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Carnegie Mellon Connects Civic Agency and Deliberative Polling

Guest Blogger Robert Cavalier writes about his work with Deliberative Polling and Civic Agency. Carnegie Mellon has been a very important partner with theAmerican Democracy Project, and the findings of this poll support the need for increased opportunities for citizens to deliberate about important issues of the day.

By Robert Cavalier,  Carnegie Mellon University

On September 25th, 2010 a representative sample of over 180 randomly selected citizens from the Pittsburgh area came to Carnegie Mellon University for a day-long Deliberative Poll ® on county government. The background issues and a report on the results of this deliberative event can be found at this website.

A number of questions on the post-survey form sought input on the participants’ own experience on the deliberative process and the effects that such an experience had on them in terms of civic agency. Here are some relevant highlights:

Feedback on Small-Group Conversations: How helpful did you find the small-group conversation?

“Very” = 66%

“Somewhat” = 28.8%

Feedback on knowledge gained about issues: How much did this day of conversation give you a better understanding of important issues facing your community?

“A great deal” = 60%

“Somewhat” = 30%

Feedback on learning from different points of view: How much did this day of conversation cause you to consider points of view that you had not previously considered?

“A great deal” = 48%

“Somewhat” = 39%

Feedback on Motivation to Act: Will you become more engaged in your community as a result of this deliberative poll? = 90% said “yes”

“Definitely Yes” = 35%

“Probably Yes” = 55%

Feedback on event as a whole: Given what you know now, would you still have participated in the deliberative poll conversation? = rounding the numbers, almost 99% said “yes”

Definitely Yes = 80%

Probably Yes = 19%

(Three individuals said “probably not’; no one said “definitely not.”)

Responses to several of these questions merit special attention, given claims by those both supportive of and critical of the very idea of deliberative democracy. Many who support the idea of a more deliberative democracy need greater empirical evidence to buttress their beliefs. And those critical of deliberative democracy offer data they claim casts doubt about whether American citizens are interested in deliberative forums. Diana Mutz argues that people do not want to engage in discussions with those they don’t agree with while Hibbing and Theiss-Morse uses polls and focus groups to claim that citizens don’t what to be bothered by the details of government. Combing both of these positions, the authors of Stealth Democracy write: “…real-life deliberation can fan emotions unproductively, can exacerbate rather than diminish power differentials among those deliberating, can make people feel frustrated with the system that made them deliberate, is ill-suited to many issues…People dislike political disagreements …People get frustrated by details and many simply tune out of the exchange because they feel uncomfortable or inadequate discussing politics.”

To these critics we can offer empirical evidence that they are wrong in their assertions, and that well-designed and well-structured deliberative forums of the kind we experienced on September 25th can and do bring out the best in our citizens. In a political season where negative ads and superficial sound bites belie a democracy driven by the aggregation of votes at any cost, we can see a different kind of democracy out there, a more deliberative democracy. Initiatives like this and the ones valued by the American Democracy Project can indeed help foster this kind of democracy and raise the level of civic discourse to that sought after by our Founding Fathers.

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