Locating Consensus for Democracy - A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment

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9780965058919: Locating Consensus for Democracy - A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment

Locating Consensus for Democracy - a Ten-Year U.S. Experiment, is several books in one. It weaves together the following story threads:

The first is the story of the unexpected findings of a ten-year in-depth survey research project, conducted by the book's author, Alan F. Kay, using balanced teams of top pollsters and issue experts. This massive project produced overwhelming evidence that the legislation and policy choices most supported by Americans are stable, consistent, pragmatic, principled and, on issue after issue, startlingly at odds with views of national leaders!

The second thread is the reaction. Confronted repeatedly with credible and substantial evidence of the disconnect between their views on governance and the desires of the people, Gingrich, Bush, Gephardt, Gore, Clinton, Perot, and virtually all of congress and the mainstream news media -- just turn away. They do not want to know that the reasonable preferences of supermajorities (67+%) of Americans differ from the desires of one or another special interest that officials across the political spectrum routinely enact into law. Both politicians and media editors ignore or dismiss poll results that contradict their basic political views.

The third thread is the story behind the story. After several successful careers, mathematician, entrepreneur Kay undertook this unique project and continued it year after year despite the considerable time and money drain. The Washington Post labeled him, "America's Patron of Polling." Kay was impressed at how positive, reasonable and coherent the public's policy desires turned out to be. He was fascinated by how the project's remarkable results were teased-out, verified, and repeatedly confirmed. At the start of the project Kay considered himself a "pretty good elitist". He emerges a "deep populist". Originally scheduled to last about a year, the project was kept going because, Kay admits, he "fell in love with the American people".

A fourth thread is the emergence of public interest polling as a unique concept defined by processes, methods, and goals that are different in many ways from typical polling. Public interest poll sponsors must truly want to know the public's desires for governance (policy, legislation, regulations) when respondents are presented with a wide variety of choices, fairly and accurately worded. Findings are tentative until tested by wording variations, by respondent exposure to pro and con arguments, by consilience with previous findings and by obtaining the reasons behind highly supported policy proposals. This complex process often requires a series of surveys.

Here is a most remarkable and important conclusion: once consensus findings are established by the admittedly expensive methods of public interest polling, it turns out to be true empirically that such consensus findings can be readily and inexpensively duplicated by any competent pollster, without including information beyond the minimal context needed to make a question in any poll intelligible to respondents. This means that the consensus findings of public interest polling do not apply just to those tiny percentages who have gone through a deliberation process but to the entire public.

A fifth thread is the story of how public interest polling, while hardly yet perceptible, is beginning to bring sanity to the dysfunctional US political system. In time, a movement to conduct and disseminate high quality polling promises to temper the disgust of Americans with politics. Hope rises that the US might be on the way to getting what has for eons eluded every country -- responsive, satisfying, honest, governance. Utopian as it might seem, that ideal no longer need be viewed as out of reach.

A sixth story thread, somewhat peripheral to the main purposes of the book, may be the most interesting. It is a collection of simple, common sense rules and examples of how to tell a good poll from a bad poll, found throughout the book but especially in the sections entitled "The Games Pollsters Play," (pp. 40-52), "The Dirty Little Secret of Conventional Polling", (pp. 234-238), and in Chapter 13, "High Profile Polls that Misled the Nation".

Prominent pollsters, political scientists and even politicians have acknowledged the importance and credibility of this book, as demonstrated by the favorable comments under back cover and continuing in inside flap. See particularly the comments of Alger, Becker, Boulding, Chittick, Cranston, Dean, Desai, Doble, Drayton, Elkin, Fisher, Franklin, Greenberg, Harwood, Hollander, Hubbard, Lewis, Mathews, Miller, Ortmans, Smyre, Steeper, and Yankelovich.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

From the Publisher:

Americans Talk Issues Foundation received a review from Sidney Hollander, Jr. that was so appropriate we simply had to pre-empt it to become the foreword to the book. Hollander's review follows:

"A sage of social research once observed that the systematic opinion survey has been the only significant invention produced by the social sciences, and many forget that the founding fathers of polling, in the 1930s, figuratively dedicated it (and to some extent themselves) to the service of political democracy. When America was small, the town meeting was the metaphor of political opinion. Each elected official represented a small number of citizens, and it is said that a century ago anyone could stroll into the White House and chat with its occupant. But now the size and complexity of our society has outpaced such channels, and the sample survey was welcomed as a more accurate and versatile means of ascertaining public opinion.

