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There is a classic Jimmy Stewart movie, Magic Town, about "Grandview," a small town in the Midwest that is a perfect statistical microcosm of the United States, a place where the citizens' opinions match perfectly with Gallup polls of the entire nation. A pollster (Jimmy Stewart), secretly uses surveys from this "mathematical miracle" as a shortcut to predicting public opinion. Instead of collecting a national sample, he can more quickly and cheaply collect surveys from this single small town. The character played by Jane Wyman, a newspaper editor, finds out what is going on and publishes her discovery. As a result the national media descend upon the town, which becomes, overnight, "the public opinion capital of the U.S." The citizens of Grandview become self-conscious because they are now "the perfect barometer. of national opinion." They begin to feel a heavy responsibility, knowing that what they say will be listened to throughout the world. They arrange to collect their own survey, "The Official Grandview Poll," but with the proviso that "reference libraries" be provided at every polling booth. Because the issues are important, they believe people should be informed.
With this new sense of responsibility, and their heightened interest in the issues, the townspeople's views soon diverge from those of the rest of the country. The climax comes when the town announces the result that 79 percent of them would be willing to "vote for a woman for president"! This is taken as such a preposterous departure from conventional opinion that they become a source of national ridicule. "The little townthat has always been right turned out to be ridicously wrong. People are beginning to wonder where Grandview is. Certainly it can't be in the United States." Comics start to use the explanation "He's from Grandview" as the punchline in jokes, to explain apparent idiocy.
Yet which opinions are more worth listening to? The conventional opinion of the time, offered in response to questions from the Gallup poll, that people should not support a woman for president, or the very different view the citizens of Grandview finally came to, when they thought their opinions would actually matter, and after they had had a chance to reexamine their prejudices and preconceptions? Those considered judgments were, indeed, unrepresentative of the views of the rest of the country. But then again, the rest of the country had not really thought much about the question.
Obviously, public opinion polls of the standard kind give us a snapshot of what the country is actually thinking. They are a valuable means of telling both the country and its political leaders about the current state of mass opinion. For that purpose, the new opinions of the Grandview citizens became worthless, just as the Jimmy Stewart character had said they would, once word got out. But for other purposes, particularly for finding a public voice worth listening to, the final views of Grandview offer a useful supplement to the vagaries of an inattentive public. There is a kind of recommending force to the new opinions at Grandview: this is what a microcosm of the country thinks about an issue once it has had a better chance to focus on it, to discuss it, and to reexamine shared preconceptions. Perhaps this is what the entire country, not just the microcosm, would think about the issue if it focused on it in a more sustained way.
Grandview symbolizes a central problem: 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 equall, 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 - from the voices on radio or television call-in shows, to the letters and faxes that pour into congressional offices, to the people who show up at campaign rallies or public meetings. Such groups may think they speak for everyone, but they are far more likely to speak merely for themselves. They offer contested and controversial representations of public opinion - representations that must be viewed through the prism of their interests in putting themselves forward. The same point applies, of course, to officeholders, media commentators, and pundits, who also prestime, on almost a daily basis, to speak for the people. These people have interests and positions to maintain. Yes, in some sense they speak for the people, but the public has learned that such people also speak 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. An elected Congress, the president, even the voters in a referendum (at the state level) - these all consist of parts of the people who are offered as speaking for all the people. Even opinion polls are mechanisms whereby statistical samples of the people can speak for everyone. Less convincingly, the self-selected studio audience in a televised "town meeting" will seem to speak for the people, but it is also a mere representation. On any given issue, there will be many parts available simultaneously to speak for the whole, each part purporting to speak authoritatively.
Accepting that there are many portions of the people who purport to speak for everyone, can we find conditions when all the people can speak without requiring surrogates, conditions where the whole can, in some sense, speak for itself? 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. Representation comes from taking a part for the whole but it also comes from taking what the people seem to be saying at a snapshot in time - under one set of conditions - as a representation of what they really think. As we shall see, they may not "really" be thinking much at all. In a broad sense, there will always be conflicting representations of public opinion, but there will also be conditions, which we can distinguish, under which the voices of the people are more, or less, worth listening to.
