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How Obama Might Still Inspire—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was posted on the Huffington Post on September 27, 2012.

How Obama Might Still Inspire
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

The presidential campaign has been utterly lacking in new ideas. Both candidates have been offering tired rehashes that fail to inspire commitment. Things could change if President Obama took his acceptance speech at the Convention seriously and put "something called citizenship" at the core of his campaign. Citizenship, he explained, was "a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy."

But when we move from words to reality, the institutions that have fostered American citizenship are dead or dying. Vietnam killed the draft; jury service is rare; the public school is under attack. For lots of people, the most meaningful act of citizenship occurs when they show their passport at the border to gain re-admission to the country. Once they've come back home, it's perfectly possible to live without dealing with others as fellow citizens -- fellow workers or professionals, yes; fellow religionists, yes; but fellow citizens, focusing on our common predicament as Americans?

If the president is serious about citizenship, he needs a new reform agenda to sustain the democratic spirit into the twenty-first century.

Begin with the problem of big money in politics. With the rise of super PACs, we no longer try to disguise our emerging plutocracy in democratic dress.

To reform the system, we need something new: Give every voter a special credit card account containing $50 that they can spend only on federal election campaigns. They can spend their "patriot dollars" by sending them to candidates and political organizations at a secure internet site operated by the Federal Elections Commission.

More than 130 million Americans went to the polls in 2008. If they had also spent federally funded patriot dollars, their contributions would have greatly diluted the power of the $3+ billion spent by all federal candidates in the last presidential cycle -- a sum that's sure to increase massively this time around.

Patriot would invigorate the politics of ordinary citizenship. Fundraising will become a community affair -- a box lunch for 100 can gross $5,000! These outreach efforts will provoke hundreds of millions of conversations: Who should get the money? Who is a charlatan and who is really concerned about the country?

My book with Ian Ayres, Voting with Dollars, works out the details, but for present purposes, I want to emphasize one great limitation of our proposal. Once citizens beam their patriot money onward, candidates will continue to spend the cash on sound-bite appeals on hot-button issues. Patriotic finance will redistribute the sound-bites, emphasizing themes of greater concern to ordinary citizens. But we would still be living in a sound-bite democracy, and that's not good enough.

The next challenge is to provide citizens with the tools they need to move beyond the media blitz. An exemplary model is the American jury. Twelve men and women begin in total ignorance, but they learn a lot during the course of the trial. After hearing competing arguments, and reasoning together, they regularly -- if not invariably -- come up with perfectly sensible conclusions.

The task is to design a similar format for politics. Working with my friend, Stanford political scientist Jim Fishkin, we have come up with a practical proposal based on a new technique, Deliberative Polling, which has been field-tested in 70 settings throughout the world -- from Australia to Bulgaria, China to Denmark, Austin to Philadelphia.

Each poll invites a scientifically selected cross-section of citizens to spend a weekend deliberating on a central political issue. Before they arrive, participants respond to a standard questionnaire that explores their knowledge about, and positions on, the issues. They then answer the same questionnaire after completing their deliberations.

Comparing these before-and-after responses, Fishkin and his team of social scientists have established that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds on the best course of action. Swings of five or ten percentage points are common. No less important, participants leave with a more confident sense of their capacities as citizens.

These experiments support a second plank in the new citizenship agenda. Our book, Deliberation Day, urges the creation of a new national holiday, held two weeks before critical national elections. Ordinary business will come to a halt, and citizens will gather at neighborhood centers to discuss the central issues raised by the leading candidates for the presidency or Congress. Nobody will be forced to attend, but as with jury service, participants might receive a stipend for the day's work of citizenship.

DDay begins with a nationally televised debate between the candidates, who discuss the leading issues in the traditional way. Citizens then deliberate in small groups of fifteen, and later in larger plenary assemblies. The small groups begin where the televised debate leaves off, spending an hour defining questions that the national candidates left unanswered. Everybody then proceeds to a 500-citizen assembly to hear their questions answered by local representatives of the major parties.

After lunch, participants repeat the morning procedure. By the end of the day, they will have moved beyond the top-down television debate by the leading candidates. They will achieve a bottom-up understanding of the choices confronting the nation. Discussions begun on DDay will continue during the run-up to Election Day, drawing tens of millions of other Americans into the escalating national dialogue.