"As with other socially useful institutions, however, the pristine goals of public opinion research were bent to the will of market forces; put in very general terms, it can be said that the published polls, respected for their proficiency and impartiality, were too constrained by headlines and deadlines to convey the variety and dynamics of public opinion, leaving to partisan and commercial interests the unchallenged task of pursuing the depth and breadth required for policy formation. Further, both published polls and private consultants focused on the election process, supporting the view of politics as a spectator sport. Relatively little attention was devoted to governance and the substantive issues affecting our lives. "Responding to this challenge from the purest of patriotic motives came Alan F. Kay, not a member of the polling industry, but one who, like its founders, recognized its potential for the uses of democracy. With MIT training and a Harvard PhD in mathematics, Kay had obtained significant patents in the microwave field, had founded and sold two successful publicly traded companies, and retired from gainful employment in his middle fifties. He believed that the public interest could be served by opinion research on major issues and dedicated his retirement years and considerable fortune to testing this conviction from the ground up.

"As the Cold War was winding down and the 1988 elections loomed, Kay decided that the most useful immediate contribution would be to survey American opinion on matters relating to national security, to provide the findings first to presidential candidates, then to the public via press release. He simply believed that the country would be a better place if its leaders understood what its citizens thought and wanted. This study became the first of 28 conducted over a ten-year period, covering a wide range of issues, published serially under the collective title of Americans Talk Issues.

"From the outset, these public interest surveys differed from conventional polling in a number of ways: use of one Democratic and one Republican survey organization to develop and execute the questionnaires, with meticulous attention to neutrality; extensive experimentation with split ballot versions to detect influence of question wording and sequence; ample and neutral background information provided with questions to encourage informed response; systematic probing of don't know responses; use of interactive questioning techniques, programmed through CATI recording of response, to permit respondents to modify replies as the interview proceeded (for example, respondents were given the opportunity to construct their version of a federal budget and to make revisions after seeing the effects of their selections on the deficit).

"Although having been assured by some that the public is not only dumb, but fickle, Kay was generally impressed with the common-sense responsibility displayed when respondents were given realistic choices and sufficient context from which to form judgments. One need not believe in the divinity of vox populi, however, to appreciate the discrepancies Kay's work reveals between the public's preferences, as shown in these surveys, and the voting records of their elected representatives. In one legislative field after another, such disconnects between what we want and what we get are attributable to what Kay terms The System, a reference to the 1996 book of that title by Washington journalists David Broder and Haynes Johnson. A further example is the inside view of The System Kay provides in recounting his own rebuff in seeking public support for public interest polling.

"Appropriately for the extraordinary accomplishments of its singular author, this book is a highly subjective one and the more readable on that account, with portions of the narrative compatible with the writer's claim to having been a big city sports reporter. While much of it is given over to the nuts and bolts of specific ATI studies for those who wish to learn from the techniques and substance, there is also a good deal of arresting autobiography, name-dropping encounters that inevitably became a part of the mission, workaday observations on the practice of public opinion research that will not be new to those in practice of that art, close-ups of work in progress, history, and geography of some outcroppings of public interest research. "Center stage, however, is given to Kay's own ATI project and its potential for closing the disturbing disconnects of major public issues - a legislative equivalent, perhaps, of Roger Fisher's Getting to Yes. Kay's title, Locating Consensus for Democracy, shows that he regards this as the core of ATI's achievement and it is here that he provides a vision of service to political democracy in a way that would gratify the idealists among our opinion research pioneers. That is what makes this an important book."

