September 28, 2019


What I Learned from Listening to Americans Deliberate (LARRY DIAMOND, 9/28/19, American Interest)

Next week we will begin to make public our statistical findings, showing how this sample of America's registered voters viewed the issues--and changed their views on the issues--after they got a chance to deliberate "under good conditions." But here are some things I learned during those four days that can't be fully captured by the numbers.

Ordinary Americans do not want to be as bitterly divided as their parties, political campaigns, and media are driving them to be. They are pained to the point of being traumatized by the current level of partisan polarization, and they are begging for relief. Reaching across all kinds of divides in Dallas--and not just in the group issue discussions but in deeply personal exchanges over dinner and drinks as well--they found some common ground. And they wanted to know why their politicians can't do so as well. A heavily tattooed older man from Colorado with a gray beard, long gray hair, and a tall cowboy hat, asked, "If 500 people can get together--from different ages, races, geographic regions, with conflicting opinions--why can't. . . .our Congress do that?"

Good conditions really do matter. Most of the small groups (which were about the size of a jury) spanned across America's partisan, ideological, racial, and other identity divides. But when they were able to sit together in a room and talk about issues as individuals, rather than as warring red and blue tribes, something changed. At least they came to understand where their fellow Americans were coming from. A retired schoolteacher from Mariposa County, California, told me: "It's become dangerous to express your view. But if you get people out of their places, with moderators and parameters. . . .[it's different.]" Said a middle-aged man from Wisconsin: "I didn't know who was a Democrat, who was a Republican, and who an independent. People just shared their views. That made it much easier to listen and have a respectful exchange."

Americans are fed up with the politics of personal destruction. Pretty soon into the experiment, it was clear to all of us that they just didn't want to hear it any more. The one time that a delegate went negative in the plenary--by alluding to Governor Mark Sanford's alibi of a hike on the Appalachian Trail to cover up his extramarital affair--his fellow delegates made their displeasure loudly known. "We've really liked the fact," said a woman from Ohio, that (save for that Sanford moment) "this hasn't focused on the personalities; its been about the issues. That breaks the norm."

Americans welcome a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Over and over, people remarked to me about how refreshing it was to hear contending policy experts from different parties or ideological orientations discuss the issues in a friendly and mutually respectful way, without feeling compelled to always disagree, disparage, or destroy the other side. In fact, delegates were disarmed by the spirit of good will (and even occasional humor) that leavened the policy debate on taxes and the economy between Jared Bernstein (former economic policy advisor to Vice-President Biden) and Douglas Holtz-Eakin (former chief economic advisor to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign), and by the significant common ground on foreign policy issues between former Obama White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and former George W. Bush national security staffer Kori Schake.

Ordinary people want to understand the issues better, and they appreciate balanced and accessible means to do so. Joyce, from Torrance, California, told me, "I'm leaving a changed person. I thought I was reasonably informed, but I wasn't. I heave learned so much about the issues that I didn't know. I will now follow them more closely."

People are ready to re-think their views in the face of fresh evidence. A young African American woman told me she had gravitated toward a more nuanced and gradual stance on the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. "When I took the first survey," she said, "I thought it was a great idea. But you learn it could really hurt small business."

Americans have not given up on their democracy, and their faith in it can be restored. As they were leaving last Sunday, many said they were honored to have been chosen for the exercise, and that it had restored their faith and pride in American democracy. One was Jackie, an elementary school teacher from Tennessee. "I'm coming away much more informed, energized, and proud to be part of this country," she said. "This made me realize, we all want the same things, to be safe and valued, to have this be a great country."

Everybody wants to be treated with respect. And this ethic--constantly nurtured and reinforced from beginning to end in Dallas--was vital to the success of America in One Room. Heather, from University City, Missouri, told me, "I have had the first civil conversation about politics that I have had in a very long time. Because on Facebook, they just call me names." Reggie, an African-American from the San Diego area, said of his small group, "We all listened to one another and respected their viewpoints. In the end, that's all anybody wants, to be heard and understood." an old-fashioned road show where Presidents Bush and Obama tour the country having just these kinds of discussions.

Posted by at September 28, 2019 6:24 PM