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Faith-Based Deliberation? Preliminary Evidence from California

Taeku Lee's picture

Photo Credit: AmericaSpeaksMohandas Gandhi once declared, in his inimicably insightful and economical manner that “those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”  The same could be said, in obverse, of politics vis-à-vis religion.  We often bemoan the paucity of concrete policy debates in an election or lampoon incumbent presidents for declaring a “mission accomplished” well ahead of its due.  Yet when we do so we ignore, at our peril, the reality that politics is quite often a faith-based quest, not an evidence-based venture.

In academic circles, the charge of an over-reliance on faith over evidence is often aimed at proponents of high-minded and well-meaning political ideals such as civic competence, deliberative decision-making, participatory publics, good governance, and, yes, social accountability, among others.  The research to support such skepticism is all-too-readily available.  Studies abound to support nay-saying inferences about the incompetence of average citizens, the irrelevance and irrationality of political participation, the ineffectuality of institutional innovations, and so on.

I cannot endeavor to ward off all such nay-saying here.  Instead, I describe in this post some preliminary evidence in defense of one cherished ideal that we take an abiding faith in, deliberation.  Most democrats (small-D) – especially those who find their way to this blog – are committed to the idea that governance done with deliberation is better than governance done without it.  But why?  Is it an affair of the heart, a hope that we cling to despite evidence to the contrary?  Or is there solid, evidence-based ground for expecting meaningful and measurable gains from deliberation? 

Other scholars – James Fishkin, Diana Mutz, Katherine Cramer Walsh, Jamie Druckman, Tali Mendelberg, among those in the U.S. – have grappled with these questions before, to varying degrees of success.  My foray into this territory came about at the invitation of one former colleague (Archon Fung) and one former student (Joseph Goldman) in the summer of 2007.  The summons: to help them analyze a unique deliberative event.  The purpose of this event ostensibly was to gather Californians to discuss proposals for health care reform, timed to send a message to state legislators who were in the midst their own deliberations on health care reform.

Organized by AmericaSpeaks, the event (named CaliforniaSpeaks) was no ordinary public hearing or town hall. On Saturday, August 11, 2007, some 3500 Californians convened in eight sites across California: San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento, and Eureka. The eight sites were linked to one another through voice and data connections so that, in a sense, the event was one very large meeting. In another sense, however, the event comprised hundreds of small meetings, as participants deliberated face-to-face in groups of eight to twelve seated at a table. For most of the day, they discussed health care issues with one another in these small groups.

Beyond sheer scale and technical wizardry, the event was also notable in several other respects.  First, deliberative events that academics research are typically either staged to replicate normative ideals of deliberation or designed to meet scientific ideals of causal inference – in both instances, at a prohibitive cost not just in time and money, but also in relevance for real-world policy debates and governance issues.  The CaliforniaSpeaks event, by contrast, began with a nonpartisan group (AmericaSpeaks) working in close liaison with key legislative decision-makers.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, and Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines not only supported the event, but each also made a site visit, addressed the participants, and followed the outcome of the deliberations.  These elite political actors, in effect, sought the authorization of the “will of the people” as a countervailing force to the entrenched interests that have long marred efforts to legislate systematic health care reform in the United States.  As with most successful social accountability initiatives, elite buy-in was a critical element of this event.

A second notable feature of the CaliforniaSpeaks event was that the organizers made earnest efforts to recruit a representative group of participants.  The failure to achieve a reasonable representation of “the general public” in deliberative events often forestalls politicians and policy elites from taking the outcome of the deliberations seriously.  It also thwarts researchers from being able to establish the effects of a deliberative intervention with any precision.  In effect, failure to recruit a broad and diverse spectrum of participants gives cynics and skeptics free license to lodge the complaint that deliberation is merely faith-based politics, merely preachers preaching to choirs.

Ultimately, Governor Schwarzenegger’s and the California legislature’s efforts to enact universal health care access foundered on the shoals of hard budgetary times.  By the time the consensus proposal for reform “died in committee” in January 2008, politicians in California were saddled with news of an unexpectedly high $14 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.  Yet from a research standpoint, the CaliforniaSpeaks event provided a unique research opportunity for those interested in public deliberation, political participation, public policy reform, and public opinion research. Though other deliberative events and projects have employed random selection methods of recruitment, the CaliforniaSpeaks is one of the largest scale events of its kind to date. Furthermore, it is the first event in which parallel deliberations occurred at eight sites simultaneously.  This deliberative event was also temporally proximate to a live policy decision, drew substantial media attention, and, by all accounts, also drew the attention of legislators in Sacramento.

Perhaps most impressively, the data on these deliberations are exhaustive.  Participants were interviewed at three different points in time: roughly 2,400 were surveyed immediately before and immediately after the event, and roughly 1,300 of those were re-interviewed five months after the event.  More than 800 individuals who agreed to attend the deliberative event, but never showed up were also interviewed.  And finally, these data were then coupled to several surveys of the general population of Californians between June 2007 and January 2008 and to in-depth interviews with state legislators and other key stakeholders in the health care reform debate.

Our analysis of this treasure trove of data thus far show the following:

  • As a group, participants' substantive discussions about health care priorities and reform proposals reflected a high degree of sophistication and closely matched the two reform proposals that were 
    ultimately submitted to the state legislature.
  • Participants’ opinions on health care reform itself, however, changed very little as a consequence of the deliberative event, or five months after the event.
  • Participants’ views about politics itself changed more significantly – specifically, their trust in government and their political efficacy increased appreciably.
  • Participants’ level of political engagement – at least on the issue of health care reform – rises markedly as a consequence of the deliberative event.

This last of these results is perhaps the most noteworthy.  When participants are compared to those recruits who agreed to participate but never attended (n.b.: here we are comparing two groups that were, ab initio, equally interested in the issue of health care reform), participants were more than three times as likely to have contacted the media or a politician about the health care debate and more than twice as likely to have volunteered for an organization working on health care reform.  It is worth noting too that context matters: the outcome of the day’s deliberations were not identical across all eight sites and the effects of deliberation were more pronounced for some sites and less so for others.

These findings are, of course, provisional and unlikely to fully satisfy naysayers of deliberative democracy or social accountability.  But until our analyses are more complete, they do help to nourish the faith that many of us hold for doing politics for ourselves, rather than having politics done to us.

Photo Credit: AmericaSpeaks (Live-painted illustration of the CaliforniaSpeaks meeting organized by AmericaSpeaks, by Daniel Camacho)