Conflicting representations of public opinion are inescapable. Even a decisive election will yield different interpretations of the mandate, via alternative exit polls, contradictory views of commentators and pundits, surveys before and after the fact, interpretations of what different portions of the public might wish, and "spin-doctoring" by political actors with disparate interests at stake in the view of current history that comes to be accepted.
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 the various sides of an issue and then, after face-to-face discussion, come to a collective decision. The image of the New England town meeting or the Athenian Assembly provides a picture of people discussing things democratically in one place. It is the longstanding model for how to conduct democracy under conditions where not only does everyone's vote count the same but social conditions have been provided that facilitate everyone's thinking through the issues together. We can call this image the ideal of face-to-face democracy. A key issue in the continuing American experiment with democracy is: How can we adapt this ideal to the large-scale nation-state, to a population which cannot possibly gather together in the same room to take decisions?
Or can it? Some have thought that with modern technology, the country can, in a sense, gather together. Through technology we may be able to adapt the democracy of the town meeting to the large scale. But the gap between the town meeting proper and the "electronic town meeting" will prove nearly insurmountable.
What happens to the vote when the ideal of face-to-face democracy no longer applies? What happens when we vote without the social conditions that encourage everyone's gathering together in face-to-face discussion? Much of the continuing saga of the democratic idea can be thought of as an answer to that question. Voting in primaries or referendums, voting in general elections based on a "sound bite" of information or an impression culled from newspaper headlines, voting based on nothing more than name recognition or party label, or not voting at all (which has become the norm in the modern era) - these phenomena are quite different from voting in a small group after extensive face-to-face discussion. As we shall see, the American Founders struggled to adapt the ideal of face-to-face democracy to the large nation-state. But they thought it could be accomplished only through a system of elected representation, where the representatives would have the discussions and deliberations and come to decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Others, particularly the opponents of the Constitution who have come to be known as the anti-Federalists, wanted to place the locus of decision closer to the people, even if, for many issues, the ideal of face-to-face discussion could not be implemented. The beginnings of referendum democracy are built into the conflicts that arose at the founding.
The first major fork in the road came in Rhode Island, where opponents of the referendum concept argued that it could not fulfill the ideal of face-to-face democracy. Federalist supporters of the new Constitution argued that voting would not be meaningful unless everyone could gather together to hear the arguments on either side. The anti-Federalists agreed with the ideal but said that since it would be impossible to implement, they would go ahead and ask each citizen to vote. The anti-Federalists lost the battle over the Constitution (they were forced, after the referendum to hold a state convention that eventually approved it), but their picture of where American democracy would go has arguably triumphed in the long run, in the continuing process of democratic reform.
Magic Town was made in 1947, about a decade after George Gallup effectively launched the public opinion poll onto the national stage during the 1936 presidential election. From the beginning, Gallup offered the opinion poll as a serious instrument of democratic reform. But by the time of the Jimmy Stewart movie, very little of that notion was part of the public consciousness. The pollster was seen as someone who predicted elections in a competitive and cynical business. The Jimmy Stewart character prizes the discovery of Grandview as a shortcut to great profits. Only the citizens of Grandview understood the responsibility they bore: because people would think they spoke for the nation, they must be sure they had something worth saying.
After the "debacle" of Grandview's poll on a female president, the town became such a laughingstock that people began to leave. The city scrapped its plans for expansion. The remaining residents were demoralized and withdrew from public dialogue. They literally stopped speaking to one another. When asked survey questions, they all said they had "no opinion." They had ceased to be a "public." They had ceased to be effective citizens.
Faced with this demoralization and decline, the Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman characters try to revive the town with a scheme to go ahead with the suspended plans for the construction of a new high school. But it turns out that during the crisis, certain city leaders had conspired to sell the land. When confronted with the fact that city property could not be transferred without a vote, one of the town's leaders explains, "We intended to go through with the formality of a vote, but we just assumed that you people wouldn't care." The citizens are aroused by this response and decide to build the new school themselves, with the entire community donating its labor and expertise. The movie has a happy ending: this new example of civic cooperation saves the town's self-esteem, and it is lauded nationally in the media, which redeems the town's public image as well. The Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman characters are reconciled, and the movie ends amid scenes of hope and civic renewal.
This Hollywood ending is an instructive parable about community. How might it be possible in a society whose politics is dominated by opinion polls and elite manipulations to create the kind of civic engagement this microcosm of the country achieved by the end of the story? Is it possible to transform the entire country into "Magic Town," where citizens really care about the issues, where they are willing to think them through, and where they are also willing to contribute their time, resources, and labor to make their communities function? There is no easy answer to this question, but the continuing American process of experimentation makes it more of a possibility than our natural skepticism about Hollywood endings might support.
WHO SPEAKS FOR ME?
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.
In addition, when I vote for the president of the United States my state elects thirty-two electors to the Electoral College. These people cast votes that represent me and the other residents of Texas in determining who should be the president. In the scheme of the American Founders, the electors were supposed to meet together, state by state, and deliberate on who was the most qualified candidate for president. As is true for many other representatives, their role has shrunk. Now, if they were to deliberate and depart from what the public had voted, they might well be condemned, or even prosecuted, as "faithless electors." Nevertheless, they represent me.
Here is a partial list of my elected representatives:
U.S. president: 1
U.S. vice president: 1
Presidential electors: 32
U.S. senators: 2
U.S. representative: 1
Governor of Texas: 1
Lieutenant governor of Texas: 1
Texas land commissioner: 1
Texas agriculture commissioner: 1
Texas comptroller: 1
Texas treasurer: 1
Texas attorney general: 1
Railroad commissioner: 3
State senator: 1
State representative: 1
Texas Supreme Court (including chief justice): 9
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (including presiding judge): 9
Third Court of Appeals: 6
State district judge: 1
County judge: 1
County commissioner: 1 (per precinct)
County sheriff: 1
County tax assessor-collector: 1
County constable: 1 (per precinct)
District attorney: 1
Public weigher: 1
Judges, County Court at Law: 7
District clerk: 1
County clerk: 1
County treasurer: 1
County surveyor: 1
Justice of the peace: 1 (per precinct)
Mayor of Austin: 1
City council members (at large): 6
School Board (Austin Independent School District)
Vice president: 1
Member for my district: 1
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 not yet yielded a definitive list.
I find it revealing that an ordinary citizen can encounter such difficulty in simply attempting to determine the number of elected representatives he or she may have. Obviously, most citizens will not go to so much trouble, and they probably have no idea of how many people represent them, much less of the merits of the competing candidates for many of those elected positions. But these federal, state, and local officeholders are only some of my elected representatives. Consider the political parties. There are 232 delegates who represent me at the Democratic National Convention if I choose to vote Democratic and 121 delegates to the Republican National Convention if I choose to vote Republican in the Texas primary in any given presidential election year. (Texas does not have party registration, and I may decide on the day of the primary which party I wish to vote in.) These delegates represent me in the nomination process of the president of the United States (assuming that I choose to vote in the primaries of one of the two major parties) just as the electors to the Electoral College represent me in the general election. If we add it all up, there are at least 200 and perhaps more than 350 people who purport to represent me.
I know almost nothing about most of these 200 to 350 people, and they certainly know almost nothing of me. Yet it is a common pretense of political discourse that we are supposed to have a relationship: these elected officials are "my" representatives. Consider what a citizen would have to learn even to come close to making an informed choice about these candidates or to evaluating how well they have done their jobs. In many surveys over the past two decades, only about a quarter of American citizens could identify both of the senators from their state, and only slightly more could identify the name of their congressman. Yet these two are surely among the most prominent of the many offices a citizen may be asked to vote on. In a number of polls, little more than half the American citizens knew which party was in control of the U.S. Senate and less than a third knew that a member of Congress serves two-year terms. And while I do know that at the time of this writing Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Phil Gramm are my senators, most of us surely know virtually nothing about the Third Court of Appeals (or its equivalent in your state) or about the delegates who represent us at the national political conventions.
Many people, of course, pay little attention to the individual candidates and, instead, vote for a party. For several years, however, the proportion of American voters who identify themselves as Independents rather than as members of one party or another has gone up substantially. It is now greater than the number of identifiers with either of the two major parties. By 1992, 39 percent of voters categorized themselves as Independents, compared to 35 percent who called themselves Democrats and 26 percent, Republicans. And while many Independents will "lean" toward either the Democrats or the Republicans, the number of people who identify "strongly" with either party is also sharply in decline. Furthermore, enthusiasm for either party (as measured by "thermometer readings" in polls of support) has reached an all-time low, at least by the time of the 1994 elections.
