Seeking a public opinion of substance

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The designers of the Constitution were a literate bunch of Enlightenment thinkers. They lived in the time of the printed word and the close argument. We, on the other hand, live in the age of YouTube, talk radio, reality TV, cable news and the 30-second attack ad. A constant barrage of public opinion polls -- Gallup, Zogby, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS News -- tells us what we think.

Well, maybe.

On big issues -- what should California do to balance its books and avoid insolvency, for example -- it is important that the public weigh in. But if public knowledge is only skin deep, asking Californians what they want to do is similar to asking your 8-year-old to help drive the winding mountain road to Yosemite National Park. Neither they nor he know how.

The polls themselves prove that a problem exists. A January survey by the Public Policy Institute of California asked Californians about the state’s $20-billion budget shortfall. Six in 10 said that “the state should spend less and still provide the same level of services.”


There is similar cluelessness at the federal level. In December, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a survey that showed only 1 in 3 people knew that no Senate Republicans had voted for the healthcare bill, and that only 1 in 4 understood that 60 votes are required to break a filibuster.

It’s not the polls’ fault. These are reputable outfits using sophisticated techniques to arrive at representative samples and fair questions. The problem is that what pollsters capture are mostly “top of the head” reactions to the latest buzz, not reasoned, informed judgments that could help guide public decisions.

UCLA political scientist John Zaller, whose specialty is public opinion, puts it this way: “Most people on most issues are relatively uncritical about the ideas they internalize. They fill up their minds with large stores of only partially consistent ideas, arguments and considerations. When asked a survey question, they call to mind as many of these ideas as are immediately accessible in memory. But they make these choices in great haste -- typically on the basis of one or perhaps two considerations that happen to be ‘top of the head’ at the moment.”

If public opinion is going to get beyond merely reflecting a mood to helping us decide what we need to do about crucial issues, it is important that the people polled have some knowledge about the issues and the basic choices and trade-offs that policymakers and elected officials face. We need to know what the public thinks after it has actually done some thinking.

What to do? Complement our current polls with “deliberative” polls on the major issues. The basic idea is for a representative slice of the public to spend a little time studying an issue before offering opinions about what should be done.

There is more than one way to do this; I’m partial to setting up a system of face-to-face town halls with randomly selected delegates, connected via the Internet, in which the delegate “sample” would study and debate facts related to major policy matters over the course of several months and then would be polled for their views.


Deliberative polls and citizen assemblies are gaining currency. In 2004-05, British Columbia conducted a highly regarded citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. In August 2007, Washington-based AmericaSpeaks, whose purpose is to foster nonpartisan deliberative debate, organized and led a representative sample group of 3,500 Californians in eight cities throughout the state in a discussion of healthcare reform. And in 2009, a national “citizen parliament” was held in Australia involving 150 randomly selected delegates -- one from each of the nation’s electoral districts -- on the Internet and then in a face-to-face meeting in Canberra.

The two most consequential U.S. examples occurred in Oregon and New Orleans.

When Oregon expanded its healthcare program in the 1990s to cover more low-income families, choices had to be made about trade-offs. Hundreds of Oregonians took part in extended community meetings in which maintaining quality of life and preventive care emerged as priorities. The citizens’ recommendations guided the resulting healthcare plan.

After Hurricane Katrina, three “community congresses” engaged 4,000 New Orleanians, in the city and in the disaster-created diaspora, in considering a plan to rebuild the city. At the end of the deliberations, organized by AmericaSpeaks in 20 cities across the nation, 92% of the participants agreed on the United New Orleans Plan, which is being used to move the city forward.

This model of citizen engagement shows promise. It might help us attack our state’s costly dysfunction or, at the national level, begin an intelligent and civil discussion about our largest challenges. It clearly has the power to increase our collective capacity to think hard about our most pressing public problems and craft solutions. Its representativeness means that the directions it charts should be able to gain the assent of the largely silent majority in the ideological middle. And that might mollify what Peter Beinart in Time magazine has called our “vicious-circle politics” that thrives on polarization.

Convening town halls to neutrally present facts, then asking citizens to read, think, debate and question those facts before sounding off, may sound quaint in the age of talk radio and Twitter, but democracy itself is an old idea. Just ask the founders. Or better yet, ask the Athenians.

Kevin O’Leary, a contributor to Time and, is the author of “Saving Democracy: A Plan for Real Representation in America” and a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine.