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Fishkin vs. Hibbing – do people really want to decide? December 4, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : My master thesis, Political behavior, Political Theory , trackback

The following is part of the ongoing research for my master (graduate) thesis.

“Society is like a ship, and everyone must be prepared to take the helm.”
(Henrik Ibsen, An enemy of the people,my translation.)

Those of us who hold deliberation (in any form) to be an important prerequisite for informed decision making, would also be interested in the topic of how deliberative functions in society can be improved.

James Fishkin has been one of the most quoted political scientists concerned with the topic of deliberation. He’s a normative scientist, concerned with the benefits that can be reaped from encouraging more democratic debate throughout the population. He has proposed new democratic institutions, such as deliberative opinion polls, or more grandly the thought of a universal “Deliberation Day” (Ackerman & Fishkin 2003). But both of these rest on one very important assumption, that  “[…]most citizens would be glad of the opportunity to play a serious role in important historical events” (Fishkin 1991:9). And this is an assumption Fishkin seems to take lightly. But is it realistic?

John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse  have done extensive research on what processes American voters actually want. And one of their conclusions is that “People want to turn political matters over to somebody else because they do not want to be involved themselves[…]”(Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 2002:85). In general, people want “ordinary people” to have more of a say, but they themselves don’t wish to be involved, and prefer to be left alone (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 2002:129). They sum this up as follows:

“The last thing people want is to be more involved in political decision-making: They do not want to make political decisions themselves; they do not want to provide much input to those who are assigned to make these decisions; and they would rather not know the details of the decision-making process […]This does not mean that people think no mechanism for government accountability is necessary; they just do not want the mechanism to come into play except in unusual circumstances” (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 2002:1-2)

People are concerned that they might be taken advantage of by special interest groups and elected officials that reap personal gains at the expense of society. Subsequently they find support for more public involvement to be high when it is presented as the only option to rule by a self-centered elite. But that doesn’t mean they want to be continually involved. The ideal government is according to the common man one that governs with the best interest of society in mind, but that doesn’t require much involvement from its citizens – a non-self-serving elite (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 2002:130). Interestingly enough, Fishkin (1991:54-55) himself makes a similar point – that the public doesn’t seem to have a wish for participating as much as possible in democracy. He cites a survey that quite clearly shows that increases in direct majoritarian control through plebiscite actually seems to reduce the voter turnout and make the public less involved.

This is a challenge to theories of rational behaviour. Given that politics have an impact on our lives, why should we not want to decide as much as possible? One reason may be that we find our own impact on politics to be so little that it doesn’t justify our own involvement. Spending five hours in political processes won’t get us five hours’ worth of more favourable outcomes for us personally. And politicians should be very bad indeed to justify in personal gain for you to give up a major part of the life you have chosen for yourself and go into politics full time.

This basic assumption seems to be something many political theorists forget to take into account. Most people are happy leaving decisions to a system they trust. And I believe the kind of systems Fishkin suggest presupposes a high level of trust that your opinions will be taken seriously.  If this is true, what we have to start looking at is how to improve trust in politicians and how to improve the deliberative processes inside the governments we already have.


Ackerman, Bruce, & James S. Fishkin (2003) “Deliberation Day”. In James S. Fishkin & Peter Laslett (Eds.), Debating Deliberative Democracy. Malden: Blackwell, 7-31

Fishkin, James S. (1991) Democracy and Deliberation. New Directions for Democratic Reform, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hibbing, John R., & Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (2002) Stealth democracy: Americans’ beliefs about how government should work, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1. LFC - December 11, 2008

I’m not very familiar with the literature on deliberative democracy, but I’m not a big fan of the notion of a Deliberation Day or deliberative opinion polls. The vast majority of voters, including me I hasten to say, don’t know enough about the policy details of most issues to make this kind of thing very sensible, imo.

As for the Hibbing/Theiss-Morse findings (and I think they rather than Fishkin are probably right), a society that encourages people to define themselves by what they buy and own is not going to breed a large group of active citizens in the civic republican mold who want to be deeply involved in the policy process. However, the recent election, it must be said, furnishes anecdotal evidence at least that things may be changing. Young people in the US did not vote in much larger numbers than in 2004, but they did play an important role in helping Obama get the nomination, and a slice of the young electorate may have been energized as a result.

2. Torbjørn - February 22, 2009

“If this is true, what we have to start looking at is how to improve trust in politicians and how to improve the deliberative processes inside the governments we already have.”

I’d say there is a rather important difference between politicians and the system in this case. From experience, I’d say I’d trust only a handful of today’s politicians, but I trust the system which governs our nation.

If you think about it, it’s quite obvious that the ideal system excludes the need of trust in individuals. 😉

3. sverrebm - February 26, 2009

What you write Torbjørn, is almost exactly the point that Hibbings and Theiiss-Morse make: That trust in politicians isn’t necessarily vital as long as one trusts the system. People just need to know that there are mechanisms that make sure politicians aren’t able to exploit their power. I think my final paragraph might have been badly worded in that respect.