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The Enlightened Citizen Is Made, Not Born

Deliberative polls and democracy 
Illinois Issues

November 1998

In which I explore the promise of the deliberative poll as an altedrnative form of democratic decision-making, its premise being that to assume that every citizen is capable of government, simply by virtue of being a citizen, is absurd. This commentary appeared under the rubric “State of the State.” My bad mood about democracy might have owed to the fact that the piece was written during a gubernatorial campaign that offered a choice between George Ryan and Glenn Poshard. 

Probably more interesting for me to write than it was for most people to read. Which is unfortunate. 


Bernard Shaw—the playwright, not the CNN talking head—noted that in a democracy every person was expected to be his own Solon and his own Plato.

"Why not," he asked, "every man his own Shakespeare and his own Einstein?" A good question that no lawmaker dares to answer. To assume that every citizen is capable of government, simply by virtue of being a citizen, is as absurd as to assume that" every legislator, simply by virtue of holding office, is capable of wisdom. The broader American voting public does not grasp the concept, much less the tedious details, of such essential government programs as Social Security, foreign aid, trade or property taxation. It is useful to recall that its members enjoy the right to vote not because they are capable of governing but because they are — occasionally — capable of revolution.

Traditional voter education in the form of pamphlets, issues forums and League of Women Voters show-and- tells err in assuming that voters lack only facts. That they do, and the most basic facts; the number of Illinoisans who can recall the names of both their U.S. senators, it seems fair to say, is much smaller than the number of people who vote to select them. But voters' ignorance owes not merely to missing or errant facts per se but to the inability to make sense of the facts they have, thanks to their shaky grasp of history, economics, even basic arithmetic. It is not the failure of our schools to teach civics that is undoing democracy, but their failure to teach everything else.

During the 1970s, a number of worried democrats experimented with methods by which voters might learn the essential facts about selected public issues and ponder their meaning in context. Details varied, but the basic plot goes like this: Invited volunteers gather for a period of hours or days to discuss a particular issue face-to-face. Their conversations are based on information presented to them in issue-pamphlets prepared by the organizer, usually an academic or a do-gooder foundation; occasionally this printed information is augmented by testimony from experts imported for the purpose. After the palaver, a group opinion is rendered, the results of which are announced to reporters who say, "That's interesting" and go back to speculating whether the collapse of the ringgit will affect the primary campaign for secretary of state.

These experiments in democratic group therapy have taken several forms over the years, from "people's budget" exercises to the Kettering Foundation's National Issues Forums. The best known is probably the "deliberative poll" as conceived in 1988 by Dr. James Fishkin of the University of Texas at Austin.

The point of these exercises is not merely to gauge opinion but to deepen it. In the process, participants almost always discover what the brighter politician, bureaucrat, and, yes, even reporter knows, which is that most issues do not look the same up close as they do from the couch in the TV room, if only in being more complicated.

Not surprising, the more the average earnest citizen learns about an issue, the more likely she is to conclude that her previous opinions were a bit undercooked. In the summer of 1993, Larry Hansen, now with the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, then at George Washington University's Democracy Agenda Project, organized a series of chinwags on the topic of campaign reform. Called "Heartland Voices," the project gathered citizens-at-large for deliberations at 19 sites across the Midwest, including five in Illinois. Hansen recalls that many people who favored term limits going into the exercise came out of it opposing them, once they had a chance to think about it.

It has been an item of faith since the Progressive era that if all voters took such care, politics and government would not be quite the dog's breakfast that it has become. Alas, all voters never will. Volunteer participants are hardly representative, almost always being what Hansen calls "engaged, informed citizens." This self-selection bias may enhance the intelligence of the results, but it calls into question their political legitimacy.

