For a Smarter Public, Deliberation Day

It is easy to wring one's hands, especially with a presidential campaign approaching, over the scandalous state of the public's knowledge about politics. But is there anything practical to be done? There is, and the answer can be found in a new and promising practice called Deliberative Polling. In Deliberative Polling, a scientific, random sample of citizens doesn't simply answer questions over the telephone. Instead, this group spends a weekend deliberating on major issues of public policy. Intensive deliberations would enable them to move beyond the sound bites, and they would leave with a more confident sense of their capacities as citizens.

This isn't just theory. More than two dozen DPs have now been held in America and abroad, and studies show that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds on the best course of action. For example, after one deliberative poll held in conjunction with the British general election in 1997, there was a 22 percentage-point swing (toward the small third party, the Liberal Democrats) in the group's voting preferences.

These experiments suggest a new way of thinking about democratic reform. If Deliberative Polling works for small samples, why not give every American a chance to engage in the same opportunity?

Our forthcoming book proposes a new national holiday: Deliberation Day. Held two weeks before presidential elections, it would replace President's Day on our national calendar. Americans would now honor Washington and Lincoln by gathering at neighborhood meeting places to discuss the central issues raised by the leading candidates for the White House.

DDay would begin with a nationally televised debate between the presidential candidates, conducted in the traditional way. But then citizens would deliberate in small groups of 15, and later in larger plenary assemblies. The small groups would begin where the televised debate left off. Each group would spend an hour defining questions that the candidates had left unanswered. Everybody would then proceed to a 500-citizen assembly to hear their questions answered by local party representatives.

After lunch, participants would repeat the morning procedure. By the end of the day, citizens would have moved far beyond the top-down debate of the morning. Through a deliberative process of question and answer, they would have achieved a bottom-up understanding of the choices confronting the nation. Subsequent discussions would draw millions of others into the escalating national dialogue.

If Deliberation Day succeeded, sound-bite democracy would end. Candidates would have a powerful incentive to create longer, more substantive infomercials. If a candidate emerged from DDay with momentum, his or her rivals would have to argue the issues with even greater intensity. While there will always be plenty of room for a politics of personality, the new system would put the focus where it belongs: on the crucial issues determining the future of America.

DDay would also force the president to rethink his relationship to public opinion. Politicians treat poll numbers with respect because they expect raw preferences to motivate voter choices in the next election. But once DDay entered the picture, existing polls would seem hopelessly old-fashioned. Politicians would want to know about their constituents' refined preferences -- what they would think after they had DDay. Incumbents would be obliged to think about what could be justified to an informed electorate.

The coming presidential election will provide the next big test of the power of deliberation. A DDay experiment will be piloted by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in "By the People" citizen deliberations around the United States in 2004. These pilot projects will engage scientific random samples in each community, offering a picture of how something like Deliberation Day could work. Such efforts take us a step closer to realizing an ideal that is entirely practical. A mass public that was actually engaged and informed would transform the rest of our politics, forcing all other actors to adjust their behavior in response to its demands.