Who Wants a Deliberative Public Sphere?

Abstract: Democratic theorists and social scientists suggest that a deliberative public sphere would be good for democracy by maximizing emancipatory possibilities and providing broad legitimacy to political decision-making. But do ordinary Americans actually want a deliberative public sphere? I examine this question in the context of four contentious “religion and science” debates. Through a multidimensional evaluation exercise with 62 ordinary respondents, I find that evaluation of public representatives in these debates tends to favor open-mindedness and ongoing debate. Further, respondents explicitly discount elected representatives who participate in public debate precisely because they are seen as violating deliberative norms through their affiliation with electoral politics. Respondents want a deliberative public sphere. But this desire reflects an understanding of the public sphere and institutional politics as disconnected arenas with incompatible rules and objectives, raising multiple questions for democratic theory and for political sociology.

Author: Michael S. Evans

Keywords: politics, deliberative preferences, public sphere, participation, deliberation

Notice: This is an electronic version of an Article published in Sociological Forum 27(4):872-895, 2012, doi:10.1111/j.1573-7861.2012.01360.x, © 2012 Eastern Sociological Society. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

1 Introduction

Do ordinary Americans actually want a deliberative public sphere? Social theorists and social scientists suggest that a deliberative public sphere would be good for the overall quality of debate and ultimately for democracy (Habermas 1989, Schneiderhan and Khan 2008, Taylor 2004). But studies of institutional politics consistently find that voters prefer conflictual and divisive politics centered on getting their way (Downs 1957, Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989, Schattschneider 1960). Do ordinary Americans want something different for the public sphere? Are hopes for a more deliberative democracy realistic?

Many empirical studies attempt to expose deliberative preferences in structured face-to-face or small group settings (e.g. Perrin 2006, Schneiderhan and Khan 2008). But absent such structure, ordinary Americans do not generally engage in public sphere deliberation (Eliasoph 1998, Putnam 2000). So in this paper I start from the insight that much of the influential activity in the public sphere happens through visible participants (whom I call “representatives,” see Pitkin 1967) in mass media debates (Ferree et al. 2002).

Using a novel interview exercise, I ask 62 ordinary Americans to evaluate such representatives in four prominent “religion and science” debates in the American public sphere.{1} I find that respondents generally apply a “deliberative frame” to evaluate representatives in the public sphere. Respondents evaluate representatives positively when they are deliberative and negatively when they are not deliberative, irrespective of their substantive agreement or disagreement. However, respondents clearly hold different normative standards for the public sphere than they do for institutional politics. Politicians universally receive an “electoral discount” in evaluation when they participate in public sphere debates, even (and especially) if they are seen to be good at politics.

To answer the opening question, respondents certainly want a deliberative public sphere. But I show that this is not evidence of a general deliberative preference. Rather, it reflects a common understanding of the public sphere and institutional politics as distinct arenas with incompatible rules and objectives. This “deliberative divide” challenges the prevailing notion of deliberation as a shared ideal that links together the public sphere and institutional politics.

2 Deliberation and the Public Sphere

2.1 Theoretical Background

Theorists of democracy agree that a good public sphere is central to a fair and just society that enables human flourishing for its citizens (Habermas 1989, Taylor 2004). The term “public sphere” is most often associated with the work of Jürgen Habermas (1989), and refers to “a common space in which the members of society are deemed to meet through a variety of media: print, electronic, and also face-to-face encounters; to discuss matters of common interest; and thus to be able to form a common mind about these” (Taylor 2004:83). In Habermas’ influential formulation, the public sphere extends beyond institutional politics and, critically, is capable of generating fundamental challenges to that institutional framework (Habermas 1974). In this view the public sphere provides an important source of emancipatory power to overcome unfavorable or inequitable institutional political arrangements.

Theorists also agree that a good public sphere should be deliberative. A deliberative public sphere has at least three characteristic features: inclusion, reason-giving, and open-mindedness. First, a deliberative public sphere is inclusive of the widest possible range of perspectives and participants, even if such inclusion makes the public sphere “more vulnerable to the repressive and exclusionary effects of unequally distributed social power” (Habermas 1996:307, see also Fraser 1990). Second, a deliberative public sphere requires the giving of reasons to justify arguments, both to avoid domination by one kind of external authority (e.g. religion, see Habermas 2006) and to reinforce a shared sense of legitimacy (Gutmann and Thompson 2004). Finally, a deliberative public sphere requires that participants remain open to persuasion (Fung and Wright 2003), even to the extent of engaging in “complementary learning processes” to understand others’ reasons on their own terms (Habermas 2006).

Theorists of deliberative democracy claim that a deliberative public sphere is important in two respects. First, a deliberative public sphere is important as a site of political decision-making. In deliberative democracy, all political decision-making, whatever the setting, should be deliberative in order to maximize democratic legitimacy (Rawls 1971, Cohen 1989). As Benhabib (1996:69) puts it, “[t]he more collective decision-making processes approximate this model the more increases the presumption of their legitimacy and rationality.” Of course deliberation may take different forms procedurally (e.g. choosing between established options rather than soliciting new options), but the model of deliberation, whatever its procedural form, links together the various levels and settings of political decision-making as part of a legitimate democracy (Habermas 1996).

Second, a deliberative public sphere holds special importance as the engine of deliberation that generates and exports deliberative habits to other settings of political decision-making. The purpose of a deliberative public sphere is not simply to generate legitimate policy options to be decided in the arena of institutional politics, but also to “affect how future decisions are made” (Gutmann and Thompson (2004:5). Gutmann and Thompson (2004) cite the case of the American invasion of Iraq, in which much of the public deliberation about the decision to go to war occurred after that decision had already been made at the executive level. A deliberative public sphere holds such (ideally rare) non-deliberative political decision-making to account, even if after the fact, to assess its legitimacy and formulate a legitimate political response. Durable democratic legitimacy requires a deliberative public sphere that cultivates and enforces ongoing deliberation both in and beyond the public sphere (see also Cohen 1989).

In sum, theorists agree that there should be a good public sphere, that a good public sphere should be deliberative, and that, even though a deliberative public sphere alone is insufficient for legitimacy, a deliberative public sphere serves a crucial role in generating and sustaining deliberative processes (and therefore democratic legitimacy) across all political decision-making. But in practice, the possibility of a deliberative public sphere depends on whether people actually want a deliberative public sphere or not. Besides theorists, who wants a deliberative public sphere? This is an empirical question.

