"United Around High Human Values"

Ryan Kennedy | 

Associate Professor | 

Department of Political Science | 

University of Houston | 


What is the “will of the people”? As much as variants of this phrase are bandied about, especially by politicians claiming to represent “what the people want,” this concept is much more complicated than most of us realize. While there are many aspects to this question, there is one in particular that I will address herein – does an opinion need a reasoned justification before it can be considered a true expression of preferences? 

Studies have repeatedly found that most voters have incoherent preferences, capable of being manipulated by the provision of basic information or even simple wording changes. For example, a number of Americans believe that the U.S. spends too much on foreign aid, but the majority of Americans also vastly overestimate how much the U.S. spends on foreign aid. According to some surveys, over half of Americans believe the U.S. spends 25% of its budget on foreign aid (the real number is less than 1%).[1] Not surprisingly, when told the real number, many people change their minds.

The problem is worse than it initially appears. Individuals may, in fact, be “rationally ignorant” of public affairs. For most citizens, their ability to influence decisions on major issues is so limited that the investment required to gain expertise on an issue is simply not worthwhile. Even in voting, where all citizens have equal influence, the chance of one vote in millions being decisive is astronomically small, giving individuals little incentive to educate themselves on the issue positions of candidates and how those positions will affect their lives.

Most people would agree that a position taken because one is unaware of facts or the substance of counter arguments is not a legitimate preference. Yet, over and over, we find that this is exactly what makes up a large portion of public opinion. One possible reaction to this reality is to resort to elitism, suggesting that common people are simply too ill-informed to govern.

Alternatively, a number of scholars have argued for deepening democratic practice through deliberation, a process of planning, problem-solving and strategizing involving ordinary citizens. The supporters of deliberation argue that “mere” voting is not enough to legitimate democratic decisions, rather it must be preceded by authentic discussion and debate among equals. In these discussions there must be accurate and relevant data provided to participants, arguments should be met by counter arguments, and participants should actively engage in the discussion.

While most people would agree that the goal of increasing public discussion is laudable, is it feasible and effective? For the past few years, several colleagues and I have attempted to address some of the concerns of deliberation’s detractors. A few of them will be addressed below, followed by a discussion of the implications of deliberative practice for conflict resolution, poverty alleviation and education.

People Do Not Want to Deliberate

One of the strongest criticisms leveled against the advocates of deliberation is that they are paternalistic. The argument is that most people do not want to spend the time participating in informed discussions of public affairs. For most people, the ideal would be for government to work effectively without their having to intervene actively. The only reason that citizens intervene is to prevent corruption. If the system could be made less corrupt, they would eagerly withdraw from politics, allowing it to function quietly in the background. This idea is labeled by its proponents “stealth democracy.”[2] Deliberation certainly cannot be successful if individuals do not want to participate, and it is paternalistic for scholars to insist that individuals ought to participate against their will.

We tested the prevalence of these “stealth democracy” attitudes in a number of ways.[3] First, we took the questions asked by the stealth democracy advocates and reversed them to see how many people agreed with the deliberative thesis. What we found was striking. For every one respondent whose attitudes fit with the stealth democracy thesis, there were eight whose attitudes fit with deliberative democracy, i.e., they were eager for greater public participation, discussion and compromise. Moreover, contrary to the argument that individuals participate in politics because they view it as corrupt, we found that individuals would become more interested in participating if politics was less influenced by self-serving politicians and powerful special interests.

Similarly, when asked directly if they would be interested in participating in a deliberative session, a large majority (83%) said that they would have at least some interest, with 27% saying they were “extremely” interested and another 27% saying they would be “quite” interested.

Our study went a step further, organizing a series of online deliberation sessions with citizens in 13 congressional districts. We asked a random subset of respondents if they would be interested in participating in an online deliberative forum with their member of Congress to discuss immigration policy. Not only did we find a high degree of interest (65% of respondents agreed to participate in principle), but, of those who agreed to participate, those identified by stealth democracy scholars as the most disenfranchised were somewhat more likely to agree to participate.

Put simply, while a number of people “do not like politics,” this does not mean that they do not want to discuss or have input into politics. Indeed, when given a meaningful opportunity to participate in a deeper manner, a large portion of the population appears willing to jump at the chance.

