The presidential debates mark the moment of enlightenment in the campaign. For 90 minutes, the candidates face each other without their ads and spin directly filtering communication. At least some substantive contrasts get drawn. And we get a picture of candidates as people. Despite the cynics, Americans have an enormous hunger for serious talk: more than 60 million watched the first debate between George Bush and Al Gore.
And, as we have seen, the debates do have an impact. But a TV show is just a TV show. People watch and talk a bit and move on, and the closing weeks are again overwhelmed by spin, slander, and sound bites. The result is a scandalously ill-informed electorate. In 2000, a random sample of voters was asked six straight-forward questions about each candidate's positions. On average, only 38 percent could identify the right answer, 16 percent gave the wrong one (indicating that many of the "correct" answers were guesses), and 46 percent said they didn't know. It is easy to wring one's hands, but is there anything practical to be done?
The beginnings of an answer can be found in a new and promising practice called Deliberative Polling. In Deliberative Polling, the citizens selected for a random sample do not simply answer questions over the telephone. They spend a weekend deliberating on major issues of public policy. More than 35 DPs have now been conducted in America and abroad. Studies show that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds as a result. Swings of 5 to 10 percentage points are common, sometimes in conservative directions, sometimes in liberal ones.
The next big test is occurring now. MacNeill/Lehrer Productions is sponsoring "PBS Deliberation Day" in 17 cities throughout the nation. Randomly selected groups of eligible voters will deliberate on key issues of foreign and domestic policy, and whether their day's discussion leads them to change their minds about the presidential race. On Oct. 21, the results of their deliberation will be reported on a national telecast, hosted by Jim Lehrer, on PBS stations throughout the nation.
These experiments suggest a new way of thinking about democratic reform. If Deliberative Polls work for small samples, why not give every American a chance to engage in the same kind of deliberative opportunity?
We call it Deliberation Day. Held two weeks before presidential elections, the new national holiday will replace President's Day on our national calendar. Americans will no longer honor Washington and Lincoln by searching for bargains at the mall. They will gather at neighborhood meeting places to discuss the central issues raised by the leading candidates for the White House.
A full scale Deliberation Day will start with a television debate between the presidential candidates (but ideally with questions from citizens in a Deliberative Poll rather than merely questions from journalists or the conventional town hall meeting). But then, after the broadcast, citizens around the country will deliberate in their local communities throughout the nation – first in small groups of 15, and later in larger plenary assemblies.
The small groups begin where the televised debate leaves off. Each group spends an hour defining questions that the national candidates left unanswered. Everybody then proceeds to a 500-citizen assembly to hear their questions answered by local representatives of the major parties.
After lunch, participants repeat the morning procedure. By the end of the day, citizens will have moved far beyond the top-down debate of the morning. Through a deliberative process of question-and-answer, they will achieve a bottom-up understanding of the choices confronting the nation. Discussions begun on Deliberation Day will continue during the run-up to Election Day, drawing millions of others into the escalating national dialogue.
If Deliberation Day succeeds, sound bite campaigning will wane. Candidates will have a powerful incentive to create longer and more substantive "infomercials." Newscasts will be full of exit polls determining the extent to which citizen discussion has changed voting preferences. There will always be plenty of room for a politics of personality, but the new system will put the focus where it belongs: on the crucial issues determining the future of America.
There is no need for a massive turnout to make Deliberation Day a success. About 105 million Americans voted in 2000; imagine if only a third showed up for the new holiday— millions of votes might shift during the day's discussion. No serious politician could ignore this possibility.
The biggest cost of any new holiday is the time lost from work. By stealing President's Day from the skiers, we not only save this large cost, but begin a new conversation about the sorry state of our national holidays, and what to do about it.
The operating expense of organizing Deliberation Day for 50 million citizens is less than $2 billion—including free lunch and free transportation by school bus to 90,000 sites across America. In return, we would be building a stronger democracy for our children. This strikes us as a good bargain at twice the price.
Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin, professors at Yale and Stanford, are the authors of Deliberation Day, published recently by Yale University Press.
Click here to read the first chapter of Deliberation Day.
For further information describing Deliberation Day, please visit Citizen Sovereignty's website.