Democratic Discussion

Kinder R. Donald
Don Herzog, University of Michigan Law School

Please note that the essay, “Democratic Discussion” by Donald R. Kinder and Don Herzog was republished within PRINCETON READINGS IN AMERICAN POLITICS ed. by Richard Valelly by permission of The Pennsylvania State University Press.


In this piece one of the country’s most accomplished survey researchers joins forces with a major democratic theorist (they happen to be colleagues at the same institution, the University of Michigan)—and together they try to reconcile what might seem irreconcilable: survey research findings about voter ignorance, on the one hand, with John Stuart Mill’s ideal of government by discussion, on the other. Read them carefully to ascertain the basis of reconciliation, for it is subtle: they extrapolate from John Dewey’s concept of “contingent social practices.” That is undoubtedly a mouthful, but it implies—as you will see—that the relative political sophistication of the citizenry’s many members, the extent to which they “get” what is happening with political debates, varies according to how much competitive politics pulls them in. Citizens have the capacity to follow public debate clearly in their own minds, even if they have no immediate plans for writing effective letters to the editor or speaking at local meetings about an issue. But that ca-pacity depends to a considerable extent on how absorbing the larger political environment is. And sometimes that environment can be very absorbing indeed—as the next article, by John Zaller, shows.