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Beyond expert cults and know-nothing reactions

September 21, 2010

This post was written by Harry C. Boyte, founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

In his article for the Sept. 13 issue of Time magazine, the well known and highly respected political commentator Joe Klein calls for new forms of deliberative democracy. He cites the example of Zeguo, a rural district in China which has used deliberative polling to set budget priorities—an approach similar to an ancient Greek process in which randomly chosen citizens were delegated to make major decisions on behalf of the political community. “By most accounts it has succeeded brilliantly,” Klein observes.

In Democracy and Knowledge the classical scholar Josiah Ober contrasted classical Athens with modern day America. Athens had many methods of aggregating expert and amateur knowledge while “contemporary practice,” Ober observes, “often treats free citizens as passive subjects by discounting the value of what they know…Willful ignorance is practiced by the parties of the right and left alike.”

Put differently, dominant models of knowledge-making undercut the moral and civic authority of forms of knowledge that are not academic. Wisdom passed down by cultural elders, spiritual insight, local and craft knowledge, and the common sense of a community about raising children are devalued. As former Occidental College president Ted Mitchell has observed, one percent of Americans or less produce the knowledge “that counts.”  This pattern can be called the cult of the expert.

The Tea Party—and perhaps most dramatically Sarah Palin—voices the sense of grievance and invisibility that millions of Americans feel in response to the cult of the expert. Palin masterfully dismisses academic knowledge, science, and professional practices in the name of her own experiences. The appeal of her message reflects an overlooked divide in America: in recent elections, differences in education levels were a far more salient factor in how people voted than income levels. However, the “know-nothing” response is simply the other end of the spectrum from the cult of the expert, and is especially destructive for disadvantaged communities.

Deliberative practices, an important attempt to get beyond expert cults and know-nothing reactions, recognize the importance of different kinds of knowledge, whether formally credentialed or not, in public decision making. And they seem to be gaining credibility.

Klein quotes James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Practices at Stanford University and advisor to the Zeguo experiment in deliberative polling. “The public is very smart if you give it a chance,” says Fishkin. “If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, study their briefing books, ask experts smart questions and make tough decisions.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 10:55 am

    The key point in Klein’s piece, is the one you captured in closing paragraph. “If the people think their voice actually matters.” I see this bit “if” expressed by many in my work with Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue. Citizens in all sectors deeply distrust the impact of their voice–indeed, or their vote, even.

    It recalls a piece I wrote: Critical Question: How can candidates solve Deficits of Thought? Which called out rhetoric that presumes politicians have the corner on public intelligence. You can find it here:

    Even those who understand their own expertise: who “work hard, study their briefing books” and ask hard questions, perceive their voice, if not contribution, is futile, drowned out and coopt-ed as it is, by a cacophony of shrill operatives speaking for the pole ends of political spectrum.

    But it is a serious mistake to remain mute. And we should call into question our own resistance to our right and responsibility to give our energies and voice to the problems and policies of our communities and country. We should ask ourselves how much we are misspending our time on idle complaint, which, even if it seems futile, could be better invested in active participation.

    We can choose to buy the line that our voice doesn’t matter. Or we can create momentum by voicing what matters, and engaging others to do the same. If enough of us do, we can catalyze attention to the wisdom of the productive middles of public decisions, away from the perilous pole-ends.

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
    Founder, Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue

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