2.2 Empirical Public Sphere Studies

Unfortunately, no one has ever seen “the public sphere.” Like Habermas (1974:49), most theorists of the public sphere consider it to be a kind of possibility space, a “realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (see also Taylor 2004). But how does this translate into an empirical phenomenon? Habermas suggests that a “portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body” (1974:49). In this sense there is no such thing as an empirical public sphere, but rather “portions” of the public sphere that are instantiated through public talk. Given the vagueness and ambiguity in the theoretical concept of “the public sphere,” it is perhaps not surprising that there are ongoing scholarly arguments about whether a public sphere has ever actually existed (Schudson 1992), whether a public sphere of any sort exists now (e.g. Downey and Koenig 2006), or even how we would know if a particular bit of public talk is (part of) a public sphere or not (Dean 2003).

This conceptual ambiguity has not prevented empirical social scientists from studying, and making claims about, the public sphere. But when empirical social scientists use the term “public sphere” they usually mean “some collection of public talk.” Often “the public sphere” means “a collection of mass media coverage.” For example, Oliver and Myers (1999) show how the content and sponsorship of protest events shape the content of “the public sphere” through local newspaper coverage (see also Koopmans 2004). But scholars of mass media sometimes describe any specified collection of public talk in mass media as a public sphere, with multiple collections of public talk (e.g. stories about different issues, or in different newspapers, or talk generated by different groups of people) referred to as “public spheres.” For example, a recent article by Perrin and Vaisey (2008) claims important qualitative differences between “parallel public spheres,” which they operationalize as distinct groups of talk about specific issues within a single collection of letters to the editor published in a metropolitan newspaper (see also Fraser 1990).

Of course public talk can occur in settings other than mass media, and social scientists have also operationalized the concept of the “public sphere” accordingly. In recent years many scholars have focused on various forms of computer-mediated communication, such as global internet communications (Castells 2008, Dahlgren 2005), wherein “the public sphere” is operationalized as “the talk that occurs in a given computer-mediated forum.” Schneider (1996), for example, describes the formation of a Usenet newsgroup for discussing abortion as the “creation of a public sphere.” But many other scholars focus on local, face-to-face settings, such as civic groups, activist meetings, or town hall events as the site of public sphere activity (Eliasoph 1998, Lichterman 1999). For example, Baiocchi (2003) describes the “open-ended and public-minded discussion” displayed by participants in a Brazilian town’s public budget meetings as “emergent public spheres.”

Yet there is almost no empirical literature that might answer the question “Who wants a deliberative public sphere? ” Schneiderhan and Khan (2008), for example, demonstrate a “deliberative difference” in the quality of decision-making and opinion formation both in experimental and in observational settings. Participants in Perrin’s (2006) discussion groups cultivated a broader “democratic imagination” through their discussions of various hypothetical political scenarios. Lee (2007) shows how the formalization of participation in conservation efforts led to a decline in inclusion of local perspectives and a decline in the overall quality of decision-making. Two prominent political scientists have even proposed a national holiday called “Deliberation Day” to institutionalize public deliberation in America (Ackerman and Fishkin 2004).

But even though existing studies usefully indicate what (a portion of) the public sphere is like, they do not investigate what kind of public sphere people would like to see. Answering the question “Is deliberation a better form of public talk? ” is not the same thing as answering the question “Who wants a deliberative public sphere? ” The empirical target of the latter question is not the public talk that is actually produced, but rather the expectations that people hold for whatever public talk that they encounter. I call such expectations “deliberative preferences.” Assessing the possibility of a deliberative public sphere requires access to, and analysis of, the deliberative preferences of citizens in a democratic society. While many scholars of the empirical public sphere have attempted to analyze the qualities of public talk in a particular setting, or for a particular issue, few scholars, if any, have systematically attempted to access more general deliberative preferences that American citizens hold across issues and locations (but see Ryfe 2007).

Moreover, while operationalizing the public sphere as “some collection of public talk” is analytically convenient, and useful in many respects, it unfortunately excludes from analysis those who did not participate in the specific collection of public talk being assessed. This is not a small problem, as non-participation in American public life is pervasive, whether due to a decline in associational life (Putnam 2000), a general aversion to involvement in governance (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002), the shrinking size of the “affirmative state” (Fung and Wright 2003), or distaste for confrontational engagement (Eliasoph 1998). Yet deliberative preferences must be assessed even for those citizens who do not contribute to (a particular collection of) public talk. Any citizen could potentially be a contributor to the public sphere in the future, and non-participants in one collection of public talk might well be participants in some other collection of public talk.

2.3 Assessing Deliberative Preferences

Assessing deliberative preferences requires accessing the evaluations that people make of activity in the public sphere, whether or not they contribute to the public sphere themselves. Of course, accessing these evaluations for every possible setting of public talk is impractical. Fortunately, scholars consistently find that mass media provide a “master forum” (Ferree et al. 2002:10) that shapes how public talk about an issue occurs in any setting, whether in local town hall meetings or global internet communications. Mass media may not be more of “a public sphere” than other settings, but it is reasonable to say that evaluations of talk occurring in mass media offer an empirical proxy for evaluations of talk occurring in a variety of other settings that, together with mass media, constitute “the public sphere.”

Focusing on deliberative preferences as evaluations of public talk as it occurs in mass media also helps address the problem of excluding non-participants from analysis in a given setting. Access to mass media is highly restricted to relatively few elite participants. I call these elite participants “representatives.” As I use the term here, “representatives” are those persons who participate in public talk as it occurs through mass media such as newspapers and television. By contrast, most American are not representatives in this sense. Rather, they are what I call “ordinary persons.” As I use the term here, “ordinary persons” are those persons who do not participate in public talk as it occurs in mass media.{2} So, rather than focusing on a small number of participants in a particular setting (e.g. town hall meeting or focus group) who may be exceptional, studying how ordinary persons evaluate representatives in mass media instead more usefully focuses on non-participants whose non-participant status is widely shared.

