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 and often change their minds on the best course of action. No less important, people leave with a more confident sense of their ability to contribute to political life.
This data requires us to rethink the approach to referendums that has become traditional since Napoleon began the modern practice two centuries ago. During all this time, referendums have been one-shot affairs – the people going to the polls to say yea or nay without taking any preliminary steps to deliberate on their choice. But if ordinary people are productive learners when given the chance, we should be considering a two-step approach. Our book, Deliberation Day, argues for a different way of thinking about democratic reform. We propose a new national holiday that will take place two weeks before a referendum is put to the vote. Citizens will be free to use the holiday to catch up on sleep or tend to their garden. But the holiday organisers will also invite all voters to join a few hundred of their neighbours at local schools or meeting places to discuss the choices facing the nation. We envisage the deliberation day (D-day) format proceeding roughly along the lines developed at the deliberative polls, but for the entire electorate.
Suppose that D-day began with a televised debate between the leading spokesmen and women for the yes and no sides. After the national television show, local citizens could engage the main issues in small discussion groups, then move on later to the school or local hall to hear their questions answered by local representatives of the yes and no sides. By the end of the day, they will have moved far beyond the top-down television debate of the morning. Through a deliberative process of question and answer, they will achieve a bottom-up understanding of the choices. Discussions begun on D-day will continue during the run-up to referendum day, drawing millions of non-attenders into the escalating national dialogue.
All this citizen activity will require a lot of careful preparation. And judging by our US figures, a British D-day would probably cost between ?300-?400m – on the assumption that 16-20m voters show up at local centres (26-32m British voters have been turning out in recent general elections).
There are two other cost items in our proposal. Each participant should receive a payment for his day’s work of citizenship, by analogy with jury duty. This will not only increase turnout among the poor, but help pay countless teenagers to serve as babysitters while adults are discharging their civic responsibilities. It also makes sense to schedule the holiday as a two-day affair, including one weekend day. This will allow religious people to choose a day that doesn’t conflict with their religious obligations, and also enable couples to keep one parent at home if child-rearing responsibilities require it.
All in all, a big undertaking – but so is the idea of popular sovereignty. If it makes sense for ordinary citizens, on certain great occasions, to take their political destinies into their own hands, they should do so only after a sober consideration of the pros and cons. If the costs of D-day seem too high, it is far better to call off the referendum, and leave the matter to our elected representatives. Indeed, the high cost of D-day will serve as a check on the trivialisation of referendums so visible in California. Instead of cluttering up the ballot with ten or more referendum items, the device should be reserved for matters of truly decisive significance. There is a special dignity to popular sovereignty, but only on the basis of considered deliberation, not blind will.
DP offers a picture of what might be possible. The data establishes, first, that deliberation makes a difference. About two thirds of the attitudes measured in these experiments change significantly after participants think and talk about the issues. Second, opinion changes at DPs don’t happen randomly. The people who change their views tend to be those who have become more informed about the issues. Third, deliberation also changes behaviour. In some key cases, participants vote differently after they deliberate. They also continue to be more active politically when we contact them months later. Finally, the process is very democratic. Voters from all classes learn and change their opinions – not just the more educated.
These conclusions are supported by deliberative polls held in countries ranging from Britain and the US to Australia and Bulgaria. The first deliberative poll anywhere was conducted in Britain on the issue of crime, and broadcast on Channel 4 in 1994. After two days of deliberation, the participants remained very tough on crime – most still wanted to bring back hanging, for example. Nevertheless, they came to the realisation that Britain already had the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe and that prison was very expensive. So they looked for ways to deal with the root causes of crime and to differentiate the treatment of juvenile offenders from adults. They also acquired more sensitivity to the rights of defendants, showing far less support for the police “bending the rules” to get a conviction.
British DPs on Europe and on the monarchy also suggest that deliberation generates a complex set of responses. On the one hand, the DP on Europe led to a shift in a cosmopolitan direction. Those believing Britain was “a lot better off in the EU than out of it” went from a minority (45 per cent) to a majority (60 per cent) after deliberation. Opposition to the single currency also abated. On the other hand, the DP on the monarchy revealed a discriminating embrace of tradition. Support for the monarchy went up when the participants confronted replacing the monarch with a presidential system. A majority preferred more modest reforms – making the succession gender-neutral, reforming the House of Lords, ending the monarch’s role as head of the Church of England.
Why restrict D-day to the extraordinary referendum? Why not make it a constitutional fixture of every general election? D-day would not only have a salutary impact on the deliberative quality of electoral campaigns. It would also strike hard against the great pathology of modern democracies: government by public opinion poll. Once the leading politicians know that they will be facing their constituents on D-day, existing polls will seem hopelessly old-fashioned. After all, pollsters do not try to report how voters will think after they have discussed the issues in depth and after a balanced discussion with fellow citizens. They report only uninformed preferences. As a consequence, senior politicians will no longer place much stock on the latest poll numbers. Instead, they will be forced to come forward with programmes they are prepared to defend before the kind of informed public that will convene on D-day. Government by pollster will be replaced with government by responsible politician.
If it works, then D-day will do double duty – checking the demagogic dangers of direct democracy and restoring the credibility of Westminster’s claim to responsible government.
Why not give D-day a trial run in the referendum that Britain will soon be having on the European constitution? It raises complex issues on which deliberation can make a large difference to the ultimate result. If such a D-day establishes that ordinary Britons can deal with such matters constructively through public dialogue, it will be time to consider adopting the holiday at every parliamentary election.