Texas is famous for its divisive politics.
Moderates are seen by many as spineless.
Texas populist Jim Hightower says that in his state “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
So how is it possible that Texas, one of the original gas and oil states, is now the nation’s leader in renewable energy?
How is possible that both conservatives and liberals supported this development?
What about the dead armadillos?
What transformed the usual partisan political battle between environmentalists and the energy industry was “Deliberative Polling.”
James Fishkin has conducted more than 100 deliberative polls in 28 countries —providing ordinary people with a meaningful say in issues that affect them.
A “deliberative poll” is different from traditional polls that ask unprepared individuals to respond to issues they may not understand or even recognize.
Instead, people are brought together in person from a random sample scientifically selected to reflect the target population.
Initially they are polled by telephone on the issues they’ll be facing and then invited to participate in person.
In advance of the event, they get a briefing book representing varied perspectives on the issue, with the opposing experts agreeing on the fairness of the briefing book before it is finalized.
Over one or more days people meet in large and small groups, hear experts with conflicting perspectives, ask questions, have discussions and ultimately respond to the same poll for a second time.
An individual’s choices are not revealed, only the overall outcomes.
Participants in a deliberative poll do not develop policy.
Rather, they choose among policy recommendations that have already been defined for purposes of the poll.
Fishkin says, “The public is very smart if you give it a chance…If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions.
When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves.
About 70 percent change their minds in the process.”
Fishkin’s book title, Democracy When the People Are Thinking, sums it up well.
From 1996-1998, eight Texas electric utilities asked Fishkin, then at the University of Texas in Austin, to survey their customers’ views on renewable energy, energy conservation and the related costs.
The Deliberative Polls had remarkable credibility, because their participants were selected by lottery from the target population—in this case making each deliberative group truly representative of the eight companies’ customers.
The results of the Texas energy polls shocked everyone.
Texans, from the gas and oil state, who drive more miles in more pickup trucks and SUVs than folks in any other state, were willing to pay extra money for renewable energy and for energy conservation.
From the initial telephone poll to the final poll after the deliberation, the number of customers willing to pay extra money jumped 30 percent, to 84 percent for renewable energy and 73 percent for energy conservation.
The influence of a Deliberative Poll relies heavily on its legitimacy, enhanced by the meticulous care that the pollsters take to reach agreement with all contending parties in preparing the briefing book.
For a Deliberative Poll in Australia, Fishkin and his colleagues did 19 versions of the briefing book until all parties finally agreed that it was fair.
Almost all parties trust a process in which they have meaningful voice and when their concerns are acknowledged.
The Texas electric power industry and the Texas government were deeply influenced by the unexpected results and acted accordingly.
In 1998 when the polls were concluded, Texas, the gas and oil state, was 49th of the 50 United States in renewable energy production.
Today, Texas is number one.
Power to the people.
Most of us have always believed that an election is the only democratic way to choose legislators, but we are mistaken.
The original democracy in ancient Athens chose only ten percent of its public officials by election, choosing the rest by sortition — a democratic lottery that picked legislators, magistrates and jurors.
Aristotle, the famous Athenian philosopher, wrote, “The appointment of magistrates by lot is thought to be democratic, and the election of them oligarchic.”
We are beginning to recognize the unpleasant truth — that choosing decision-makers by election creates oligarchy — because the wealthy and powerful in society can readily influence the election process.
Democracies that preceded the founding of the American republic, from Athens to Italian city-states like Venice and Florence, used sortition, a democratic lottery, to choose most decision-makers.
But the founders of the American republic did not use the term democracy.
Instead they structured a republic that protected the power of wealthy white men like themselves.
They excluded from voting men without property, women and slaves.
Over time, however, the United States and other republics expanded the franchise of voting to include all citizens and began to call their governments democracies.
True representation is the key goal — the bullseye of democracy.
However, democracies around the world have become so corrupt that they not only don’t hit the bulls-eye, many miss the whole damn target.
Our politicians are critically compromised by their need to beg for election campaign donations.
The so-called democratic process has become an auction, selling favors to the highest bidders.
In the United States people are so cynical about democracy that:
More than 40 percent of eligible voters don’t vote in presidential elections.
More than 60 percent don’t vote in state o local elections.
More than 70 percent don’t vote in primary elections.
Many Americans have given up on voting.
They simply don’t participate.
Voting in elections is declining around the globe.
Citizens see their elected representatives as primarily concerned with enriching themselves.
A survey of 114,000 people in 107 countries conducted by Transparency International found that only 30 percent believed their governments were effectively dealing with corruption.
Human beings all want power.
From our first cry as babies, we demand power.
“Waaaaaah! I want what I want, and I want it now.”
Most of us want limited power, mostly the power to meet our own needs and to have control over our own lives.
Some of us, however, want to have power over others.
And some of us can’t get enough of it.
Most professional politicians are drawn to power like moths to a flame.
