Time Out?

Deliberation Day

by Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin
Yale University Press, 278 pp., $30.00

Deliberation Day induces mixed emotions. It is lively, fast-moving, and concerned with a serious subject—restoring the health of American democracy; and it has a big idea about how to achieve it. The big idea is to institute a public holiday just before presidential elections, so that the whole nation can engage in political debate. Americans would be paid $150 to meet with one another to discuss the policies and personalities of presidential candidates and their political parties. If the idea took off, “Deliberation Day” would be extended to congressional and senatorial elections. Deliberation Day explains the proposal, and defends its viability with great verve and a mass of detail.

But Deliberation Day is also an awkward rhetorical marriage between a utopian novel and contemporary political science. It would be mean-spirited not to be grateful for it; but we would be excessively good-natured not to wonder whether the authors might usefully have spent more time on the question whether American democracy really is in a bad way, and less time working out the cost of their proposals. They write as though the only question a reader will ask is whether their ideas aren’t absurdly expensive, but there are many others.

Anyone familiar with the work of the authors will recognize the book’s vices and virtues. James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman are two of our liveliest and most inventive political and legal thinkers; neither is exactly shy. Both have a taste for institutional invention. Five years ago, Ackerman made a stir with a scheme for providing eighteen-year-olds with an endowment equivalent to their share of the national capital, and Fishkin has spent the past decade organizing some fascinating “deliberative polls” for PBS in the United States and for Channel Four in Britain.

Their cure for the ills of American democracy builds on these enthusiasms; from Fishkin comes the detailed account of how to organize days of deliberation on public policy issues, and from Ackerman the passion for developing utopian projects on the grandest scale. In the second part of the book, they join forces to argue that only a more informed, more engaged, and more competent electorate can save American democracy from itself—and that their scheme is the least utopian proposal they know of for securing such an electorate.

Ackerman and Fishkin are nothing if not optimistic:

If Deliberation Day succeeded, everything else would change: the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fund raisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties. All would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public. When the election arrived, the people would speak with a better chance of knowing what they wanted and which candidates were more likely to pursue the popular mandate.

What, then, is Deliberation Day? The proposal is for the creation of a two-day public holiday—to move the Presidents’ Day holiday from February to October, and devote each of the two days to …

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