about (although proper public discussion certainly is a default in democracy) and I don’t think that competition can avoid the type of thing Ben Alpers referred to (even if there’s much to be said about solutions competing rather than designing the best solution).

But – at the risk of getting completely off-topic – let’s take a case in point: the Obama stimulus and the discussion on it (not its merits but its process). Let me make two assumptions that are maybe not true but at least plausible:

1. reducing the stimulus and increasing the tax cut part is, economically risky

2. increasing buy-in requires us to find middle ground (i.e. reducing stimulus etc etc)

If I understand well Henry’s take would be that, with these assumptions we need to go for 1 and disregard 2. Fishburne’s, if consistent, would prefer with these assumptions to go for 2 and thus to disregard 1. As far as I can see the facts (at least according to Krugman) are such that there is a clear mutual exclusivity with respect to the topic at hand in this real-life case (I also think it is enough for 1. & 2. above to be plausible in order for it to weigh in on these two approaches). So, this case would require you to choose between the two approaches or reject the dichotomy. It’s clear to me that deliberation will always lead to watering down the final resolution whilst risk of competition lies in getting it sometimes completely right & sometimes catastrophically wrong.

Any ideas? (I’m a bit ill so I hope I have succeeded to put my case intelligibly)

My own instinct would be to refuse the dichotomy – and with it much of the actual embodiment of democracies in the West. I think party dominance is an abomination but I also think that it’s not only impractical but also counterproductively wishy-washy to count on deliberation.


Maurice Meilleur 02.10.09 at 12:45 pm

Keith, I don’t think shifting the frame from ‘method’ to ‘facts’ does the work you think it does. The question Henry is asking, which I think is a good one, is this: what is the status of conflict in politics? Is it (a) an artifact of misunderstanding and distraction and misinformation, caused (we’ll say) by electoral politics, partisan advertising, and punditry, or (b) something endemic to human societies, such that people will always disagree sharply over important questions of value and interest?

That’s not an argument about method; it’s an argument about the human condition. In this case, it’s an argument over what you could ever expect of deliberation, even given a set of ideal assumptions about the people doing the deliberating. If conflict is a misunderstanding, then deliberation among rational and adequately informed people will dispel that conflict and allow them to reach common ground regarding the issue up for discussion. You could even argue that deliberation in this case could be a vehicle for education, so that even irrational and less-than-fully-informed people could deliberate, become better informed, and reach common ground. The deliberation would be screening out the influences that otherwise would distract or misinform citizens.

If conflict is endemic, though, then even the most rational and informed citizens will disagree, often severely, over important questions. In that case, we can’t expect much of deliberation. Harry B. suggests that it could still be valuable as a device for citizens to ascertain what their values and interests actually are. It’s true that it sometimes takes the experience of disagreement to show us what we really believe, but as Henry notes, that’s a pretty chastened view of deliberation compared to what someone like Fishkin expects from it.

Another possibility, by the way, and assuming that conflict is endemic, would be to look at deliberation as a means of self-expression, sharing personal narratives, or ‘witnessing’, as some feminist critics (Young, Fraser) have suggested. But again, that’s not nearly as expansive a claim as what many proponents of deliberation have put forward.


Tom from the Bx 02.10.09 at 3:51 pm

The U.S. Senate’s handling of the stimulus has left me with the feeling that deliberation is as much of a cynical distraction as anything else in politics.


Michael Morrell 02.14.09 at 7:52 am

I’m not sure anyone will check these comments, but just in case:

Kid Blitzer: “madison may have spoken against parties (“factions”), but is there any reason to think that madison held the view that deliberation would lead to convergence if not thwarted by faction?”

Yes, Federalist 10 on the use of representatives: “The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

Fishkin is Madisonian in the sense that he wants greater deliberation as reflective consideration (the wisdom cited above). He does not believe that people will then completely agree or converge on the “right” answer (there is even a quote in Democracy and Deliberation that people can still decide based upon their own or their group’s interest, though I think he has backed away from this position somewhat). Deliberation will allow people to make decision after considering a wide variety of arguments, not just the partisan talking points handed down by party leaders. At least that is what I think he is trying to say.

Fishkin is not Madisonian, however, because he believes that average citizens are capable of reflective consideration under the right conditions. This leads to…

MH: If Fishkin’s idea was applied, my guess is that the experts and policymakers for these sessions (or whoever selects them) would come as close to running the country as any group has.

Actually, I have observed one of the Deliberative Opinion Polls. The plenary panel of experts and policymakers I observed was balanced, and they did not have as much power as you imply. The “deliberators” listened to them and then asked them questions, but they then went back to their own small groups for further deliberation. Those who select the experts would have the opportunity to abuse their selection power to skew the deliberations, though any unbalanced panel would certainly become pretty obvious on most salient issues. The most understudied aspect of deliberation, and where much opportunity for abuse lies, is with the moderators of the small group deliberations.

Henry: I think you misread Fishkin a bit. The deliberation you identify (shared values and public interest) is a more apt description of Habermas’s or Rawls’s Kantian theories. Fishkin does not expect everyone to agree, though he does expect at least some people to change their minds. He (along with Joseph Bessette to a great degree) simply want democratic citizens to have considered opinions. The problem he sees with “television advertising and the other paraphernalia of competitive electoral politics” is that they influence people to make decisions based upon criteria other than reflective consideration. He recognizes that disagreement is a part of politics. The question is how we respond to that disagreement. Do we deliberate about our disagreements, with the chance that we may find that we agree on more than we suspect, or do we engage in strategic action aimed at minimizing the impact of those with whom we disagree and maximizing our own power because we are sure that the position we have taken is right?

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