the “America in One Room” experiment

On the New York Times op-ed page today, James Fishkin and Larry Diamond report the results of convening 523 randomly selected registered voters for several days of deliberation. These voters were surveyed before and after the discussions. Their appraisal of democracy rose markedly. They also shifted their views in specific ways:

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.

I have known Jim Fishkin and his work for 20 years and admire it a lot. These experiments are illuminating, and they open possibilities for reform. They also remind us that the politics we see around is the outcome of specific institutional arrangements that could be changed. For instance, we are not hard-wired to fall into two partisan camps; that is a feature of our electoral system. If we were randomly recruited into deliberative bodies, we would see very different results. If we can change something, we should consider changing it.

But I do have some worries:

  • Does the shift to moderate opinions demonstrate that deliberation is desirable? It could also be interpreted as a bias: putting people together in heterogeneous groups disadvantages the radicals and their ideas. I try to challenge myself by seriously engaging several opposing political movements with which I disagree. That is my own approach to deliberation, and it could be considered a form of moderation. But I don’t find myself shifting to centrist positions, many of which I find thin gruel and incommensurate to our problems.
  • What is the overall theory of change? If we like this alternative form of politics–much more deliberative, and also more moderate, than the status quo–how should we institutionalize it? The easy part is to invent policies that would make democratic deliberation mandatory. The hard part is figuring out who would fight for those policies, and why. More people are motivated by political agendas and identities than by procedural ideals, and especially procedures that favor the center.
  • What about people who are not invited to deliberate, or who don’t like the results of the deliberation? Do we see them as worse qualified to express themselves?
  • Is this experiment a form of civic education that teaches people to value interactions that are civil, professionally organized, calm, and “invited”–thereby implicitly devaluing such forms of politics as social movements, strikes, competitive elections, and litigation? If that is the lesson, is it an acceptable one?

See also: John Gaventa on invited and claimed participation; civic engagement and the incarceration crisis; saving relational politics; why study real-life deliberation?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.