In an effort to foster thoughtful reflection on political issues, the Penn State Democracy Institute has combined the “intellectual power of two centers,” said John Gastil, professor and head of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences.
The institute houses the Center for Democratic Deliberation (CDD) and the Center for American Political Responsiveness (CAPR), Gastil said.
Gastil, who directs the center founded last year, said the idea for the institute emerged from the dean’s office.
Giving the institute’s inaugural lecture, distinguished political science and communication scholar Larry Jacobs from the University of Minnesota gave a lecture yesterday framing the question on what purpose polling serves — “An aid to deliberation and democratic responsiveness or a tool for manipulation?” he asked in his titled lecture.
“Polling has come to be a technique that politicians use to maintain policy goals and move public opinion toward them,” he said.
Acknowledging that the ability to sway public opinion is an arduous task for any president, Jacobs said presidents collect polling data on topics of high prominence, while they also use polling to “telescope on particular segments of the population.” Instead of polls driving strategies, his research indicates that strategies drive polls, he added.
On the other hand, he concluded that institutional public deliberation can decrease gaps in citizen knowledge and awareness as well as breakdown the governance among divided elites.
“The timing of the talk is very deliberate,” Gastil said.
He explained that the apt timing is connected to the end of the election and the new congress proceeding into session. He said they selected a speaker and a topic that would prompt people to question what they are to expect from their government and of themselves.
“This is a talk that hits on those kinds of questions,” he said.
While the two centers of the Democracy Institute share a common purpose, they differ in their respective missions.
The CDD underscores the promotion and study of a more advanced form of politics, Gastil said. He explained that when engaging in politics, “we sometimes fail to engage in really thoughtful deliberation.”
“When Jon Stewart is critiquing the media, sometimes what he is saying is that the media is failing to facilitate a kind of national deliberation, and we are making decisions in a way that is neither really democratic nor deliberate,” he said.
Gastil said the CAPR studies the connection between the government and its public, as a prime issue in democracy is how well the government is serving the expressed needs and concerns of the public, he said.
Debra Hawhee, co-director of the CDD, further said the CDD is focused more on rhetoric, and it has a more humanistic outlook, while the CAPR is more involved in quantitative and qualitative research.
Both centers host a variety of formal and informal events, lectures, forums as well as faculty and graduate student research, such as a facilitated deliberation during the Sandusky scandal, Gastil said.
“[With the two centers], we wanted to foreground the fact that there is a concentration of intellectual capital that is concerned with questions of democracy,” Gastil said.