Let’s Talk


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all sit for tea, discuss the latest and gravest issues civilly and come to some consensus about how we ought to proceed? Yes, that would be lovely.

A panelist at this week’s Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Associations conference is confident that this is possible. The gentleman was presenting his findings during a session entitled “Democracy, Citizen Engagement and Advocacy.” He shared how deliberative polling was successfully used in engaging citizens, changing minds, and resolving dispute over a municipal policy initiative.

As the Center for Deliberative Democracy explains, the problem is that

Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public’s surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called “rational ignorance,” has little reason to confront trade-offs or invest time and effort in acquiring information or coming to a considered judgment. Deliberative polling employs television and public opinion research to address this problem.

And it is a straightforward process:

A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

Could this truly be the way to resolving pesky issues like gay civil rights once and for all?

As a matter of fact, a statewide deliberative poll was conducted last September in Pennsylvania by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy. Entitled “The Issue of Marriage in America,” the study’s goal was to determine opinions regarding a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution which would define marriage as that between a man and a woman and would not recognize any civil unions.

It turns out that nearly 7 out of 10 Pennsylvania voters support the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, either through marriage or civil unions. At least among those who participated in this particular poll. But of course, it is nuanced.

Among those who support legal recognition of same-sex relationships, participants split with approximately 35 percent supporting same-sex marriage and 35 percent supporting a version of civil union. Moreover, data also showed that about half support a marriage “protection” amendment which limits the legal status to one man and one woman . What is hopeful for lesbians, gays and fair-minded folk is that the median age of participants is 54. Younger Americans tend to be more tolerant and open-minded.

Yes, it would be nice if we could sit and talk. But the sad reality is, rather than consider grown-up dialogue and engage in rational and fair deliberation, the forces of darkness and light are gathering their troops, ready for the next battle.

Image: The Tea Party by Frederic Soulacroix

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