Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Right to Deliberate: How the Health Care Debate Might Get with the Times

News reports from the past week suggest that Obama has fallen prey to the romanticism of the colonial New England; he has a nostalgia for the town hall meeting. These get togethers allowed village members to gather together to voice their views on matters of common concern in front of town officials and one another. They were sort of the nice version of the Salem witch trials.

Obama, and other Democrats, have been using this forum to raise awareness of the his health care reform proposal. But it seems that in many of these events, well-organized protesters have been able to take the focus off the specifics of legistlation and onto the expression of their anxiety, fear, and willingness to shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

James Fiskin suggests that maybe we should get over this nostalgia and update our political interactions in favor of deliberative poll forums.

Instead of a forum that gives a self-selected assortment of activists an opportunity to vent their anger and frustration, a deliberative poll forum encourages deliberation among participants. This means that people are chosen as representatives of the variety of opinions in a community, are given packets before the meeting that contain information and data about the specific question at issue, and then are charged to talk ("discourse") with one another. It is not sufficient to simply chant or repeat the views that one had at the beginning of the meeting. The hope is that the group can actually think through the issue together, weigh evidence, looks at counterexamples, and perhaps come away with a different understanding of the problem than they had when they came in.

Fiskin notes:

"...we have collaborated on more than 50 deliberative polls around the world. The process has certainly been shown to help overcome sharp divisions. In a 2007 deliberative poll in Northern Ireland on education reform, the percentage willing to agree that “most Catholics” or “most Protestants” were “open to reason” rose 16 points. Those agreeing that most Protestants or Catholics were “trustworthy” also increased considerably.

One we held in Bulgaria, about policies toward the Roma, or Gypsies, produced strongly reconciliatory policies at a time when loud fringe groups wanted to build walls around the Roma communities. And in a deliberative poll in Brussels just before the recent European Union elections, people from 27 countries, partaking in discussions in 21 languages, moved to support more tolerant policies toward immigrants.

If deliberative polls can produce mutual understanding in such cases of sharp ethnic and political conflict and across such linguistic divisions, surely this process can help members of Congress have civil, constructive conversations with their own constituents about health care."

For all the talk about politicians such as Obama tapping into new technology, like Facebook and Twitter, for campaigning, maybe we should also consider new ways of doing democracy that don't harken back to the days of powdered wigs and horse drawn carriages.

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