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  • Making Deliberation Cooler
  • Lynn M. Sanders (bio)

What better time than the summer of 2009 for James Fishkin's newest book to arrive on the scene?1 Our hot August featured one raucous town hall meeting after another, generating several arrests; members of Congress hung in effigy; a reported death threat against North Carolina Democratic Representative Brad Miller; and—last but not least—a vow by the longest serving Representative in the House, Michigan Democrat John Dingell to talk happily about health care except with anyone who wanted to "demagogue the discussion." Lest you think as I did at first that Dingell had indulged in verbing—changing a noun into a verb—know that the Oxford English Dictionary already considers "demagogue" a verb, though chiefly one in the U.S., citing some usage from the 1897 Congressional Record.

Speaking of distinctive American inventions: for some years now—almost a quarter century, in fact—James Fishkin has spearheaded an ambitious project to marry the modern science of opinion polling with the ideal of democratic discussion rooted, at least in our imaginations, in the Athenian polis.2 This combination of ancient ideal and modern technology creates an institutional framework for "deliberative democracy," a familiar term that Fishkin reserves for the quite rare conjunction of actual political equality and "good" conditions for the development of "thoughtful" opinions. Fishkin aims to make this conjunction of egalitarianism and thoughtfulness a more regular occurrence, via an invention called Deliberative Polling.3 When the People Speak is the latest formal enunciation of this new methodology. It is not Fishkin's first book on the topic, but it is the most theoretically ambitious and comprehensive one to date.4

The project of Deliberative Polling has already succeeded impressively in terms of frequency. When the People Speak includes a chart detailing the Deliberative Polls conducted between 1994 and 2008: there have been scores of them already, in twenty-seven countries and on the Internet, and the numbers are building. Yet this burgeoning empirical record is available via other media;5 Deliberative Polling is widely covered by news outlets. So why write an old-fashioned, university press book about Deliberative Polling?

Fishkin's primary aim is normative and philosophical. This is a book about the democratic theory of "deliberative democracy," interlocuted with evidence from deliberative polling. The main point though is the normative rationale. (He notes that more empirical discussions of the findings from deliberative polling, generated with his collaborator Robert Luskin, will be presented later.) Philosophically, Fishkin buttresses the normative argument with the received wisdom of political thinkers, especially the American Founders. As we would expect in a book with the word deliberation in its subtitle, Habermas is invoked here, but not nearly as often as are the authors of the Federalist Papers, Madison in particular. This is because Fishkin, like the Federalists, is a proponent of the power of institutional design. And he is, like other institutional designers, a reformer. This raises the question: what is the object of the reform? The Deliberative Poll is indisputably a clever idea, but its real power emerges not from its cleverness but from how it compares to, and might improve upon, what else is on offer as a mechanism for discovering public opinion.

To qualify as democratic, deliberations must meet egalitarian standards.6 To qualify as deliberative, opinion must be generated under "good" conditions conducive to thoughtfulness and characterized by balanced consideration of alternative information and perspectives. To both ends, deliberative democracy needs to be a well-managed, safe encounter, so that it will not discourage, and will motivate to participate, the ordinary citizens who do not already feel driven to express their intense political views. Not surprisingly for such a long-standing and substantial enterprise as Deliberative Polling, exactly which aspects of deliberative democracy Fishkin advertises as most improving—better thinking via "good conditions," fuller participation in deliberation of more representative citizens, or better managed, less raucous public encounters—has shifted over time.

Originally, Fishkin adopted and attempted to respond to the worries emerging from the tradition of political behavior research, from students of public opinion and voting led by Philip Converse. When the People Speak not only still addresses...


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pp. 41-47
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