Back to the Town Hall

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Just below the radar of major media coverage, a series of experiments is under way in what George Washington called “the great experiment” of American democracy. These new projects—variously described as citizen engagement, civic participation, or deliberative democracy—seek to restore something the founders took for granted: the active involvement of everyday citizens in the work of democracy. But in our supersized republic, town hall meetings seem a bit quaint, and citizens generally report feelings of detachment and alienation from their government.

In California, for example, 3,500 people gathered recently in “twentyfirst- century roundtables” all over the state to deliberate on various alternatives for health care reform. Chosen randomly from telephone lists, these everyday Californians came to eight places where they deliberated face-toface with their peers and were connected via technology to political leaders elsewhere. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders attended some sessions and found it helpful to learn the preferences of citizens who had grappled with the hard issues for a day.

Presidential candidate John Edwards has called for an even larger, regular gathering of citizens, proposing that “Citizen Congresses,” engaging 1 million Americans, meet every two years. Edwards suggests that technology will now allow “true national discussions, unfiltered by interest groups,” on the challenges and trade-offs facing our country, and will let citizens offer advice directly to leaders. He noted that such processes had been employed in the designs for the World Trade Center memorial, in the redevelopment of New Orleans, and in other projects.

Citizen assemblies in Ontario and British Columbia have developed ballot proposals for voting reform, starting from the principle that elected leaders were too conflicted and self-interested to resolve such matters. Everyday Californians have made a similar proposal for political redistricting in their state. A “deliberative poll” was held during a recent weekend in Europe, allowing ordinary people from European Union countries to deliberate over their future, with some narrowing of differences and changes in position by the end. On a smaller scale, a series of choice dialogues has been held with randomly selected Californians to get their views on tough trade-offs in K–12 education policy, gathering useful background for Schwarzenegger’s “year of education reform” in 2008. Countless smaller efforts—including town hall meetings, forums, and study circles—occur at the local level on a regular basis.

Ordinary citizens tend to be interested in pragmatic approaches to policy problems—ideas often more centrist than the ideological extremes of political leaders.

Why don’t we hear more about these projects? The short answer is that no one cares much about political processes; we want to know about results. Sure, people may be coming together and being heard in new ways, but what happened to health care reform in California, for example? Essentially nothing. The commitment of Canadian citizens to come together every other weekend for the better part of a year to design a new voting system was impressive, but, in the end, it went down to defeat at the ballot box. Other local projects have enjoyed greater success, but, as with most political efforts, the outcomes are mixed.

But some say that improving citizen engagement is reason enough to continue with these experiments. Ed Everett, the city manager of Redwood City, California, observes that, at least at the local level, “Officials need to understand that their center of control must move from the outcome of the policy-making exercise to the process that achieves this result.” According to those experienced in the field, ordinary citizens tend to be more interested in pragmatic approaches to policy problems, which are often more centrist than the ideological extremes of political leaders. Such ideas could help political leaders break through the gridlock of partisan politics and special interests that dominates so many of our legislative bodies.

As one pollster has said: we do a lot of polling to find out what people think who aren’t thinking, so why not poll to find out what people would think if they thought?

As I describe these experiments to my political and policy friends, I get a more enthusiastic reaction from folks on the Left than on the Right. Perhaps this is due to conservatives’ general reputation for skepticism—according to one colorful description, they are the ones who stand astride history, yelling “stop.” But the reservations are deeper and more specific than that. Conservatives wonder whether greater citizen engagement might undermine representative democracy or lead to even crazier policy ideas than are now on the table.

I submit that there are good reasons why conservatives should look seriously, and perhaps with favor, at these experiments. Here are a few points to consider:

  • Trust the people. This, as Ronald Reagan said, is the one, clear lesson of the postwar era. When the choice is between trusting government bureaucrats and policy elites on one hand, or the people on the other, conservatives should prefer the latter.
  • Follow the founders. The founders assumed that town hall meetings and robust citizen engagement would continue to be the order of the day. But as the republic has grown in size and complexity, we must be more intentional about engaging citizens.
  • Revive federalism and local decision-making. One reason political power seems to have traveled a one-way superhighway from state and local government to Washington is a failure to address tough issues at a lower level. Creating new tools and reviving local civic engagement could be a powerful antidote to more control from Washington.
  • Increase deliberation and dialogue. Some conservatives fear that the tools of citizen engagement come only from the progressives’ tool box, but this is not necessarily true. As Federalist No. 63 reminds us, our republic should always seek the cool and deliberate sense of the community, not the solution reached by a federal judge or one proposed by an expensively marketed ballot proposition. Engaging people through deliberation and dialogue, as most of these tools do, could address some of the ills of the progressives’ direct democracy and the liberals’ judicial activism, both end-runs around good democratic practice.
  • Improve the quality and usefulness of public opinion. One of the acknowledged problems with public opinion polls is that those responding frequently have no knowledge about the issues. When a pollster once asked about “The Public Affairs Act of 1975,” people were not reluctant to express their views, even though no such law existed. When, 20 years later, they were asked about its repeal, again there was no lack of uninformed opinion. Most tools of citizen engagement involve education and deliberation, so that the results provide officials with far more useful data than they would get otherwise. As James Fishkin, inventor of the Deliberative Poll, has said: we do a lot of polling to find out what people think who aren’t thinking, so why not poll to find out what people would think if they thought?

New tools of citizen engagement are no panacea, of course, and they potentially present new problems even while addressing old ones. But I submit that there are at least three areas in which such tools of civic participation would be especially useful. First, we need far more citizen engagement in local matters. To the extent that cities and school boards can learn to build community and engage citizens, the republic will be stronger. Second, when the rules of the political game are in question—such as in redistricting or voting, for example—elected leaders may have too many conflicts to come up with good ideas. Having a citizens assembly address such matters, rather than politicians in back rooms or consultants paid to draw up ballot propositions, is better. Third, in developing democracies, new tools of civic engagement may quickly build the sort of social capital that would otherwise take decades to develop through civic associations or in other ways.

In the 2008 presidential election season, conservatives are eager to know: where is the next Ronald Reagan? How can conservatism be refined? If those are the questions, I propose that greater civic engagement may well be part of the answer.