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Call for Deliberation Day

Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin argue that Americans can revitalize their democracy and break the cycle of cynical media manipulation that is crippling public life. They propose a new national holiday — —Deliberation Day— — for each presidential election year. On this day people throughout the country will meet in public spaces and engage in structured debates about issues that divide the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Order from http://yale.edu/yup/books/101015.htm or amazon.com.

Deliberation Day is a bold new proposal, but it builds on a host of smaller experiments. Over the past decade, Fishkin has initiated Deliberative Polling events in the United States and elsewhere that bring random and representative samples of voters together for discussion of key political issues. In these events, participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds on the best course of action.

Deliberation Day is not merely a novel idea but a feasible reform. Ackerman and Fishkin consider the economic, organizational, and political questions raised by their proposal and explore its relationship to the larger ideals of liberal democracy.

“Ackerman and Fishkin, two of America’s most thoughtful democracy scholars, argue powerfully for making democracy deliberative and deliberation democratic. Calling for a national holiday on which citizens might engage in deliberative practices, they offer a pragmatic and appealing case for a brand of deliberation that has gone missing in America’s media and polling circus that passes today for democracy.”—Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad v. McWorld

An article in the January-February Legal Affairs publication highlighted Deliberation Day. The new holiday would be held two weeks before major elections and would bring registered voters together to discuss the issues. Voters would gather at local schools and government buildings to watch a live, televised debate, then divide into small discussion groups that would agree on questions to put to local party leaders in a larger session. After a lunch break, participants would gather again in small and large groups to discuss issues and reflect on the day’s events.

“There will also be lots of hubbub during and after the holiday: exit polls, countless conversations, media commentary,” the authors write. Deliberation Day would “provide tens of millions with the opportunity to take the great phantom of ‘public opinion’ away from the pollsters” and replace it with genuine voices of informed citizens, they say.

The cost of carrying out such a plan would be high. Each participant would be paid $150 for the day of civic work. That’s in addition to the cost of organizing and supporting the meetings, providing lunch to the participants, and cleaning up afterward. But the financial sacrifice would be worth it, insist Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Fishkin, who has made similar proposals before.

“If Deliberation Day succeeded, everything else would change: the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fund raisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties,” they write. “All would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public.”

The article, “Righting the Ship of Democracy,” is available online at www.legalaffairs.org/ – specifically www.legalaffairs.org/issues/January-February-2004/feature_ackerman_janfeb04.html

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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