A Sane Debate: The National Issues Convention

AUSTIN, TX - This is how bad things are, civically, in 1996. Offer a random sample of adult U.S. citizens a free, all expenses paid weekend trip to this bustling capital and university community. Include a stay in a luxury hotel in the deal. Add on an offer of a free accompanying trip for someone of your choice.Think you've got too many responsibilities back home? The trip organizers will even get your cows milked for you in your absence. And, just for showing up, you get a $325 check. No strings attached. No arm-twisting pressures about buying into a lakefront condominium. No funny tests of perfume scents, or being forced to listen to samples of pop music, or watch test TV commercials.Just one little requirement. You've got to read an easy to follow 14-page briefing pamphlet. And then spend the weekend thinking about and discussing three important public policy issues: the economy, the family, and the U.S. government's role in the world. And you've got to fill out a brief, 44-question quiz before and after your weekend.Sound easy? Even sound like fun? Then why do you suppose that only 459 of your fellow citizens, our of a randomly selected 900, would bother to do it?That was one of the main unanswered questions after the first National Issues Convention ended in Austin, Texas in mid-January. Although perhaps it wasn't so mysterious after all, as the 51% turnout for the event was even weaker than the 53% turnout of voters in the 1992 Presidential election. In the latter case, of course, citizens weren't given free trips anywhere, except occasionally to a polling place. And providing monetary rewards for voting ostensibly went out of fashion decades ago. While it would seem that the self-motivated barely cared about participating in the 1992 Presidential year, now it appears that even external inducements cannot increase those willing to dip their toes in the political process.That's right, half of those invited didn't want to come to Austin. That's how bad things are in our civically nonparticipatory 1996.Which is exactly what the National Issues Convention set out to change, rather than demonstrate. "This is all of America in one room," boasted University of Texas government professor James Fishkin, the ideological father of the experiment. "I was scoffed at for years, because first people said you wouldn't come," Fishkin told the attendees on opening night, at a dress rehearsal for the national PBS telecast which was one of the weekend's features. "And then people said that if you came, you wouldn't have anything to say. But this is the first time in history that a national random sample has come to a single place to deliberate on important public issues."The audience, warmed up by the familiar genial vacuities of PBS' Jim Lehrer, applauded itself. And, indeed, it did look like America. Slightly more female than male. Appropriate percentages of ethnic groups. Average family income in the low $30,000 range. Politically self-identified as 34% Democratic, 32% Republican, 26% independent.As to whether the random sampling thinks like America, who really could tell? Certainly the "I hate government except the programs I like. And don't you dare touch those" mentality was present in abundance. Equally obvious was the gender gap, with young white males tending to express virulently anti-government attitudes in a shimmering verbal stew clearly regurgitated from ingesting too much Limbaugh and Gingrich.In contrast, a large percentage of the women -- across age and racial lines -- seemed to have known, personally or close at hand, the perils of male abuse or abandonment, and were therefore less likely to characterize as an enemy a government which had been the last resort for them and their children.The method of the National Issues Convention, invented by Fishkin and an expensive group of foundation-funded cohorts (total tab for the weekend was $3.9 million), was deceptively simple. Get the representative sample to Texas, split them up into professionally moderated small groups, take their political temperature beforehand and afterward, and then let the country know that the experiment might be replicated elsewhere.To make the event visible -- and make it fundable via PBS -- an unfortunate element was added. The "deliberative weekend" was mated to a nationally televised "issues forum" with the presidential candidates. This proved inappropriate in two ways. First, it simulated the environment of daytime TV talk shows, those thought-free zones where serious issues seem to be on the agenda, but the format proves so discontinuous and personality-driven that nothing of consequence can be accomplished.Secondly, the televised component failed in that only two of the invited eight political figures showed up to answer a carefully selected sample of inquiries, filtered from the groups' deliberations by the TV segment's producers. Present were Indiana's perpetually souriant Senator Richard Lugar, whose Mr. Rogers demeanor seemed hardly presidential, and a newly dynamic Vice-President Al Gore, who hijacked his nationally televised segment from the feckless hands of Jim Lehrer. (Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, and Steve Forbes appeared via satellite; two of their connections were imperfect, however, so any dialogue was impossible.)The