Diversity and Democracy

Campus Conversations: Modeling a Diverse Democracy through Deliberative Polling

Like many liberal democracies, the United States constitutionally mandates a range of practices to ensure inclusiveness. Yet we in the United States struggle to realize the full benefits of diversity, including the value added to the democratic process when a wide range of perspectives is considered. The practice of deliberative democracy, as applied through deliberative polling, promises an approach that more thoroughly embraces diversity. At Carnegie Mellon we have explored this model through a program called “Campus Conversations.”

Deliberative Democracy: Why it Matters

The constitutions of liberal democracies typically provide a model of inclusive engagement, guaranteeing rights such as universal suffrage. But this model is not itself sufficient. Although citizens of liberal democratic societies enjoy the freedom to exercise their rights, they often see themselves as isolated individuals who happen to periodically vote (if they choose to do so). Candidates find these voters easy to manipulate through media campaigns and sound-bite debates. Missing from this model is an engaged and educated citizen base—a base which forms the heart of a “deliberative democracy.”

Deliberative democracy in a diverse society relies on open and informed conversations in the forum of ideas. This conversation requires both inclusive practices that invite all perspectives into the discussion, and access to the best information and arguments available. Advocates of deliberative democracy have adopted these requirements as a strategy for reaching optimal decisions about a range of practical problems.

By participating in deliberative democracy, people become active citizens, engaged in the concerns of their polis and its development. In contrast to “thin democracies,” which have roots in the modern liberal tradition but fail to represent the republican ideals of an active citizenry, deliberative democracies are vigorous models of political involvement.


Modeling Deliberative Democracy with Deliberative Polling

Developed and tested by Professor James Fishkin at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, a Deliberative Poll® begins with a random sample of the population. The group organizing the Deliberative Poll selects a topic for discussion and sends background information to members of this group. The individuals then gather in small groups to discuss the topic amongst themselves and raise questions with experts. After deliberating a second time, they respond to a scientific survey. The result of this poll reflects how the community as a whole would respond to a particular issue or policy if that community had time to become informed about the issue through an intensive deliberative process.

Deliberative polling is nothing less than a new democratic decision-making process that articulates the informed voice of the people, potentially raising that voice to the level of “consulting power.” Deliberative polls at Carnegie Mellon have given students, faculty, staff and alumni the opportunity to weigh in on key issues on campus.

Diversity, Community, and Input

Called Campus Conversations, Carnegie Mellon’s initiative seeks to (1) highlight the virtues of campus diversity as it is embedded in the nature of democratic deliberation, (2) create a sense of campus community as well as an appreciation for democratic practice and civic engagement, and (3) provide a tool for dissemination and feedback.

Carnegie Mellon’s Diversity Advisory Council supported the deliberative polling model when members of the council recognized that random sampling techniques create a diverse community. This community is inclusive not only in gender, ethnicity, and political and religious persuasion, but also disciplinarily, bringing together such diverse groups as fine arts and engineering students. Faculty, staff, and alumni join students in conversations, further highlighting the value of multiple perspectives. These structured roundtable discussions illustrate the virtues of diversity without didactically describing them to participants.

Structured dialogue of the kind involved in deliberative polling brings out the ‘citizen’ in each of the participants. Participants come to see themselves as members of a community addressing common problems rather than as disengaged private individuals. In discussing the campus art policy or a student bill of rights, participants model active citizenship.

By combining structured protocols with random sampling, deliberative polling enhances dissemination and feedback loops, eliciting more informed responses from a wider range of constituents. Thus deliberative polling can immediately improve the quality of planning and decision making within the campus community, helping planners and participants understand the trade-offs and compromises that difficult decisions often require.

Establishing Campus Conversations

Practicing democratic principles is hard work, and instantiating deliberative democracy is even harder. But college campuses are uniquely positioned to play an important role in this process. Not only are colleges small societies in themselves, they are rich in intellectual resources and have the facilities necessary to adopt deliberative polling practices. We at Carnegie Mellon have developed a handbook to guide campuses through this process.

In the initial stages of the project, it is important to create a strong group of advocates. Secure a top-notch advisory board with representatives from all levels of campus leadership, including the university library and the alumni association. Appoint a committed individual as project lead. Recruit social sciences faculty and faculty with knowledge of document design and development who, in conjunction with the project lead, will form the interdisciplinary core of the Campus Conversation project.

Our first attempt at a Campus Conversation (on unauthorized file-sharing) drew a small audience. We were satisfied with the design, but we later decided to expand attendance to include “convenience samples” (people we encouraged to attend even if they were not randomly selected). Our next Campus Conversation (on a proposed Student Bill of Rights) drew a larger audience and had the support of the Student Senate. By the time we entered the second year of Campus Conversations, our attendance rates had risen steadily, with nearly 100 students, faculty and staff members, and alumni participating in a Spring 2007 deliberative poll on Public Art Policy.

We are currently exploring the use of Campus Conversations to address controversial topics like same-sex marriage and matters of international concern such as climate change. These “talking values” deliberative polls don’t directly affect our institutional policies, but they do represent critical issues in the world at large. They can encourage active citizenship outside of the institution and highlight the broader advantages of a more deliberative approach.

We in the United States often speak of spreading democracy around the world, but we ourselves fail to model optimal democratic practices. We can and should do better. To this end, Campus Conversations instills a stronger notion of democracy, and encourages citizens at our colleges and universities to renew their appreciation for public deliberation, civic engagement, and diverse perspectives—first in local contexts, and then in the world at large.

For more information on Carnegie Mellon’s Campus Conversations and to download a free copy of the handbook, visit caae.phil.cmu.edu/cc/.

Robert Cavalier is a professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University and codirector of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy.

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