James S. Fishkin is Professor for International Communication and Political Science at Stanford University. He is also director of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy. Fishkin is a widely cited scholar on his work on deliberative democracy.

SLD: These days, the North American and Western European democracies seem to be under siege in comparison to other countries – what do you make out of that?

Fishkin: Well, it’s the model of multi-party democracy that’s under siege. The discontent that is causing this crisis is two-fold. Firstly, the approval ratings of individual institutions is at a historic low. There is a disconnect between elites and the masses, and the former have been aroused by different narratives. Here, the issue is that most of the elites are acting on a fact-reliant basis, whereas the masses are mobilised through emotive narratives. The elites are distrusted because they seem to be out of touch with the people, and the masses are out of touch with the evidence…

SLD: …which is funny, because participation in the democratic system used to be something exclusively accessible to the elites. Under the umbrella of mass societies, how do you reconcile deliberative democracy?

Fishkin: Democracy is a matter of institutional design, and this design changes. Primaries, referendums, recalls, you name it. Through media, polls and pundits we have severely dragged the locus of elections toward public opinion and mobilisation. So the question arises – what are the institutional opportunities for people in society to get involved in politics? The context has changed and moved politics from a mass public angle toward a plebiscitary or populist direction. Schumpeter, the first major theorist on competitive democracy said that political parties will manipulate public opinion the same way public firms will advertise and manipulate preferences of buyers in the marketplace. Parties will do whatever they can do to win, even though it may be an unintended byproduct. The other key ingredient is to convince individuals that their voices are heard. You are much more likely to speak up in an audience of a few than in this ocean of information.

SLD: Where is the locus of this problem? Is it a side-effect of globalisation? Where’s the crucial point of crisis in the democratic framework?

Fishkin: There are several. Social Media is a big one – there’s the intentional manipulation of public opinion that has gotten easier; the opinion silos that Social Media comes with – people want to have their own views reaffirmed rather than be exposed to other thoughts; as a consequence the traditional opinion journalism has had its business model undermined. Then you have the legacy of the recession and the continued effects of globalisation and automation almost naturally creating discontent among people who prior may have been non-voters or apathetic. The caveat here is though that the whole model of this competitive democracy is to get parties to win elections – not to inform the voters. Hence, it’s the media’s responsibility to hold these parties accountable to facts.

SLD: But what if you cannot find a common ground? Take Democrats and Republicans on the health care debate currently.

Fishkin: Oh sure! A partisan process where like-minded people are speaking to one another and excluding other-minded people will not lead anywhere – it’s a collective tug-of-war. If you engage the public in a representative and thoughtful way, you would get a more comprehensive and popular version of a bill, for example. Because people are not concerned with who will win, but what it is that solves problems.

SLD: So are you asking the American decision makers that this is the solution to political inequality? That if they adopt your model all their problems will be solved?

Fishkin: No. Think about entry points and contexts – where can it have an application where deliberation can make a difference? You need to think of a context where the representative and concentrated thinking of a “mini-public” can be consequential. We had this policy context happen in Texas. We did polling in every polity to deliberately determine energy preferences, which led Texas to go from last to first in wind power across the US. In Bulgaria, we led a national project on policies toward Roma people which had a big effect of the eventual movement that de-segregated Roma only schools. In Japan, we did the pension policy in the very time the government wanted to privatise pension accounts. We did a deliberate poll, and the public support of privatisation dropped from 70% to 29%. Instead of being exposed to risks, the Japanese preferred a consumption tax increase to secure their government pensions instead. This is what I mean with entry-point at the right time. You have to think about how to supplement our current democratic institutions to provide an input for representative, evidence-based public deliberation. I’ve been surprised it can be done from any country – even in Macau, where we wrestled a policy from the Portuguese colonial era.

SLD: Interesting – does that mean that if you insert a democratic system into a non-democratic country – China, Turkey to name a few – does one democratic system make an entire one?

Fishkin: No, absolutely not. The question is – should there be experimentation with the implementation of democratic decision even in countries that are not democratic systems? The future of China is immensely important to the whole world, and it can evolve in a lot of different ways. And the fact that they have approved deliberate democracy as an area of experimentation on a local level is constructive. It helps improve governance across the board. And isn’t that what democracy is all about? Give the people what they want, provided that they have had a good chance to think about what it is that they want!

SLD: So just implementing this doesn’t change the stem? Is it enough?

Fishkin: No, it is not. And of course we run the risk of having an authoritarian regime running this process as a fig leaf, but on the other hand deliberative democracy would fulfil some important democratic values for the better.

SLD: But then do you think this should be applied across Montesquieu’s separate powers?

Fishkin: Absolutely! I’ve been lobbying a lot to get this applied across the board, especially the electoral college, which I think it is not working anymore the way the founders intended it to work. The college has become a mechanical and partisan vote counting mechanism and it wasn’t supposed to be that at all. It’s an 18th century trap as I call it.

SLD: Then how do we get out of this populism trap? And what is your outlook?

Fishkin: The only solution I have is fostering better governance by listening to each other more. Connect the public in ways that are made as evident as possible, through deliberative democracy, to achieve effective policy outcomes. That, I think, will lower the fever and put us back on the path of substantive democracy. The waste of energy and resources that is infesting governments and oppositions and spreading partisanship is, as we said earlier, a built-in product of the system we live in.

SLD: Dr. Fishkin, thank you for your time.