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Opinion | This Experiment Has Some Great News for Our Democracy

As the presidential primaries approach and a new impeachment crisis looms, America seems to be careening toward a doubling down of our partisan polarization. But are our divisions really so entrenched and unbridgeable? What if we had civil and evidence-based dialogue across our great divides of party, ideology and identity?

The project America in One Room was a national experiment to find out. Over a long weekend in September, we had a scientific sample of 523 registered voters from around the country gather in Dallas. (The event was organized by Helena, a nonpartisan problem-solving institution, By the People Productions and the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, and participants were recruited by NORC at the University of Chicago.)

The experiment produced some shocking results. After several days of diverse small group discussions facilitated by moderators and sessions featuring experts and presidential candidates from both parties who answered questions from participants, the percentage saying the system of American democracy was “working well” doubled to 60 percent from 30 percent.

The deliberations were focused around policy proposals in five areas that had been singled out by voters as the most important issues of the day: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. The participants were guided by a 55-page handbook, prepared by policy experts from both parties, offering arguments for and against each proposal. The participants had been surveyed on the policy proposals in advance, and they took the same opinion survey again upon completing the four days of deliberation.

The experiment produced notable changes of opinion. In randomly assigned groups of about a dozen, they spoke face to face across their divisions with neutral moderators. The most polarizing proposals, whether from the left or the right, generally lost support, and a number of more centrist proposals moved to the foreground. Crucially, proposals further to the right typically lost support from Republicans and proposals further to the left typically lost support from Democrats.

“My opinions have changed, more toward the center than toward any one side,” noted a tattooed man in a cowboy hat from Colorado. “The country is not as divided as the media make it seem.”

Immigration elicited the most emotional discussion. It also saw the most striking changes. Many people came in with flawed preconceptions — for example, that immigrants were coming to this country so they could draw Social Security or other benefits.

Engaged in debates over specific policy proposals, often with immigrants or their relatives in the room, Republicans became more welcoming of immigration and less punitive in their attitudes even to illegal immigration. Support for what we think of as anti-immigrant proposals like the following dropped greatly: “reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.” fell by half, to barely a fifth of the participants; forcing undocumented immigrants “to return to their home countries before applying to legally come to the U.S.” plummeted to 25 percent from 45 percent.

Democrats moved considerably on some of the economic issues. For example, in small-group discussions, many people took note of the wide differences in living costs and wage levels across America’s different localities. After those discussions, total support for “increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour” dropped from a modest majority to about 40 percent — with support from Democrats falling 23 points.

Concern about the rapidly rising federal deficit appears to have sobered many Democratic participants about the costs of ambitious new spending proposals like a guarantee of universal basic income or support for a government-sponsored bond for each new child. For the latter, support among Democrats fell 40 points.

Somewhat to our surprise, there were big changes on foreign policy. A number of internationalist proposals drew increased support with deliberation, primarily based on movements among Republicans. As people learned more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it sharply increased support to about three-quarters of the participants, up from about half.

Perhaps most striking was the spike in support among Republicans for recommitting to the Iran nuclear agreement. An increase of 21 points among Republicans brought support to two thirds of the sample from half. Similarly, initially skeptical Republicans pushed support for the importance of soft power, specifically for using “diplomacy and financial support to promote democracy and human rights,” with nearly three quarters of the sample supporting this by the end.

The discussion around environmental issues produced smaller shifts, but there was movement nonetheless. More participants wanted to recommit to the Paris climate agreement and even go beyond it for “more significant cutbacks on greenhouse gas emissions.”

By the end of the weekend, some centrist proposals reached overwhelming support. For example, 90 percent of participants endorsed “increasing personnel to process asylum-seekers faster”; 80 percent supported expanding the earned-income tax credit to “more middle-class workers”; 70 percent favored using “taxes or other market incentives to achieve emissions reductions.”

After the long weekend of dialogue, 95 percent agreed that they “learned a lot about people very different from me — about what they and their lives are like.”

One woman reflected in her final small-group discussion: “This has been an incredible journey, to sit in a room and have a conversation and not have to worry. I’d like to see our politicians sit down with the same rules: You’re not disrespectful or unkind to anyone.”

Polls can do more than report surface impressions. If a representative sample is polled following deliberation, it can give voice to the public’s considered judgments about what really needs to be done.

James Fishkin is a communication professor at Stanford, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy and the author of “Democracy When the People Are Thinking.” Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford and the author of, most recently, “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency.”

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