This article draws upon insights from democratic and social theory to demonstrate that the findings of traditional opinion surveys exert an unjustified and unhealthy level of dominance in the contemporary political sphere. It reflects upon the plausibility that the expanded use of deliberative approaches to understanding public opinion might halt and begin to reverse the penal excesses generated by “penal populism.” It is argued that the findings from studies utilising deliberative methods struggle to have any significant impact on political decision making because proponents show an unwarranted epistemological deference, which means that survey-based approaches are able to retain their dominance over political conceptions of the so-called “reality” of public opinion. This is because deliberative methods are regarded and portrayed as producing findings which are less “real” than the findings generated by traditional survey-based research. Even the proponents of deliberative methods collude in this portrayal by invoking the notion of the “hypothetical public,” an “ontological red herring” which distracts from both the socially constructed nature of all representations of public opinion, and the unwarranted power which accrues to and flows from conventional methods.

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