Examining how people evaluate representatives is standard practice for scholars of institutional politics. Representation has long been a central problem for political and social theorists, going back to Hobbes (1991, see Pitkin 1967), and it remains a problem at the forefront of current social science research (Urbinati and Warren 2008). Most studies of representation are concerned with electoral politics, where a pre-defined “constituency” formally elects or appoints representatives to speak or act on their behalf (Rehfeld 2005). What ordinary persons think about representatives matters because, as voters, they can remove representatives from power in the next election (Przeworski et al. 1999). As a result, there are many studies of how people evaluate representatives in institutional politics. These studies consistently find that voters want representatives who help them get their way (Denzau and Munger 1986, Downs 1957, Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989, Schattschneider 1960).

But scholars have not generally paid much attention to evaluations of representatives in the public sphere. Lacking the formal authorization apparatus of institutional politics, representatives in the public sphere are not accountable in the same sense (Urbinati and Warren 2008). Scholars of the public sphere have tended to focus on this disconnection in order to expose how mediating forces, such as mass media elites and their political allies, can manipulate representation in the public sphere to suit their purposes (Gamson 1992). For example, Gitlin (1981) documents how mass media attention to one set of representatives rather than another effectively contained the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) by shaping the public perception of SDS. Similarly, Taylor and Condit (1988) show how norms of journalistic objectivity can create a “leveling” effect where an otherwise discredited representative is presented as equally credible to her interlocutors.

Yet evaluations of representatives in the public sphere provide an excellent opportunity for accessing general deliberative preferences. The difficult empirical question “Who wants a deliberative public sphere? ” becomes a more tractable research question: “Do ordinary people, who do not generally talk in public themselves, evaluate those who do talk in public based on whether or not they are (or appear to be) deliberative? ” In the remainder of this paper, I describe and report a study that accesses these deliberative preferences by asking ordinary Americans to evaluate representatives in the public sphere. Following the literature on representation in institutional politics, the study incorporates multiple dimensions of evaluation, including talk, personal characteristics, recognition, and association. Such evaluations provide empirical evidence that answers, at least in part, the question posed by democratic theory.

3 Research Design

The main question in this research project is empirical: how do ordinary people evaluate representatives in the public sphere? This is necessarily a qualitative problem. While some studies (e.g. Jelen 1993) have tried to ask survey questions about whether or not people like, for example, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, this approach only gets at outcomes (the what question), not the evaluation process (the how question). To answer this question, I prepared an in-depth interview schedule that combined open-ended questions with structured exercises to gauge how people evaluate representatives in public debate.

I began by selecting four public “religion and science” debates from which to draw a set of representatives for evaluation. While no public debate escapes political partisanship entirely, religion and science are sources of authority that are not simply reducible to divisions along formal political dimensions (e.g. territory, party, interest group, etc), so “religion and science” debates are not simply proxies for partisan battles. I used categorical and keyword searches of the Lexis/Nexis US Major Papers database to retrieve approximately 10,000 articles published prior to 2007 on four selected “religion and science” debates: human origins, origins of sexuality, stem cell research, and environmental policy. I then analyzed this data set using customized computer software (see Cunningham et al. 2002) to identify, profile, and rank visible participants in each of the four debates. From each debate I selected various visible participants to be the representatives that would be evaluated by respondents in each interview, choosing some that were more visible and some that were less visible. In order to test evaluation based on name recognition, I also compiled a list of the top ten most frequently mentioned people in each debate.

For each of the representatives (the sample, not the top ten persons) in each debate, I compiled an anonymous resume containing information about their personal backgrounds, such as gender, age, nationality, education, religious affiliation (if known) and work history. I printed these resumes and identified them only by code number. For each representative in each debate I also collected a sample quote from their public discourse that I judged to be typical of their claims and their style of presenting those claims. I anonymized each quote and printed them onto index cards identified only by code number.

The interview itself consisted of five stages for each debate. First, I asked open-ended questions about a given debate (named generically, e.g. “stem cell research debate”) such as “what is this debate about? ” and “who do you think is debating? ” Second, I presented a sample of anonymous resumes (one at a time), and asked whom each person represents in that debate, and why the respondent thought so. Third, I presented a sample of quotes (one at a time) and asked whom they thought the person who made that statement represents, and why they thought so. Fourth, I went through the top ten names mentioned in each debate and asked whom they thought each person represented in that debate, and why. Finally, I asked them to select their ideal committee for making decisions related to that debate. I repeated this for each debate as time and respondent availability permitted. Each stage represents a different dimension of evaluation: preexisting knowledge of the debate (open-ended), evaluation based on identity (resumes), evaluation based on interests (statements), evaluation based on recognition and association (top ten list), and finally, what qualities of representatives are most important (committee selection). I note that because respondents might understand different questions in different ways, despite interviewer guidance, the findings reported below do not depend solely on one dimension or interpretation of one question (e.g. not just the committee question), but hold across several different dimensions of evaluation.

I conducted interviews from late 2008 to early 2009 with 62 respondents across two different locations in the United States. The sample was highly purposive, and designed to maximize range (see Weiss 1994). Because of the religion and science content of the debates, I set purposive recruitment targets based a 2-dimensional matrix of religious affiliation (proportional to general US population) and occupation (specifically, whether or not the respondent’s occupation is explicitly bound to science or technology). To be clear, the point of the target matrix was to enforce heterogeneity, not to achieve statistical representativeness. For religious affiliation, the target sample distribution was proportional to general US population, approximately 20% mainline Protestant, 33% evangelical Protestant, 25% Catholic, and 20% Other/Non-religious. For occupation, the target sample distribution was approximately 80% non-scientific/technical and 20% scientific/technical.

I recruited respondents at two different sites to prevent the idiosyncrasies of one site from skewing results (Weiss 1994). 75% of respondents came from a Southern California city of over 1.5 million residents that is known for high-tech industries and military presence. The remaining 25% came from a South Florida city of fewer than 200,000 residents that is primarily known as a tourism and retirement destination. In addition to geographic and regional differences, demographic differences are a significant source of heterogeneity between the two sites. For example, the distribution of religious affiliations within the “Other/Non-Religious” category differs substantially between the sites. And the South Florida site, as a retirement destination, also skews higher in age. Table 1 reports the purposive sample breakdown.

