Developing Strong Voters through Democratic Deliberation

 

Diana Hess

Across Mongolia yesterday, nomads donned their best embroidered boots, wide-sashed robes and pointed ceremonial hats and rode their horses for miles across vast plains and deserts to vote.

—Journalist Thomas Wagner, 19971

 

In a recent survey of youth ages 18-24 in the US, 55 percent said that the schools do not do a very good job giving young people the information needed to vote.

—New Millennium Project Survey, 19982

 

As the school year begins, a powerful moment for teaching about democracy will drop into our classrooms. Across the nation, thousands upon thousands of people are running for public office in positions ranging from city councillor to county coroner to state legislator to president. The candidates will present us (we, the people) with choices about a variety of political issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty, educational reform, and international trade. For people living in areas with ballot initiatives, propositions, or referenda, a vote can be an even more direct way of influencing public policy.

This moment is accompanied by a challenge akin to a little snarling dog on your pants leg that just won’t let go. The challenge? Many people in the United States, especially young people, are democracy dropouts. They do not engage in even the most minimal form of democratic participation: voting. This situation is bad and getting worse. Young people (defined as 18-24 year olds) voted at rates of 50% in 1972, 32% in 1996, and below 20% in 1998. If as many young people dropped out of school as are dropping out of democracy, we would declare a national civic emergency.

What can social studies teachers do to reverse this trend and help young people develop into what I call “strong voters”? This article focuses on what makes a strong voter, and the role social studies teachers can play in developing such voters. My thesis is simple: If we want to help our students become sufficiently engaged in the political process to not only vote—but to vote in a strong manner—then we need to teach them how to participate effectively in high-powered and challenging deliberations on political issues.

 

Three Types of Voters

In considering voting habits, it is useful to distinguish among three types of citizens: the non-voter, the weak voter, and the strong voter. A non-voter is just that, a person who does not vote in elections. There are many non-voters in the United States, and their number is growing. This trend does not worry all those who concentrate on politics. As one state legislator told me at a recent meeting about increasing youth participation in politics, “Do people think we want more voters? Why? We were elected by the ones who already vote.” Others see political apathy as a sign of societal health. Robert Kaplan, in his provocative article, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?,” states: “Apathy, after all, often means that the political situation is healthy enough to be ignored.”3

On the other hand, consider the implications of recent findings that many non-voters are opting out either because they do not think their vote matters, or because they do not believe they have a responsibility to a larger public beyond their private interests. When few people vote, fewer interests are considered in the crafting of public policy. The consideration of the interests of the few, by definition, will erode the interests of the many. Moreover, non-voters are more likely to be the very people whose needs are not currently met in our political system. Benjamin Barber made this point when he said: “That half of the eligible electorate does not vote and that those who do not vote are those who would benefit most by more political democracy (the young, people of color, the poor) is fateful and ironic.”4

Turning to those who do vote, what distinguishes the weak voter from the strong voter? Weak voters go to the polls, but without sufficient deliberation beforehand to make informed choices. Sometimes such voters sound as if they are electing the prom king: “I just don’t like that person.” Or, when questioned about the issues upon which they disagree with a candidate, such a voter may respond to the effect that “I don’t know exactly, I just have a funny feeling about him/her.”

In marked contrast, strong voters are deliberative voters, as evidenced by their knowledge of a broad range of issues. What builds this knowledge? First, it is important to recognize a distinction between information (in which we are awash in this technological age) and knowledge (which is more difficult to build). The two are linked, of course, but the former does not automatically create the latter. Knowledge, especially political knowledge, requires information drawn from a wide range of sources and interpreted by different people in varying ways.

 

Democratic Deliberation in the Classroom

Recent research on how young people “become politica#148; shows that schooling makes a significant difference in both what young people know about elections and governing and their levels of political engagement. Specifically, classroom discussions of issues that are currently before the body politic have the effect of enhancing civic participation.5 “It would seem,”suggests Nel Noddings, “that the best practice would be to invite students to discuss issues of current importance —importance to them, if possible.”6 One approach to this is through democratic deliberation.

Democratic deliberation is a form of classroom discussion that focuses on important political issues in a manner that itself models and builds democracy. In such discussions, all students participate verbally as they create, weigh and balance, and sift and winnow competing views on authentic political issues. The purpose of such discussions is to help young people build the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to make wise decisions about the choices that are inherently part and parcel of democracy. Such discussions do not propose to reinforce all prior beliefs, build students’ self esteem to the detriment of the critical challenge of ideas, or separate the classroom into polarized camps.

Undertaking democratic deliberation in the classroom sounds difficult, and it is. However, recent research indicates that it is possible to create such deliberations and that the teacher plays an absolutely vital role in their creation.7 Walter Parker recommends that such deliberations be elevated “to the high point of the school curriculum” and be used “not only as instructional method but as subject matter and as a form of democratic action.”8

Teachers who are particularly effective at creating democratic deliberations make wise choices about a variety of factors, including two that are especially important: What should be deliberated? How should students prepare for and participate in deliberations?

