Would you want to spend a few days sitting down with people and talking about issues that are important to voters in the United States? What if the people came from all corners of the political spectrum?
How do you think the conversations would go? How do you think you would handle yourself in talking with someone with whom you vehemently disagree? Why?
In “These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent a Weekend Together,” Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy write about the event called “America in One Room”:
GRAPEVINE, TEX. — The voters arrived from all over the country: nine of them named John, 10 who’d come from mobile homes, four who lived in South Dakota. Twenty-seven considered themselves extremely conservative; 30 said they were extremely liberal. Twenty-one were out of work and looking for it. Two came with service dogs. At least one did not tell her parents she was coming here, because talking politics is so hard at home that she didn’t want to admit she was flying to Texas to talk politics with people she didn’t know.
These voters — 526 total, representative of Americans who are registered to vote — were invited to spend a weekend in a resort outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. And, as the furor in Washington was just beginning to build over the possible impeachment of the president, Donald Trump’s name barely came up.
As they arrived, and in breaks between their discussions, The New York Times took a portrait of nearly every one of them. Collectively, their faces are a reflection of all American voters.
Put a diverse group of people in a room, the political scientists James Fishkin and Larry Diamond argue, and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic. And in this setting, the political scientists say, pollsters can get a picture of what people believe when they’re not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues.
The article goes on:
Over four days, mostly in small groups, they debated foreign policy, health care, immigration, the economy and the environment. They talked through policy proposals in a 55-page briefing booklet that made little mention of whom the proposals came from. Partisan trigger words — Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives — were, by design, largely missing from the text.
Often, the language voters used was personal rather than political.
“You have to learn to listen to them,” Mr. Fishkin said. “They don’t talk the way policy wonks talk about an issue. They bring their life experience, their observations. But they’re making arguments when they tell a story.”
In the end, most participants said they did not change their minds about the political issues discussed, but some shared insights about what they learned:
“I did not change my mind about anything,” James Mowrey, a 33-year-old microbiologist from Lincoln, Neb., said during the first full day of discussion. But he thought he understood better why some people feel a moral obligation to resettle refugees.
“I’m sorry, I’m too pigheaded; they didn’t convince me,” said Susan Bosco, a 76-year-old from Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia, who said that in her daily life she rarely encountered people as conservative as those she had met here. “I don’t think the purpose of this conference was to change people’s minds. I think the purpose of this conference was to get people to accept each other’s points of view in a civil manner.”
“I may not have changed my position,” said Bonnie Sumner, 74, from Woodland Park, Colo. “But I’ve changed my understanding of the woman in the group who said, ‘You know what, I had great health care, it worked for me, and the Affordable Care Act changed things, and I’m worse off now.’ I didn’t change my position that I think we should take the A.C.A. and tweak it. But I’ve changed my understanding that there are people who’ve tried their best and done nothing wrong, and it put them in a worse situation.”
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Why is it important for people with different political beliefs to talk with one another? What can we learn by interacting with people who have completely different life experiences than we do?
What do you think might be the danger if Americans don’t interact with people who have different political beliefs — if they only talk and listen to people who share the same viewpoint?
Have you ever experienced a conversation with someone that helped you gain a new perspective on an issue? Please share.
Would you characterize “America in One Room” as a success? Do you think it was a worthwhile experiment? Why?
Do you think attendees’ subsequent conversations about politics will be affected by attending the event? Why?
Would you like to participate in an event like “America in One Room”? Why? Do you think this model could be expanded to involve more people around the country — perhaps hundreds of thousands or millions?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.