[Table 1 about here]

I contacted an initial set of respondents through existing contacts in the two communities. During interviews and subsequent follow-up communication, I asked respondents if they knew of other potential respondents who would be interested in being interviewed for this study (snowball sampling), and emphasized that I was looking for the contacts who would be most different from them (in their view). The resulting sample generally met the purposive targets at each location as well as within the total sample. The sample also ranged usefully across such dimensions of difference as age (18 to 79, median 40), gender (45% male, 55% female), and more fine-grained religious differences (e.g. atheist vs. unaffiliated spiritual, Methodist vs. Presbyterian). The overall ratio of white to non-white respondents (about three to one) approximately matched that of the U.S. general population. Non-white racial/ethnic composition varied by site, but generally did not match the U.S. general population. Education level also varied from the U.S. general population. In the sample, the highest completed degrees were as follows: 13% high school (diploma or GRE), 5% associate degree (AA/AS), 55% bachelor’s degree (BA/BS/BFA), 24% master’s degree (MA/MS/MBA/MFA), 4% doctorate/professional (MD/PhD).

All interviews were digitally recorded and professionally transcribed. Following generally accepted practices of axial and open coding (see Babbie 1998), I developed a coding scheme as I collected interview data. For each interview I manually analyzed the relevant portion of the transcript to identify important concepts, adding to the coding structure and reviewing prior interviews as necessary when new themes emerged in later interviews (see Glaser and Strauss 1967).

I recognize the limitations of a purposive sample, however well-intentioned, in generalizing to a broader population. Though the sample resembles the U.S. general population along many dimensions (but not education or non-white race/ethnicity), it is not intended to support quantitative inference based on axes of difference that are not part of the purposive sample matrix. So in what follows I focus on two robust qualitative findings that seem to underlie most, if not all, respondent evaluations of representatives. The scope of the claims I make below is consistent with the method I have described. I consider this point, and its implications for future research, in the concluding discussion.

4 Results

In the analysis of 62 interviews using coding and categorization to generate grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967), there are two dominant findings. First, what respondents look for in evaluation of representatives in public debate is whether or not a representative is open-minded, civil, and supportive on ongoing discussion. I call this the “deliberative frame.” Second, respondents distinguish between deliberative preferences in institutional politics and the public sphere by evaluating elected representatives as ineligible in various ways to be taken seriously in public debate. I call this the “electoral discount.” While there are multiple layers of qualitative complexity within these concepts, I focus on these two findings because they hold across debates, respondents, and dimensions of evaluation.

4.1 The Deliberative Frame

By the “deliberative frame” I mean that respondents primarily evaluate representatives in terms of openness to multiple perspectives, respect for conflicting positions, and commitment to ongoing discussion. In each dimension of evaluation, respondents mobilize a deliberative frame within which the representative is evaluated. Every respondent (100%) mobilized at least one instance of the deliberative frame. Ninety percent of respondents mobilized multiple instances of the deliberative frame. In each section below, I report percentages of respondents who mobilized the specific instance of the deliberative frame being discussed, in order to show the frequency of particular kinds of evaluation within each component of the exercise. But the overwhelming finding is that all respondents mobilize some version of the deliberative frame in evaluating representatives.

4.1.1 Evaluating Resumes

In evaluating resumes, twenty-one percent of respondents negatively evaluate those that they think signal closed-mindedness. For example, this is how Samuel{3} assesses the resume of a prominent author and “family values” activist affiliated with conservative Christian group Focus on the Family:

Yeah, this one would be in opposition to [gays]. It’s pretty cut and dried, just based on the books that he’s written. Again, focusing on the American values. So it’s more the traditional versus opening up to other options. So, yeah, I would definitely think that, because of his religious background.

Note that this evaluation process is directed toward a deliberative ideal, not just against religion in particular. Samuel is himself a committed Catholic. The concern is about “opening up to other options,” and the “traditional” commitment to “American values” seemed to Samuel to indicate a fixed perspective or apparently illiberal commitment to one point of view. Similarly, in evaluating the resume of a prominent, award-winning endowed professor of science, Holly expresses concern about “closed-minded” perspectives:

He represents more science-based, probably more closed-off science-based population as opposed to researchers. [I mean] just a more research-based closed-minded population that don’t necessarily look at all the facts and think that perhaps only their viewpoint and their research is the most that matters.

Likewise, twenty-three percent of respondents positively evaluate those who appear open-minded or objective. In assessing the resume of a conservative Christian broadcaster and activist, Lydia, who is not religious, responds:

This is also a really bright person. And this is really a passionate person. I wouldn’t say fundamentalist – she’s not fundamentalist – it’s not that. She’s sort of – this is the woman who’s trying to bridge the gap between [one side] and [the other side]. She’s coming up and trying to talk really intelligently about it.

And Barry invokes a number of identity-related factors in his positive evaluation of a research psychologist’s resume:

[B]ecause this person is an author of scientific papers on sexual orientation, I’m assuming this person has researched sexual orientation and has a more balanced view of it. Now there are things that might counter what I’m saying here. Traditionally an older population is not always as open to diversity. [Representative] is associated with the Presbyterian Medical Center. In my experience religion fosters a more conservative attitude towards the gay community but I’m not going to assume that because I’ve had a lot of friends myself who are very religious yet very open to the gay movement.

4.1.2 Evaluating Statements

In evaluating statements made by representatives, fifty-six percent of respondents negatively evaluate language that takes a strong, fixed position or specifically targets someone else’s position. For example, Harvey evaluates a statement claiming that environmental problems are an offense against God:

I think this is a rather narrow-minded view, and it’s anti-environmentalist. This guy will take a crap in his kitchen and make a statement like that and call it an offense against God.

Respondents were particularly sensitive to tone in statements made by representatives. Fifty-six percent of respondents expressed concerns along these lines. For example, responding to a quote from a prominent scientist about how people who don’t believe in evolution are ignorant, stupid, or insane, Morgane disagrees with the claim about evolution, but expresses greater concern about the tone of the statement:

Well, I disagree with this statement wholeheartedly, of course. And this person is obviously not just an evolutionist, but somebody who lacks any kind of integrity or compassion or just basic communication skills.

