We should hold public holidays to discuss the issues before big votesby Bruce Ackerman / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
“Everything loose,” Frank Lloyd Wright once remarked, “slides toward southern California.” We should see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s triumph in the recall election there last year for what it is: a moment in a larger historical slide towards direct democracy. While it remains a novelty for voters to replace the chief executive in midstream, other aspects of direct democracy have become fixtures of western political practice. No nation would consider entering the EU without a popular referendum. No less remarkably, complex issues of economic policy have now been caught up by the same legitimating imperative: sober Swedes and Danes insist that they – not their elected representatives – should decide whether to adopt the euro.
Britain is not immune. There was a time when common folk were content to understand democracy as a process of choosing between competing teams of Oxbridge graduates at elections. But this era is coming to an end, and we do not mourn its passage.
The real constitutional challenge is to channel a new and healthy popular assertiveness into politically responsible forms. The question is not if, but how, Britons will exercise their popular sovereignty. Unless constructive steps are taken, the use of referendums can discredit the very ideals of political self-determination upon which they are based. If political science teaches anything, it is that ordinary citizens know remarkably little about the most basic institutions of political life. To take just one example: when the British public was asked in 1996 whether the country had a written or an unwritten constitution, a quarter said “unwritten,” a quarter said “written,” and half said “don’t know.” With such low levels of public knowledge, a referendum on something as complex as the euro or the EU constitution may seem like a bad joke.
But this sort of blind voting is not inevitable. When given the chance, ordinary citizens also show a remarkable capacity to engage in productive political learning. Or so we have found, in a series of experiments that James Fishkin and his colleagues have conducted over the past decade. They involve Deliberative Polling (DP), a new form of public consultation. DP invites a random sample of citizens, usually several hundred, to spend a weekend deliberating major issues of public policy. More than 35 have been held throughout the world, with five national projects conducted in Britain. They systematically establish that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues…