I’ve been thinking about a game show version of Ackerman and Fishkin’s “Deliberation Day” or David Estlund’s “Queen for the Day.” In both cases, they asked: why not let ordinary folks take a shot at solving our nation’s hardest problems? My question is: why not let them do it on national television as a form of educational entertainment? What would the world look like if people talked as much about financial regulatory reform as they do about American Idol?

The Pitch

Here’s the idea: a public policy game show, where contestants compete to solve our nation’s political problems for cash prizes. Though it will follow the format of popular reality television contest series, the goal will be to make public policy questions accessible and to supply vital civic education and opportunities for dialogue. Think: “Extreme Makeover: American Politics Edition.”

As I envisage it, “Democracy: The Game Show” would be structured around weekly group and individual challenges, would use a mix of judges and at-home voting to decide winners, and would involve cash prizes to promote healthy competition. Each episode would use visual effects (charts, graphs, and cartoonish videos) to make the details of a policy problem clear to the audience, using witty and playful explanations that treat the audience like knowing adults. Each contest would involve process-oriented montages to show the contestants working on their own responses to the problem, and demonstrate the positive and negative results of their choices immediately, using edited cutaway confessionals to those effected by a tax increase, program cut, or legislative change.

The whole point of the show would be to ask: “What do you think?” And then to take people’s answers seriously.

Are You Joking?

To be honest, even I am not sure whether this is a satirical “modest proposal” or a serious treatment that would be both profitable and valuable for a healthy democracy. Why would anyone watch such a show, given how complicated and divisive such issues are?

And yet….

I’m a big fan of the work Deliberative Polling work done by James Fishkin, as well as the work of the National Issues Forums Institute and the Kettering Foundation. This is an area of growing interest among academics focused on the legitimating function in democratic institutions, since the problems with voting systems seem to be intractable. Frequently, scholarly work in deliberative democracy and civic engagement leads to calls for the institutionalization of deliberative opportunities. The problem is that such national institutionalization requires the support of partisan politicians or a large budget. Deliberation Day focused at length on the budget for such an enterprise, which they estimated at $15 billion a year! Thus the story ends up focusing on the difficulty in instituting deliberation. But what if there was a way to make deliberation self-funding, or even profitable?

Since all game shows depend in some way on the organization of democratic governance (i.e. voting, vetoes, factions, and judges) it’s only fair that democracy should take advantage of the methods developed by contemporary reality television.

  • Quiz shows like “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” have morphed into more complicated (sometimes multi-episode) contests like “Survivor,” “Fear Factor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” or “Iron Chef.”
  • In addition, a new brand of reality television has emerged that focuses on judges selecting among a group of competitors while the competitors learn the ropes in singing, modeling, and making clothes: “American Idol,” “America’s Next Top Model,” and “Project Runway.”
  • A third trend focuses on experts giving advice or makeovers, taking the basic structure of “This Old House” and applying it to nebbishes in personal grooming or home decor (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”).
  • A fourth trend follows professionals in unusual businesses like cake making, (“Ace of Cakes”) bounty-hunting, (“Dog the Bounty-Hunter”) or running a pawn shop (“Pawn Stars”). At the heart of this is the effort to reduce dependency on writers and lower costs for programming low-demand advertising slots.

Why not combine these trends to create a game show that showcases small-group deliberation and creative problem solving on issues of national concern? For instance: fixing Medicare, cutting deficits, dealing with illegal immigration and undocumented workers, reducing teen pregnancy, etc. (It’d probably need to avoid cultural hot buttons like abortion… but maybe it could still take on same-sex marriage.) Reality television already thrives on difficult or impossible tests (for instance, ABC’s “Wipeout”) so why not make the tests relevant?

I was inspired to propose this by a web game by American Public Media called Budget Hero, which you can play here. It’s addictive, and if you take your choices seriously, it’s enlightening and empowering. There have been several recent copycats, one from the New York Times, and one from the Committee for Responsible Fiscal Choices. These games simplify hard problems a bit, but because they give direct feedback they can be very educational. (For instance, cutting foreign aid doesn’t help much.) Let’s do for democracy what Bob Barker did for consumer prices.

Reality television shows thrive on interpersonal drama, so putting those in disagreement together and forcing them to collaborate seems like a natural extension of the concept. Since reality television depends on viewers achieving a degree of emotional solidarity with the contestants, it makes sense to select quirky and telegenic representatives for these competitions. And there’s already a rubric for abrasive experts and audience voting in the reality contestant genre that could help to adjudicate disputes and disagreements. I imagine the Democracy Game Show would have faux-celebrity judges: policy wonks from print media, or former-Comptroller General David Walker, or maybe a panel of Price Waterhouse Coopers accountants dressed in identical business suits.

What’s more, democratic deliberation and public policy analysis have some elements that would mesh with game shows and reality television well: partisan divisions and personality conflicts are the norm, and like fashion design, politics involves making difficult choices under conditions of inadequate information. Ideals of democratic deliberation frequently involve small group discussion and personal reflection, which is remarkably similar to the televised group collaborations and confessional-style self-justification popularized by “Survivor,” “Road Rules,” and “Big Brother.” Current events supply plentiful new challenges so that the old contests don’t get old, and just like in sports, everyone has an opinion and will often second guess a judge’s decisions or a coach’s “plays” around the water cooler or in social media.

