What if California voters learned how the governance system really worked, through some sort of educational process? Would they be able to point to a coherent way forward?
That, in over-simplified fashion, is the goal of a deliberative poll being conducted this weekend in the LA County city of Torrance. Some 300 Californians, chosen at random from around the state, will come together to learn about four big policy areas, ask questions, and, once informed, offer their views.
You may have heard about this poll (full details are here). Virtually every good government group in California has put its name on the event (full disclosure: including the New America Foundation, the think tank that employs me, though I'm not one of the organizers). And critics have already begun raising questions about the value of the poll, and the political affiliations and previous stances of the various sponsoring organizations.
In both the praise and criticism, the deliberative poll is depicted as exotic. This tells us more about California than it does about this poll.
The concept of deliberation is foreign to our political culture. Too foreign. We often put together major legislation and budgets behind closed doors, in last-minute sessions. Our ballot initiative system runs at reckless speed, giving initiative sponsors just 150 days to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures. (The Swiss, who value deliberation, give sponsors 18 months so they can build support, spark debate and still have plenty of time to gather signatures). Our voters have chosen to establish complicated formulas to govern spending and taxation - effectively blocking political debate over questions like school funding and property values.
The best thing about the deliberative poll is that its very existence challenges this culture. Just getting Californians to sit down and seriously think about different pieces of the state - taxation, the initiative, representation, the state-local government relations - is useful as a counterweight. And attention to the poll might even get Californians thinking about the value of deliberation - a radical thought in the Golden State.
At Zocalo Public Square, Tim Cavanaugh of Reason takes a negative view:
I believe this is a fool’s errand, and I am little comforted by promises of the nonpartisan nature of the experts. In my experience “nonpartisan” in contexts like this means “encompassing both Republicans and Democrats,” and sure enough, the list of luminaries includes such wards of the two-party duopoly as Common Cause, California Forward, the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, and the Public Policy Institute of California. I can say that not one group on the list comes within a country mile of my own view of the proper relationship of state power to individual liberty. And as one of the nearly one-third of California voters who don’t belong to either party, I know I’m not alone.
The rational ignorance of voters is only a problem if you believe in technocratic rule in the first place. It’s a pipe dream to imagine that California would recover if only Common Cause could persuade voters of the wisdom of net neutrality, or Davenport could get people to read its 2010 Civic Health Index (which draws the stunningly unexpected conclusion: “room for improvement”).