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"A Holiday Fit for a President"--A commentary by Prof. Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin

(This essay was originally published in the February 16, 2004, edition of the Los Angeles Times.)

A Holiday Fit for a President
By Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, and James S. Fishkin, Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University

Do civic holidays have a future in the United States? Can Presidents Day, which is in a particularly advanced state of disintegration, continue?

During the first half of the 19th century, George Washington's birthday was a vibrant event, with the children and grandchildren of the Revolution's generation celebrating its achievements. Now, even the passionate commitments inspired by Abraham Lincoln have faded to the point where Lincolnian ideals are expressed more resonantly on Martin Luther King Day.

As collective memory fades, commercialization reduces civic meaning to parody. Presidents Day is realized most vividly at the nation's shopping malls and ski slopes. Holidays have been privatized into vacations, with only a fleeting glance at the civic achievement that now serves as an excuse for a three-day weekend.

To reclaim Presidents Day, we should give it renewed civic content. We could begin by changing its date to two weeks before presidential elections. On the new holiday, Americans would gather at neighborhood meeting places to discuss the central issues raised by the upcoming election. The celebrations should begin with a nationally televised debate among the presidential candidates; citizens would continue the conversation in small groups and, later, in larger assemblies where local representatives of the major parties would answer their questions.

Our proposal is based on a decade's practical experience with a new form of public consultation. In so-called "deliberative polling," people aren't merely asked some questions over the telephone. They are invited to join a cross-section of several hundred citizens to deliberate on major issues of public policy. Studies show that participants greatly increase their understanding of the issues and often change their minds on the best course of action. The coming presidential election will provide the next big test. This fall, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions plans to pilot this idea by organizing citizen deliberations with PBS stations across the country. Its program, "By the People," will offer a glimpse of how Americans might use a day of deliberation to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. It will also provide data and practical experience to help refine our proposal.

If our new civic holiday is a success, it may revolutionize current campaign practices. Thirty-second spots might remain on the air but candidates would have a powerful incentive to create longer "infomercials" to develop the case they would make to the voters on Presidents Day. A politician who relied solely on sound bites would risk losing millions of voters at the neighborhood assemblies.

The new holiday would also reshape the art of governing. Once a revitalized Presidents Day entered the picture, the White House could no longer rely on traditional public opinion polls. As a sitting president looked toward reelection, the crucial question would not be what his constituents believed at that moment but what they thought after they got a chance to discuss the key issues on Presidents Day. Rather than tracking the latest poll numbers, the president would have a powerful incentive to design policies that he believed would generate informed consent.

For all this to happen, there would be no need for a massive turnout on Presidents Day. About 105 million Americans voted in 2000; if only a third showed up for Presidents Day, millions of votes might shift during the day's discussion. No serious politician could ignore this risk, especially because the participants would engage many others in further conversations during the run-up to election day.

It would cost less than $2 billion for all the operating costs of a holiday turnout of 50 million -- including a free lunch and free transportation by school bus to and from 90,000 sites across America. This is a better bargain than any you will find at the Presidents Day sale at the mall.

Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University, and James S. Fishkin, a professor of communications and political science at Stanford University, are authors of "Deliberation Day," to be published next month by Yale University Press.