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The Voice of the People

The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy

James S. Fishkin
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Voice of the People
    Book Description:

    Ours is an era of stunted public discourse, where instant polls, 900 numbers, orchestrated petitions, and talk-show campaigning appear to have overwhelmed participatory democracy. What has become of the freely reasoned public debate and informed "consent of the governed" that, as cherished principle, we hold will produce better leaders and better public decisions? Where-or what-is the voice of the people todoay?In this lively book James Fishkin evaluates modern democratic practices and explains how the voice of the people has struggled to make itself heard in the past. He tells a fascinating story of changing concepts and parctices of democracy, with examples that range from ancient Sparta to America's founders to the first Gallup polls to Ross Perot. He then develops the rationale for a new method-the "deliberative opinion poll"-that uses modern media and survey research to legitimately rediscover the people's voice.Fishkin's proposal for televised deliberative opinion polls has already been realized twice by the British television network Channel 4, and he discusses its implementation in the book. In January 1996, his deliberative poll will be seen in action in a "National Issues Convention" to be broadcast by PBS on the eve of the American presidential primary season. During this broadcast, a national random sample of citizens will interact with presidential contenders in order to reflect and vote on the issues and candidates. Fishkin discusses the pros and cons of this important event, giving behind-the-scenes details about preparations for it.Here then is a compelling story of citizen deliberation from ancient Athens to the present, setting the context for future deliberative polls and related efforts to reinvigorate our public dialogue.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14670-7
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-16)

    There is a classic Jimmy Stewart movie,Magic Town, about “Grandview,” a small town in the Midwest that is an exact statistical microcosm of the United States, a place where the citizens’ opinions match perfectly with Gallup polls of the entire nation.¹ A pollster (Jimmy Stewart), secretly uses surveys from this “mathematical miracle” as a shortcut to predicting public opinion. Instead of collecting a national sample, he can more quickly and cheaply collect surveys from this single small town. The character played by Jane Wyman, a newspaper editor, finds out what is going on and publishes her discovery. As a...

    (pp. 17-63)

    American democracy continually re-creates itself in the name of one vision or another of the democratic idea. The founding of the country was a gamble against all conventional wisdom at the time, and the process of bold experimentation has continued ever since. Changing institutions so that, somehow, they better speak for the people has been a continuing American preoccupation, a distinctly American process. Ironically, democratic change has itself been a source of continuity in our political identity.

    The American Founders believed that they were faced with a unique problem. As Hamilton put it inFederalistno. 1, “It seems to...

    (pp. 64-96)

    Many of the crucial changes in the American system have come, not through legislation or through Constitutional amendments, but throughinformalchanges in democratic expectations—unofficial changes in the commonly accepted notions about how people should act in order to fulfill a given role. Consider how changing notions of democracy have affected the Electoral College, the national party conventions, and the process for selecting U.S. senators. In each case what the Founders had envisioned as a deliberative body—to allow for face-to-face discussion among those who were elected—eventually became a group whose members received instructions directly from voters. In...

    (pp. 97-133)

    America was forged in the name of general principles justifying institutions that practiced particular exclusions. As the exclusions were dropped, one by one, “the people” became more numerous and more diverse. Representation and public opinion had to change as our conception of the relevant public became more inclusive.

    In colonial times, the right to vote was generally limited by property qualifications. Not all white males, but only propertied white males, were permitted to vote. English notions of suffrage, inherited by the American colonies, were based on “the belief, as old as the emergence of the House of Commons itself, that...

    (pp. 134-176)

    When do the people speak authoritatively about their form of government? At a Constitutional convention, is the official and distinctively American answer. Elected delegates from the entire polity gather together in a single place and, like the American Founders, they deliberate on a structure of government. They engage in face-to-face debate, they air competing arguments, and they vote on specific provisions, which are then taken in some way to the rest of the people. But Constitutional conventions are rare events. And the ideal of face-to-face democracy has found other methods of realization, some as influential as official conventions.

    In 1894...

  9. AFTERWORD The National Issues Convention and Beyond
    (pp. 177-204)

    In January 1996, Deliberative Polling¹ became a reality in the United States. For the first time, a national random sample of Americans was gathered in a single place, the University of Texas at Austin, to deliberate on issues facing the country on the eve of the presidential election season.² This event, the National Issues Convention (nic), was many things at once—a social science experiment, a new form of public consultation, a contribution to the media dialogue, and a prelude to the presidential campaign.

    We faced a number of challenges for which there were few precedents. First, could we get...

  10. APPENDIX A The First Deliberative Poll: Summary of Results
    (pp. 205-209)
  11. APPENDIX B Who Came? Some Comparisons of Weekend Sample to Entire Baseline Survey (in Percentages)
    (pp. 210-211)
  12. APPENDIX C Comparison of Sample Delegates with U.S. Census Data
    (pp. 212-213)
  13. APPENDIX D Eight Deliberative Polls, 1994–97: How Participants Change (Selected Results)
    (pp. 214-220)
  14. APPENDIX E Do the Changes Last? British Deliberative Poll on Crime
    (pp. 221-221)
  15. APPENDIX F How Participants Evaluated the Process at the NIC
    (pp. 222-224)
  16. APPENDIX G National Issues Convention Committees and Advisory Board
    (pp. 225-228)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 229-244)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 245-252)