People Do Not Understand the Issues

As discussed in the introduction, one of the largest criticisms of public opinion is that it is usually ill-informed. Decades of survey research have shown that most people have opinions that are contradictory, ephemeral, and only weakly reasoned. Another criticism leveled against deliberation, based on these attributes of mass attitudes, is that most of the population is not well enough informed to actively participate more deeply in politics.

Returning to the experiment outlined above, a group of scholars looked at whether participation in these deliberation sessions with the member of Congress assisted individuals in acquiring factual information on the issue discussed (immigration in this case). For comparison, they gave another group just information about immigration to read. What they found was that just providing people with information was not enough to increase their knowledge on the subject. It was the people who knew they were going to be participating in a forum on the issue later who took the trouble of learning more about the subject.[4]

We should not be surprised that surveys have found that elites have more coherent and informed opinions than most people. Political elites discuss and debate these issues on a much more regular basis than the average person. Just as we would not be surprised that someone who regularly runs would be able to outrun someone who does so only sporadically, we should not be surprised that people who infrequently discuss politics have less informed opinions than those who regularly discuss the issues.

More important is whether people are capable of acquiring the needed knowledge. This research suggests that they can.

Deliberation Sessions Only Impact a Select Few

The final criticism that I will address herein is whether deliberation sessions only impact their direct participants. Since the Ancient Greeks, a number of people have viewed the ideal democracy as one where everyone can meet and deliberate together, followed by a vote on the desired course of action. Of course, such a large meeting is impossible for all but the smallest communities (and, even in these, such a meeting may be difficult to organize). This is one of the insights that lies at the heart of representative democracy – if the populace cannot be brought together to deliberate all at once, then a group of their representatives can.

This raises a potential problem for organized deliberation efforts. If the impact of these discussion is only for those who directly participate, then how can we ever hope for them to have an impact on the quality of democracy more generally? Certainly an effort at deliberation that incorporates every person within even a limited polity is too costly.

Such an obstacle can be overcome, however, if there are spillover effects from deliberation sessions – if participants carry the discussion outside of the session to others in their social network. To test this, we conducted another study where individuals were randomly selected to either participate in a deliberative session with their senator (Carl Levin (D-MI)) on U.S. detainee policy or not.[5] Prior to the session, we asked them about who they talk politics with and whether they talked about detainee policy and Senator Levin.

What we found was a dramatic increase in discussion of detainee policy and Senator Levin within the social networks of those who were randomly assigned to participate in the sessions. The number of people who were indirectly affected was more than double (150%) the number who directly participated. Moreover, we found that, contrary to what some had argued, the propensity for participants to discuss these issues was not conditional on gender, race, psychological attributes or the characteristics of their social network.

The Potential for Deliberation

Of course, there are many other challenges to introducing more deliberation programs and this research agenda is far from complete. There are, however, several areas where deliberation has promise.

The first is in the area of economic development and poverty alleviation. Most development economists and aid agencies have now realized that one-size-fits-all solutions to poverty rarely product desirable results. They usually fail to take into account local conditions and can be further hampered by a lack of “buy in” from the people they are ostensibly meant to serve.

This has led many in the development community, both scholars and practitioners, to explore options for introducing greater local participation into their projects. Such participation can take many forms, from the organization of local governance bodies to wide-reaching deliberative town hall meetings on particular development issues. This inclusion of participation and deliberation has become an essential part of strategies for addressing poverty. The World Bank has even allocated $85 billion to projects aimed at fostering local participatory development.

Studies on these efforts have produced somewhat mixed results and best practices are still being developed. With that being said, however, it is clear that the old practices of development policies, where technologies and strategies were imposed wholesale on passive populations is no longer viable. Deliberation will continue to play a vital role in development projects.