In evaluating a statement from a prominent conservative religious activist referring to the “homosexual agenda” as “a beast that wants our kids,” Arthur sarcastically replies “That’s not inflammatory at all. This person is obviously rabid.” And Daniela says:

I strongly disagree with this. I don’t know – I think it’s because of the word “beast.” Well, it really – I think a lot of the ways the really conservative religious people in this particular debate really shoot themselves in the foot [is] by using words like “beast.” And the way they frame this …I mean, they use words that make them seem nonhuman. Just like in war, all right, the way the military community would talk about the enemy in ways that are nonhuman to make them easier to kill.

To be clear, those who mobilize instances of the deliberative frame are doing so in addition to, or in spite of, any substantive agreement or disagreement. Daniela is a neuroscientist, but she also disapproves of the “ignorant, stupid, or insane” statement, even though it comes from a scientist. Dwight, who is staunchly pro-evolution, evaluates the “ignorant, stupid, or insane” statement similarly to Morgane, who opposes evolution:

That is a little harsh. I like to think that I’m not that judgmental about them. They have a belief or disbelief in evolution, and there’s reasons behind it, and the best you can do is to try and understand those reasons.

And Don, who personally thinks that homosexuality is biological and unusual, nonetheless objects to a statement calling homosexuality a “biological error” on the grounds that it is unnecessarily hostile:

Whoa. I don’t agree with this. There’s two words you can take out and I might. I think it’s biological but I don’t think it’s an error. You take the “error” words out and there’s some truth to it. Who would say that? Somebody that was homophobic.

In a less common instance of the deliberative frame, thirteen percent of respondents positively evaluate statements that are explicitly open to different conclusions, or cognizant of alternative positions without condemning them. Solomon positively assesses a statement made by a senior fellow at a conservative think tank:

This could have been a scientist, it could have been a spiritual leader …spiritual there meaning a grounded person. This is the statement that comes closest to my opinion, and I think this is a person who came to this conclusion by perhaps his own experiences or observations. But this is a person who would be open to, again, listen[ing] to the other points of view. This is a person who you’d want to have in a group discussion to introduce mutual ideas.

And Ian evaluates a statement by a prominent conservative Christian activist:

At least I can respect this person. Mainly from his tone of voice. He believes. It makes it an opinion on his part rather than an edict, which I respect. I disagree with it. It probably represents a church group as well.

Clearly what respondents see as deliberative, or signalling openness to multiple perspectives, varies considerably. The robust qualitative claim, as an answer to the how question, is that respondents evaluate representatives using a deliberative frame.

4.1.3 Appointing Hypothetical Committees

In selecting representatives for their hypothetical committees, ninety-two percent of respondents justify their choices with at least one reference to the deliberative frame. This occurs in three different ways. First, respondents (66%) select individuals that they judge to be personally open-minded and respectful of other positions. Second, respondents (77%) construct committees that, as a whole, reflect their preference for inclusion of multiple perspectives and ongoing discussion. Finally, respondents (42%) pay particular attention to the ways that any committee would relate to a broader audience, rather than just to a select audience of elites or like-minded people.

Sixty-six percent of respondents appointed representatives to their committees based on personal qualities they judged to be consistent with the deliberative frame, such as open-mindedness, neutrality, or willingness to have conversations with people who disagree. In many cases these representatives were either popular activist media figures, such as George Clooney or Oprah Winfrey, or moderate religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama. Charles, for example, explains his choice of Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of the talk show Loveline:

Well Dr. Drew, I think, because I really like what he has to say about sexuality and different kinds of viewpoints about it. I think he has a really good way of articulating different arguments and doing it in ways that people aren’t necessarily put off by it, even if they disagree.

Both Erika and Damien (in separate interviews) pick representatives a bit closer to home, but for similar reasons:

Erika: I know I would put my friend on it. She’s a Methodist minister. Because she’s very strong in her views and her views are very well considered. She’s – has a real interest about people and life, has a large exposure to different kinds of people.

Damien: I think I would put my pastor in there. I’d put him in there because I think he’s absolutely willing to engage in the talk and also like – also be like – not seek to punish or to treat [the other side] as outcasts or anything by any means …there’s no sense of condemnation or anything like that, and I think – to me that’s a really important thing. So [the committee] wouldn’t make policies that are exclusive.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents emphasized inclusion of multiple perspectives in the overall committee composition. While the specifics of the representatives and issues are not always the same, and the “sides” in each debate might vary, both Miley and Amanda clearly express an underlying commitment to a committee that is consistent with a deliberative frame. Asked about a (hypothetical) committee to decide what would be taught about human origins in schools, Miley responds:

Okay, well I don’t know specific people. I’d probably try to have it as even as possible, maybe two religious people; I’m not exactly sure who. Two scientists, scientific people that have studied evolution and have all the evidence for it, then maybe one kind of neutral – not so much neutral, but who could get facts from both.

And on the issue of research into homosexuality, Amanda offers a more sociological perspective on representation, but still favors deliberation as the guiding principle:

Okay, I would like it to be evenly representative. And I don’t think you know, necessarily the supposed ten or thirteen percent of the committee being as in the population, but more like fifty-fifty representing heterosexual and homosexual perspectives. And I’d like it to be split gender-wise as well, equally. But not all like the guys, straight guys and then you know what I mean? I’d like it to be so that there was some good equity there.

Forty-two percent of respondents picked committee members that they judged would help extend the conversation to a broader public audience. Sometimes this meant selecting ordinary people whom they thought might talk to other people more easily. For example, in selecting committee members for a committee on environmental policy, Judith offers the following choice:

I want an electrician, just because I think that would help understand everything more. So when we present to the people our ideas, there’s gonna be someone that can explain every facet of this new engine, of this new whatever. So these aren’t necessarily gonna be famous people. I want to understand why this works and how it will be better. I need someone that can in laymen’s terms describe it to us because I don’t think people are getting on board for this stuff.

But on another issue, Judith gives a slightly more cynical take on the deliberative frame during her committee selection:

I would have it be a balance, if you will. Have someone on there that I know would disagree just to kind of, at least, appease some people and reach more people. I’d probably pick Ronald Reagan; he’s my right-wing guy. Now I need females. Maya Angelou because she’s so eloquent. And Ayn Rand. Really mix it up.

