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John Sides reports on a paper by Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs about so-called deliberative forums, in particular a set of meetings called America Speaks that have been organized and conducted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an organization formed by the former advertising executive, Secretary of Commerce, and investment banker to focus attention on the national debt.

Sides, Page, and Jacobs discuss three key points:

1. Any poll or focus group is only as good as its sample, and there is no evidence that the participants in the America Speaks forums were selected in a way to be representative of the nation. Page and Jacobs write:

Deliberative forums often fail to get a representative sample of Americans to participate, even when they try hard to do so. Worse, some deliberative forums make little or no serious effort to achieve representativeness. They throw open the doors to self-selected political activists with extreme opinions, or they compile a secret list of invitees. The result can be an extremely skewed, unrepresentative picture of “public opinion” that little resembles the actual views of the American public as a whole.

2. The results of the deliberation are to a large extent a product of the information given to the participants during the meeting. Page and Jacobs discuss the choice of what arguments are presented, how they are framed, what competing arguments are presented (the problem of “presenting the spectrum from A to B”), and even the possibility of giving false or misleading information with an air of authority.

3. Actual public opinion on economic policy, as measured by representative samples, is much more concerned about jobs and economic growth than about deficits.

This is not to deny concerns about deficits–in particular, a voter can be primarily concerned about jobs and the economy but, at the same time, feel that deficit spending is not a good economic plan. If, for example, you feel that we cannot simply spend our way out of a recession, you might strongly support measures to reduce the deficit–even while still feeling that jobs and the economy are the #1 concern.

Political actors, not impartial measurement devices

Sides, Page, and Jacobs make a convincing argument that the America Speaks forums, as currently designed, are a pretty useless way to assess public opinion, “deliberative” or otherwise.

Here I want to talk about a slightly different angle. As noted above, the Peterson Foundation is not playing the role of an impartial research organization here. Now, sure, just about anyone who goes to the trouble of studying public opinion has political views, often strong ones–otherwise, why study opinion in the first place. (Just for example, Columbia University, where I work, has few institutional political stances, but the faculty and students, as individuals, overwhelmingly lean to the left, but U.S. standards.) But what I’m saying here is something different. As Page and Jacobs note, it’s not just that Peter Peterson is a fiscally conservative Republican, it’s that his foundation is specifically focused on deficit reduction, which in turn is the topic of their study.

The right way to theink about the America Speaks forum, I think, is not as an attempt to measure public opinion but rather as an attempt to influence public opinion. As Jacobs and Shapiro write in Politicians Don’t Pander, political actors often view public opinion not as a fixed constraint but instead as a tool that they can use to influence policy.

From this perspective, we can think of the Peterson Foundation forums as having three purposes:

- Getting publicity for the idea of cutting social spending for deficit reduction. The forums are big public events; just reporting them in the media can help keep the deficits issue on the front burner.

- Test-driving political messages. The organizers of the forum can see what messages seem to be effective in changing people’s opinions, then they can later roll out revised versions of these messages in ads, campaign pitches, and so forth.

- Affecting opinion about public opinion. If this unrepresentative sample, primed to focus on the deficit, ends up supporting the views presented as centrist compromises by the Peterson Foundation, these results can be released to the news media and used by sympathetic politicians to emphasize the electoral viability of cuts in social spending.

I’m not saying that the Peterson Foundation is a bunch of sinister bad guys. Even if you view these forums as nothing but a publicity stunt–and they’re clearly more than that–it’s perfectly legitimate and expected for advocacy organizations to spend their resources in an attempt to influence policy. I just think it’s more helpful to frame these forums in that way, rather than as a method (flawed or otherwise) to estimate public opinion.

P.S. Just to say this one more time: There’s nothing secretive about this (at least, to the best of my knowledge). The Peterson Foundation is completely open about being an advocacy organization. I just worry that people might get distracted by the “deliberative forum” idea and forget where this is all coming from.

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