- Sidney Hollander, Jr., Past President, American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)

From the Back Cover:

Mathematician and entrepreneur, Alan F. Kay, called America's patron of polling by the Washington Post, lays bare the disconnect between Washington and the American people - and demonstrates how it can be bridged, practically, inexpensively, by using off-the-shelf technology with enhanced polling methods.

"Public interest polling stands in sharp contrast to current practices of special interest polling that produce skewed images of the public itself, skewed policy and skewed legislation. Kay's brilliant decade-long work on the construction of the technology of deliberative polling, so carefully described in this book, offers a major tool in the rebuilding of the democratic process in the United States - a must-read for scholars, policy makers, and activists alike." - Elise Boulding, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Dartmouth College

"A wry look at the way politics and the democratic process work (and don't work) by a thoughtful and experienced citizen who suggests important ways to improve it all." -Senator Alan Cranston, (D, CA, 1968-1992)

"A great book and, ultimately, an encouraging one, with its demonstration of how the common sense of American citizens somehow survives the punishment and manipulation it receives." -Jonathan Dean, Ambassador (ret.), Adviser on International Security Issues, Union of Concerned Scientists

"This is a book in the great tradition of American populism. It combines a deep and genuine concern for people with the best scientific practice and technology." - Lord Meghnad Desai, Professor, London School of Economics, (UK); Director, Center for Global Governance

"Alan Kay's breakthrough public interest polling is so respectful of ordinary citizens that it asks them tough, smart questions. Yet the citizens' vision comes through clearly. What might we have accomplished had America been guided in the nineties by his polls, not Dick Morris's?" - William Drayton, MacArthur Fellow; President, Ashoka; formerly McKinsey & Co., USEPA, Professor at Stanford Law School and Kennedy School of Government

"In a period of frenzied and irrelevant politics, this is a breath of fresh air." - Stanley B. Greenberg, former pollster for President Clinton

"Kay is a genuine pioneer in public interest polling, and he has performed a great public service to us all." - Charles Lewis, Executive Director, the Center for Public Integrity, formerly producer for 60 Minutes

"I worked with Alan Kay throughout his ten year polling project. The experience taught me a side of public opinion I had not appreciated.

"Public interest polling will be seen as a serious threat to our government leaders. None of them really want to know that the public is not behind them on an issue; they would rather measure opinion using their current methods which, to be honest, is close to treating the public like Pavlov's dogs. Public interest polling will also face stiff opposition, because it implies that decisions that seem so hard for our elected leaders to make, could be made by the public in much less time and with a more sensible result. The public does have the common sense and good will to make wise public policy choices in the general interest, as this book shows. These would not necessarily be a good decision for one or another special interest.

"I have worked with no one more dedicated to finding out the true issue positions of the public. He is to be greatly commended for showing the way to the democratic consensus that does, indeed, exist out there." - Fred Steeper, Pollster for President George Bush

"Alan Kay is an American original - a mathematician with a Harvard PhD, an inventor, a highly successful entrepreneur, a political populist, and most recently, an innovator in the field of survey research.

"He has spent the past decade of his life, and tons of his own money, digging into relatively unexplored facets of public opinion. Kay has made a genuine contribution to the field and to the practice of democracy, as reflected in his new book, Locating Consensus for Democracy.

"In one survey after another, the book documents what American public opinion would look like if our political leadership actually engaged the public in the important issues of our time. Conventional opinion polls tell you what public opinion is on issues where the public has only the vaguest sense of what the consequences of various policy options would be. Kay's innovative public interest polling tells you how Americans respond once they take these consequences into account. In a democracy, this should be indispensable information for our political leaders. That it is not is a massive blemish on present democratic practice.

"Kay brings passion, conviction and high intelligence to his pioneering effort. My hat is off to him for his contribution as a citizen as well as for his impressive professional contribution." - Daniel Yankelovich, Author, Coming to Public Judgement

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Kay, Alan F.
Published by Amer Talk Issues Foundation (1998)
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Kay, Alan F./ Dorris, Charles (Editor)
Published by Amer Talk Issues Foundation (1998)
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