As Judith’s quote indicates, even though respondents often held strong positions on particular issues, their commitment to the deliberative frame (whatever the motive) could override their temptation to “stack the deck” in favor of their own position. About 10% of respondents admittedly stacked the deck in favor of their own position at least once, which might appear to violate the deliberative frame. But what is interesting is not that this happens at all, but that it is unusual for respondents in this study. It is by far the exception rather than the rule. And even in these cases, respondents still tended to justify their choices in terms of inclusion or open-mindedness. Take, for example, Pamela’s committee on the issue of human origins, which emphasizes her desire for a range of backgrounds to be included:

Well, I would stack the deck on my committee and make sure that all of them believed in Jesus Christ …because of the impact of the nature of what they’re going to decide. I would want somebody on the committee who represents a broad spectrum of background, maybe has experience in a number of different facets of life, or a number of different fields of life, or a number of different experiences in life. I mean they all should have some variety of background.

And Josefina excludes people with whom she disagrees from a committee on environmental policy, but primarily because she does not see them as open-minded participants:

I don’t think anybody on the, speaking from, you know, thinking that morality and environment can’t go hand-in-hand, I don’t think anybody like that should be on the committee. Conservative Christians …I don’t want somebody like Susan Sarandon who causes so much tension on the topic. I want somebody that’s kind of a neutral figure but a face that people recognize and can talk about the environmental issues in a tone where everybody can understand it.

Note that respondents are not consistent in their use of interests and positions in composing their hypothetical committees. Despite commitments to a particular position in debate, respondents justify their choices with reference to the deliberative frame, either by appointing individuals whom they judge to be open-minded and inclusive, or by ensuring that the committee as a whole reflects a wider range of perspectives. Even when they stack the deck in favor of their position, they include a range of viewpoints as well. Their use of interests in evaluation, then, is not simply to reconstruct debate to favor their own interests. Rather, they use their knowledge of representatives to construct debate that brings together many different interests. They evaluate interests in order to maximize, rather than narrow, the scope of debate.

4.2 The Electoral Discount

In practice, institutional politics and the public sphere are fully entangled. Formally elected representatives often participate in public debate, though of course the extent of this participation varies by issue. In this study, for example, few politicians figured prominently in debates about human origins or the origins of sexuality, while many politicians figured prominently in debates about stem cell research and environmental policy. But regardless of the extent to which elected officials figured in a debate, respondents applied an electoral discount in evaluating representatives seen as active in electoral politics.

I use the term “electoral discount” to bring together the ways that respondents evaluated elected representatives as less legitimate, or illegitimate, across several different dimensions of evaluation. Out of 62 respondents, 55 (89%) mobilized at least one instance of the electoral discount. While this is most widely articulated (by 76% of respondents) as a criticism of particular recognized names, such as George W. Bush, Al Gore, or John Kerry, it also occurs, though less frequently (by 47% of respondents), in evaluations of resumes, statements, or hypothetical committee appointments. Even when they recognize that elected officials might be effective and appropriate representatives in the arena of institutional politics, respondents discount the participation of elected officials in the public sphere as violating deliberative preferences.

4.2.1 Evaluation without Names

To be clear, I do not mean simply to say that respondents are dissatisfied with government in general. Respondents do express this sentiment, for example by accusing government of doing “whatever it needs to do to appease people,” referring to political debates in Congress as “a bunch of hot air,” complaining about how government has “too much control” in our lives, or joking about “a [college] degree in government, I’d like to know what that would look like! ” Nor are they simply unhappy with particular candidates that do not share their own views, though that is also common. I mean more that respondents see the motives of elected representatives as suspect (e.g. that they are corrupt), that they see elected representatives as incapable of doing what people want them to do, and that they expect elected representatives to be dissimulating about what they really think. While this electoral discount shows up largely as criticisms of particular elected representatives and their purported constituencies, the sentiment also shows up throughout the interviews in a wide variety of indictments of elected representatives.

To take a less common example, five respondents negatively evaluated resumes simply because they indicated political experience. In evaluating the resume of a elected politician involved in public debates over stem cell research, Ernest immediately raised concerns about a political background:

Currently politician …as soon as you say politician, that makes me think “Is he going to do what he believes or is he going to do what it takes to get elected?”

And Connie discounts an apparent politician as not genuinely motivated by his own opinions:

Okay. This is somebody who works for the government, and so he’s been taught very well to go ahead being very noncommittal in his viewpoints. Yet obviously he communicates them very well to the public because of his background in communication …and he keeps his opinions to himself.

About 10% of respondents also negatively evaluated statements that “sounded” like they came from politicians. Josefina, for example, evaluates a statement about global warming as “representing more of the politicians who have spent a career not supporting this and who need to back up their statements.” And when presented with a particularly strong declarative statement declaring global warming to be a myth, Phoebe says:

I think this represents politicians. Not all politicians, but someone who is, you know, trying to create more economic growth at the expense of the environment.

In selecting committees, fifteen percent of respondents specifically excluded politicians. Susanne, for example, refuses to appoint a hypothetical committee on the stem cell research issue, indicating that it should not be a political issue at all, and expressing serious concern about introducing politicians into the process:

In my opinion, I don’t think it should be a political issue, so that’s a difficult thing. So we would exclude politicians and again, to me, it’s a question of education, that’s not political. It becomes a political issue, and that’s, to me, that is not the arena that this needs to go in.

Likewise, Bonnie excludes “pretty much any currently active politician I can think of, because they tend not to listen.” Timothy expresses a similar distaste:

I wouldn’t put politicians on it. I don’t think they have the brainpower, usually, or the freedom from special interests. Maybe it’s not so much a matter of brainpower in every case, but they have to do something, and they have to act, and they don’t have the freedom to really be careful.

And Elaine discounts the involvement of professional politicians as self-serving:

They would have to sign something that says I’m never gonna run for public office if I serve on this committee. You know, when you get these ridiculous policies that are created that nobody’s ever gonna be able to follow, and they’re basically created because somebody needed something to add to their resume or something?

