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Deliberation, disabled by group polarization

Scholarship centered on the final possibility of reasonable and efficacious public deliberation is often torn between two conflicting impulses.  One is the aspiration, which derives from the optimism inherent in the Enlightenment sense that collective human action might be plausibly freed from the arbitrariness of superstition and monarchical power, expressed by defenders of such institutions as trial by jury and Vermont town hall meetings.  Against such hopes are the often expressed skepticisms that deliberative democracy can ever be plausibly enacted in public.  Thus, to adapt a phrase used by Jacques Derrida, emerges the necessary impossibility of high functioning deliberative practice:  while the scale and complexity of the problems faced by humanity require well structured decision making, the obstacles to such behaviors only mount.

Beyond foundational attacks on the very idea of deliberative democracy (such as those well articulated by Nancy Fraser and others who noted that organizing societies to deliberate inevitably requires the artificial creation of leisure classes and the marginalization of large majorities away from actual and meaningful involvement), the expression of other impossibilities permeates the literature.  Deliberative practices that might be possible in very small and tightly knit communities (like small Vermont villages) may not be scalable large enough to enact at the level of the nation-state.  Those who attempt to interpellate civic involvement in public reasoning activities used to be able to assume a common vernacular and set of common values (speakers could, the argument goes, safely assume their listeners would understand the coded references in their speeches to the King James Bible), but no more.  And even when deliberative bodies are called into being, their work is invariably hijacked by elites and men-in-white-lab-coats and others who whether they explicitly try to or not end up shaming the less well educated or credentialed into silence.  And so on.

Cass Sunstein, the noted public intellectual and law professor who after many years at the University of Chicago is just this fall mainly jumping to Harvard faculty, has written a series of books that express additional concerns regarding the possibility of inducing widespread and intelligent deliberation.  A principal theme of this work reflects his rightful preoccupation with the ways by which contemporary populations are induced to self-sorting.  The richness of media content and the sophistication of media search protocols are thus a blessing and a curse, the latter because they seduce citizens into a heavy diet of information tilted to reinforce their preexisting biases.  Audiences thus end up trapped into a hall of mirrors where their ideological perspectives are never rattled, and because so much information from so many sources so regularly bedazzles, those who are trapped never have any reason to think they are only getting partial information.  To the contrary, their ideological soulmates reinforce in compelling and 24/7 detail the case for continuing solidarity.

Sunstein, in a recent lecture in Chicago, argued that these self-selecting behaviors have pernicious effects on collective decision making, because when individuals only associate with the like-minded, their views polarize further.  He laid out the results of three different research projects that confirm such suspicions.  In one, voters were prescreened so that focus groups would only contain those agreeing on the issue at hand (thus, all might be either opposed or supportive of abortion rights); after talking these homogenous groups expressed even stronger commitments to their preexisting perspectives.  In another, three judge panels were coded so that their collective decisions could be correlated to whether the panel was made up of all Democratic appointees (DDD), all Republican appointees (RRR), or some combination of greater diversity (RDD, DRR).  The findings show that when judges sit with the ideologically similar, their levels of agreement are startlingly higher than when some disagreement gets built into the mix.  The third study tracked mock jury behavior, concluding that similarly inclined (that is, more homogenous) juries also produced distorted and polarized decisions.

To scholars familiar with research done in the 1960’s and 1970’s in speech communication by small group communication scholars, these results come as no surprise.  Group polarization effects have been well documented for many decades.  In fact, for a comprehensive summary of the long tradition of research done on this topic, there is in my view no better guide than John Gastil, a communication scholar at the University of Washington, who has recently summarized all of it in his Political Communication and Deliberation (Sage 2008).

The much more difficult challenge is to offer proposals that might rectify the pessimistic diagnoses that emerge from all these research traditions.  Gastil does not lay out very elaborated options; at one point he says people interested in fixing things should consider hosting a National Issues Forum, and the closing chapter ends with a section dedicated this very issue but the absence of detailed political options makes an otherwise very impressive book end with a whimper.  In Republic 2.0, Sunstein offered a series of systemic proposals (which included the idea that the federal government should consider imposing viewpoint neutrality rules on advocacy-oriented websites, such as by mandating that websites link to alternative perspectives).  But so many weaknesses (moral, logistical, and legal) were identified by his readers than in the second edition of the same book Sunstein actually withdraws most of them.  What Sunstein discovered is that even if theoretically plausible answers can be identified, it will be hard to implement them in a culture like that of the United States where the legal constraints on mandated participation and expression are so significant.

Given the many indictments of political deliberation that now pervade the research and social theoretical literature, it may not be fair to expect authors to make the impossible into the inevitable.  One might rather choose to simply appreciate this work (Sunstein and Gastil) for calling attention to the shortcomings of deliberative practice, if only because doing so might inoculate elites against the utopian temptations of thinking that nostalgically attractive town hall meetings can save the day and prevent global warming and all the rest.  I confess to some surprise that Prof. Sunstein, addressing a group of mass communication educators, never advocated changes in pedagogical practices that might educate a new generation of media consumers against these dangers.  But even radical changes in educational practice would be hard pressed to correct for the many distractions  posed by the magical mass mediated hallucinations that bedazzle audiences and at the very moment when tragedy (Katrina, tsunami, 9/11, war) seems to focus social collectives on the need for reasonable systemic correctives to large scale threats, lure us too often into quietude.

Or would they?  A colleague of mine at Georgia State University, Carol Winkler, working with colleagues at Emory University and elsewhere, has introduced programs centered on teaching public advocacy and debating skills to kids struggling in underperforming schools.  Debate has many benefits, it turns out, for marginalized students:  the fact that debating is a competitive activity (there is a winner, there is a loser) grabs student’s attention and gives them a reason to attend to public policy complexities (if they don’t they will lose the debates).  Because debating requires students to absorb complex information and then articulate it publicly in their own words and in ways they can defend under questioning, students in these programs escape the shortcomings of a pedagogical model reliant on lecturing or one-on-one tutoring.  The educational gains are often remarkable: compelling literacy gains, major drops in truancy rates.  But perhaps more than all this is the value of inducing students into deliberative practices that end up making them interested in attending to the big issues we face together.  Such outcomes are so impressive that the Department of Justice has named these programs as among the most effective known interventions able to reach at-risk youth.

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