By Kerra L. Bolton
A Texas resort with cowboy-themed rugs, ten restaurants, and an indoor river walk housed, in September, a great American democratic experiment.
It was the latest in a series of 100 such experiments in 28 countries that Dr. James Fishkin, a Stanford University professor, and his colleagues have conducted over the past nearly 30 years. But this one was covered by New York Times reporters Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy.
“The voters arrived from all over the country: nine of them named John, 10 who’d come from mobile homes, four who lived in South Dakota,” Badger and Quealy wrote. “Twenty-seven considered themselves conservative; 30 said they were extremely liberal. Twenty-one were out of work and looking for it. Two came with service dogs.”
America in One Room
Called “America in One Room,” the deliberative polling experiment invited a cross-section of 526 people representing the voting public.
Participants were interviewed via phone about their political views, and invited to spend an all-expenses-paid weekend in a resort outside Dallas, to discuss their views on subjects ranging from the Affordable Care Act to immigration.
Organizers gave participants a non-partisan, 55-page briefing book, which outlined the issues without the dog-whistles and increasingly divisive political rhetoric. Participants were divided into smaller groups to discuss the issues. They were also surveyed before and after the weekend, to see if their views had changed.
Fishkin and colleague Larry Diamond contend their experiment proves that when you put a diverse group of people together in a setting without political soundbites and tribal cues, voters are “likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic.”
Why We Need Deliberative Polling Now
Such experiments are gaining traction in the midst of presidential impeachment hearings of Donald Trump, and the 2020 election looms over the horizon.
People say they want a return to civil discourse, but they don’t know how. Experiments like Fishkin and Diamond’s are about more than learning to agree to disagree.
Deliberative polling, along with community processing and citizens’ assemblies, is part of the restorative practices continuum. Restorative practices is the science of restoring and developing social capital, social discipline, emotional wellbeing, and civic participation, through participatory learning and decision-making.
As such, deliberative polling is an essential ingredient of building a new reality. It has the potential to revitalize culture, improve public discourse, and generate better solutions to our most urgent problems, because it relies on the collective wisdom of an informed crowd.
American society will not be sustainable in the long run if people refute scientific findings, for example, because those findings don’t conform to their ideological views. Nor will we have a future if our response to the presence of black and brown people is to call the police or put immigrant children in cages.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Deliberative Polling
Unlikely pairings across racial and age divides sprung up during the weekend, without moderators or guided discussions.
A black, 24-year-old cashier from Michigan became close to three 70-year-old white men in his group. A 69-year-old retired nurse bought a birthday drink for a woman who turned 35 that day.
Instead of shouting—as we’re accustomed to seeing on social media, television, and at Thanksgiving tables across the country—participants brought their life experiences and observations to bear on policy issues. They used personal stories to undergird their arguments.
Some participants didn’t change their opinions on issues, despite building a rapport with people of opposing opinions. Others did. As a group, the voters shifted more toward the center, “in some ways that can’t be explained by typical polling movement over time.”
One could argue that changing hearts and minds wasn’t really the point of the “America in One Room” experiment. Currently, people use news and information to confirm their bias, not to change it or learn from it. That may not change in the near future, but we still have to live together on the same planet.
Maybe the point is: America could be great, if its people stopped listening to talking points that reflect their fears, and started listening to each other.