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James S. Fishkin: The Voice of the People:
public opinion & democracy
(Yale: 1997)


“When can a microcosm, or some other small part of the country, speak for the whole, speak for the entire citizenry and its interests? Polls offer one kind of microcosm, a statistical sample in which each citizen has an equal, random chance of participating. With random sampling we can closely approximate the views of the entire country without having to ask everyone. In fact, we need ask only a tiny fraction, provided it is properly selected. In addition to such scientific samples, there are any number of self-selected groups that seem to speak for the people...but they are far more likely to speak merely for themselves.... There is a fancy name for taking the part for the whole - synecdoche. It is a form of representation that occurs regularly in politics, which is, after all, a process of allowing a part to stand for, or re-present, the whole.... [But,] on any given issue, there will be many parts available simultaneously to speak for the whole, each part purporting to speak authoritatively.... [And] even if we were to ask everyone what they thought about an issue, we would still be offering a representation, a picture, of public opinion. That opinion would have been formed under certain conditions, and those conditions may be far from favorable for the public being able to form a reasonable opinion, or even any coherent opinion at all.... In spite of these conflicts, there is one simple answer to the question - When can the people best speak for themselves? - that runs through the history of democratic experimentation: The public can best speak for itself when it can gather together in some way to hear the arguments on various sides of an issue and then, after face-to-face discussion, come to a collective decision.”
(Fishkin, pp.2-4)

Democracy, for so long the least-praised of political arrangements, is now - in its belated heyday as the veritable gold standard of legitimacy - caught in a peculiar bind. On the one hand, it is aspired to wherever more authoritarian arrangements hold sway, and on the other, its ruling institutions are in increasingly bad odour throughout the developed world - particularly where those institutions have had ample time to ossify in the grip of self-serving political “elites”. It is this situation - clearly a crisis of legitimacy for our current notions of representation - which James Fishkin’s work speaks to, in its attempt to revive a little-known model of representative governance, even if his own proposal for implementation is a much more modest one than is warranted by the state of our democratic decay...


“As a citizen, I have many ‘representatives.’ On a regular basis, I vote for a U.S. congressman, two U.S. senators, a governor, a lieutenant governor, a state senator, a state representative, six city council members (elected at large), a county commissioner for my district, the president and vice president of my school board (along with the school board member for my district), a mayor, nineteen county officials, and a number of other statewide office holders.... There are also special districts for water control, the regional transit authority, and public utilities. These districts all have elected officials who represent me. It is instructive to discover that the various government officials I asked cannot even tell me how many elected officials represent me, primarily because no one seems to know how many of these special districts there may be. I have been advised that the only way to find out is to file ‘freedom of information’ requests requiring the government to tell me. At the time of this writing, this process has not yet yielded a definitive list...[but] if we add it all up, there are at least 200 and perhaps more than 350 people who purport to represent me.”
(Fishkin, pp.7-10)

“Once elected, the worlds these representatives inhabit are as distant from my world, the world of my everyday life, as is a parallel universe in a science fiction story.... I get glimpses of these beings on television, and I hear their voices on radio talk shows. For the most part, however, their world does not seem to have much to do with mine.... The only tangible, direct contact I get regularly from the world of my representatives is solicitation, by direct mail, for money. Would you give money to beings from a parallel universe whose images appeared in your living room? It is no wonder that by every measure of alienation Americans feel distant, and expect little, from their elected representatives.”
(Fishkin, p.12)

“There is a difference between a sample of several hundred speaking for the nation and the entire citizenry actually speaking for itself. The difference is not so much in the substance of what the people say. With modern random samples, we can know a great deal about the chances that our sample is giving us the same results as those we would have gotten had we asked the entire population. Rather, participation in the political process serves an independent legitimating function.... It is a form of connectedness to the system that expresses our collective political identity. [But,] from this perspective, low voter turnouts...indicate a disconnection from the system and its shared political identity.... Collectively, the right to vote has, in fact, been a matter of fundamental principle. But individually, it has long been the plaything of convenience.”
(Fishkin, pp.44-5)

“Citizens in large nation-states have incentives to be ‘rationally ignorant.’ If I have only one vote in millions, why should I spend a lot of time and effort attempting to inform myself about the positions of competing candidates, competing parties, or competing alternatives? ...For most citizens, ignorance is, unfortunately, the rational choice, in the sense that the time and effort required to overcome it do not represent a reasonable investment. Individually or collectively, we can have more impact, if we desire it, in other ways. This argument does not depend on my motivations’ being selfish, or on my political agenda’s being connected to my personal interests.... The same problem of collective action confronts the altruistic and the self-interested alike.”
(Fishkin, pp.21-2)

Even the most fervent defender of current arrangements can not seriously challenge such criticisms, for they emerge directly from the model we have, almost unthinkingly, enshrined as what democracy is today. I say “almost unthinkingly” because - aside from the self-conscious activities of the American Founders (albeit modelled on English institutions) and various experiments with electoral systems, there has been precious little thought - and much copying - behind the subsequent expansion of democracy. Rather than a plethora of genuinely different systems what, in fact, we have are many incarnations of the same fundamental model - differing mostly in the details. In fact, it may easily be argued that the system we drew the name from - Athenian democracy - itself embodied more diversity in its approaches to representation than do all of our “modern” democratic nation-states put together.

