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L.A.'s Families Belong Together March. Luke Harold, Flickr, public domain.

Deliberative Democracy in Theory and Practice: Deliberating the Issues that Divide Us and Beyond

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American democracy is increasingly polarized and dysfunctional.  Levels of public trust in the Congress and politicians are at virtually all-time lows, and so is the ability of members of different parties to work together in Washington, D.C., and in many state capitols, to find solutions to our major public policy problems.  Much is written about the growing polarization of American society, yet public opinion polling suggests that the public is not as bitterly divided as the political class.

One perspective on the current crisis stresses the lack of opportunities for the American public to deliberate on key issues and challenges under good conditions—where they can receive balanced and informed briefings and talk with one another face to face, away from the glare of broadcast media and social networks that only reinforce their initial points of view.  “Good” conditions also provide trained moderators to encourage and ensure mutual respect for divergent points of view.  When a representative, random sample of a population—be it a city or an entire nation—is brought together in this way to deliberate, while being polled on their opinions before and after deliberation, new insights emerge about what decisions “the people” collectively might come to if they could talk in one room together as fellow citizens.  We call this innovative method of democratic dialogue and opinion formation “Deliberative Polling.” It has been used over 100 times in over 30 countries to help register public opinion in a more democratic and constructive fashion.

This course will first examine basic theory on deliberative democracy, with emphasis on the state of polarization in American democracy and the issues that appear to most bitterly divide the American public.  Then it will study the method of Deliberative Polling and look at a number of specific instances where it has been applied to help inform public policy dialogue or decision-making.  We will read studies evaluating applications of Deliberative Polling in cities and countries around the world. We will watch documentary films describing the experience with deliberative polls in several settings.  We will examine in detail some of the statistical polling results from previous Deliberative Polls to determine whether and why (and to what extent) people change their opinions on policy issues as a result of the deliberative process.

As hands-on experience, students will prepare briefing materials and surveys for an upcoming Deliberative Polling experiment that will be implemented by a cross-institutional deliberative democracy practicum course that is being led by Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy and the Haas Center for Public Service. They may also contribute to the planned state wide deliberation on the future of California. In addition, students will  engage in their own deliberations using the Stanford Platform for Online Deliberation, which has been deployed around the world.

Students will complete background reading over the summer and will write short papers during the course analyzing specific previous experiences with Deliberative Polling.

For your reference about Deliberative Polling: 

Apply Here for Second-Round Review!

Meet the Instructor(s)

James Fishkin

Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication and Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science

James Fishkin

James S. Fishkin holds the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he is Professor of Communication, Professor of Political Science (by courtesy) and Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy.

He received his B.A. from Yale in 1970 and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale as well as a second Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cambridge. He is the author of Democracy When the People Are Thinking (Oxford 2018), When the People Speak (Oxford 2009), Deliberation Day (Yale 2004 with Bruce Ackerman) and Democracy and Deliberation (Yale 1991).

He is best known for developing Deliberative Polling® – a practice of public consultation that employs random samples of the citizenry to explore how opinions would change if they were more informed. His work on deliberative democracy has stimulated more than 100 Deliberative Polls in 28 countries around the world. It has been used to help governments and policy makers make important decisions in Texas, China, Mongolia, Japan, Macau, South Korea, Bulgaria, Brazil, Uganda and other countries around the world.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and a Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Alice Siu

Alice Siu

Alice Siu is the Associate Director at the Center for Deliberative Democracy. Siu received her Ph.D. from the Department of Communication at Stanford University, with a focus in political communication, deliberative democracy and public opinion, and her B.A. degrees in Economics and Public Policy and M.A. degree in Political Science, also from Stanford. Siu has advised policymakers and political leaders around the world, at various levels of government, including leaders in China, Brazil, and Argentina. Her research interests in deliberative democracy include what happens inside deliberation, such as examining the effects of socio-economic class in deliberation, the quality of deliberation, and the quality of arguments in deliberation.