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How to Have a Civil Discussion About Politics Around the Holiday Table


Can we talk to each other across our deep divisions? Many people say no. If they find themselves in conversation with those from another political party, they would rather talk about the weather or some other neutral subject than to talk about politics (and even the weather is not a completely neutral subject these days). Yet what kind of a democracy can we have if we only talk with those with whom we already agree, or share news with the like-minded, or consult media we find congenial because it reinforces what we already think? Hearing your side of the argument may help strengthen your convictions, it may give you energy and resolve to participate. All that is good. But it does not help you fully understand the issue or give you any idea what might be motivating the other side.

Many studies show that we are not only moving apart in what we believe, we are also moving apart in our feelings about one another. This is called “affective polarization.” We tend not to like members of the other party. We don’t want our children to marry someone from another party. These divisions create deadlock and make it difficult for democracy to work.

In September, I helped organize a unique national experiment that offered a window on our divisions and what can be done about them. It was a national “Deliberative Poll”—a poll where people are actually brought together to discuss issues in depth. We gathered a scientific sample of Americans from all around the country to come to a single place (a big hotel near the Dallas/Ft Worth airport.) This sample of registered voters had already taken an in-depth survey on the issues. What was unusual is that they were then invited to spend four days discussing the issues and then take a second survey. The 536 of them made the trip and spent the weekend discussing immigration, health care, the economy, the environment, and foreign policy. Democrats, Republicans and independents were in the same large room and then together in 40 small groups of a dozen or so for detailed discussions about what to do. These discussions lasted from Thursday at dinner through Sunday lunch. They started out representative of the country both in their demographics and their policy views. But as they talked and listened to each other, their views changed in remarkable ways.

People with the most conservative views on immigration moved toward more moderate positions. People with the most liberal views on the economic issues moved toward more moderate positions. For example, support among Republicans for forcing undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries was cut in half (falling from 79% to 40%). Other hardline proposals about lowering the number of refugees admitted or the number of work visas also fell by similarly dramatic amounts. On the Democratic side, expensive redistribution schemes, such as the idea (promoted by one presidential candidate) that there should be a government-funded bond given to every child dropped in support among Democrats from 62% to 21%–a shift of more than 40 points. Other ambitious proposals, such as a $15 Federal minimum wage and a “universal basic income” also lost a lot of support after people discussed them together. Given the debt, people were not sure what we could really afford.

What is happening here? Three-quarters of the participants agreed they “learned a lot from people very different from me” and 54% agreed that people with whom they strongly disagreed had “good reasons; there were just better ones on the other side.” We are all hearing only one side and when we have an occasion where we can listen as well as talk, where we can begin to envision life from the standpoint of those with which we disagree, the change in perspectives allows us to rethink and to at least consider arguments we had previously dismissed.

In an earlier national Deliberative Poll one of the topics was the state of the American family. An elderly conservative from Arizona was in the same small group as a young African American woman who was a single parent. The conservative said to her, “you don’t have a family—a family means a mother and a father and children in the same house.” After spending the whole weekend in deliberations, the Arizonan came up to her and said, “what are the three most important words in the English language? They are I. was. wrong.” In the discussions, he had learned to listen and think from her perspective. If we can open ourselves to the viewpoints of others, we may change our views, or at least, respect those on the other side. If we change our habits of discussion we can reknit the fabric of our democracy.

This essay was featured in the November 24th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


James Fishkin holds the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he teaches Communication and Political Science and Directs the Center for Deliberative Democracy. He is the author of a number of books, including "The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, " and  "Deliberation Day" (with Bruce Ackerman).