For ancient democracy made use of several representative approaches - to complement its notionally-direct democracy - albeit the most important (by far) was that of selection by lot...usually to deliberative groupings for short periods. And, even so fervent an anti-democrat as Plato eventually came around to acknowledging the virtues of this model, to the point where he even incorporated it into the ideal polity of his old age:


“Plato was no democrat, of course, and he offered the elitist solution of requiring many years of rigorous study to achieve the wisdom that might qualify a few for roles like that of the philosopher-king. But in his later work he treated this solution as utopian and offered, in the Laws, a role for samples of ordinary citizens chosen by lot who would make important public decisions in deliberative councils. He also developed a defense of what we would now call the separation of powers, a defense that influenced the Baron de Montesquieu and, via Montesquieu, the American Founders. Without a philosopher-king, Plato realized in his later work, power must be given to ordinary people, but under conditions where their good judgement can be encouraged and where a separation of powers can protect against tyranny and folly.”
(Fishkin, pp.14-5)

We do make use of it ourselves - in the citizen juries found in the those nations with a British Common Law heritage - but, aside from this anomaly, the concept is entirely forgotten today in our political arrangements and, aside from Fishkin, all other democratic challenges to our current model of “representation” appear to be based upon direct democracy approaches, usually with internet access. Trouble is, as Fishkin argues at length, we already have a much larger degree of direct democratic input than envisaged by the great eighteenth century theorists of representative systems - via polling and direct instruction - but the result, sans real face-to-face deliberation, is reminiscent more of Spartan than Athenian models, to our detriment:


“Consider a second ancient model of democracy, very different from the extended debate in the Athenian Assembly, or in its citizen’s juries or randomly selected legislative commissions. In ancient Sparta, members of the Council were elected by a method called the Shout. The order in which candidates to the Council were considered was determined by lot. This order was not known to the impartial evaluators who were seated in another room with writing tablets. The evaluators’ job was simply to assess the loudness of the cheering each candidate received when he walked in front of the assembled throng. The candidate receiving the loudest shouts and applause was deemed the winner. Missing in the Spartan method was the entire social context of careful debate and deliberative argument fostered by the Athenian institutions.... Yet if we ask which model of ancient democracy we have come closer to realizing in our modern quest for direct democracy, we must concede that...the sting of an offensive sound bite arouses a populace that is only sound-bitten. The ire of talk-show democracy has given us a mass electronic version of the Shout.”
(Fishkin, pp.23-5)

“If we look at the four main democratic conditions - political equality, deliberation, participation and non-tyranny - contemporary American practices leave much to be desired.... [Admittedly,] it is difficult to institutionalize all four simultaneously, at least for the large nation-state. We can certainly make progress on each. But as fundamental goals they tend to conflict, one with another. As we open up opportunities for participation and political equality for the entire citizenry, for example, we create incentives for rational ignorance that destroy deliberation. We shall also sometimes create the conditions feared by the founders in which the passions of the masses are aroused that are adverse to the interests of some minority.... On the other hand, if we re-institute deliberation among elites, or among self-selected groups, we undermine political equality and participation in the nation as a whole.... [So,] instead of a unified and coherent ideal, in which these valued parts fit together in a single clear vision of what we should be striving for, we have conflicting values, each of which takes policy making and political reform in a different direction.... This situation is not unique to democratic reform, but applies to many political conflicts and policy choices. It is part of what makes hard choices hard - requiring that a political system have a capacity somewhere for deliberation about conflicting values, conflicting visions.”
(Fishkin, p.54-63)

“Political equality is served when those who participate are statistically representative of the entire citizenry, and when the process of collective decision weighs their votes equally. Of course, if everyone participates, there is no problem about the group being statistically representative. But...if the group purporting to speak for the people differs greatly from the people on whose behalf they ‘speak,’ then that lack of representativeness raises a serious question about whether the concerns and interests of those left out are being voiced.... When members of Congress consider an issue, they are naturally concerned with reelection, with publicity, and with the effect of their deliberations on public perceptions and on key interest groups and supporters - in addition to the merits of the issue. For ordinary people, the role of citizen does not carry with it the same institutional incentives. Ordinary citizens do not arrive at positions after consulting focus groups, polls, lobbyists, campaign consultants, and spin doctors. Ordinary citizens are not running for reelection.”
(Fishkin, pp.37-42)

Which is why we are, with some justification, much more inclined to trust them than politicians. Moreover, by delegating political activity to a professional group, we also undermine the basis of the civic community upon which democracy relies. Whether from the point of view of rational choice theory (beloved of the right) or social capital theory (embraced by the left), any honest appraisal of “representative democracy” has to confront the major flaw that the system - as it stands - is not only deeply flawed, but that those selfsame flaws directly undermine democracy itself...hardly a comforting conclusion...