In terms of conflict resolution, it should not be surprising that there is a great deal of amity between scholars who study deliberative democracy and those who study conflict resolution. The two sides share many similar beliefs and goals. Both sides believe that conflict resolution should take place through the consent of those affected by the decisions, participants should listen to each other and give legitimate consideration to the other side’s arguments, and that institutions should work to increase recognition of our interdependency. The hope of both agendas is that through discussion and debate, both sides can gain a better understanding of the other’s concerns and criticisms. Such processes have been used by Wal-Mart to deal with controversies about its store locations and oil companies starting new drilling projects. Local consultation has become an important part of practices to address or prevent conflict. Companies and governments are finding that such practices are often cheaper, more effective, and produce more amicable solutions than lawsuits and court proceedings.

There are some who raise concerns that individuals participating in deliberation may not become more prone to compromise and empathy. Indeed, experiments with deliberation involving groups made up predominantly of individuals from one political orientation or the other can produce groups that are more ideologically rabid.[6] Of course this is not so much a criticism of deliberation itself as it is of deliberation that is not carefully constructed and planned out. Almost certainly if you put people in the same room who hold similar opinions and have them discuss those beliefs, all will come out more convinced of those opinions. The organizers of deliberation experiences must be aware of this danger and plan accordingly.

Finally, it is perhaps not surprising that deliberation intersects with education. In order for deliberation practices to spread, there must be a citizenry capable of participating in the deliberative project. In the 18th century European coffee shops, salons and literary magazines that Habermas viewed as the early form of the deliberative sphere, participation usually (tacitly) required that an individual have a certain level of education and economic means. Today, participation in deliberation also requires some degree of education, but we might consider whether such an education is limited to literacy.

The ability to participate in public discussions, to develop and evaluate arguments, to tolerate opposition – all of these are skills that may be learned. Groups like the National Issues Forums sponsor public forums and training to assist in civic engagement. The research from our deliberation sessions backs up this mission. We find that evaluations of these deliberative sessions were overwhelmingly positive, with most participants reporting that their learned useful information from the sessions and would be interested in participating again. Much as a muscle needs to be worked in order to become stronger, we suspect that individuals become better at deliberating the more they are exposed to deliberation.


It is probably much too early to discuss conclusions from this incredibly broad literature. I have only laid out the very tip of what is a very large iceberg. There are many criticisms of deliberation that were not discussed above and have not been directly addressed by our research. In some ways, as a field, we are just now moving from discussion of deliberation as a subject of abstract political thought and into something with practical applications.

What does seem reasonably clear, however, is that there is more to the idea of a “public will” than simply conducting public opinion polls. Such polls rarely represent the well-thought-out and well-informed preferences that we expect to drive political decision-making. Deliberation presents some hope of overcoming this problem, or at least addressing it in a meaningful fashion, with implications for poverty, conflict resolution and what we expect in education.

Moreover, contrary to what some scholars have asserted, there is evidence that a large portion of people are interested in participating more actively in political decision-making and are capable of acquiring the tools for doing so. And when they do participate, they share these experiences with others.

The task of deepening democracy is great, and there is much that we still do not know. If the alternatives, however, are to abandon ourselves to elitism or make ourselves slaves to uninformed public opinion, deliberation seems an option that is worth further exploration.

You can download the PDF format of Research Paper here: Deepening Democracy: Prospects and Pitfalls for Deliberative Democracy

[1] World Public Opinion. 2010. “American Public Opinion on Foreign Aid.” Retrieved from http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/nov10/ForeignAid_Nov10_quaire.pdf.

[2] Hibbing, John R. and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. (2002). Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

[3] Neblo, Michael A., Kevin M. Esterling, Ryan P. Kennedy, David M.J. Lazer and Anand E. Sokey. (2010). “Who Wants to Deliberate – And Why?” American Political Science Review 104(3): 566-583.

[4] Esterling, Kevin M., Michael A. Neblo, and David M.J. Lazer. (2011). “Means, Motive, and Opportunity in Becoming Informed About Politics: A Deliberative Field Experiment with Members of Congress and their Constituents.” Public Opinion Quarterly 75(3): 483-503.

[5] Lazer, David M., Anand E. Sokhey, Michael A. Neblo, Kevin M. Esterling, and Ryan Kennedy. (Forthcoming). “Expanding the Conversation: Multiplier Effects from a Deliberative Field Experiment.” Political Communication.

[6] Sunstein, Cass R. (2006). Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University

Last modified: July 12, 2023