Once voters leave the comparative simplicity of the two-party system, there is a dizzying variety of choices to be considered. Even if we stick to presidential elections, there have been 173 third parties since 1920 that have received at least a thousand votes. Of course, only five of these parties received even 5 percent of the votes. Many of them are tiny fringe groups with names like Take Back America or the Grassroots Party or the Down with Lawyers Party. Apart from the remarkable effort by Ross Perot, financed with expenditures of personal wealth comparable to the expenditures of the two major parties, the third parties in 1992 divided approximately 670,000 votes in an election in which more than 104 million votes were cast. Excluding Perot, all the third-party candidates combined received about six-tenths of 1 percent of the vote.
But even if one thinks only of the candidates offered by the two major parties, the complexity of the choices offered is overwhelming. An ideal citizen might spend a great proportion of time reading campaign literature, questioning candidates in local forums or town meetings, and discussing the positions the competing candidates take on the issues with friends and colleagues. For good reasons, however, most of us are unlikely to become engaged in the process to the point where we could begin to discuss all the issues intelligently. Perhaps the occasional race for senator or governor will attract our interest, but such fits of attention will be the exception and not the rule for most of the choices we are regularly called on to make as citizens.
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. Like beings from a parallel universe, those on the other side of the divide can sometimes connect to my world via the magic of some technological innovation. In this case, the technologies that cross into my world, and make a kind of connection, tend to be television and radio. 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. Their world does not connect to the world of my everyday life and my everyday welfare.
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.
In using the metaphor of parallel universes, I do not wish to impugn the integrity or the motives of the many thousands of political actors who inhabit the special world of elective politics. I wish rather to emphasize how far we have come from the early hopes for representation - that it would "re-present" the people in a more thoughtful and enlightened form, "refining and enlarging the public views by passing them through a chosen body of citizens" to use James Madison's famous formulation in Federalist no. 10. Instead of a better version, a "refined" version, of our world or an improved version of the people that is still recognizable as us, we now tend to see our representatives as alien - as inhabitants of a foreign territory.
At the same time, these representatives take on the appearance of clones, or synthetic re-creations of ordinary people. They use sophisticated techniques of polling and focus groups to find out what we want to hear, and then they tell us. A public image is synthesized, often by hired experts, and the presentation of that public image is carefully managed. We are conscious enough of the process by which these images are produced, however, that we often do not believe the speakers. We have become too conscious of the packaging to accept, unhesitatingly, the image it is meant to present.
Hence, despite their many efforts to keep in touch, my representatives still seem alien. They may have been ordinary persons once, but it is as if, in getting elected, they are subjected to a subtle process of transformation. From the standpoint of many citizens, these representatives have become automata who maintain a surface similarity to ordinary citizens in their statements and actions. Electing them might best be compared to the process by which alien copies replace ordinary people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
OUT OF THE CAVE?
The sense of unreality that applies to the official world of politics can be expressed in another way. Think back to the most celebrated image in political philosophy. Some 2,300 years ago, Plato offered a diagnosis of why the common people are not fit to rule. In his "allegory of the cave" he asked us to: "Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads." They watch manipulated images, reflected from a fire onto the walls of the cave - a kind of puppet show, with images and voices. This is the only reality of which they are aware, so they think the images in the cave are the real world. They offer prizes to each other to see who can best predict the sequences of images with which they are presented. Such predictions count for insight or wisdom among the denizens of the cave.
In the modern age, our citizens live in a high-tech version of Plato's cave. Plato's allegory must seem less surprising to modern readers than it must have been to those of earlier periods because, like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, we receive our picture of the world, especially our picture of the political world, from reflected images and echoed voices. Instead of puppetlike reflections from fire on a cave wall, we watch television images in our living rooms. Instead of echoed voices from the puppet manipulators, we listen to the voices of radio and television talk shows and advertisements. Like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, we tend to take these reflected images and voices as the real world. At least in terms of our roles as citizens, things that do not happen on television have little, if any, force, vividness, or immediacy. It is the reflected images that seem real and important. They constitute the political world rather than what we can see outside "the cave" with our own eyes.
