Deliberation vs. Populism, A New Approach to the Question of Europe

Speaking of dialogue, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin in the wake of the Irish “no” vote on the Lisbon Treaty, in the FT:

The Irish No provides Europe with an opportunity to rethink its approach to referendums. Ever since Napoleon initiated the modern practice two centuries ago, referendums 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.

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 decision-making. If the Irish return to the polls next year to rethink their vote, they should be encouraged to engage in a more deliberative exercise. Two weeks before the next referendum, Ireland should hold a special national day of deliberation at which ordinary citizens discuss the key issues at community centres throughout the country.

Suppose, for example, that deliberation day begins with a familiar sort of televised debate between the leading spokesman for the Yes and No sides. After the television show, local citizens take charge as they engage in 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 the nation. Discussions begun on deliberation day will continue during the run-up to referendum day, drawing those who did not attend into the escalating national dialogue.