The most serious problem of democracy today

Former pollster Dan Yankelovich says that the most serious problem facing democracy today is that the public feels isolated from the political process.

According to Yankelovich, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that our government leaders, news organizations, and experts adhere to a dysfunctional understanding of public engagement. The dominant view holds that a well-informed public is the highest expression of democracy. It puts a premium on disseminating information, creating awareness, and educating the public. This approach works fine when there are no hard choices to make. But, in most cases, political decisions are made on the basis of values and convictions – ideas about what is right and wrong – not information.

This “expert information” model, as Yankelovich called it, is based on several misconceptions. It falsely assumes that:

  1. Information is the key to public learning
  2. People make up their minds once they receive relevant information
  3. The public interprets information in the same way that experts do
  4. Experts know what information the public needs and how to convey it
  5. Experts who debate their opposing views help the public to learn
  6. Technology can compensate for deficiencies in the model
  7. There is no need to base the model on how people actually make hard choices

Yankelovich contrasted the “expert information” model with what he called the “public learning” approach in which public judgment deepens and enriches expert opinion. Unlike the traditional model, this conception accounts for the fact that people have to struggle with competing values and confront painful tradeoffs over a period of days or months or even years before they reach an informed and mature opinion on an issue.

Read more (PDF) on Scott London's website.