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No Deliberation Without Motivation

November 24, 2014

Many former presidents have invited the public to weigh in on policy decisions. Recent presidents have given up this practice. How has this harmed our democracy?

In my last blog, I identified three innovations to achieve what John Dewey called democracy as a way of life.

First, we need a political process that unambiguously invites average Americans to deliberate on important policy issues and then communicates back to them that their voices have been heard.

My long experience in public opinion polling has taught me that what often passes for public inattentiveness and ignorance is simply resentment at being ignored. Once people feel their views matter, they participate more responsibly and sensibly.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the irony that Presidents Clinton and Obama, both ardent democracy advocates, never bothered to consult the public when shaping their health care policies—policies that impact the lives of every American.

What often passes for public inattentiveness and ignorance is simply resentment at being ignored.

They consulted insurance companies, medical professionals and all manner of experts and specialists. But they avoided seeking essential input from the public. It must have seemed unnecessary to them—awkward, time-consuming and a huge bother. So they didn’t do it, and then were surprised at the high levels of public resistance.

Even though Presidents Clinton and Obama are experienced and skilled political leaders, they don’t seem to grasp a basic reality about public opinion. Americans insist on being heard. And they can be resentful and non-responsive when they feel they aren’t.

This is a reality that many former Presidents did understand.

When people complained to Lyndon Johnson about his indiscriminate inclusiveness, he responded in his typical manner: “I would rather have them inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.”

Richard Nixon didn’t understand people very well. But he was shrewd. He learned to start his speeches by articulating how voters felt about the issue he wanted to discuss. Voter response was: “he is listening to us and knows how we feel.”

A man weeping at the funeral for FDR was asked, “Did you know him?” He replied, “No, but he knew me.”

In intensive dialogue sessions with Americans on controversial policy issues such as immigration, participants often start out venting their own strong opinions, as if their minds were closed to the views of others. However, when the dialogue starts to engage them and they genuinely listen to other participants, the transformation is often dramatic and even astonishing.

Sometimes they reverse their positions; more frequently, the changes in outlook are more subtle and nuanced. One can see and hear them shift psychologically from a narrow opinionated mindset to thoughtfulness and deliberation.

What sometimes passes for people’s intransigence or mindlessness is mainly a form of resistance to do the hard work of deliberation because no one has motivated them to do so.