Constructive dialogue — what a concept!

Talking heads. Push-polls. Stacked town hall meetings. Attack ads. Free speech for sale.

Many voters, particularly younger ones, are increasingly disaffected or even disgusted by the vicious vaudeville that’s taking the place of thoughtful political and public-policy discourse.

What if we were to return to the roots of our democracy by putting more real deliberation back into it? What if we could sit a diverse, representative group of citizens around a table, give them useful information, take away the spin and the talking points, and just let them talk, listen and learn?

We can. And we did.

On Sept. 25, about 185 randomly selected citizens of Allegheny County gathered at Carnegie Mellon University to think through issues of local government and, specifically, policing. The process is called a deliberative poll.

Participants received a booklet of background information on municipal government structure, taxation and public safety in advance, along with a preliminary survey; when they convened at CMU early that morning, they sat around tables, each with a moderator and note-taker. They discussed challenges facing the city and its surrounding communities and formulated questions. After lunch, the questions were submitted to experts for their responses. Having heard the experts’ answers, the citizens were surveyed again, about both their conclusions and the deliberative process itself.

On Dec. 2, the survey results will be published, along with phone poll responses and online comments, by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics and the Allegheny Forum at This will culminate a five-month project sponsored and supported by the institute, the Program for Deliberative Democracy (a joint effort of CMU’s Center for Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy and the Coro Center for Civic Leadership) and a constellation of foundations and organizations, including the Pittsburgh Foundation, The Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Grable Foundation, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Local Government Academy.

The hope is that all the public brainstorming will provide insight and direction to local leaders.

The Program for Deliberative Democracy has conducted deliberative polls for six years now, as a more wholesome alternative to mainstream polling, which is marred by framing and agenda-setting by professional strategists. Most polls neither assume nor require any level of knowledge of the issue — but if a majority of people believe the Earth is flat, that doesn’t mean it’s true and public policy based on that belief won’t be sound. A deliberative poll, by contrast, replaces loaded yes/no questions with an informed, structured conversation that transforms individuals with preferences into citizens with judgments.

How did the participants feel about it? More engaged, for starters. Asked "Will you become more engaged in your community as a result of this deliberative poll?" 90 percent answered definitely or probably yes. And they didn’t regret the effort; asked "Given what you know now, would you still have participated in the deliberative poll conversation?" 99 percent said definitely or probably yes — 80 percent "definitely."

This contradicts the claim of critics of deliberative democracy that most citizens aren’t interested, either because they don’t want to listen to people they don’t agree with or because they just don’t want to be bothered with wonky policy puzzles.

Emily Unikel of Friendship had never deliberated before and found the conversations "very interesting and very necessary." She learned the "structure of different governments, the structure of the city of Pittsburgh and how it works."

Kevin Lischner of Munhall was also new to the process. He said such a poll is "a good idea because you get to discuss issues with a diverse group of people. It will be a good consensus to pass on and to be acted upon."

John Zarra of McCandless, another first-timer, thought "the event was extremely well organized and thought out" and as a citizen, he was "definitely learning."

It wasn’t just the deliberators who learned; moderators and note-takers also found enlightenment and inspiration.

Pitt grad student Abby Wilson has been interested in the deliberative democratic movement for some time but had never been involved in a poll. She feels American politics needs a way "average citizens could work through differences outside the echo chamber of an increasingly polarizing media and civic culture.

"I have long wondered how opinion polls would change," she said, "if participants in them had the opportunity … to better educate themselves about a controversial issue." As a moderator, she admired the participants’ "desire to find real solutions to problems like strapped municipal budgets, burdensome but maybe unavoidable tax bills, aging infrastructure and fragmentation in and across governments.

"My small group generally seemed to feel like elected leadership was too often interested in conflict for conflict’s sake — rather than in … solving people’s problems — and that people were tired of feeling like elected officials were ‘fighting’ all the time without a particular aim in mind."

Students assisting from Carlow, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham universities were impressed by the spirit of respect and cooperation. As one wrote, "People only do what they know to do. We must first understand something before we can change it or pass judgment on it." Another noted proudly, "They were able to work together on important topics and share in each other’s passions for a better community. … We worked together to find reasonable solutions."

Many of the tables resolved to meet again in the future, informally, to continue their conversations and learn more. Allyson Lowe, chair of the Political Science Department at Carlow University, called the day "transformative."

"Community builds at those tables," she said. And it can continue to grow afterward, even across distances and municipal boundaries.

We know how to nourish our democracy with community and constructiveness rather than distrust and rancor. Wouldn’t that be better?

Samantha Bennett is a freelance writer and weekly columnist for the Post-Gazette (