Deliberative Democracy and Random Sampling
James S. Fishkin
Communication, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States

In the long history of democracy random sampling has played two prominent roles. In ancient Athens, random sampling via a lottery was used for selection of groups of 500 or more who deliberated and made important public decisions. In the modern era random sampling has been used to facilitate democracy by public opinion via conventional opinion polls. The Athenian example was a variant of what modern theorists call “deliberative democracy.” By contrast, modern public opinion polling contributes to “plebiscitary democracy.” The opinions being polled are usually the public's “top of the head” impressions of sound bites and headlines.

More recently a modern variant of the original Athenian notion has been experimented with to combine citizen deliberation with random sampling in “Deliberative Polling.” This paper explores the range and limitations of this approach. It attempts to situate the effort theoretically and also to illustrate the problems of implementation with examples from Deliberative Polling projects in various countries. The paper will discuss criteria for evaluating these efforts and argue that random sampling makes deliberative democracy practical for the large scale nation state–in contrast to arguments that deliberative democracy might be reserved for town meetings or juries or other small groups. Criteria for representativeness, issues of representing sub populations, the sense in which the process realizes political equality, criteria for evaluating deliberation will all be discussed. Some of the illustrations will include the return of Athenian democracy to Athens (in a modern project in the Athens area), the application of the process to the entire EU (and the issue of sub-populations) and the implications for democracy of using such methods for actual decision.

Keywords: Deliberative democracy; Random sampling; Deliberative polling

Biography: James S. Fishkin holds the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he teaches Communication and Political Science and is Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy. He is the author of When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (Oxford 2009) as well as The Voice of the People (Yale 1995) and Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (Yale 1991). He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale as well as a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cambridge University.