“These voters represent all of America”

Radical experiments in democracy and 5 links worth your time

That was the headline on the front page of a special section in the Sunday edition of The New York Times on October 13, 2019, but it wasn’t the headline that caught my attention. Instead, it was the collection of photo portraits that accompanied the headline. 

There were hundreds of pictures, just headshots of men and women, and the page was so striking that I immediately wanted to know more about who they were. It turned out that these 526 men and women had been brought together by some professors at Stanford who wanted to hear what they had to say about the economy and taxes, health care, the environment, immigration, and foreign policy. 

It sounded like a scam

If you received an offer from The Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University to come to a resort in Texas for the weekend and give your opinion on policy issues, what would you think? 

Imagine your host also offered to pay for your travel, for your hotel and meals, for your childcare while you were away from home, and, on top of all that, you’d be paid an honorarium of several hundred dollars. 

Sound too good to be true? That’s what many of those 526 people thought, and they had to be convinced the offer was a real one. Others were willing to come, just for the honorarium, and still others said their curiosity got the better of them and they had to see what this was all about.

For those who accepted the invitation, they received a sixty-page briefing book on a host of policy issues, but the briefings were balanced, offering arguments for and against specific proposals in the policy areas I mentioned above. They came to the event prepared to discuss the issues but knowing nothing about the other participants.

What happened next

You might think that getting a bunch of strangers together in small group discussions about issues like taxes and immigration would end badly. Some people changed their minds about their policy positions. Some people didn’t, but they did report having a better understanding of those who disagreed with them. And some people made significant changes to their lives.

Our most recent podcast guest, Dr. Alice Siu, helped devise and conduct this experiment, and now, almost two years later, she’s talking to participants about how the experience affected them. 

I hope all this makes you curious and that you check out this week’s podcast. We discuss the experiment, the results, the impact on participants’ lives, and what we can apply to improving discussions about policy issues that divide us. 

5 links worth your time

  1. America In One Room was one of the most significant political experiments in U.S. history.
  2. Surprisingly, Americans have not given up on democracy.
  3. These Americans tried to listen to one another. A year later, here’s how they’re voting
  4. Two years later and some of the participants are still deeply affected by the experiment.  
  5. Civility, in many contexts, is easier said than done. 

Photo by  alotofpeople on Adobe Stock