Types of Issues

Three types of issues should be considered for democratic deliberation: structural political issues, “here and now” political issues, and candidate characteristic issues.

Structural political issues are those which focus on how the political system operates. These are “rules of the game” issues that are transcendent and often get to the core of the political structure in the United States. Whether term limits should be imposed on government officials, and whether school boards should be elected or appointed, are examples of structural issues in that they change the nature of both elections and governing. Structural issues exist at all levels of government. Engaging students in democratic deliberations about structural issues is important because it reinforces the idea that democracy is, by definition, an enterprise of change.

“Here and now” issues are not more important than structural issues, but they certainly are more prevalent. These are issues which are currently on the public platter and for which a relatively immediate decision must be made, either by elected representatives or by the voters themselves (in the case of a ballot initiative, proposition, or referendum). They differ from structural issues in that they typically do not involve wholesale change in how the political process operates, but rather focus on the “products” of the system. Similarly to structural issues, “here and now” issues exist at every level of government.

Should the school board vote to build a new school? Should the state lower the gas tax? Should the death penalty be abolished? Should rules regarding the mandatory use of DNA evidence in capital cases be implemented? Should Congress pass reparations for slavery? These and other “here and now” issues will form the bulk of candidate discourse during this campaign season, and for that reason alone, it is important to engage our students in deliberations about them. Additionally, however, public talk about such issues serves to apprentice students into the difficult craft of making choices about matters that are of concern both to them individually and to the public at large.

The third type of issue, candidate characteristics, revolves around the core question of what kind of people we want to put in office. Candidate characteristics are important because the people who seek public office are not issues robots; who they are and who they have been influence the decisions they make. How important is a candidate’s background? Should it matter whether he has prior legislative experience if running for the Senate? Should it matter whether a candidate for the school board sends her own children to private school?

Looming over all of these questions is a more fundamental one: How much of a candidate’s background do citizens have a right to know about? This question is extremely important because it surfaces the tension that exists between a candidate’s personal privacy and the transparency of holding public office. On the one hand, we should be concerned about allowing candidates to retain some privacy or we will end up with no one running for office. On the other, we should value openness in government, and many things in a candidate’s background may help to shed light on the content of character and to predict future political behavior. This is an inherently democratic dilemma that all of us, including our students, need to consider through deliberation.

While there are differences among the three types of issues, it is important to point out that all are authentic as opposed to hypothetical issues. There is no need to make up issues for young people to deliberate when so many authentic issues (i.e., existing in the world beyond school) are available to us. However, determining which issues to deliberate will always be a problem when there are so many issues, and so little time.

 

Selecting the Best Issues to Deliberate

There are a number of possible criteria for selecting issues to deliberate. Consider how the following questions can help teachers (and their students) make good decisions about the issues that will produce the most engaging deliberations.

> Does the issue involve some tension between or among core democratic values?

Many issues require students to deliberate about the inherent tensions that exist between and among principles undergirding democracy. For example, issues may involve a tension between equal opportunity and liberty, between privacy and the free flow of information, or between community health and property rights. A good test for this criterion is to ask yourself which important democratic values or principles support various “sides” of the issue. It is a good bet that if you cannot identify the tensions at work, then they are too submerged to make this a good issue for your students.

 

> Does the issue affect many people, now or in the future?

Issues that do or will affect a very small number of people are typically less engaging than those with wider impact. It is important, however, not to let the answer steer you away from local and state issues, which are important to deliberate because they come from the governments to which people are physically closest, and may be those easiest to affect.

 

> Is the issue sufficiently “hot” to spark engagement?

Extremely abstract issues tend to lack sufficient “heat” to inspire students to want to deliberate them. For example, the broad question, “Should the government value life?”, will not promote engaging deliberation because virtually no one would answer “No”. On the other hand, whether a state should abolish the death penalty probably is sufficiently “hot” because of the recent studies by journalists and scholars about problems in how the death penalty is applied in the United States.

 

> Does the issue have some important “value-added” component that helps students meet the curricular goals set for a particular unit of study or course?

A value-added component is one that causes students to learn something beyond the knowledge they gain through deliberation of a particular issue. For example, a deliberation about gun control will, by definition, require students to analyze the Second Amendment to the Constitution and engage in the controversy over its meaning.

 

> Is the issue of interest to students?

Of all of the criteria for selecting issues, this one is by far the most challenging, since students have varying interests and will be attracted to different issues. Additionally, we know that it is extremely rare for anyone to be interested in something they do not know anything about. If you require that students exhibit prior interest in an issue to make it a topic of deliberation, you may not help them to expand their range of public concerns. However, it is helpful to select issues that have some relationship to students’ lives, and to help them explicitly to make the connection.

 

> Are good curricular resources readily available for students to use when preparing to deliberate?