One way to fix this is to select participants who constitute a statistical random sample of citizens. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes uses random telephone dialing to select its "policy juries," panels of 24 citizens who are seated to hear evidence and pass verdicts on issues from national health care to housing for the poor. Fishkin's deliberative polls pick a representative sample of several hundred of the body politic using the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Such random samples pull in minorities, women, the poor and the alienated, few of whom usually show up for such soirees. Of course, widening any franchise in this way usually achieves legitimacy at the expense of good sense. Think of baseball All-Star balloting, or the citizens' initiative, in which voters choose their laws and not just their lawmakers. Unfortunately the initiative is a tool to create a more perfect democracy, not a more perfect government. In the American West, millions have proved what an Illinoisan never would have believed otherwise, which is that there is a class of people — voters — even dumber " than legislators.

What is interesting—indeed, nearly miraculous—about a well-conducted deliberative poll is that there occurs little drop-off in the quality of decision-making when the participant pool is expanded from elites to the hoi polloi. Almost any citizen who troubles to learn about complicated issues and to refine his views in conversations in small groups can come up with sophisticated solutions to the policy puzzles of the day. When done by a random sample of voters, the opinions thus arrived at do not quite reflect the views of the larger polity the sample represents. As Fishkin puts it, they reflect the views the larger polity would hold if the latter's members troubled to do their homework.

The enlightened citizen is made, in short, and not born. This should reassure skeptics on the left who fret that the deliberative poll is a sort of re-education camp, set up to brain-wash regular guys into parroting the views of our educated elites. But rather than co-opt the views of the working class and poor, a properly run poll would finally give voice to them. The problem of democracy in the '90s is not that the poor and working class do not vote in numbers, but that the world has grown so complex that few among them know enough about where their interests lie to cast their votes to any effect.

As Fishkin has explained, a deliberative poll can do more than merely describe or predict public opinion. Ideally, such polls should have a "recommending force"—in other words, prescribe as well as describe. Unfortunately, there can never be enough minds changed this way to directly make a difference in even local elections. (No one talks seriously about involving all voters in what is a time-consuming and expensive process.) Nor is there evidence that voters at large consider the results of their neighbors' deliberations as seriously as they consider, say, the views of talk show hosts.

Might deliberative polls lead to deliberative decision-making? Hawaii has experimented with such techniques to gauge public opinion on school issues, and they are used in Davis, California, to test public views on urban planning. In Texas, the state's Public Utility Commission now accepts deliberative polls conducted on behalf of utility companies as satisfying its requirement that customers be "consulted" about how those companies ought to meet customers' future electricity needs—in effect substituting for public testimony.

The Texas experiment suggests how deliberative polling may be institutionalized as a means to convey the public will to decision-makers. Joyce's Hansen says, "I've thought about what might be done in a place like Chicago, where you might have citizen assemblies across the city—maybe 25, probably organized on a multi-ward basis—that gather several times a year to take up public policy matters that confront the city, such as reviewing the city budget."

Good thinking, but using deliberative polling merely as an alternative to public testimony and/or public comment wastes much of the technique's promise. Why not use it as a surrogate for lawmakers at various levels of government? The problem with representative government in our age is not that it is not representative. The problem is that what it represents is the voters' ignorance, their hasty judgments, their credulity. Making the deliberative poll the centerpiece of the democratic process would be cheaper and fairer, and promises more sensible results at every level of civic endeavor.

What? You ask. A bunch of unqualified people the voters don't even know, empowered to make decisions on the voters' behalf? It's no worse than the system we have now. Some complain that randomly selected poll participants will not be typical of voters. Indeed they would not, but neither is the voting public, especially in primaries and single-issue referenda.

There are other quibbles. That briefing materials will be biased. (Unlike, say, political ads?) That publicity about the process will influence the outcomes. (Unlike a campaign, maybe?) That delegates will be swayed by other members of the project. (People compromising their positions to oblige the interests of other members of the community? How, well . . . democratic.)

Democracy does not require that citizens govern, only that citizens freely consent to be governed. Problems don't arise when decisions for all are made by too few, only when they are made badly by the too few. ■




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

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to read about

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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