Deliberation Day

Deliberation Day
March 12, 2004

“Deliberation Day” is the title of a new book by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. Ackerman was also the coauthor of The Stakeholder Society – a brilliant book proposing that we provide every young American with $80,000 through a 2 percent tax on wealth above $80,000, in order to give everyone the opportunity to acquire an education or launch a business. In Deliberation Day, Ackerman has produced an even more interesting idea, an even more exciting proposal for a further development in the ongoing experiment we call democracy.

Deliberation Day would be the name of a two-day national holiday (everyone gets one of the two days) scheduled two weeks prior to a presidential election. Anyone who uses their day off to attend a full-day session discussing the issues in the election will be paid $150.

Fishkin has conducted extensive deliberative polling — sessions in which large groups representative of a society discuss a political issue in depth. He’s found that positions shift dramatically, though not necessarily in a predictable direction, as a result of these sessions, that these shifts are the result of increased knowledge, and that participants’ new positions have staying power.

Ackerman and Fishkin argue that Deliberation Day would better inform and involve a woefully ignorant public, in part through the effects it would have on candidates, the media, activists, and political parties. Testing a sound bite with a focus group would not predict its usefulness in winning over a public that would be deliberating the issue. Politicians would be obliged to develop positions that could withstand examination and substantive debate.

Deliberation Day activities would begin with a live televised debate between candidates answering questions from participants in an advance deliberation session. Written materials would also be provided by the candidates. Deliberators would discuss the issues in groups of 15 and take questions to plenaries of 500 at which local representatives of each campaign would respond to questions. Back in their smaller groups, deliberators would discuss their concerns further.

When I first heard of this idea, I loved it until I found out a televised debate would be involved. Anyone who watched the Democratic primary debates this season knows how few topics are raised, how little substance is produced, and how biased the affairs are toward the candidates the media prefers. I raised this concern with Ackerman, and he replied that his principal concern was that relying exclusively on written presentations would overly depress turnout.

I’m not sure I agree with that, but after reading this book I do agree with including the televised debate, provided it is not conducted by a media corporation with an interest in ratings and in the needs of major corporations, and provided it will – as the authors describe — involve questions developed through the thoughtful dialogue of a large and representative group of citizens. In fact, televising such a debate would be a significant experiment in and of itself, which if properly promoted and made available would likely accomplish a good bit of what Deliberation Day is intended to do.

The design of Deliberation Day is well conceived by the authors and spelled out clearly in 219 pages of detail, including cost and logistics. I’m completely sold, but I have a few concerns.

First, how will the campaigns ensure that they have informed representatives in every location who can answer questions? In the recent primaries, I represented one of the Democratic candidates in debates in which some of the candidates were represented by volunteers or staff who repeatedly had to say “I’m sorry, I don’t know where he stands on that.” This was the case even in a debate in which the questions had been provided a week ahead of time. For Deliberation Day to work, the campaigns will have to take it seriously enough in its first run-through to organize a small army of better informed supporters.

Second, isn’t the real issue the nominating processes, not the choice between the two nominees? What will happen if we all become informed and discover that there isn’t much difference between the two candidates, and they’re both ignoring some of our concerns? Will this force them to compete to meet our needs? Will Deliberation Day lead primary voters to look for different strengths in candidates than they do now? Or will a full frustrating day of deliberation confirm many people’s current belief that there’s no point in getting involved (except maybe for the $150)? After all, people already support many positions that I find admirable and well-informed but that we can’t get our government to enact to save our lives.

Third, what about third and fourth parties? Ackerman and Fishkin largely avoid the topic and otherwise suggest that they would restrict candidates’ involvement based proportionately on their parties’ success in the previous election. But some discussion is in order here. If Deliberation Day can be expected to change many people’s minds, is it not conceivable that they could make a third party actually viable? Or is it more likely that this exercise in civic participation will force one or more of the two major parties to address the concerns that have led to the development of other parties? I don’t know, but I find the authors’ avoidance of the topic uncharacteristically shortsighted.

Fourth, what makes this – any more than, say, media reform or campaign finance reform – something we can create in the absence of already having it in place? The source of hope for egalitarian ideas these days seems to be starting locally and working up to the state and national levels. Ackerman and Fishkin argue, however, that Deliberation Day must start with presidential campaigns, because the greatest number of people vote in those already. They are convinced that a less than stellar debut for Deliberation Day would put an end to the project. It’s an excellent point, but not one I find a source for optimism. Getting this into John Kerry’s platform would persuade me.

That may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. While Kerry avoids many issues on which he attempts a delicate balance intended to please all of the people all of the time, he also takes positions on complex issues that would benefit from discussion longer than 10 seconds. A presidential challenger ought to commit to putting Deliberation Day in place for his reelection attempt. Perhaps Kerry is the one to do it.

Fifth, where will Deliberation Day take us in terms of the right to private voting? Ackerman and Fishkin suggest that secret voting behind curtains was needed to correct for corrupt influence at polling places, and that earlier in our nation’s history it was commonly believed that voting had to be in the open to be honest and responsible. Deliberation Day could coexist quite well with voting behind curtains two weeks later. But two things might work to change our thinking in this regard. One would be the open discussions with our neighbors during Deliberation Day. The other would be the fact that in many areas where computers are now used to count (or miscount as the case may be) our votes, the curtain is already gone.