Dissensus on Consensus

Henry Farrell misreads me. Reason-based collective will formation and consensus are not the same thing. Deliberative Polls self-consciously avoid any promotion of consensus. That is why the results are collected in confidential questionnaires, or secret ballots, to avoid the distorting social pressure of consensus-based forms of deliberation. And that is why I dispute the common differentiation between “deliberative” and “aggregative” forms of democracy. My arguments favor deliberation for preference formation and aggregation (counting of votes) for decision. Sometimes there is more consensus sometimes less. There is no consistent pattern of decreased variance in opinion in our results. Put another way, there is nothing about deliberation that should rule out continuing strong disagreement (as Farrell appears to assume). Whether or not there is more agreement, at least people understand the reasons on either side and know what they are agreeing or disagreeing about. And at the end of the day, count the votes, but with reason-based preferences, not just manipulation and misinformation. That has always been my position. And a democracy focused just on winning political competitions without deliberation would be a democracy without meaningful collective will formation, as Schumpeterians admit.

When citizens deliberate in our processes there are significant changes of opinion more than two thirds of the time and the changes of opinion are driven by those who become more informed about the issues. There may be more agreement or less but it is reason and evidence driven at the end. My point about the role of partisans in deliberation is not a shift at all, as I have always advocated scientifically representative inclusion and balanced consideration of competing arguments. It is hard to have balance if you leave out those with strong opinions. Their views inform the others in discussion even if they do not change themselves. These points do not in any way affect my strong advocacy of a democracy in which citizens consider interests beyond self interest and partisanship. But it would be a sterile form of deliberation if people did not speak up for their own interests and if those with strong opinions were not included.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lead essayist Nancy Rosenblum argues that political parties need a “moment of appreciation.” Schemes to minimize, frustrate, or avoid party politics, and replace it with bipartisanship or nonpartisanship all seem founded, to her, on misconceptions that date to the Progressive Era. Among these misconceptions are the ideas that nonpartisan decisionmakers are impartial, well-informed, and above the corrupting influence of politics. Parties, meanwhile, serve many useful functions in politics. They reduce transaction costs to new political entrants (at whatever level). They encourage the formation of political communities, and they act to inform and supply coherent narratives about current events. Further, the need to maintain winning coalitions means that political parties actually foster, rather than impede, political compromises.

Response Essays

  • In his response essay, Brink Lindsey reminds us of the shortcomings of American partisanship. Although parties provide information to voters, they do so in an skewed and superficial way. They exact ideological commitments that are hard to justify on their merits, and they constantly present a temptation to groupthink. American parties have changed, however, and for the better: Formerly, they were almost exclusively based on personal loyalty and patronage. Our parties have become ideological, but only imperfectly so, and they still do not present a deliberative space that conduces to rational, impartial citizenship.

  • In his response, Henry Farrell brings up the distinction between partisanship and extremism. He notes that although political parties clearly have useful coordinating and compromise-facilitating features, some issues may well not be appropriate matters for compromise. The problem, then — if there is one — would not be that so-called extremists are too partisan. It would be that they are unwilling to compromise. And perhaps on certain issues, they should be. Bloggers and the Democratic netroots movement are cited as illustrative examples, as is the refusal of many in the Democratic Party to compromise on the question of torture.

  • James Fishkin offers several models of what democracy is supposed to do. He weighs each in turn and proposes that deliberative democracy — defined as a process that “contain[s] some claim to representativeness with good conditions for deliberation” — is the one most worth having. Partisanship squares badly with it. What we need, he argues, is not more independents among the general voting population, but more independence among partisan voters.