Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2004
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 20A

Democracy & Disobedience

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

Campaign Reform

Political campaigns afford opportunities for public debate. But much of the money that finances American elections comes from groups that do not wish to see their interests candidly discussed. These funds flow overwhelmingly to incumbents to help them stave off competition and thereby avoid confronting difficult topics. Campaigns use their war chests to buy television and radio ads that do not inform voters or encourage disaffected people to become politically engaged. The professional consultants who advise candidates look for divisive "wedge issues" on which their clients happen to agree with the majority; they then try to prevent any shift in public opinion. Consultants are adept at using rhetorical formulas that discourage reflection and discussion, that freeze public opinion in place, and that polarize and inflame voters.

Dead Florida Voter 2004

A system of (at least) partial public financing would generate a more robust and unfettered debate. Some of the public money could go toward activities that promote deliberation: for example, printed voter guides and official, televised debates. James Fishkin has devised an especially interesting format, Deliberative Polling(tm), that could become part of a public campaign-finance regime. He writes:

The idea is simple. Take a random sample of the electorate and transport these people to a single place. Immerse the sample in the issues, with carefully balanced briefing materials, with intensive discussions in small groups, and with the chance to question competing experts and politicians. At the end of several days of working through the issues face to face, poll the participants in detail. The resulting survey offers a representation of the considered judgments of the public.

Poll Stampede Voter 2004

One such gathering took place in Texas during the 1996 presidential primary, with a nationally representative sample of 460 people. The experiment lasted for an entire weekend, during which the participants labored hard to assimilate information and share viewpoints. The national press corps attended in force, and ten million people watched some of the event on PBS, which broadcast it for more than nine hours. Such events could not be covered regularly on commercial television at any comparable length. However, broadcasters could be encouraged-or even required-to televise the period when the informed citizens pose questions to the political candidates. Then viewers would be able to watch the interchange between politicians and people who are like themselves demographically-except that the questioners would have studied the issues and exchanged ideas. Both candidates and citizens would learn the direction of an enriched or deepened public opinion, and everyone would witness a model of deliberation that might prove infectious.

Participants in the Texas experiment agreed that the experience was worthwhile and inspiring. The same year, another exercise in deliberation proved equally satisfying. The Commission on Presidential Debates asked 600 people to meet in groups and help choose the questions that candidates would be asked on national television. According to The New York Times, "An unexpected lesson was that participants lauded the sheer experience of post-debate discussion as much as the debates, bonding like jurists with other panelists and compounding their appetite for politics." A political scientist whomanaged the focus groups, Diana Carlin, said, "We didn't intend this; it just happened."


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Last Modified: 08/26/04
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