If you spent the weekend talking politics and policy with a roomful of people who thought differently from you, how might it change your views of American democracy?
According to an experiment called America in One Room, that experience moves Americans toward a rosier view of how American democracy works.
“People do not think their voice matters, and they talk to the like-minded, and they are dispirited and inattentive,” said Jim Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford and one of the creators of this research method. The difference between that attitude and the outcome of deliberative research suggest experimentation in democratic institutions is needed, he said in an email.
“We are in a time when reform and experimentation is needed for democracy. It is under threat around the world. It seems to yield mostly deadlock and division. A democracy that incorporates more public deliberation will, in my view, achieve greater legitimacy because it will be seen to respond to the public’s priorities and key concerns.”
More than 500 participants from 47 states gathered in Grapevine, Texas, for a weekend to experiment, deliberate and, ultimately, compromise.
How does it work?
The project used a technique known as deliberative polling. Researchers selected a representative sample of Americans to come to a single location and spend four days discussing the merits of five issues at the heart of American politics today: health care, immigration, the economy, foreign policy and the environment. They answered survey questions about their views on those topics, and on the major party candidates running for president in 2020, both before and after their weekend of deliberation.
Overall, the share of those who participated in the event who felt that American democracy is working well rose from 30% before the event to 60% afterward. Participants also became less skeptical about the motivations of those with different political views: The percentage who thought people who disagree strongly with their policy views have “good reasons” for their positions rose from 37% to 54%, while the percentage who thought their political opposites were “not thinking clearly” dropped from 51% to 33%. Further, 95% agreed that by participating, they had “learned a lot about people very different from me.”
The kumbaya vibe of findings like these seems to stand in stark contrast to the polarized public and social media conversation on politics and policy.
The findings on policy could provide fuel for presidential candidates arguing for more moderate positions on the most controversial issues being raised in the campaign for the White House.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford and one of the researchers behind the project, sees a clear desire for moderation when voters are given the time to consider the issues and their merits.
“If you study the movement on the issues and the movement on the candidates in our survey together, it suggests there is significant national sentiment to see less polarizing (more moderate) candidates,” he said in an email. “But this is increasingly hard to get because candidates are chosen in low-turnout party primaries, where the most ideologically committed disproportionately turn out to vote.”
What about policy?
In addition to deliberation among their peers, participants were given briefing materials laying out arguments for and against each of the policy proposals they had been surveyed about before the event.
Participants’ shifting views on health care – an issue which consistently ranks at the top of voters’ priority lists for 2020 – demonstrates how participants moved away from proposals at the far ends of the ideological scale and gravitated toward compromise positions.
While support for automatic enrollment in “a more generous version of Medicare” lost support after deliberation, dropping double-digits among Democrats and independents, support grew for a proposal in which “everybody should be able to buy a public plan like Medicare, the current plan for seniors over 65,” including a 12-point increase in support for such a plan among Republicans.
Proposals centered on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act lost support, with more saying they opposed repealing it outright or repealing it and replacing it with grants to state governments to create their own systems, including steep increases in opposition to such proposals among Republicans.
The pattern held across each of the other four issue areas tested, with policies at the far ends of the ideological scale generally losing support among the partisans most apt to favor them while policies closer to the middle gained backing from prior opponents. Republican backing for a plan to reduce the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the US dropped more than 30 points, while GOP support for a plan to increase the number of visas for low-skilled workers grew by 35 points. Democrats became less likely to favor increasing the federal minimum wage to $15, as Republicans grew less apt to favor lowering the corporate tax rate. Republicans grew more likely to support recommitting to the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as Democrats increased their backing for enhanced military presence to prevent aggression by China. Republicans increased their backing for the Paris Climate Agreement, as Democrats softened on requiring zero carbon emissions for cars, trucks and buses.
Meet the participants
10 of the more than 500 participants shared with CNN their biggest takeaways from the event.
“My biggest takeaway was really more of a confirmation: that most people don’t have or take the time to research and talk about the key issues before they vote. In our group discussion, it was readily apparent that none of us had all the facts we wanted to make an informed decision, but we all wanted to be able to. We knew what we’d heard but we knew that wasn’t the full story.”
“Most Americans want change a change where Democrats and Republicans can come together to discuss the issues that we are having in the world.”
“Most people, regardless of party, seem to want the same things from our government and its people. I used to feel the parties had totally opposite views on some of the important issues we spoke about in our group, but we really do seem to have common views, just slight differences that can probably be discussed and compromised.”
“What I took home with me, aside from the knowledge I gained, was a confidence that no matter what, our country will survive. Having this confidence, I can listen to the other side with much less emotion and actually ‘hear’ what is being said.”
“Life affects us all very differently. We all have a story to tell and all of our views are important. There’s no right answer for everyone. But if people take the time to hear (and truly listen) to other people and their story, then just maybe you’ll discover something that you never considered before.”
My takeaway is that we, as a country, can have civil conversations instead of bickering about varying viewpoints. I also realized that our stances were a lot more aligned after everyone was well-informed on the topics we discussed.
“Overall, this was an interesting, enriching, immersive experience … I was completely saturated in political discussions during the event. Now I can’t ‘turn it off,’ and I can’t get enough. I was always one who was quiet with her opinions, but now probably not so much. It’s too important.”
“Honestly, I had no certain expectations, especially not knowing what was ahead. However, what was given to me from all the different backgrounds, and different political affiliations of group 23, was that no matter what political party you’re with, there’s always room for improvement. We respectfully without it been said, agreed to disagree. And that if our elected politicians would learn to listen to each other’s ideas, no matter who thought of it, things would get better.
“Biggest takeaway was the kindness and courtesy shown by delegates to one another on sensitive subjects even when views were opposing. This showed me that fellow Americans want civil discourse in democracy, instead of biased sensationalizing and demonizing of differing beliefs as portrayed in mainstream media today, as well as the toning down of the vitriol between the political parties that poisons good will and stalls the needed legislation to govern and serve all the people of our country.”
“I was very hopeful after seeing the way our small group behaved and also hearing experts and candidates from opposite sides being able to have a meaningful discussion in a civil and even friendly manner. It was interesting how many times people agreed at the heart of an issue, but just had slight differences in how to go about making needed changes.”
America in One Room is a Helena project conducted with the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University and NORC at the University of Chicago. The surveys conducted as part of the project by NORC included interviews with 523 registered voters who took the pre- and post-event surveys and participated in the event itself, as well as interviews with a random sample of 844 registered voters who did not participate in the event and served as a control group. Respondents were selected from NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel, which is recruited using probability methods.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the number of registered voters in the control group.