One of the key insights of Fishkin and Ackerman’s proposed “Deliberation Day,” was that scheduling public deliberation would encourage citizen engagement in preparation for these days of deliberation. In a sense, the real benefit isn’t at the meeting, it’s before and afterwards, the same way a good television program is on people’s minds and in their conversations even when they’re not watching.

If it were successful, pundits would question the show’s facts. Politicians would accuse the judges of bias. The media would express grave concerns. That a political game show makes light of serious issues would be a constant refrain. (But that ship has sailed, don’t you think?) And yet, a well-run game show, like a well-run deliberative poll, could be a lodestar drawing attention back to issues and to facts. By putting ordinary folks in the position of our politicians, we could sidelines the personalities and symbolism on which political news tends to focus. (Remember the flag pin controversy?) Would that be so bad?

By the way, I’m open to better branding: “We, the People”? “A More Perfect Union”? “AreYou Smarter Than a Fifth Grade Civics Teacher?” “Pundit’s Eye for the Citizen Guy”? “Robert’s Rules”?

The Theory Behind It All

Projects devoted to civic engagement seem to have foundered after President Obama used the rhetoric of civic engagement as a part of his campaign and then “threw engagement under the bus” once in office. His administration has ignored the policy goals those organizations hoped would enhance democratic deliberation, favoring substantial reforms over procedural reforms that might have enhanced legitimacy. Thus, if these ideas are ever going to succeed, they need to get out of the political and non-profit world. Reality television has its own internal source of funding, and is likely to draw more viewers than a staid deliberative forum. (My own belief is that the unemployed civic energy was redirected into the Tea Party, which made the loss of “Yes We Can” and “We’re the Change We’ve Been Waiting For” an odd betrayal of principle that was also a strategic mistake.)

One frequent criticism of democratic deliberation and civic engagement programs is that voters’ revealed preferences indicate an absence of demand. That argument goes like this: most citizens don’t want more politics in their lives, so why work hard to get them political motivated when they’re basically satisfied with the status quo? By treating voters like other consumers, this criticism assumes that the American political system is an efficient marketplace in which elites compete for support, and voters get what they want by withholding their support for policies that have a negative impact. The view (first promulgated by Joseph Schumpeter) was summarized nicely by Judge Richard Posner in his reaction to the Deliberation Day proposal by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman:

In the marketplace, the slogan “consumer sovereignty” signifies that the essentially negative power of the consumer—the power not to buy a particular product, a power to choose though not to create—constrains the behavior of sellers despite the vast gulf of knowledge and incentives that separates sellers and consumers. The same relationship exists between politicians and voters.

There is no Deliberation Day on which consumers engage in collective deliberation over competing brands of toasters or about whether to use microwave ovens instead. Consumers economize on their time by responding to alternative sales pitches and using their experience of particular sellers and products to guide their evaluation of the pitches. It is the same in the political marketplace. Voters are guided by their reactions to the presentation of issues and candidates in political campaigns and by their experience of living under particular officials and particular policies.

In short, people don’t need or want to deliberate about national politics. The issues are too big, too amorphous, and too irrelevant to our everyday lives. Thus there’s no Deliberation Day because there’s no demand for Deliberation Day.

Yet on the other hand, there is plentiful and growing demand for political punditry, currently being supplied by talk radio, the blogosphere, and cable news. In particular, there is ample evidence that people want to be informed and entertained at the same time: just look at the proliferation of opinionated anchors on cable news (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann) and the appeal of comedic treatments of news and political events like that offered by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Many civic engagement proponents complain that this cheapens democracy and exacerbates partisan tensions, but it certainly doesn’t support the claim that ordinary citizens don’t like politics. At best, it simply demonstrates John Dewey’s point from The Public and its Problems:

The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public. Man is a consuming and sportive animal as well as a political one. What is significant is that access to means of amusement has been rendered easy and cheap beyond anything known in the past. The present era of “prosperity” may not be enduring. But the movie, radio, cheap reading matter and motor car with all they stand for have come to stay. That they did not originate in deliberate desire to divert attention from political interests does not lessen their effectiveness in that direction. The political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side. In most circles it is hard work to sustain conversation on a political theme; and once initiated, it is quickly dismissed with a yawn. Let there be introduced the topic of the mechanism and accomplishment of various makes of motor cars or the respective merits of actresses, and the dialogue goes on at a lively pace. The thing to be remembered is that this cheapened and multiplied access to amusement is the product of the machine age, intensified by the business tradition which causes provision of means for an enjoyable passing of time to be one of the most profitable of occupations.

Dewey proposed that we take advantage of the new media and methods of communication to bring attention to the issues of the day and the information needed to make democratic deliberation a reality. Today, it’s tempting to think that means Facebook and Twitter, but those are still the technologies of elites. Ordinary people still watch television. They don’t worry about why Election Day isn’t a holiday, they worry about whether Bristol Palin advanced in “Dancing with the Stars” through some kind of election fraud. So why not use those methods to draw attention back to the issues of national concern, to correct public ignorance and help ordinary people feel connected to the constitution of our shared world?

So… what do you think?