Amer­ica in one room

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - STEVE BRAWNER

What hap­pens when more than 500 di­verse Amer­i­cans are brought to­gether to dis­cuss pol­i­tics in an in­formed, civil man­ner? Peo­ple can ac­tu­ally change their minds about the is­sues, each other, and the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

That’s what Stan­ford pro­fes­sor James Fishkin found through his pro­ject, “Amer­ica in One Room.” He sci­en­tif­i­cally chose 500-plus Amer­i­cans – five from Arkansas – to re­flect Amer­ica’s vast ar­ray of po­lit­i­cal view­points. They were flown to Dal­las and spent Sept. 19-22 learn­ing about and dis­cussing five im­por­tant is­sues: im­mi­gra­tion, health care, the econ­omy and taxes, the en­vi­ron­ment, and for­eign pol­icy.

He dis­cussed his find­ings in a con­fer­ence call Nov. 14 or­ga­nized by Fix US. That’s a pro­ject by the Com­mit­tee for a Re­spon­si­ble Fed­eral Bud­get meant to bridge the dis­trust that makes solv­ing prob­lems like the na­tional debt im­pos­si­ble.

Fishkin be­lieves tra­di­tional polling tech­niques don’t of­fer valu­able in­for­ma­tion. Most cit­i­zens don’t have an in­cen­tive to be very in­formed about par­ticu- lar is­sues. They’re busy with their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and only have one vote any­way out of mil­lions, so they form only a “vague im­pres­sion from sound bytes and head­lines,” he said. When a poll­ster in­ter­rupts their din­ner and starts ask­ing ques­tions, they of­fer “phan­tom opin­ions” rather than ad­mit they don’t know the an­swer.

In­stead, Fishkin’s pro­ject let par­tic­i­pants dive deeply into those five is­sue ar­eas, hear from com­pet­ing view­points, par­tic­i­pate in small group dis­cus­sions, and, most im­por­tantly, en­gage with flesh-and-blood Amer­i­cans who dis­agree with them. That’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent dy­namic than sit­ting at a key­board and shout­ing at peo­ple on­line.

One find­ing was that, on some is­sues, many par­tic­i­pants changed their minds or moved to­ward the cen­ter – Repub­li­cans from the right and Democrats from the left.

Be­fore the ses­sions be­gan, 79% of Repub­li­cans sup­ported forcibly de­port­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants to their coun­tries of ori­gin be­fore they could ap­ply to re­turn. By the end, it was 40%. The per­cent­age of Repub­li­cans fa­vor­ing the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram – which pro­tects im­mi­grants brought to Amer­ica il­le­gally as chil­dren – in­creased from 36% to 61%. Sup­port for recom­mit­ting to the Iran nu­clear deal in­creased from 24% to 45%, while sup­port for re­join­ing the multi-coun­try Trans-pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal rose from 23% to 62%.

Mean­while, some Democrats moved away from the left or oth­er­wise changed their opin­ion on some is­sues. Demo­cratic sup­port for re­quir­ing em­ploy­ers to use the E-ver­ify sys­tem to con­firm im­mi­grant work­ers’ el­i­gi­bil­ity in­creased from 58.5% to 69%. Sup­port for a $15 fed­eral min­i­mum wage dropped from 82.5% to 59.4%. Sup­port for a baby bond pro­posal – given to you by the govern­ment when you’re born so that you can re­deem it when you turn 18 – dropped from 61% sup­port to 21%. The per­cent­age of Democrats who agreed that “Medi­care for all” would in­crease the na­tional debt to “im­pos­si­ble lev­els” rose from 20% to 38.5%.

Opin­ions on other is­sues moved in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. But here’s what also changed – peo­ple’s hard­ened at­ti­tudes about peo­ple they dis­agree with. The per­cent­age of par­tic­i­pants say­ing peo­ple with dif­fer­ent view­points have good rea­sons for their be­liefs in­creased from 37% to 54%.

This ex­per­i­ment wasn’t about mov­ing peo­ple from wrong opin­ions to right ones. Of­ten, there isn’t a “right” one, but in­stead just dif­fer­ent win­ners and losers. Some of these is­sues are re­ally hard. I don’t know what to do about Iran.

The more im­por­tant ques­tion is, can Amer­i­cans stop yelling at each other long enough to craft rea­son­able so­lu­tions to dif­fi­cult prob­lems? Be­cause we re­ally do need strong bor­ders, but we re­ally aren’t go­ing to forcibly de­port 10 mil­lion peo­ple.

Fishkin says we can.

“The public is di­vided, but they’re not in­tractable,” he said. “They are open to dis­cus­sion. And this treat­ment, where they are in­ten­sively dis­cussing with di­verse oth­ers in an at­mos­phere of ci­vil­ity un­der ground rules of mu­tual re­spect and ac­tu­ally lis­ten­ing to each other and get­ting their ques­tions an­swered, pro­duced dra­matic change.”

Per­haps the most im­por­tant find­ing was this: By the end of the week­end, the per­cent­age say­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy is “work­ing well” dou­bled from 30% to 60%.

That’s what hap­pens when you par­tic­i­pate and de­lib­er­ate rather than sit be­hind a key­board and com­plain.


Steve Brawner is a syn­di­cated colum­nist in Arkansas and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Saline Courier. Email him at brawn­er­[email protected] Fol­low him on Twit­ter @steve­brawner.

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