Addressing crisis of democracy

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  • Nov 04,2018
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The National University of Mongolia hosted an international conference titled “The International Conference on Deliberative Democracy -- Asian Experience” in collaboration with the government of Mongolia’s Cabinet Secretariat in Ulaanbaatar from October 11 to 12. During the conference, Director of Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy and Professor of Communication James S. Fishkin, one of the conference’s key delegates, gave an interview to Unuudur daily.

Mongolians are being introduced to deliberative democracy in recent years, but could you give us a brief description more about deliberative democracy?

All over the world there is a crisis of democracy. Politicians, legislators, and democratic institutions have very low approval ratings, almost at a historic low, in almost every democracy. The partisan conflict and polarization is yielding deadlock and cynicism about how democracy works. The parties combat each other by doing whatever they can to win elections. Even if that means they mislead or manipulate the public. The public is very well aware of this and the ordinary citizens are in a situation where they find it difficult to understand and to arrive at an informed opinion because interest groups of candidates and parties or maybe others who are trying to manipulate.

In principle, for the details of a democratic system, the fundamental idea is that there should be some connection between the will of the people and what is actually done, but the incentives that I just described for all the major political actors makes it hard for the will of the people to even get formed.It gets distorted, manipulated and reshaped. A very simple idea about deliberative democracy is to see what the people really would think under good conditions.

The other idea is to undertake that investigation, which is actually a social science investigation under conditions where the informed and thoughtful opinions of the people can have some effect on what's done. And that is my research program. So the Law on Deliberative Polling that Parliament passed is a really visionary step in realizing deliberative democracy, because first of all, for the most consequential decision how to change the constitution, it requires a national deliberative poll.

Second, for many local issues, it requires a deliberative polling. And so the combination of local and national, if it is fully realized, might lead to a more deliberate of society where many people would have the opportunity to participate in these kinds of processes. A national project of Mongolia’s constitutional amendments involved the consideration of many proposals suggested by different political parties or members of different political parties. Some of those proposals went way down and others went up in support so it was a very open ended balanced thoughtful process with a nearly perfect sample of the Mongolian people gathered in one place. So it was more representative than most referendums because it was scientifically representative that is random sampling of households, random selection in the households almost everybody took the initial survey almost everyone who was invited came for three days, and discussed in depth all of the different proposals. And when the public really thought about it, they didn't want an indirect election of the president they wanted to elect the president directly. And when the public really thought about it they didn't want a second chamber modeled on the former Constitution, because they didn't think the second chamber designed that way would be provided check on the first chamber because the party group things had to be the same in the proposal so they were thinking in depth about the merits of the proposals. The second chamber proposal was proposed by some members of the Democratic Party, which was with a very fervent support in the countryside, and the indirect election of the president had very fervent support by members of the Mongolian People's Party and there were other proposals included from some of the smaller parties so it was not a partisan process at all, it was open to suggestions from the entire Parliament.

Everybody was surprised by the results because what people really wanted in their priorities and in the proposals went to the very top. They wanted an independent civil service, judiciary, and good government. I think those proposals make a very coherent amendment. So let me make clear about our participation in the project for the constitutional amendment. I and my colleagues at Stanford University did not conduct this deliberative poll. This project was conducted by Parliament’s secretariat, advisory committee counsel, and the National Statistical Office. We only offer technical support and advice on how to do the project at a high level of quality. We had no substantive positions on the issues only that it be good social science as a way of consulting the public and it was one of the best projects ever conducted anywhere in the world.

Are there exemplary cases where crucial issues were discussed through deliberative polling?

Well there are certainly cases where other countries have discussed very important issues through deliberative polling. Just a few months, ago you saw that South Korea decided whether to discontinue or continue the construction of two nuclear reactors, even though the government said it was supporting nuclear power and the reactors were partially constructed. This is an immensely important choice involving hundreds of millions of dollars and the energy future of the country. The government decided to leave it in the hands of a deliberative poll to make the final decision. Surprising decision was that they should continue the construction and the government accepted that. And the government of Japan after the great Fukushima disaster had to decide on its energy choices and they officially commissioned a national deliberative poll to decide between the major options and the government at the time accepted the results of the deliberative poll. So that was a very major challenge to the future of Japan and they put it in the hands of the people with this process.