If Deliberation Day succeeds, sound-bite democracy will end. Candidates would have powerful incentives to create longer and more substantive "infomercials." Newscasts would be full of exit polls discussing how DDay deliberations had changed voting preferences -- framing the intensifying debate culminating on Election Day. There will always be plenty of room for a politics of personality, but the new system would put the focus where it belongs: on the crucial issues determining the future of America.

DDay's impact would be enhanced when combined with patriot dollars. Taken together, the two reforms would enable voters to take their citizenship seriously from the very beginning of the campaign. Candidates will be reaching out to them with great vigor -- if only to pick their pockets and get their patriot dollars. As Deliberation Day looms on the horizon, candidates will be using the money for longer "infomercials" to enable partisans to state their case intelligently to their fellow citizens. By the time Election Day arrives, voters will be going to the polls with a far better sense of the stakes.

My next proposal, developed with Ian Ayres, moves the citizenship agenda beyond elections to the ongoing political debate. Despite the vibrancy of the blogosphere, the hard truth is that the web is destroying serious journalism. By destroying the traditional business model for newspapers, the Internet is generating devastating cuts in the press corps operating at state, national, and international levels.

The blogosphere can't be expected to take up the slack. First-class reporting isn't for amateurs. It requires lots of training, contacts and expenses. It also requires reporters with the well-honed capacity to write for a broad audience, and editors who recognize the need to maintain long-term credibility for their brand. Without a new business model for journalism, the Internet will degenerate into a postmodern nightmare, with millions spouting off without any concern for the facts.

Enter the citizen's news voucher. Under this scenario, Internet users click a box whenever they read a news article that contributes to their political understanding. These reader "votes" are then transmitted to a National Endowment for Journalism, which would compensate the news organization originating the article on the basis of a strict mathematical formula: the more clicks, the bigger the check from the Endowment.

Some basic restrictions apply. Most importantly, government should not be in the business of subsidizing libel. The Endowment should only register news organizations prepared to put up an adequate libel-insurance policy, compensating people whose reputations are wrongfully damaged through false reporting. This will require journalists to satisfy an insurance company that they will engage in serious fact-checking.

Before citizens can click support for a news article, each reader will have to convince the Endowment that she is a real person, and not merely a computer program designed to inflate the article's popularity. This will require her to spend a few seconds typing in some random words or syllables. Though the time spent typing may seem trivial, it will serve to discriminate between the cynics and the citizens. After all, the reader won't receive any private reward for "wasting" her time, day after day, clicking approval of articles deserving public support. She will participate only if, as a good citizen, she is willing to spend a few moments in the broader project of creating a vibrant public dialogue.

If you'd like to know more, take a look at my Decline and Fall of the American Republic. The key point is to see how the initiative complements the citizenship agenda launched by Voting with Dollars and Deliberation Day. Like patriot dollars, the voucher system permits the decentralized show of support by concerned citizens. Like Deliberation Day, it engineers a credible context for the responsible exercise of citizenship -- but this time on a day-to-day basis.

No need to exaggerate. I am not conjuring up some mythic version of Periclean Athens. I am not asking modern Americans to don their togas, but to send patriot dollars and newspaper-clicks to the Election Commission and Journalism Foundation and talk to their neighbors at local community centers -- while spending most of their time earning a living and leading a fulfilling personal life. I am not longing for some brave new world, but an America in which President Obama's brave words have real-world meaning.

Even at a time of trillion dollar deficits, we can afford to invest in citizenship. Patriot dollars would cost about $7 billion dollars during presidential elections, $3 billion during Congressional elections. If 50 to 70 million Americans showed up on DDay, it would cost another two billion to organize tens of thousands of community centers throughout the nation. The National Endowment for Journalism would have a big impact if citizen-clicks could direct a billion dollars a year to journalistic sites. On an annualized basis, this adds up to less than $5 billion - a small price to pay to sustain democracy in the twenty-first century?

If the President took his words seriously, many Republicans might respond affirmatively to his call. Even in these partisan times, a citizenship agenda might serve as a unifying project for all Americans.

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale.