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A National Day of Deliberation?--A Commentary by Prof. Bruce Ackerman and Jiunn-Rong Yeh

(This essay was originally published in the November 22, 2005, China Times, in Chinese.)

President Bush's speech in Kyoto makes one thing clear: Taiwan's political future is intimately tied to its success in deepening its democracy. The more deeply we build the foundations of our democracy at home, the more support we will gain abroad.

This should be the watchword as the government of Taiwan launches its comprehensive exercise in constitutional revision for further democratic consolidation. A great deal of work will be required, of course, to fashion an initiative that accords with the amending procedure Taiwan just adopted this June, demanding the approval of three-fourths of the Legislative Yuan and the referendum. Once an initiative passes the legislature, however, we should engage the People in a new, and more democratic, fashion.

Traditionally, referenda have been one-shot affairs -- the people going to the polls to say Yes or No without taking preliminary steps to deliberate together on the choices facing the nation. The 2004 peace referendum in Taiwan happened just like that.

This populist method is unworthy of a modern democracy. If an issue is important enough to warrant decision by the people as a whole, it is important enough to require a more deliberate approach to decisionmaking. We propose a National Day of Deliberation that will take place three weeks before the constitutional referendum is put to the vote. Citizens will be invited to join with their neighbors at community centers throughout the land to discuss the fundamental question raised by the referendum.

Suppose, for example, that Deliberation Day began with a familiar sort of televised debate between the leading spokesman for the Yes and No sides. After the TV show, local citizens take charge as they engage the main issues in small discussion groups of 15 and larger plenary assemblies. The small groups begin where the televised debate leaves off. Each group spends an hour defining questions that the national spokesmen left unanswered. Everybody then proceeds to a plenary assembly to hear their questions answered by local representatives of the Yes and No sides.

After lunch, participants repeat the morning procedure. 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 issue confronting them. Discussions begun on Deliberation Day will continue during the run-up to Referendum Day, drawing millions of non-attenders into the escalating national dialogue.

Our proposal is based on more than 30 social science experiments conducted throughout the world by Stanford professor James S. Fishkin. They involve Deliberative Polling, a new form of public consultation. Fishkin invite a scientific random sample of citizens to spend a week-end deliberating on major issues of public policy. Participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds on the best course of action. Swings of five to ten percentage points or more are very common. No less important, people leave with a more confident sense of their ability as citizens to contribute constructively to political life.

Perhaps the Deliberative Poll conducted in Australia is most suggestive, because it was held in conjunction with a recent constitutional referendum on whether the country should become a republic. A random sample of 347 Australians assembled in Canberra, where they heard leaders of the Yes and No sides respond to repeated rounds of questions that had been worked out in small group discussions.

As the participants became more informed, they increasingly favored an indirect model for selecting a president -- the same option favored by a majority of the Constitutional Convention which had initiated the referendum. In contrast, a separate survey of the mass public revealed that the rest of the country gained much less information from the referendum campaign than our deliberators gained from the experiment.

Although the informed voters in the microcosm moved to a strong yes, the mass of poorly informed voters moved to a no. If the mass of Australians had a chance to engage in something like a Deliberative Poll through Deliberation Day, the result of the referendum might well have been different.

The most recent Deliberative Poll, held in the People's Republic of China, is also illuminating. A randomly selected group of 257 residents of Zenguo, a township of 240,000 in Zhejiang province, deliberated for a day on the public works priorities. After a day's discussion, the participants gave a low priority to almost all of the "prestige projects" that largely involve highway construction or the creation of major parks, but put four sewage treatment plants and a system of smaller, but more diffuse, parks at the top of their list. The local Communist Party responded by substituting the citizen's choices for its initial proposals.

In countries ranging from Bulgaria to the United States, the scientific data collected from the Polls establish 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. Moreover, the process is very democratic. Voters from all classes learn and change their opinions -- not just the more educated.

A National Day of Deliberation will require careful preparation. Citizens must obtain reservations at local centers; centers must be prepared for use; center supervisors must be recruited from school staff and volunteer organizations; and so forth. But all this is perfectly doable, as Ackerman and Fishkin have established in an intensive study of the practical issues involved. Taiwan certainly can affort this: with the estimated GNP of 15,156 USD per person this year and with 29% of its citizens having a college degree. More importantly, Taiwan has labored throughout the 1990s to build a vibrant new democracy and made a deep commitment in doing so.

Deliberation Day would be a major undertaking -- but so is the idea of popular sovereignty. If it makes sense for ordinary citizens, on certain great occasions, to take their own political destinies into their own hands, it makes sense to give them an opportunity to cast their votes in an informed fashion, and not merely respond to sound-bites and emotional appeals.

This is especially true on questions concerning the Constitution. Citizens are especially ill-informed on constitutional matters, and are especially prone to last-minute media barrages. But as experiments in Australia and elsewhere establish, a day of democratic discussion dramatically clarifies the basic issues, and permits the majority to make an informed choice. Now is the time for Taiwan to lead the world in creating a form of citizen deliberation and decision worthy of a modern democracy.


Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University and the author, with James S. Fishkin, of Delibertion Day, published by the Yale University Press. Jiunn-Rong Yeh is Minister of Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission of the Cabinet of Taiwan and Professor of Law at National Taiwan University.