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 new 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.

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