As Americans grapple with how to tackle some of the country’s most pressing problems, coming together to address those challenges is critical. But in an atmosphere where partisan tensions run deep, is that even possible? Under the right conditions, Stanford scholars James Fishkin and Larry Diamond think so.

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Kurt Hickman

Deliberative democracy – informed and moderated discussion that transcends partisan identities – can lead to a depolarized and more democratic society, according to Stanford researchers James Fishkin and Larry Diamond.

Fishkin and Diamond have been refining a method called Deliberative Polling, a technique that Fishkin first started exploring in 1988 as a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The approach brings people from varied backgrounds together for a moderated discussion about issues that members of the general public say matter to them. Participants are asked to put their political labels aside and to instead consider the different sides of an argument – a practice that is rare in today’s current climate, said Fishkin.

“Left to our own devices, most people either don’t pay much attention or if they do, they tune into their favorite news sources or their social media feeds and they only hear one side of the argument that is most congenial to them. That’s part of what’s been driving us apart,” said Fishkin, the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Fishkin has found that Deliberative Polling, which ensures a judgment-free environment, is one way for people to listen and learn about competing viewpoints.

“Most citizens don’t take the time to become anything like ideal citizens or informed citizens. So in a way, this is a way of asking, ‘What if they did? How would democracy be different?’ It turns out it would be very different,” said Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD).

So far, Deliberative Polling has been used over 110 times in 30 different countries. Bulgarians turned to it to inform policy-making about supporting the country’s marginalized Roma population; in Northern Ireland, it was used by a local community to help bridge the divide between Protestants and Catholics so they could talk about the future of schools in their district. And residents in the Zeguo Township in Zhejiang, China, found the technique so helpful in their annual discussions about the government budget that they have used it for some 15 years. It is even being used at Stanford to seek faculty input on proposals for the structure, composition and areas of focus for the proposed school of climate and sustainability.

Bringing people together

In 2020, in collaboration with Helena, a non-partisan institution devoted to identifying and solving societal problems, Fishkin and Diamond brought together the largest, most representative sample of the U.S. electorate for a deliberative polling experiment they called America in One Room.

Just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, over 500 American voters, recruited from across the country by NORC at the University of Chicago, were brought together for four days at a conference center in Texas. The Helena project’s goal was to have the group discuss what a previous national sample had identified as the most pressing issues of the 2020 election: immigration, health care, the economy, the environment and foreign policy. This is one of the foundational concepts to Fishkin and Diamonds’ approach: agenda topics are informed by the people, for the people.

Participants, or as they were called by the America in One Room organizers, “citizen delegates” – because “you want to convince people that their voice matters and that they will be listened to,” Fishkin said, – engaged in moderated, small-group conversations to discuss these issues from their own perspectives. Participants also attended plenary sessions with opposing politicians and experts.

To inform their discussions, attendees were given background analysis of nearly 50 policy proposals put forward by some of the presidential candidates running in the 2020 election. Included in these materials were balanced arguments for and against each proposal – all vetted by an advisory group.