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"Democracy," remarked H. L. Mencken, "is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Mencken found American politics a droll spectacle and showered contempt on the dullards he named "the booboisie." Plenty of other intelligent and perceptive observers have concluded that ordinary citizens are flatly incapable of shouldering the burdens of democracy. Uninformed and uninterested, absorbed in the pressing business of private life, unable to trace out the consequences of political action, citizens possess neither the skills nor the resources required for what Walter Bagehot pithily named "government by discussion."

In this light, democratic theorists might appear hopelessly naive or romantic, bent on promoting a politics we haven't seen yet, and likely never will. We want here to take the challenge of antidemocratic thought seriously, particularly on the question of the intelligence of democratic discussion. Our aim is to assess the quality of the political conversations that go on between the American public and American leaders. Our special interest is in what citizens have to say, both to each other and to their elected representatives. But assessing the quality of such discussions requires an assessment not only of the skills and interests of citizens but of the political environment in which citizens find themselves: the "opportunities for political learning" and the "quality of political information" (Page and Shapiro 1988, 13) that are made available to them. And we want to evaluate both where we are now and where we might be in the future, not in some utopian and unrealizable rendition of American society, but in a foreseeable one. We begin by summarizing Mill's vision of democracy, which accords discussion a central place. Next we review the attack on the possibility of democratic discussion implicitly mounted in recent American survey research, especially as set out in the authoritative and influential writings of Philip Converse. Then, in the heart of the chapter, we examine several different lines of argument and evidence that offer the possibility of modifying Converse's melancholy conclusions. Democratic discussion may be more than just a romantic dream. We needn't be breathless and starry-eyed-determined "to see some blue sky in the midst of clouds of disillusioning facts" (Schumpeter 1942, 256 )-to resist the thesis that voters are invincibly ignorant.


Reproduced with permissions. Copyright 1993 Pennsylvania State University Press.