Magic Town

[from The Voice of the People by James Fishkin, Yale 1997]

There is a classic Jimmy Stewart movie, Magic Town, about "Grandview," a small town in the Midwest that is a perfect statistical microcosm of the United States, a place where the citizens' opinions match perfectly with Gallup polls of the entire nation. A pollster (Jimmy Stewart), secretly uses surveys from this "mathematical miracle" as a shortcut to predicting public opinion. Instead of collecting a national sample, he can more quickly and cheaply collect surveys from this single small town. The character played by Jane Wyman, a newspaper editor, finds out what is going on and publishes her discovery. As a result the national media descend upon the town, which becomes, overnight, "the public opinion capital of the U.S." The citizens of Grandview become self-conscious because they are now "the perfect barometer of national opinion." They begin to feel a heavy responsibility, knowing that what they say will be listened to throughout the world. They arrange to collect their own survey, "The Official Grandview Poll," but with the proviso that "reference libraries" be provided at every polling booth. Because the issues are important, they believe people should be informed.

With this new sense of responsibility, and their heightened interest in the issues, the townspeople's views soon diverge from those of the rest of the country. The climax comes when the town announces the result that 79 percent of them would be willing to "vote for a woman for president"! This is taken as such a preposterous departure from conventional opinion that they become a source of national ridicule. "The little town that has always been right turned out to be ridiculously wrong. People are beginning to wonder where Grandview is. Certainly it can't be in the United States." Comics start to use the explanation "He's from Grandview" as the punchline in jokes, to explain apparent idiocy. Yet which opinions are more worth listening to? The conventional opinion of the time, offered in response to questions from the Gallup poll, that people should not support a woman for president, or the very different view the citizens of Grandview finally came to, when they thought their opinions would actually matter, and after they had had a chance to reexamine their prejudices and preconceptions? Those considered judgments were, indeed, unrepresentative of the views of the rest of the country. But then again, the rest of the country had not really thought much about the question.

Obviously, public opinion polls of the standard kind give us a snapshot of what the country is actually thinking. They are a valuable means of telling both the country and its political leaders about the current state of mass opinion. For that purpose, the new opinions of the Grandview citizens became worthless, just as the Jimmy Stewart character had said they would, once word got out. But for other purposes, particularly for finding a public voice worth listening to, the final views of Grandview offer a useful supplement to the vagaries of an inattentive public. There is a kind of recommending force to the new opinions at Grandview: this is what a microcosm of the country thinks about an issue once it has had a better chance to focus on it, to discuss it, and to reexamine shared preconceptions. Perhaps this is what the entire country, not just the microcosm, would think about the issue if it focused on it in a more sustained way.

Grandview symbolizes a central problem: when can a microcosm, or some other small part of the country, speak for the whole, speak for the entire citizenry and its interests? Polls offer one kind of microcosm, a statistical sample in which each citizen has an equall, random chance of participating. With random sampling we can closely approximate the views of the entire country without having to ask everyone. in fact, we need ask only a tiny fraction, provided it is properly selected.

In addition to such scientific samples, there are any number of self-selected groups that seem to speak for the people - from the voices on radio or television call-in shows, to the letters and faxes that pour into congressional offices, to the people who show up at campaign rallies or public meetings. Such groups may think they speak for everyone, but they are far more likely to speak merely for themselves. They offer contested and controversial representations of public opinion - representations that must be viewed through the prism of their interests inputting themselves forward. The same point applies, of course, to officeholders, media commentators, and pundits, who also prestime, on almost a daily basis, to speak for the people. These people have interests and positions to maintain. Yes, in some sense they speak for the people, but the public has learned that such people also speak for themselves.

There is a fancy name for taking the part for the whole - synecdoche. It is a form of representation that occurs regularly in politics, which is, after all, a process of allowing a part to stand for, or re-present, the whole. An elected Congress, the president, even the voters in a referendum (at the state level) - these all consist of parts of the people who are offered as speaking for all the people. Even opinion polls are mechanisms whereby statistical samples of the people can speak for everyone. Less convincingly, the self-selected studio audience in a televised "town meeting" will seem to speak for the people, but it is also a mere representation. On any given issue, there will be many parts available simultaneously to speak for the whole, each part purporting to speak authoritatively. Accepting that there are many portions of the people who purport to speak for everyone, can we find conditions when all the people can speak without requiring surrogates, conditions where the whole can, in some sense, speak for itself? Even if we were to ask everyone what they thought about an issue, we would still be offering a representation, a picture, of public opinion. That opinion would have been formed under certain conditions, and those conditions may be far from favorable for the public being able to form a reasonable opinion, or even any coherent opinion at all. Representation comes from taking a part for the whole but it also comes from taking what the people seem to be saying at a snapshot in time - under one set of conditions - as a representation of what they really think. As we shall see, they may not "really" be thinking much at all. In a broad sense, there will always be conflicting representations of public opinion, but there will also be conditions, which we can distinguish, under which the voices of the people are more, or less, worth listening to.

