When people need to make up their minds about difficult choices, it's about much more than simply absorbing new information. In most instances, however, people can manage to process tough choices if they are given ample time and motivation.
It has taken me more than a half century of studying how the public makes up its mind to grasp the complexity of the Public Learning Curve.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
To achieve democracy-as-a-way-of-life we need to accept the reality that it takes a lot longer for people to make up their minds about difficult choices than simply to absorb new information.
This reality is rarely taken into full account. Both the media and public policymakers sometimes act as if the public should be able to make up its mind as soon as it has received relevant information about the choices the nation faces.
This assumption may be valid for "plain vanilla" choices that don’t involve painful tradeoffs or conflicts. But when conflict and sacrifice are involved, a fundamental psychological truth comes into play, namely that conflict breeds denial, wishful thinking, avoidance and procrastination.
It is possible to overcome these all-too-human tendencies. But it always requires time to do so – often long periods of time. In extreme cases like slavery and women’s rights, the time required may stretch into centuries.
In most instances, however, people can manage to process tough choices if they are given ample time and motivation to climb the Public Learning Curve. This ascent takes place in three stages, usually over a period of months or years.
Stage I is "consciousness-raising". This is the time needed for people to absorb relevant information about an issue. It is the briefest of the three stages. In this first stage, our news media do an outstanding job of providing the public with the information and analysis it needs. The time required for consciousness-raising can sometimes be reduced to mere days.
I call Stage II the "working through" stage. People slowly confront and work through their wishful thinking and habits of denial and procrastination. The time needed for Stage II often gets dragged out when people are pulled in different directions on issues like illegal immigration and climate changes.
This stage can stretch out for months, years or even decades, especially if there is lack of leadership. The news media pretty much ignore this stage, partly because it lies outside their mission and partly because they may not fully understand it.
Stage III is the "resolution" stage. Resolution may come through new laws or other forms of public and private decision making. Issues like gay marriage display this third stage of the learning curve as it works its way both through the courts and through transformations in public attitudes.
Let me briefly recap the main theme of my past few blogs.
I have been arguing that we need a more advanced form of democracy than we currently enjoy if we are to confront the formidable range of “wicked problems” that face the nation.
Acknowledging the difficulty of achieving such a huge task, I have called attention to the concept of democracy as a way of life advanced by the late philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey helps us to formulate a more advanced conception of democracy by building on the authentically American tradition of pragmatic philosophy.
The defining characteristic of democracy-as-a-way-of-life is that the public participates responsibly and thoughtfully in shaping important communal decisions, such as what to do about health care, criminal justice, immigration, climate change and economic inequality.
To advance to the level of democracy-as-a-way-of-life, I have identified three new processes we need to add to our cultural norms. The first is to find new ways for leadership to welcome the public voice into the decision-making process.
The second requires developing new forms of communication to clarify policy choices and their pros and cons to advance public deliberation.
The third is to make provisions for the public to have the time it needs to work its way through a three stage Learning Curve as it makes up its mind.
Each distinctive era of American life has accomplished its own unique task. To my mind, all signs point to the importance of achieving democracy-as-a-way-of-life in our own distinctive era.