Scene 7: Ron participates in a plebiscite


In which citizen Ron goes through the necessary rigmarole in order to have his influence on US immigration policy.

Citizens will be seduced into participating in deeply-informed public debates about national issues.

To participate in this plebiscite, "Immigration Policy: The Americas", you must demonstrate understanding of the following general issues:

  • Immigration History, 1900 to present
  • Why Mexicans and Central and South Americans Want to Emigrate
  • Basic Policy Tradeoffs
  • The Arguments for the Current Immigration Limits
  • The Arguments for Greater Restriction

On average, participating citizens have required three hours of study to be able to pass the test. However, some citizens have aimed for fuller understanding and have devoted ten or more hours to study.

Ron plebiscite

"Not likely!" Ron said to himself. "I already know how I'm voting."

The national plebiscite was not legally binding. Any citizen could participate if they passed the relevant issue test. But Ron had been specially solicited as an underrepresented category, and enticed with a tax credit if he'd participate. He was dismissive at first, but became more and more excited as he thought about it. Quarterly plebiscite results were prominently publicized, and they strongly influenced legislative decisions; and so the thought of making a difference sounded appealing to Ron.

He began the study resource with a bit of trepidation, but quickly saw that it was not "academicky" and not too stressful. The first section about immigration history included narrated video (with occasional reflection questions posed), and graphical representations of immigration levels from all over the world over time.

When he finished the first section, he noticed that he was allowed to look at the full text of the actual plebiscite question even if he had not yet passed the test. He pulled it up, and saw that there were two choices. Underneath each choice were different reasons which he would eventually be asked to force-rank.

Should the current annual limit of 650,000 immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America be (a) kept the same or (b) decreased?

[  ]   Keep the same

Your reasons:

(   )   I believe on balance it helps the US economy
(   )   It is the right ethical or humanitarian thing to do
(   )   The United States should be seen as a welcoming place
(   )   It's beneficial to my business/my industry because we need more workers
(   )   I would like to see more people like me in the United States
(   )   Other: [                                                        ]
[  ]   Decrease

Your reasons:

(   )   Immigrants take jobs away from US citizens and push wage levels down
(   )   Some immigration is fine but a much slower pace is better for everyone
(   )   Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans do not assimilate well into the US
(   )   The continued influx is slowly destroying our unique US culture
(   )   Permitting immigration encourages high birth rates in these countries
(   )   Other [                                                        ]

Ron was excited about the "Decrease" reasons, all of which sounded compelling to him. Which would he rank the highest? He liked the "destroying culture" one, but wondered whether that was racist—Barry certainly wouldn’t think so.  Ron had a momentary flash of paranoia about whether the polling was really anonymous like they said.

He pushed that thought aside, and wondered next whether there was a way to skip all the study and go straight for the finish. He found and selected a promising-looking option, and got this response:

You may elect to attempt the test of understanding now. However, you have only completed 30 minutes of study so far. Participants who elect to take the test with less than two hours of study receive a more difficult test. Would you like to proceed now with a more difficult test?

Ron wondered how many times the test could be attempted, and thought about researching this question more deeply. But he decided that he was enjoying the activity enough, and so he said "Not now."

In the section about would-be immigrants, he learned about the drastic (in fact, 6X) difference in median income for the US versus the source countries, and heard experts describe how much richer immigrants become when they move to the US. Ron honestly had never wondered much about these people's motivations, but, upon reflection, he accepted now that money was the central driver.

The study resource profiled three different families who were trying to immigrate, and a Hispanic-looking professor interviewed members of each of them. Ron thought the families were "cute," which made him a little grumpy because he did not like being manipulated emotionally. Not that it was going overboard or anything…

As population grows by millions, it is natural that voter alienation and cynicism grows with it. What does a vote matter?

Democratic accountability is critical. But democracy is complicated, and often doesn't work as advertised. Voters are manipulated by attack ads, and turnout is often low. The democratic process is influenced too much by wealth and by special interests. Public interests that lack a focused constituency get little legislative attention.

Greater voter engagement could help. Two factors are important: the number of voters who pay attention to the issues, and the degree to which their thinking is rooted in reality and in historical perspective.

Plebiscites are one potential tactic. Critics of the idea might ask: should ignorant voters' prejudices govern society? Certainly not. But there are many variants of plebiscites, polling, and public deliberation that are both imaginable and financially feasible.

The idea depicted in this scene combines polling with learning to create a high-profile national discussion that's both substantial and inclusive. It could simultaneously achieve several aims: spreading knowledge about issues and awareness that there are other sides to an issue; capturing national interest; reducing citizens’ sense of isolation; capturing reasons for citizens' positions rather than just positions; providing data for legislators; and, above all, expanding voter engagement with issues, at an enlightened level.

For democracy to work better, society and government will need to find scalable ways to motivate citizens to use some of their valuable time and energy to study high-quality information about the issues. Reading or watching the news won't accomplish this. Simply publishing free educational material won't either. Strategies are needed that will make it exciting, easy, and authentic.

I can hear naysayers. "It's better if non-engaged citizens don't vote." "The educational materials will inevitably be biased." "It's the radical citizens, and even trolls, who will dominate the plebiscite." All of these things are addressable.


cast of characters