Conflicting representations of public opinion are inescapable. Even a decisive election will yield different interpretations of the mandate, via alternative exit polls, contradictory views of commentators and pundits, surveys before and after the fact, interpretations of what different portions of the public might wish, and "spin-doctoring" by political actors with disparate interests at stake in the view of current history that comes to be accepted. In spite of these conflicts, there is one simple answer to the question - When can the people best speak for themselves? - that runs through the history of democratic experimentation: The public can best speak for itself when it can gather together in some way to hear the arguments on the various sides of an issue and then, after face-to-face discussion, come to a collective decision. The image of the New England town meeting or the Athenian Assembly provides a picture of people discussing things democratically in one place. It is the longstanding model for how to conduct democracy under conditions where not only does everyone's vote count the same but social conditions have been provided that facilitate everyone's thinking through the issues together. We can call this image the ideal of face-to-face democracy. A key issue in the continuing American experiment with democracy is: How can we adapt this ideal to the large-scale nation-state, to a population which cannot possibly gather together in the same room to take decisions?

Or can it? Some have thought that with modern technology, the country can, in a sense, gather together. Through technology we may be able to adapt the democracy of the town meeting to the large scale. But the gap between the town meeting proper and the "electronic town meeting" will prove nearly insurmountable.

What happens to the vote when the ideal of face-to-face democracy no longer applies? What happens when we vote without the social conditions that encourage everyone's gathering together in face-to-face discussion? Much of the continuing saga of the democratic idea can be thought of as an answer to that question. Voting in primaries or referendums, voting in general elections based on a "sound bite" of information or an impression culled from newspaper headlines, voting based on nothing more than name recognition or party label, or not voting at all (which has become the norm in the modern era) - these phenomena are quite different from voting in a small group after extensive face-to-face discussion. As we shall see, the American Founders struggled to adapt the ideal of face-to-face democracy to the large nation-state. But they thought it could be accomplished only through a system of elected representation, where the representatives would have the discussions and deliberations and come to decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Others, particularly the opponents of the Constitution who have come to be known as the anti-Federalists, wanted to place the locus of decision closer to the people, even if, for many issues, the ideal of face-to-face discussion could not be implemented. The beginnings of referendum democracy are built into the conflicts that arose at the founding.

The first major fork in the road came in Rhode Island, where opponents of the referendum concept argued that it could not fulfill the ideal of face-to-face democracy. Federalist supporters of the new Constitution argued that voting would not be meaningful unless everyone could gather together to hear the arguments on either side. The anti-Federalists agreed with the ideal but said that since it would be impossible to implement, they would go ahead and ask each citizen to vote. The anti-Federalists lost the battle over the Constitution (they were forced, after the referendum to hold a state convention that eventually approved it), but their picture of where American democracy would go has arguably triumphed in the long run, in the continuing process of democratic reform. Magic Town was made in 1947, about a decade after George Gallup effectively launched the public opinion poll onto the national stage during the 1936 presidential election. From the beginning, Gallup offered the opinion poll as a serious instrument of democratic reform. But by the time of the Jimmy Stewart movie, very little of that notion was part of the public consciousness. The pollster was seen as someone who predicted elections in a competitive and cynical business. The Jimmy Stewart character prizes the discovery of Grandview as a shortcut to great profits. Only the citizens of Grandview understood the responsibility they bore: because people would think they spoke for the nation, they must be sure they had something worth saying.

After the "debacle" of Grandview's poll on a female president, the town became such a laughingstock that people began to leave. The city scrapped its plans for expansion. The remaining residents were demoralized and withdrew from public dialogue. They literally stopped speaking to one another. When asked survey questions, they all said they had "no opinion." They had ceased to be a "public." They had ceased to be effective citizens. Faced with this demoralization and decline, the Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman characters try to revive the town with a scheme to go ahead with the suspended plans for the construction of a new high school. But it turns out that during the crisis, certain city leaders had conspired to sell the land. When confronted with the fact that city property could not be transferred without a vote, one of the town's leaders explains, "We intended to go through with the formality of a vote, but we just assumed that you people wouldn't care." The citizens are aroused by this response and decide to build the new school themselves, with the entire community donating its labor and expertise. The movie has a happy ending: this new example of civic cooperation saves the town's self-esteem, and it is lauded nationally in the media, which redeems the town's public image as well. The Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman characters are reconciled, and the movie ends amid scenes of hope and civic renewal.

This Hollywood ending is an instructive parable about community.

How might it be possible in a society whose politics is dominated by opinion polls and elite manipulations to create the kind of civic engagement this microcosm of the country achieved by the end of the story?

Is it possible to transform the entire country into "Magic Town," where citizens really care about the issues, where they are willing to think them through, and where they are also willing to contribute their time, resources, and labor to make their communities function? There is no easy answer to this question, but the continuing American process of experimentation makes it more of a possibility than our natural skepticism about Hollywood endings might support.


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