During this time, the government of Denmark has sponsored national deliberative polls on constitutional issues in preparation for referendums that would follow beginning with the Euro referendum. There's been several other constitutional issues that they did to advise Parliament so it is not unusual, what is unusual in Mongolia is the law requires that it be done. My recollection is that there were six national deliberative polls in Denmark, five within sponsored by the government, one of them by civil society, and three or four of them were on constitutional issues.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of deliberative poll?

When I first described deliberative opinion poll in 1988, people said it was a crazy idea because I didn't realize that the people would start changing from the moment they were invited to participate and it would no longer represent public opinion. I said it would no longer represent public opinion as it is because public opinion as it is often uninformed inattentive people just reacting to sound bites and headlines.

What we really want from public opinion is what the people would know if they were seriously engaged in thinking about the issues under good conditions. So at first I was a lonely voice saying that but as we acquired more cases, we now have at least 109 cases; I was surprised to find out during this conference. There were four more cases in China than I knew about. The question is whether you want what it does. If you want everybody to participate, it is very hard to get everybody to deliberate, so you could have a referendum. But look at Brexit. Those advertisements on the buses that said, “We give 350 million GBP a week to the European Union. Let's give it to the National Health Service instead. Vote leave.”

The truth is British people tactically give 350 million GBP a week to the European Union, but Thatcher negotiated a rebate and most of that money comes right back so there was a pile of money to put into the National Health Service. It was a trick, but that is not so unusual in mass political campaigns.

There're all kinds of misleading statements that are offered probably by all parties. Do you want just a struggle of who can manipulate public opinion the best or do you also want something where a lot of care has been taken to make sure that the people have good information to get questions answered and can really think in a dialogue about what to do? Now if you say yes to that, we’re moving towards doing deliberative polling or something very much like it. The deliberative polling does not have more people than a referendum but it is more representative than a referendum because usually unless you have compulsory voting, you don't have everybody voting in a referendum. The deliberative poll is more thoughtful than a referendum. People really demonstrably have reasons for their views by the end of the process, so do you want democracy with the reason and with the thought or without? Do you want more representatives or lesser representatives? I think what the deliberative poll offers is more powerful and it has increasingly been easy to get it, but there are many visions of democracy in different periods they have been more popular.

The American progressives are popularized referendum and as well as the mass primary. Napoleon used the referendum as did former Prime Minister of Italy Mussolini. I think a referendum is a creative reform. I think it is time to think about how democracy can be improved and so far, Mongolia has been a very good case for us but you see from this conference that there are a number of quick cases in Asia.

Could people selected randomly to participate in the national deliberative poll represent public opinion without manipulating?

Well they obviously did in the national deliberation. The dominant party was strongly supporting the indirect election of the president, but this proposal went down and the opposition party was supporting a second chamber proposal that went way down. The people honestly express their view of urgent concern for fighting corruption and having an independent civil service. Those went way up so obviously we created an atmosphere which legitimated people’s sincere expression of their views and listening to those views by others. There was no predetermined program and also the materials for discussion were balanced for every effort. The people got the idea that there were arguments for and against, and they could say what they want. The moderators helped create that atmosphere they were trained to.

Who will be held accountable if the Constitution is not amended in the way most Mongolians want?

Every decision could later be criticized. These decisions are recommendations, except the Korean nuclear case. There are identifiable reasons for the recommendations. You have got organizers who are called the advisory group. But it's the convening of the people to decide on the basis of the way in competing arguments. I think that is more likely to get a good result than just persuasion campaign, propaganda, and manipulative mobilization.

Sometimes you could do those things in a good cause, but they won't really be the genuine reasons of people. My answer is to trust people but trust the people under conditions where you empower them with the best information available and you try to convene them in the most representative way possible.