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A more ambitious innovation: Deliberation Day

Some of the Deliberative Polls have taken place before national elections or referendums. As noted, these have produced substantial opinion changes, including changes in voting intention, for the microcosm, as a result of deliberation. While these projects have been transparent and public events, with national broadcast, the effect on the broader public has only been through the media. The deliberators change on the basis of good information and their discussion of competing reasons, but the broader public is less informed and may not have considered all the arguments that the microcosm has. The broader public’s voting is a function of the usual campaign dynamics of political campaigning, advertising and mobilization.

In order for something like deliberative public opinion to be consequential in an election or referendum, it would be most effective for voters themselves to deliberate. The Deliberation Day proposal (Ackerman and Fishkin 2004) is carefully structured to spread something like the experience of the Deliberative Poll - balanced materials and small group discussions alternating with plenary sessions with competing experts and party representatives answering questions from the small groups. This basic format has now been the subject of considerable research, and by randomly assigning people throughout the nation to sessions within their geographical area, it can be roughly duplicated on a large scale. The collective action is overcome by paying a significant incentive (we proposed US$300) for a day’s work of citizenship. No opinions are gathered at the end, but we would assume exit polling would amplify the deliberative views. Political actors would have to assume that on a date certain - Deliberation Day - the vast bulk of the population would be well informed about the issues. In anticipation of such a development, the entire campaign dynamic would change and, we believe, become more substantive.

Just as an ordinary poll represents non-deliberative public opinion, the aspiration is that a Deliberative Poll represents more or less what would happen on Deliberation Day. Both proposals attempt to realize two fundamental political principles - political equality and deliberation. The first does so via a revival of the ancient Athenian idea of the deliberative microcosm chosen by lot, updated with modern social science and media for amplification. The second does so by spreading the process to a more powerful form of inclusion. Instead of everyone having the same opportunity to be part of the random sample, everyone has the same opportunity to actually participate. The latter strategy vastly amplifies the effects but, of course, at greatly increased cost. Both overcome the dilemma with which we started - the apparent forced choice between political equality and deliberation.

If Deliberation Day can successfully scale up the results of the Deliberative Poll then it would be a distinctive innovation adding the realization of mass participation to the realization of deliberative democracy. Thus far, participatory and deliberative democracy have been at odds, but the point of democratic innovation should be the redesign of institutions so that key values are mutually enhancing rather than necessarily conflicting.

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