Thursday, October 3, 2013

Deliberation and the shutdown

Last Tuesday night I moderated a discussion among first-year students at Coe College on "Getting American Politics Back on Track." It was fortuitously timed, given the shutdown of the federal government that began with the start of the new fiscal year that very day. (The organizers insisted it was mere coincidence.)

The discussion format was based on James Fishkin's book Democracy and Deliberation (Yale University Press, 1993). After the organizers introduced the format, and I said a little about the issue, the students divided into groups of six-to-eight and discussed the options presented on the two-page issue brief. As a student of political theory as well as American politics, I was as interested in their reactions to the process as much as their thoughts on how to overcome polarization-based governmental dysfunction.

Well, they liked the format just fine, or so they said, though some groups were unable to reach a consensus and fell back on majority rule, and some groups' results felt like lowest-common-denominator compromises instead of creative products of multiple competing perspectives. But since they are required to attend a certain number of these during their first year at Coe, we didn't confront what to me is the biggest obstacle to ideas like Fishkin's or Benjamin Barber's: time. We were there more than two hours after all, counting dinner provided by the school, and that's not insignificant for most adults.

I came to see a couple more obstacles, ways that the system of deliberation could be gamed by those seeking an advantage. I want to be clear that I didn't see manipulation happening Tuesday night. The Coe students mostly knew each other, and for the most part didn't have immediate personal stakes in the issue. But at a town meeting, dealing with issues on which people had strong feelings, you'd really need to trust the people you were deliberating with.

First, without an objective standard of fairness, we are reliant on the perceptions of the participants. While ideally deliberation would take into account all interests and weight them equally, that's unlikely to happen in practice, and even if it did not everyone would see it that way. A comment at the Tuesday forum illustrated this problem as it relates to the current shutdown of the federal government. One young man suggested the shutdown was occurring because of congressional Democrats' unwillingness to compromise. House Republicans keep passing continuing resolutions, he noted, and they keep getting shot down in the Democratically-controlled Senate. "That's the Republicans' story," I laughed, "and they're sticking with it." There certainly are reasons to question whether the House Republicans are negotiating in good faith. For one thing, the continuing resolutions they keep passing have all been variations of the same approach: continuing resolutions for short periods while delaying and/or defunding implementation of the health care reforms. For another, the health care reform law on which the House Republicans have been fixated is a side issue. Democrats can argue, with some justification, that a "clean CR"--a continuing resolution funding the government at current levels, without amendments--is itself a compromise, albeit a lowest-common-denominator one, because it reflects no new legislative priorities from neither side.

Does anyone think the House Republicans are seeking common ground? Well, maybe the Republicans do. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, said during debate Tuesday, "All the Senate has to do is say 'yes' and the government is funded tomorrow." Thomas L. Friedman interpreted this as "Give me the money and nobody gets hurt." But the fact remains that there is no clear standard of objectivity. What looks to me like a reasonable compromise, even a patch, might look to you like complete disregard of my priorities. If you believe that the health care reform truly is a fiscal disaster-in-the-making that will create all manner of societal problems besides, then repeated efforts to roll it back are not only eminently reasonable but urgent.

A second problem with deliberation is that a process that relies on achieving consensus is vulnerable to who allege unfairness as a negotiating tactic. The instruction book I used Tuesday night calls for the moderator to solicit ideas from people who feel their voices were not heard in the small group discussions. (I didn't do this, though.) If some participants in a deliberative meeting complain that their voices were not heard, they may truly have been excluded, or they may just be trying to gain a bargaining advantage. I continue to hear, as state health care exchanges open this week, complaints from opponents that the 2010 health care law was passed with only Democratic votes--"rammed through," as some put it. While that is true, I don't know that Republicans can plausibly charge that their views were deliberately ignored. President Obama met repeatedly with people from both parties through the summer of 2009, including Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley. It was Grassley and the other Republicans who withdrew from these talks, in the wake of Tea Party tantrums at local congressional appearances in August 2009. (And then there were those alleged "death panels," and Sarah Palin charging that she would have been forced to have an abortion under the law, ...) I'm certain that Obama would have loved to get Republican votes for the law, or any version of it--the optics would have been way better, not to mention it would have reduced the need for bargaining with provider interest groups. But there were simply no Republican votes to be had.

In spite of the potential pitfalls of deliberative democracy, though, one look at the mess the federal government is in this week is all it takes to know there has got to be a better way than what we're doing.

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