As I write this, the U.S. Army has troops in about seventy countries around the world. The U.N. has undertaken a major peace-keeping operation in Cambodia. There is a war raging in the Sudan. The U.S. military is feeding about 20,000 Kurds in northern Iraq. Because television has generally ignored these developments, the majority of the American public has virtually no awareness of them. In terms of the politics that counts, if something is not on television, it hasn't happened. Many television viewers, like the denizens of Plato's cave, who can look only at the reflected images, know little of any other world. By the time the current generation of children reaches the age of 18, its members, on average, will have logged 15,000 hours in front of a television set, more time than they will have spent in school.
If we believe in democracy, can we somehow get citizens who are more prepared to exercise public responsibilities? 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 judgment can be encouraged and where a separation of powers can protect against tyranny and folly.
This was, in essence, the complex problem faced more than two millennia later by the American Founders: how to give power to the people or their representatives so that "the deliberative sense of the community should govern," to use Hamilton's phrase, and so that the people could be protected from factions that might infringe upon the rights of others. The American process of bold experimentation in grappling with this problem belongs not just to history books and revered, long-dead figures. It is a living process that occurs all around us, sometimes in subtle or unofficial ways, but one that continues, nevertheless.
If we accept the relevance of Plato's metaphor, the challenge remains: The people have a level of knowledge and wisdom comparable to the denizens of the cave. Yet if we believe in democracy (as Plato did not in the Republic) we need to somehow prepare the people to rule. Perhaps we can change the way information is presented to the cave dwellers, or perhaps we can engage people in real social problems, regardless of whether those problems appear on the evening news. Creating civic engagement at the local level and reforming the media to allow meaningful public input are two of the strategies for democratic reform I shall explore in this book. My subject will be the continuing transformations of democracy, both formal and informal, aimed at creating a society where citizens are thoughtful and engaged and their voice is worth listening to.
But what is the "voice of the people" if our citizens resemble the inhabitants of Plato's cave? The cave, very simply, becomes little more than an "echo chamber." Without any reference to Plato, the late V.O. Key, Jr., put the situation aptly in a classic analysis: "The voice of the people is but an echo. The output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input. As candidates and parties clamor for attention and vie for popular support, the people's verdict can be no more than a selective reflection from the alternatives and outlooks presented to them."
Key's emphasis is on the onus the echo chamber places on elites, in politics and the media, to present the citizens in the echo chamber with information and positions that will permit them to evaluate alternatives responsibly. Like the inhabitants of the cave, the citizens in Key's chamber process only what is presented to them. Their opinions echo what they receive. The central problem of this book is whether the public voice can be more than an echo: Can the people take an active role in creating their voice and in determining what information they will need to deliberate and then speak? Although a positive answer requires changes both in the media and in the political process, there is, in fact, continuous experimentation in both areas, which produces ways for the people to achieve more than an echo.
|Who Speaks for Me?||7|
|Out of the Cave?||13|
|A Voice from Rhode Island||26|
|What Should Representatives Do?||30|
|The Most Natural and Simple Idea||33|
|Counting People Equally||35|
|Deliberation: Thinking Through the Issues Together||40|
|Avoiding Tyranny: The Energy That Reforges Democracy||49|
|The Founders' Vision||57|
|The Anti-Federalist Dissent||60|
|"Like a Burglar": Informal Processes of Reform||64|
|Bryce's Prophecy: Government by Public Opinion||71|
|Opinions and Pseudo-Opinions in the Echo Chamber||80|
|A Rational Public?||84|
|The American Process: A Machine That Transforms Itself||90|
|Whose Declaration of Independence?||97|
|All Men? From Douglass to Lincoln versus Douglas||101|
|From Paper Rights to Voting Rights||110|
|The Quest for Voting Equality||113|
|The Declaration of Sentiments||122|
|Whose America? How Do We Come to Support It?||126|
|America's Town Meeting of the Air||134|
|Toward Civic Engagement||141|
|Airing the People's Agenda||154|
|The Deliberative Poll: Bringing Deliberation to Democracy||161|
|Appendix: The First Deliberative Poll: Summary of Results||177|