Who Participates in the 'Public Square' and Does it Matter?
Posted: 18 Aug 2009
Date Written: Winter 2008
Survey research has been frequently criticized for reflecting hastily drawn and poorly formed responses as opposed to more deeply held attitudes or opinions. James Fishkin (), for example, has argued that public opinion surveys miss the normatively and substantively important deliberative component of public opinion formation. In this paper, we consider two questions relative to deliberative public opinion. First, who shows up for deliberative opinion forums? And second, what difference does their participation make in terms of their general attitudes toward the political process? To answer these questions, we make use of a unique set of data collected as part of a series of monthly television programs, Louisiana Public Square, which aired on Louisiana Public Broadcasting from June 2004 to March 2005. These programs covered a range of issues (e.g., public education, roads and transportation, health care, religion, and public life) and included participants selected using random digit dialing. Each month, participants learned about the issues, discussed the issues with a trained moderator, and directed questions to relevant state policy makers. Data were collected on relevant attitudes both before and after the program, allowing us to (1) compare attitudinal and demographic differences among participants (preshow and postshow) and nonparticipants (preshow only), and (2) analyze attitude change among participants particularly with respect to levels of trust in government and perceptions of the responsiveness of the political process to public concerns. According to our results, the socioeconomic biases that predict other forms of participation are equally present when considering participation in a deliberative forum. Unlike other forms of participation, however, the deliberative forums considered in the present analysis attracted more ideologically moderate participants who valued the role of discussion in democratic governance.
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