Citizens need an effective method for weighing the choices our country faces on tough issues, argues Dan Yankelovich.
Motivating people to be thoughtful about issues is a necessary but not sufficient condition for supporting democracy as a way of life (see my previous blog).
Once people are motivated, they then need special tools for thoughtful deliberation. To address and make tough choices, people need to understand what their choices actually are. And what trade-offs and sacrifices go with each choice.
Here are just a few of the tough choices that currently confront the American public:
- What are our options for ending the middle class income stagnation of the past 15 years?
- What are the hard choices we face to slow the disastrous effects of climate change?
- What do we do with the vast numbers of parentless children illegally crossing the border to escape the violence of their home countries?
- What alternatives are there to our present system of warehousing so many mentally ill Americans in our prisons at enormous public expense?
What these and other policy decisions have in common is that very few Americans understand what our choices really are, let alone what sacrifices and trade-offs each one entails.
Very few Americans understand what our choices really are, let alone what sacrifices and trade-offs each one entails.
Our democracy lacks effective methods of communication for accomplishing this task. News and entertainment media currently dominate our communication system. But news and entertainment media are awkward and amateurish at offering guidance for public deliberation.
When leaders in positions of power and influence confront tough issues, they rely on expert staff work to clarify their options. In the military, the hard work of setting forth options is recognized as requiring time, effort and special skill.
It would greatly advance democracy-as-a-way-of-life if average Americans could benefit from this kind of staff work. A new branch of journalism may be needed to perform this vitally important function for the public. And a new attitude must guarantee its political independence and neutrality.
I can see why political leaders might hesitate to present a range of choices to the public, even if they emphasize the one they prefer. Doing so may add to, rather than reduce, public confusion. But what happens when that staff function isn’t performed for the public? It leaves a big hole in our democratic practice.
If we continue to ignore this vacuum of information, we cannot expect the public to deliberate thoughtfully and effectively.
America needs to do more to achieve valid public deliberation and democracy-as-a-way-of-life.