Classroom deliberations on political issues are successful to the extent that students are adequately prepared to participate in them. On the other hand, “ad hoc” or “spontaneous” deliberations frequently fail because students do not have enough background for meaningful discussion of an issue. What tends to result is either too much talk by the teacher, or by a few students who do know about the issue or just like to talk. There are many materials to help students prepare for deliberation, including films, videotapes of news programs, websites, software programs, tapes of radio programs, discussions with candidates and interest/advocacy group member visits and readings. Issues for which there are curricular resources prepared especially for students often do a better job of setting up deliberations because the materials are both engaging and accessible.

 

The Deliberation at Work

The best youth deliberations I have seen were preceded by careful preparation on the part of the students. Such preparation both enhances the quality of the deliberation and raises the self-confidence of students participating in it. A number of strategies exist for structuring this level of preparation. One of my favorites is a “hook” that is short and visually interesting, such as a film clip which provides background on the issue. The next step is to have students read materials that expand on the background, focus on the problem as a matter of public policy, and include multiple perspectives on the question under consideration. Small group discussions of the background and the arguments on different sides of the question often serve to “prime the deliberative pump” and help students identify the most salient parts of the issue.

Next, students need some orientation to the deliberative model that will be used. Although you may want to invent your own deliberation model, there are existing models that have a proven track record of success with students. Three favorites are the National Issues Forums, Structured Academic Controversy, and Public Issues Discussions.9 Once students have been oriented to the goals and structure of the model, it is important to set some deliberation norms. These may range from statements as simple as “just one person talks at a time,” to complex norms such as, “seek critical challenge of ideas.” Regardless of their content, it is helpful for students to have some sense of what types of discussion behaviors are more likely to produce a productive deliberation.

Finally, if the model requires a facilitator (and virtually all of them do), you will need to make some decisions about which style you will use. Are you mainly a traffic cop, trying to make sure that all people have access to the available airtime, or will you concentrate more on the quality of what students say? A good general rule of thumb is to model the facilitation on how you and your students conceptualize a good deliberation. For example, if it should involve multiple perspectives, then it will be important for you to work to get them on the table. If you want all students to speak, this will call for a different effort. Ending the deliberation with a discussion of its quality can help your students improve their deliberation skills.

The Impact on Political Engagement

In recent polls about political engagement, young people tell us that they don’t know enough about political issues to become engaged in politics. For example, in one recent poll, a clear majority of young people indicated that if government classes were more participatory, they would be more likely to engage in politics and vote. Two-thirds of the students in that poll agreed with the statement: “Our generation has an important voice but no one hears it.”10

Classroom deliberations of issues that will be important in this fal#146;s elections could serve to meet the needs that these young people themselves have identified. Moreover, they could serve to spark the democratic imagination and work to combat cynicism and its evil twin, apathy.

We should consider other solutions as well, such as encouraging students to participate in political campaigns with the same degree of enthusiasm exhibited for non-political service to the community. More schools should (as many do) sponsor voter registration drives for students who are eligible to vote, and political candidates should be encouraged to participate in debates that include youth questioners. In sum, what is needed is to recognize that the low level of political engagement and participation among young people is truly a democratic debacle. Consider that there are more young people in the United States today than at any previous time in our history, including the era of the post-World War II baby boom. Recent research on political participation shows that aging by itself does not increase political involvement. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that once people are old enough to be invested in the system they will participate in it, young people who do not participate now are unlikely to change. This is why civic education matters. Democratic deliberations alone will not guarantee a turnaround in the distressingly low rates of political engagement and youth voter participation, but they are part of the solution.

 

Notes

1. Thomas Wagner, “Mongolians React to New Capitalism, Elect Former Hard-line Communist Boss,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (May 19, 1997): A6.

2. The Tarrance Group, The New Millennium Project Part I: American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government, and Voting (1998), available online at: www.tarrance.com/nass/intro.html.

3. Robert Kaplan, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?,” Atlantic Monthly (December 1997), available online at: www.theatlantic.com/issues/97dec/democ.htm.

4. Benjamin R. Barber, “More Democracy! More Revolution!,” The Nation 267 (1998):12.

5. C.L.Hahn, Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,1998); R.G. Niemi and J. Junn, Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); The Tarrance Group.

6. Nel Noddings, “Renewing Democracy in Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 8 (April 1999): 579-587.

7. Diana Hess, Discussing Controversial Public Issues in Secondary Social Studies Classrooms: Learning from Skilled Teachers (Unpublished dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle, 1998).

8. Walter C. Parker, “Curriculum for Democracy,” in R. Soder, ed., Democracy: Education and the Schools (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 182-210.

9. For National Issues Forums, see the NIF website, www.nifi.org; for Structured Academic Controversy, see David Johnson and Roger Johnson, “Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy,” Educational Leadership 45, no. 8 (May 1988): 58-64; for Public Issues Discussions, see Laurel R. Singleton and James R. Giese, “Preparing Citizens to Participate in Democratic Discourse: The Public Issues Model,” in Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, eds., Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, DC: National Council for Social Studies, 1996), 59-65, and David Harris, “Assessing Discussion of Public Issues: A Scoring Guide,” also in Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, 288-297.

10. The Tarrance Group.

 

About the Author

Diana Hess is an assistant professor in the

Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the

University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She can be contacted at dhess@education.wisc.edu