delegates dissatisfaction with this element in the weekend had to be randomly ascertained, since the questionnaire results distributed a week later to the media did not include tabulation of their evaluations of the experience.What the tabulations did show, however, was a revealing pattern of contradictory attitudes, although few attitudinal shifts. They're worth a closer reading, and more coverage than they've gotten -- only the New York Times, and PBS, seem to have bothered to do follow up stories with the poll's results. (The overall media turnout, with 250 credentialled representatives of about 50 news organizations, was disappointing as well; organizers had predicted 1,000.)One result that leaps out of the poll is Americans' contradictory view of our country's economic system. Three quarters of those polled after deliberation agreed that "the average worker does not receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work," up from 59% before the weekend. And an impromptu show of hands, asked for by Vice-President Gore during his live appearance, indicated that more than eighty percent of the audience favored an increase in the minimum wage. Government intervention to assure jobs and a good standard of living were favored by 44% of those present, up from 31% before the conference. And a whopping 86% favored an increase in the amount spent on education and training.But despite such support for greater economic equity, and some interest in government intervention to achieve it, 80% of the participants (versus 72% before the convention) agreed with the statement, "The economy can run only if businesses make good profits. That benefits everyone in the end."Repeatedly, during the small group deliberations, participants recounted poignant personal tales of economic insecurity. But, just as often, someone spoke up for the system that perpetuates that insecurity. People did not seem to see a causal connection between their own individual angst and corporate greed, outrageous executive salaries, off-shore industrial flight, and profit-oriented downsizing -- all of which were talked about, but as disconnected phenomena.Similarly, while large majorities favored more family planning services (79% before, 89% afterward) and more government help with childcare and pre-school (92% afterward, 79% beforehand), only 31% believe that government should guarantee a "safety net." And 63% (versus fifty percent beforehand) believe that states, rather than the federal government should decide what that safety net consists of.That a state-run "safety net" would dissolve quickly in times of economic stress, when it would be most needed, wasn't part of the discussion. Nor was the distinct possibility that those desired family planning services, childcare, and pre-school would become locally tortured political footballs without common federal standards.Part of the problem was the bland "Guide to Public Deliberation" which delegates were instructed to use in their discussions. Written by a group of mutually acceptable centrist Republicans and Democrats, it avoided unpleasant truths and distorted important facts. In foreign policy, for example, all options presented to the delegates included a false assumption that U.S. military interventions abroad are done with benevolent intentions.Economic discussions were framed without any hint of the corporate malfeasance and greed discussed almost daily in the media. And the "family issues" section did little to link structural deterioration to economic conditions -- although the delegates themselves seem to have made the connection during their deliberations. 51% of them agreed afterward that economic pressure was more responsible than "breakdown of traditional values" for problems in the American family (beforehand, "breakdown" had been favored over economic pressure by 58% to 36%.)A 90-minute PBS program summarizing the weekend was broadcast nationally in prime time on PBS, where various pundits and pollsters who hadn't bothered to attend the National Issues Convention nevertheless opined about what it meant. Some criticized its methodology. Some doubted it could serve as a model. Others tore apart its conclusions.They should have been there. Because beyond the quotable quibbles, there was something very important, and very touching, taking place in Austin. It was hard to find a convention participant who hadn't been moved to thought, if not to change of opinion, by the hours of interaction with their fellow citizens. And equally hard to find a delegate who didn't wish that politics in the United States would be more like what they'd experienced in Austin.A somewhat beleaguered Professor Fishkin, defending the low turnout and his novel methodology, now has to see what seeds may have been sown here. How difficult his task will be could be seen even as the Austin conventioneers left town. Creating "civic engagement," his stated goal, seems less than ever likely, as the mediaficated slush of attack ads and poll-focused horse race reporting reaches an early crescendo in Iowa and New Hampshire.But for 459e people at least -- chicken farmers, students, convenience store clerks, business owners, retired dental hygienists and deputy sheriffs among them -- there's now a realization that it doesn't have to be this way.

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