“George Gallup’s vision...invoked the same ideal of face-to-face democracy we have emphasized throughout...[and he] felt that with the combination of modern technology and the public opinion poll (or ‘sampling referendum’ as he called it)...“the nation is literally in one great room.” ...What Gallup did not take into account was that while everyone might, in a sense, be in one great room, the room had become so big that few people were paying much attention.... A New England town meeting of many millions is no longer a New England town meeting. It is simply another occasion for individuals to feel lost in the politics of mass society.”
(Fishkin, pp.78-80)

And so...on to our alternative. One of the great strengths of Fishkin’s work is that he has done more than merely revive an unfairly neglected approach to democratic representation - he has also gone to considerable trouble to test its deliberative workings over several years, and in two countries, and thus provides us with an important body of evidence to complement what we know about its ancient forebears. But, in essence, the model itself is very straightforward:


“The deliberative poll is unlike any poll or survey ever conducted. Ordinary polls model what the public is thinking, even though the public may not be thinking very much or paying much attention. A deliberative poll attempts to model what the public would think, had it a better opportunity to consider the questions at issue. The idea is simple. Take a national random sample of the electorate and transport those people from all over the country to a single place. Immerse the sample in the issues, with carefully balanced briefing materials, with intensive discussions in small groups, and with the chance to question competing experts and politicians. At the end of several days working through the issues face to face, poll the participants in detail. The resulting survey offers a representation of the considered judgements of the public - the views the entire country would come to if it had the same experience of behaving more like ideal citizens immersed in the issues for an extended period.”
(Fishkin, p.162)

And the results have been very intriguing... One of the most impressive findings is that, on a range of issues, whilst participants showed dramatic changes from their initial perspectives, these could not at all be seen as favouring either the left or the right. Instead, what emerged appeared - at least to this reader - to be genuinely pragmatic policy preferences, drawn selectively from across the spectrum in a way that could well shame the “professionals” in these areas...


“The participants demonstrated a new appreciation for the complexity of the issues, the conflicts of values the issues posed, and the limitations of any one solution. Our participants became far more sophisticated consumers of the competing policy prescriptions....[and,] at least on this one issue, more thoughtful and engaged citizens.... What did the event accomplish? It demonstrated the viability of a different form of opinion polling and, in a sense, a different form of democracy.... Democracy, even in the elitist sense of the Founders, was only revived by the notion of elected representation. But, another form of representation lay hidden in the dust of history. It was employed by the legislative commissions, citizen’s juries and the Council in ancient Athens (the crucial body that set the agenda for meetings of the citizen Assembly. This other method was selection by lot or random sampling. In one sense the use of random sampling was in politics was revived by opinion polling.... But in the ancient Greek form, and in the form employed in the deliberative poll, opinions are not taken from isolated citizens, but...represent the considered judgements of the polity, not the top-of-the-head reactions of isolated citizens. Institutions that speak for the people need to be both representative and deliberative. The ancient Greek innovation was a random sample of citizens who deliberated together, and in that way realized both values.”
(Fishkin, pp.168-9)

“Although we cannot get everyone actively engaged under most conditions, through the deliberative poll we can...get the microcosm engaged - and then broadcast the results to everyone else. Citizens in the microcosm are not subject to rational ignorance. Instead of one insignificant vote in millions, each of them has an important role to play in a nationally televised event....  Earlier, I emphasized four democratic values - deliberation, non-tyranny, political equality, and participation. I noted that efforts to fully realize all four have usually been unsuccessful.... The deliberative poll, however, offers a representation of a democracy that meets all four conditions.”
(Fishkin, pp.171-3)

James S. Fishkin’s The Voice of the People is an engaging and deceptively straightforward work that offers a very real challenge to the assumptions underlying our versions of “representative democracy”...and, to my mind, by far the best fundamental approach to correcting the abuses of that which we have. By spelling out the history of the debates over representation - and by analyzing the fundamentally-conflicting demands which underpin the democratic ideal - Fishkin demonstrates for his readers the flawed nature of what we have, in a measured and sensible critique which can not easily be challenged. In proposing an alternative, too, Fishkin is entirely moderate: proposing merely to make Deliberative Polling an official adjunct to our current system, rather than offering such assemblies a direct role in governance. Me...I would be bolder, by far - but, to date, this is the sourcebook for those who would aim for a modern, genuinely-democratic representative system on the broad scale, rather than the inherently-flawed things we have so far inherited...


“The Deliberative Poll was modelled after ancient Athenian democracy, where randomly selected microcosms were part of local decision-making.... We are only beginning to explore the possibilities for informed statistical microcosms as an input to the policy process and to the political process. But the hope is, in an age of psuedo-public voices, of spin doctors, attack ads, self-selected polls and staged town meetings, the Deliberative Poll can provide a useful insight into public opinion, and a useful input into public decision processes.”
(Fishkin, p.203)



John Henry Calvinist