Twenty-six percent of respondents selected politicians (either by category or by name) to a committee. But they did so based on an assessment of politicians as substantively irrelevant, but useful for working with the public. Chantal, for example, thinks politicians can be helpful in a bureaucratic sense:

One of them would be an appointed politician. Because I think that you definitely need someone who could explain to people what’s going on, and why. Someone who can do the law and handle all those type of, those political, social, the social aspect of handling all that.

Jennifer suggests that politicians provide legitimacy to the process, but clearly indicates that she could simply select the politician most favorable to her own interests:

I need a politician. Just, like, to have one on the committee just to make it seem official. A politician who is pro-gay marriage rights and I don’t know who that would be. Maybe like one of those people – the mayor of San Francisco I think was on the news in some of the ads or something.

I describe below many vivid examples of negative name recognition in these debates. Certainly there are many more instances of the electoral discount when respondents are more familiar with the representative being evaluated than when respondents assess anonymized resumes and statements or generate their own suggestions for committee members. But it is important to remember that forty-seven percent of respondents mobilized at least one instance of the electoral discount even when specific names were not presented. Respondents applied the electoral discount, and in particular the assessment of politicians as insincere, in open discussion, through evaluation of anonymous resumes and statements, and in the appointment of hypothetical policy committees. The basic finding is that simply being seen as a participant in electoral politics marks a representative as less legitimate in public debate.

4.2.2 Name Recognition

Given the extent and frequency of electoral campaigns in American public life, it is not surprising that respondents had stronger responses to specific names of politicians that were presented to them, such as George W. Bush, John Kerry, John McCain, and Al Gore. Seventy-six percent of respondents applied some form of the electoral discount when names of politicians were known.

But name recognition did not automatically mean evaluation in one direction or another. Thirty-two percent of respondents had no clear idea whom these elected representatives might represent, or what positions they might hold. Charles evaluates John Kerry in debates about environmental policy:

John Kerry, my impression of John Kerry is kind of very gray, like I don’t really know that he said very much substantial and I haven’t read anything by him. His campaign was a lot of rhetoric even by today’s standards, which is full of rhetoric. I don’t really remember anything substantial that he said.

Sometimes respondents tried to guess based on what they knew of a candidate’s identity. Yuri evaluates George W. Bush in debates about human origins:

Gosh, you know, to be honest with you I would like to say he stands for creation because, you know, he has that Christian background, but I haven’t personally, like, heard him, you know, say “this is what I’m believing” so I can’t say for sure.

But beyond simply not knowing an elected representative’s substantive commitments, forty percent of respondents suggested that politicians were not capable of maintaining a substantive position. In such cases, respondents indicated that they could not evaluate a representative, not because they did not recognize the name, and not because they didn’t know what the representative stood for, but rather because politicians are too instrumental to be associated with a consistently identifiable position or constituency. Take, for example, Ian’s evaluation of John McCain:

Also a government guy. I’d need to find out a little bit more, I guess. I don’t know who he represents quite yet. I don’t think he does either. He’s reading for the writers behind the curtain who say “this is what you’re going to be representing.” He’s like “Who do I represent, guys?”

This theme resonated in Don’s evaluation of John Kerry:

Can you tell which way the wind’s blowing and I’ll tell you what he stands for? Well, only based on the fact the he’s a Democrat that I would assume that he believes in stem cell research or the other but I mean, there’s a guy that goes in so many directions. I mean, there’s a man that I don’t particularly like.

Forty-five percent of respondents evaluated elected representatives as unhelpfully beholden to a particular constituency. In these cases, respondents associated prominent politicians with a disproportionately influential business or religious constituency. For example, Scott evaluates George W. Bush in debates about the environment:

So the President, what does he stand for in this debate …I think his attitude has changed during his administration. I think that he stands for corporations, frankly. He stands for corporations and is interested in preserving the economic viability of companies.

Zoe offers a similar response for debates about sexuality:

I think he’s against homosexuality, maybe not preachy, but I can’t see him being approving of it. I know that he’s religious. I know that’s Republican and Republicans are often not too happy with the idea.

These strong associations were understood as overriding the elected representative’s own interests. Judith, for example, claims that “you don’t keep getting elected over and over without appealing to the religious element,” and Sienna thinks that George W. Bush “doesn’t personally believe” in an anti-environment position despite being “on the side of big business.” But sometimes politicians were discounted for the opposite reason. Jennifer provides an example from debates over stem cell research, where one elected representative is discounted precisely because his political instrumentalism overrode his constituency commitments:

I recognize him. I think on this debate he is – well at first I think he’s anti-stem cell research although I think he actually helped with some of the funding so I’m not sure. I think he represents the fundamentalist, anti-stem cell group although for political reasons, he might have some concessions that he’s made over the years on that.

Erika similarly evaluates Bill Clinton:

I think he’s – I’d say that he’s not gung-ho. I think he hedged his bets there. I think he was trying to cater to a lot of interests and ended up helping no one.

Finally, in one of the most explicit indicators of the evaluative distinction between deliberative preferences in institutional politics and the public sphere, thirteen percent of respondents positively evaluated politicians who left (or were about to leave) office, and used them as examples to illustrate why politicians who still are involved in electoral politics should be evaluated negatively. Sterling makes a more general case for having a former president involved in a committee, saying that a former president would be ideal because they “understood how government worked but had no incentives left because they’re done.” More specifically, both Anita and Raymond (in separate interviews) neatly illustrate this application of the electoral discount in discussions of George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively:

Anita: Because of his position I don’t think he can just 100 percent show or say what he needs to say. But I believe, and it’s just my belief, that deep down in his heart, when he’s not wearing the President hat, he’ll probably come out and say what he wants to say.

Raymond: I get the sense from Al Gore perhaps because much of his activism has to do with a non-official position that it, therefore, is not bound by some of the duties he is required to perform within an official position, unlike Bill Clinton whose concerns for the environment such as they were stated during his presidency were, perhaps, politicized, that is to say toned down or otherwise altered due to his official station.

Of course people in general are distrustful of government, and of elites more generally (Hetherington 2005). But the basic finding of the “electoral discount” is that respondents tend to evaluate elected officials more negatively precisely because they are part of the electoral process, which is seen to constrain their ability to act sincerely. Of course, this happens in a variety of ways. Eighty-nine percent of respondents mobilized at least instance of the electoral discount. But the particular version being deployed varied considerably among respondents.

