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Can Deliberative Discussions Heal Political Divides?


Published December 13, 2022

A national experiment called “American in One Room” brought together more than 500 randomly selected voters from around the country for a weekend of guided deliberation. Those who participated were more likely in the short run to moderate their political attitudes and more likely in the long run to engage in civil society.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think people ultimately went back to their old views after the study?
  2. Does this study show a way to reduce polarization permanently? What do you think?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Is Deliberation an Antidote to Extreme Partisan Polarization? Reflections on ‘America in One Room,’” by James Fishkin, Alice Siu, Larry Diamond, and Norman Bradburn. Available here.
  • Watch “Morris Fiorina on Why Political Parties Have Polarized,” with Morris Fiorina. Available here.
  • Watch “Unstable Majorities,” with Morris Fiorina. Available here.
View Transcript

It’s no secret that American society is bitterly divided, with Americans of one set of political beliefs deeply distrustful of Americans with differing views. It often feels like we are living in different realities, talking past each other and unable to agree on even the most basic facts.

In September 2019, we ran an experiment to see if something could be done to heal our political divides and reduce animosity. 

The experiment was called “America in One Room” and it brought together 523 Americans to a conference center in Dallas, Texas. These Americans were selected randomly and were demographically and politically representative of all registered voters. A representative control group of 844 Americans was also randomly selected, but did not go to Dallas. 

The participants were given briefing materials with expert opinions, from both the left and the right, on the pros and cons of major policies in immigration, healthcare, taxes, the environment, and foreign policy. 

Participants were then randomly assigned to groups of 10-12 people and, with a moderator, engaged in face-to-face discussions on the policy issues. The deliberations spanned 3 days. 

The objective for each group was not to come to a consensus or to change anyone’s mind: it was simply to deliberate on the merits of various policy proposals by listening and sharing opinions. 

Could deliberation of this sort lead ordinary citizens to re-examine their thinking? Could it humanize the so-called “other side” and help people understand where others were coming from?

To answer these questions, we surveyed the participants and the control group just before and just after the deliberations, as well as a year later, before the 2020 general election. 

Our findings were striking: while the control group, as expected, saw basically no change in its positions over the 3 days of deliberation, the participants did. 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 that were farther on the right typically lost support from Republicans and proposals that were farther on the left lost support from Democrats. 

As an example, support among Republicans for “reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.” dropped from 66% to 34%, while support among Democrats for a $15 federal minimum wage fell from 83% to 59%. Republican support for using taxes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions went up from 33% to 44%, while Democratic support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership grew from 66% to 88%.

What’s more, Republicans and Democrats reported more positive feelings towards members of the opposite party after the experiment. Among Republicans with the most strongly held policy beliefs, attitudes towards Democrats improved from a 5 on a 100-point scale to 29. For Democrats with the most strongly held policy beliefs, attitudes towards Republicans improved from 8 to 24. 

These short-run results were encouraging, but did they stick? When we ran surveys a year later, in the midst of a heated presidential campaign and the grief and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the answer we found was complicated.

A year later, our participants had for the most part reverted back in their policy views and in their feelings towards those of the opposite party. But one result stood out. 

Participants who had little interest or knowledge of politics and policy were, a year later, more civically engaged than comparable individuals in the control group. By giving them a space to engage in respectful and reasoned political dialogue, to be heard without being drowned out by forcefully held beliefs, we enabled previously disengaged Americans to become more civically engaged. 

A year later, they were more likely to feel that their political views are “worth listening to”, more likely to know who controls the House and the Senate, and more likely to vote.

More research is underway right now to see if experiments like “America in One Room” can be scaled up, perhaps online and even with an AI moderator. 

What if people had the opportunity to deliberate on policy issues with different people more regularly, to debate and disagree without being disagreeable? Our work suggests that such experiences can help reduce political animosity and encourage greater civic engagement.