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  • Deliberative Conflict and 'The Better Argument' Mystique
  • Albena Azmanova (bio)

Since James Fishkin designed deliberative opinion polls almost two decades ago, they have been conducted around the world—from Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, through a number of European countries, to Japan and China. This particular type of deliberative polling, reconceptualized most recently in When the People Speak,1 is likely the most effective institutional mechanism known to date for bringing to life the ideal of deliberative democracy, that is, of subjecting democratic policy-making to what Jürgen Habermas has called "the unforced force of the better argument."2 As such a device, the polls' claim to validity rests on creating conditions under which "results are driven by consideration of the merits of competing arguments and not distorted by some pattern of domination or group psychology."3 Thus, avoiding manipulation, domination and ideological distortion is a core objective of deliberative polling.

In what follows, I will discuss the practice of justification in the settings of public deliberation,4 focusing especially on the extent to which judgments of justice, thus generated, are impermeable to ideological manipulation and domination—one of the core concerns of critical theory.5 How does 'the force of the better argument' win the upper hand over what Fishkin admonishes as perils of non-deliberative public opinion formation? These perils concern the vulnerability of public opinion in mass societies to manipulation, rooted in the public's low information levels, in citizens' 'rational ignorance' (i.e., their deficient willingness to be informed), in their propensity to form 'top of the head' impressions under the impact of sound bites and headlines;6 in publics' vulnerability to the politics of impression management,7 to pressure by the more advantaged,8 or else by 'groupthink'9—to name just a few of the dangers standing in the way of informed, considered opinions.

My attention to the extent to which deliberative polls themselves might be liable to ideological domination and manipulation of public opinion was first drawn by a Financial Times article reporting on the Europe-wide deliberative polls in 2007.10 "Debate eases acceptance of EU reform," the article announced, welcoming the fact that "Europeans are prepared to accept liberal reforms when they are given a chance to debate them."11 As a result of the deliberative polls, described as a process of getting the London cab driver to talk to the Marseilles dockworker, Wparticipants reportedly increased their support for raising the retirement age, as well as for encouraging foreign investment and free trade.12 While the majority of people at first had opposed reforms of the pension system, they eventually agreed that "keeping the retirement rules the way they are will bankrupt the retirement system."13 Thus, the trans-European deliberative polls effectively brought about a shift to the right on two policy issues that have been at the heart of ideological conflicts in Europe: labor-market liberalization and market openness. The Financial Times article concluded on the salutary note that "[t]he poll is encouraging for EU leaders who claim reform is needed but fear unpopularity if they pursue it."14

Making allowance for the tendency of mass media to misconstrue events, the reported mobilization of such an impressive amount of public support for the neo-liberal policy agenda nevertheless could be seen to betoken that deliberative polls themselves might be an instance of what Fishkin rebukes as the danger of the persuasion industry first shaping public opinion and then invoking that opinion in the name of democracy.15 Are not deliberative polls, despite their strong claim to democratic legitimacy (or exactly due to it), becoming an important part of the persuasion industry they are allegedly countering? If that were the case, it would mean that the measures that deliberative polling adopts are, unwittingly, opposed to its own cause.

So the question is: How do we know that public deliberations are really free of power asymmetries, ideological idiom, and various forms of manipulation; that deliberative polling engages communicative, rather than instrumental rationality? It is with this concern in mind that I attended, at the organizers' invitation, a round of deliberative polling in 2008 in Hungary.16 In what...


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pp. 48-54
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