Democracy: The Game Show

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?





8 responses to “Democracy: The Game Show”

  1. Peter Levine Avatar

    I love the idea. The challenge would be turning the deliberations into compelling video. I think talented videographers could do it, but they would have to invent a new genre.

  2. […] It’s a very interesting experiment! Further evidence that there would be real value in letting people wrangle with the whole budget in a public forum. […]

  3. […] there haven’t been any major policy moves to increase civic engagement. So I wondered:What would the world look like if people talked as much about financial regulatory reform as they do…If you have any comments, I’d appreciate them. I don’t imagine this as some sort of […]

  4. […] asked Tyler Cowen what he thought of the public policy game show idea. He posted my request for comments, and there has been some helpful stuff from his […]

  5. Manu Magalhães Avatar

    I'd like to make a suggestion. I loved this idea, but as it's shaped, it will be at most theory and it would all stop there, wouldn't it?
    What if this game was placed in a small town, facing its real problems and – never doubt how politicians from small cities love expoure – contestant's proposals, after public voting, come out to reality? I don't know if this fits american's laws (i'm not american), but it would be a nice try. People would see that things really work/don't work, and maybe this would make them be engajed with their ownlocal issues. What do you think?

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar


      In my vision of such a show, it focuses more on policy substance than the procedure and factions that would inevitably take over in a small town. That's because I see the major goals of such a show as being to encourage off-screen deliberation and to correct many pervasive public ignorance problems that tend to prevent cross-cutting political dialogs.

      That said, your suggestion also seems like quite a good one, and might well have more telegenic appeal. James Fishkin does televised deliberative polls that work in something like the way you describe. While they're not exactly popular television, there might be more appeal if the subject matter and participants were chosen with a reality television producer's eye rather than a political scientist's goals. Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine such deliberations having direct legislative effects, as we tend to prefer elected representatives or direct ballots in our law-making rather than a statistical sample.

  6. @santhip Avatar

    It's a great idea.. This should logically be the next step of television in my opinion .. first of all it would definitely make some meaningful TV .. rather than having to watch crap shows like jersey shore ..

    Challenges involved in infographics would be huge .. but it would be meaningful infographics.. the host should be very intelligent enough to see all sides of policy decisions..

    This is transparency taken to the next level.. However, I fail to see this happening, as a lot of corporations are involved in dirty and cheap tricks to make policies decided in their favor .. It would also call a neutral panel of experts to voice their opinions on the policies, such as the american idol judges to give their opinions on different facets of the policies ..

    This shouldn't just reduce to good TV .. it should end up in increasing public awareness on the issue … It should have human stories … stories of people who would be affected by the policies to make it interesting .. It should have emotional content… Not the catfighting , and back-bitching by the contestants.. but honest and sincere emotions expressed by those who would be affected by the policies … Also, reducing it to good TV, would make the government officials or the panel who are involved be just TV actors, rather than the jobs they signed up for the first place .. So its very important to find a format so that they do not need to act it out based on the script .. It should be so that the entire process is genuine ..

    Such a show truly poses a huge danger to the main stream media , as the only sensible target of their programming is to dumb down the audiences .. That is one of the reasons why I end up having to rely on alternative media such as the real news network to get some quality content .. And it is sad that your idea came forth within such circumstances so as to cater to the dumbed down and numbed down audiences to be involved in a progressive fashion .. Regardless, If such a show is to be aired, I can assure you , it would be the end of corporates gaining full control of the government policy making through their millions of dollars worth of lobbying …

    Also, it would dawn a new era of participative democracy, based on the principle of honesty and transparency … These values should be the driving force for such a show ..

    Let me assure you that, I have taken this idea to heart .. And if at all I end up in a position of authority, this shall definitely be implemented with the local tv-station .. 🙂 Thank you for this idea Joshua Miller 🙂

  7. […] Joshua Miller lays out a very serious and detailed proposal (and justification) for a public policy game show. […]

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