In 1887 Lord Acton, an English historian, warned us that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Power can be used for good purposes, of course, and often is.
But for most politicians the priority is getting re-elected, and good causes are all too often sacrificed in the interest of winning.
As far as I know, the first person to say that “politics is the pursuit of power” was Niccolo Machiavelli, in his famous book, “The Prince,” a cynical primer for rulers in the early 1500’s.
Machiavelli explored the dark side of politics, including the strategic use of war to gain power.
But no one has expressed a more sinister view of politics than Mao Zedong, the revolutionary who founded Communist China.
He said, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.”
Lee Atwater at 38 was the youngest man ever to chair the Republican National Committee.
He called his work “political warfare” and was a pioneer in negative attack ads.
He saw race-baiting as an acceptable campaign strategy.
Sadly, Atwater died of cancer in 1991 when he was only 40.
In a final article for Life magazine a month before he died, Lee Atwater wrote with deep regret:
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me:
A little heart. A lot of brotherhood….
I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most.
But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty….
It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime.
I don’t know who will lead us.…but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
Political warfare drives away good people who don’t want to harm others nor be harmed — so they abandon public service to those with thicker skins and harder hearts.
Sadly, voters around the world have come to believe that political party warfare is a necessary evil in selecting public officials — a method that might best be called “selection by combat.”
However, given what we know about power, human beings are least likely to be corrupted and drawn to the dark side in a society where we decentralize and share power widely.
Power is either authority or influence.
Authority is the official side of governance in society.
Authority is inherent in those to whom society has given formal decision-making roles, from parents to presidents.
Influence is the unofficial side of governance.
Even the strictest parents and the most powerful dictators must contend with influence, the inherent ability of their children or their citizens to support or defy authority and to influence others to do the same.
Governance works best in any setting, family or nation, where authority and influence are lined up in support of shared goals.
That’s what democratic elections are supposed to accomplish: citizens exercise their influence by voting into positions of authority the decision-makers who share their goals.
Sadly, the vast majority of citizens in democratic republics around the world no longer believe that is true.
People no longer feel truly represented.
They feel powerless.
The loss of trust in governance contributes to the rise of conspiracy theories.
So how do we give people a meaningful say in governance?
The most radical idea is to change the government so that we choose legislators by sortition instead of by election.
Just don’t bet your money on that happening anytime soon.
Politicians will not give up their power voluntarily.
It’s going to take the kinds of incremental shifts in thinking that we have been speaking about throughout this course, across the population of nations and the globe, to come together in a different way and make better decisions for the collective well-being of humanity.
Which brings us to citizens’ assemblies.
Often critical issues stay unresolved — from gun control to abortion to climate change — because they are political hot potatoes that politicians are afraid to touch in a partisan world.
A citizens’ assembly is a way for ordinary people to address these controversial issues and many politicians seem happy to let them.
One of the most exciting examples of how citizens can make important decisions on challenging issues took place in Ireland.
For decades Irish legislators were terrified by the political risk of dealing with Ireland’s uncompromising policy against abortion.
Often criticized as a human rights violation by other countries, abortions were not allowed, even to save the life of a pregnant woman.
But in 2018, the Irish broke the political deadlock with a citizens’ assembly.
99 Irish men and women of varied age, occupation and residency were randomly selected for one weekend of deliberation per month, lasting for five months, to study and then recommend a new abortion policy which would ultimately be put to a national referendum.
I highly recommend seeing “When Citizens’ Assemble,” a 17-minute film, available on Youtube, that gives us a chance to hear directly from the citizen representatives themselves.
In the video Louise Caldwell, mother of three and a self-employed events manager, says, “It hasn’t been a walk in the park.
The energy has been very tough.
You know, it’s not an easy topic, and some of the presentations were very difficult to listen to.
But yeah, I think as a group we managed to support each other through that.”
John Long, a 56-year-old from Cork adds, “Unlike some of the debates that have taken place in referenda in the past in Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly was very respectful and very congenial to everybody’s opinion.”
David Keogh, a 47-year-old truck driver, describes how the delegates received and processed a lot of information.
“We were given legal, we were given medical, we were given ethical, moral, religious and then social.
And then the advocacy groups as well.
Question-and-answer, roundtable discussions and everything.
But you always felt at the end of it that you understood what they were telling you.”
John Long says he changed his mind.
“As time went on and as we were getting more and more information — and as it was totally fact-based, unbiased — I started moving to a pro-choice position.”
In truth, the citizen participants became more knowledgeable than legislators.
Long says, “I would say we probably put a couple of hundred hours of total time into it, which is more than any parliamentary committee would have put into it.”
Two-thirds of the delegates supported the assembly’s final recommendations.
The Irish parliament put the assembly’s efforts into a law that was presented to the public in a referendum.
Two-thirds of the voters approved the law, demonstrating to a world of doubters that ordinary citizens can be effective legislators.
Power to the people.