Put another way, there are many paths to the electoral discount. As elected officials, representatives can get discounted because they are not firmly tied to a position or constituency, either because it is not well known or, more consistently, because politicians are seen as instrumental. However, they can also get discounted because they are tied to a position or constituency, and in particular when a specific constituency is seen to override their ability to act independently. Activities that may be perfectly appropriate, and even desirable, for institutional politics are negatively evaluated in the public sphere because they violate deliberative preferences. This is quite the bind for elected representatives participating in public debate, but the good news is that the electoral discount does not seem to apply once they leave electoral office, even if they continue to participate in the public sphere.

5 Discussion

The basic finding of this study is that respondents want a deliberative public sphere. Respondents consistently indicate that debate should be open, inclusive, and ongoing, and evaluate representatives based on whether or not the representative is likely to realize this normative view. Applying this “deliberative frame” results in positive evaluations for representatives whom respondents see as deliberative, and negative evaluations for representatives whom respondents do not see as deliberative. Even when imagining ideal or preferred representatives in the public sphere, respondents suggest representatives who maximize inclusion, reason-giving, and open-mindedness.

But while respondents want a deliberative public sphere, this does not necessarily translate into a general preference for deliberation. Respondents make a firm distinction between their expectations of the public sphere and their expectations of institutional politics. In interviews this emerged as respondents applied an “electoral discount” to politicians involved in the public sphere. Representatives who are either subtly or clearly affiliated with the electoral process, whether as “politicians,” “Republicans,” or “John Kerry,” are seen as particularly egregious violators of deliberative norms, precisely because their involvement in institutional politics is seen as fundamentally incompatible with deliberation. Notably, respondents consistently acknowledge that some representatives are good politicians in the context of institutional politics. The “electoral discount” is not a general discount for all politicians in all contexts. Rather, it is the result of a basic mismatch between deliberative expectations for the public sphere and the evaluations that ordinary persons make of politicians who contribute to public talk.

While it may seem obvious that different evaluation contexts might be governed by different sets of normative expectations (see, e.g., Armstrong and Bernstein 2008), the apparent incompatibility of deliberative preferences between the public sphere and institutional politics raises some serious questions both for democratic theory and for the political sociology of deliberation. In normative democratic theory, legitimate policies are the result of deliberation across multiple settings and levels of political decision-making. While different formal procedures might govern the public sphere and institutional politics, ultimately the two arenas must be connected for democratic decision-making to be fully legitimate (see Habermas 1996, esp. chapter 4). But, given that what is “good” in institutional politics is “bad” in the public sphere, respondents seem instead to understand the public sphere and institutional politics as arenas for pursuing distinct, rather than common, objectives.

To be clear, the findings presented here concern the activity of politicians in the public sphere, and do not explicitly engage the deliberative preferences of respondents regarding activity that takes place solely in the arena of institutional politics (e.g. Congressional debate). While respondents clearly indicate that politicians violate deliberative preferences in the public sphere, by itself this is not necessarily evidence that respondents approve of such behavior in institutional politics. However, taken together with the extensive and consistent finding that American prefer politicians who support their own substantive positions and advance their preferred agenda (e.g. Denzau and Munger 1986, Downs 1957, Rabinowitz and Macdonald 1989, Schattschneider 1960), the findings here reinforce a basic empirical distinction between what Americans want from the public sphere and what Americans want from institutional politics. Democratic theorists whose notion of democratic legitimacy depends on deliberation as a model for all political decision-making (e.g. Benhabib 1996, Gutmann and Thompson 2004) might well reconsider whether such a model of legitimacy, while normatively appealing, is empirically defensible.

The mismatch between deliberative expectations in the public sphere and institutional politics also raises questions for the political sociology of deliberation. Current empirical scholarship, consistent with deliberative democratic theory, treats deliberation as a process that (potentially) transcends the distinction between the public sphere and institutional politics. From this perspective, increasing deliberation across settings (and therefore democratic legitimacy) requires, at minimum, increasing broad political participation (see Fung and Wright 2003, Putnam 2000) and, additionally, cultivating deliberative competence in those who participate (see Lichterman 2005, Perrin 2006). Future research should consider whether efforts to cultivate participation and deliberation in the public sphere (e.g. Perrin 2006) are likely to foster deliberative expectations of institutional politics, as theorists might hope, or whether such efforts are instead more likely to sharpen the apparent empirical distinction between the public sphere and institutional politics as two arenas governed by different expectations.

Finally, while the purposive sample in this study is necessarily limited in terms of generalizability, the limitations suggest some important opportunities for future research. For example, respondents are on average more educated than the U.S. general population. There is intuitive appeal in concluding that more education means a greater preference for deliberation. But is this really the case? While educational research suggests that “[f]or democracies to thrive, citizens have to be taught to be democrats” (Enslin et al. 2001:115), such assertions are typically expressed as normative views rather than empirical findings. It is probably uncontroversial to say that deliberative preferences are mediated and perhaps constituted by various public institutions, including education. But is not obvious that more education produces or cultivates a greater preference for deliberation. The relationship between education and deliberative preferences remains an open empirical question that deserves future study.


Data collection supported by grants from the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Many thanks to John Evans for comments and direction, to UCSD Culture and Society Workshop participants for useful feedback on an earlier draft, and to the reviewers and editors of Sociological Forum for their thorough and helpful guidance.


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Table 1: Purposive Sample Breakdown (n=62)

Location Mainline Evangelical Catholic Other
Southern California
Scientific Occupation 2 3 4 2
Non-scientific Occupation 6 11 6 13
South Florida
Scientific Occupation 1 2
Non-scientific Occupation 3 4 3 2


{1} I call these “religion and science debates” because some participants are making claims based on religious authority, and some participants are making claims based on scientific authority. This does not mean “religion vs. science” (see also Evans and Evans 2008). Some participants draw on religious and scientific authority at the same time, while others do not draw on either religious or scientific authority in their claims.

{2} I use the term “ordinary Americans” or “ordinary persons” rather than “public” or “general public,” primarily to avoid the implications of the “public” as a product of constitutive activity by elites (Ku 2000).

{3} All names are pseudonyms to protect respondent identities.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019