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Can Deliberative Discussions Heal Political Divides?

Is Deliberation an Antidote to Extreme Partisan Polarization? Reflections on “America in One Room”

by James Fishkin, Alice Siu, Larry Diamond, and Norman Bradburn

The United States is deeply divided along partisan lines. If representatives stray from the party line on any salient issues, they are pressured at the elite level by party “whips” and threatened at the mass level by activists with being “primaried.” At the mass level, scholars debate whether polarization on issues has been increasing, but on some salient issues, divisions along party lines seem increasingly intractable. Further, there is clear evidence that affective polarization has increased at the mass level and this gap in affect reinforces the divisions on substance.

On at least some issues that deeply divide Americans, the lock-step choreography of party elites and mobilizable voters (undoubtedly with causal arrows in both directions) leads to policy deadlock. The continuing stasis endangers both process and outcome legitimacy.

The divisions are both substantive and affective. Social sorting has accompanied the political sorting of the two major parties, probably increasing the affective gap between them. Our division into competing political tribes has led to a tribalism of social separation. This, in turn, reinforces political polarization at the mass level and stalemate among policy elites. Affective polarization intensifies political distrust, further fueling the deadlock. Thus, we investigate both the substantive differences on specific policies and affective polarization as measured by feeling thermometer ratings.

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