Beautiful Day

Could a proposed national holiday help revitalize American democracy?

The 2004 presidential election campaign promises to be the dirtiest in American history with both Republicans and Democrats using the media to disparage each other. Leading political thinkers Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin want to break the cycle of media manipulation that contributes to the “us-versus-them” mentality that pervades politics. In the book “Deliberation Day” (Yale University Press) co-authors Ackerman and Fishkin propose the creation of a new national holiday—one devoted to structured, balanced public discussion of issues—in hopes of fostering a more politically attentive and better-informed citizenry.

Ackerman and Fishkin suggest taking one October day every four years—perhaps appropriating a pre-existing holiday such as President's Day—to bring together random and representative samples of voters from throughout the country. Citizens would gather at public spaces to watch a televised debate between the presidential candidates and spend the remainder of the day deliberating about the issues and the positions of the respective candidates—with each participant being paid $150 as compensation for their time. Based on their experience with deliberative polls [opinion polls conducted after respondents have been given information related to the poll's issues, as well as time to discuss the information], Ackerman and Fishkin believe that Deliberation Day has the potential to energize voters and reform American democracy. 

Failure recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Fishkin—professor of political science at Stanford University and director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy—about the concept of Deliberation Day. 

Explain what you and Bruce Ackerman are proposing in “Deliberation Day.”
We're proposing a national holiday in which people deliberate [about political issues] in a balanced way and have access to good information and competing accounts. They [would] focus on issues in a manner similar to the experience people have when they participate in deliberative polls. What we've shown with deliberative polling research is that even one day of deliberation can make a big difference in terms of people focusing on issues, feeling empowered and often changing their views and voting intentions. 

How do you see Deliberation Day unfolding? 
Basically people would be invited to come. They would be randomly assigned [to small groups] within a geographical area to a day's discussion. Before the day started the presidential candidates would have selected between two and four issues; they would each get to propose two and if there were overlap there would be as many as four. First there would be a large-scale deliberative poll to prime the questions for a televised encounter between the candidates. The rest would be alternating between small- and large-group discussions where in the small groups people would come up with questions to direct at competing experts, in this case party representatives. The large groups of 500 would meet in community centers, schools and other places throughout the country. 

Just imagine if political spin-doctors and campaign operatives had to calculate that on a given day before the election the public would be well informed. Think how that would change the commercials and the campaign strategy. Misleading sound-bite advertising would look shallow and manipulative and campaign operatives would have to adjust their behavior. We think it would provide incentives to make everything more substantive. 

Also, we think that after a day's discussion the public really would be well informed and there would be a clear sense of what they really wanted. And there would be exit polls. Those exit polls would give a picture of informed preferences that would influence everybody else who didn't come.

Is there any precedent for something like this? 
Not that I'm aware of. Democratic reform has been caught in a terrible dilemma for over a hundred years. We either have politically equal but relatively uninformed and disengaged masses or politically unequal and relatively more informed elites. We haven't created social conditions that effectively motivate people to perform the role of informed citizens. We brought power to the people but no one realized that the mass public would be subject to what Anthony Downs called “rational ignorance.” If I have one vote in millions I have little reason to pay attention or spend much time becoming informed about the vote or the power that democratic institutions would have me exercise. 

A second failure is that public opinion polling often represents attitudes that don't exist. That is, people never like to say "don't know” in response to a question. So they will often offer what political psychologists have called “non-attitudes” or “phantom opinions.” Phil Converse of the University of Michigan initially discovered this where he analyzed questions that were asked of a panel over and over and some of the responses seemed to vary randomly from year to year. 

Of course, sometimes the public does have opinions but very often they are based upon partial information or strategically chosen bits of misleading information. The staple of campaign advertising is to show one side of an issue but not another. And when people do talk about politics they talk to people like themselves. We have a news environment that is increasingly morselized so that people can go right to the sources that they tend to agree with. So the likelihood of finding opinions that you disagree with is still there but it's lessened. 

Why do you believe the American public is politically ignorant? 
I think it's rational ignorance and it's a sense of disconnection from political elites. Some thought that education might have an effect. Yet education has improved over the last few decades but the level of public knowledge has been virtually unchanged. So I think it's the structural conditions.

When it comes to political coverage how is the media failing the American public?
That's a big topic. The media is attracted by conflict—sound bites that can be communicated effectively in a short space. Of course the media is attracting viewers so its incentive is not to inform the public but to treat the public as consumers to whom advertising is being sold. So sometimes the citizens—as a by-product of being sold to advertisers—will get information. It's not so much that the public gets misinformation, but it gets partial and often misleading information. I don't think the media by itself can be changed to solve this problem. 

Speaking of incentives, how did you come up with the figure of $150 as compensation?
We wanted it big enough that we could get a critical mass of people to show up. The danger is that if only the politically interested were to show then there would be a distorted dialogue. But we're returning the people's money—from the government to the people—for one day of citizenship. While the numbers are large it's only once every four years. 

In the big picture, what do you think this holiday would do for America?
It would revitalize our disaffected sound-bite democracy. And it would help us actually live up to the democratic aspirations we had in bringing power closer to the people by directly electing senators, having mass primaries, having public opinion polls [etc.] This will give the people an effective incentive to think about the power we want them to exercise. I think that's the missing ingredient in all previous democratic reforms. 

At first glance, Deliberation Day might strike you as a rather grand undertaking, but if you realize just how little people talk politics with people they disagree with and how little they focus on political issues, it may not be too large a price to pay for revitalizing our democracy.