Partisan Polarization is Alive and Well but is it Insurmountable? Let’s talk.

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dara Gaines, covers the new article by James Fishkin, Lice Siu, Larry Diamond and Norman Bradburn,Is Deliberation an Antidote to Extreme Partisan Polarization? Reflections on “America in One Room”.

One of the greatest threats to American democracy is partisan polarization. In recent years, partisan polarization has fortified itself as a poignant characteristic of American politics. The salience of polarization is apparent in conversations regarding the response to the Coronavirus pandemic and evaluations of the January 6th Insurrection. If partisans refuse to find common ground during an international pandemic or in the wake of a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, when can we hope to see it? In their new article published in the American Political Science Review, James Fishkin, Alice Siu, Larry Diamond, and Norman Bradburn demonstrate the depolarizing potential of informed deliberation. Their research finds that when people are presented with unbiased information and an opportunity to have genuine conversations, they are less likely to have extreme preferences.

This study evaluates the results of the “America in One Room” Deliberative Poll. Over four days in September 2019, more than 500 participants from across the U.S. with various backgrounds met in person in Dallas, Texas to discuss more than 40 policy proposals regarding immigration, economy, healthcare, environment, and foreign policy. All participants had access to accurate, unbiased information and expert opinion. At the beginning of their stay, each participant rated each proposal 0-10, from “strongly favor” to “strongly oppose.” A control group completed the survey but did not participate in the deliberative discussions so that the researchers could evaluate the effect of deliberations. The deliberative discussion participants were put into small groups for the entire weekend. Just like summer camp, the participants ate their meals with their small group and discussed the policies. The groups had to collaborate to submit questions to a panel of experts.  At the close of the weekend, the discussion participants turned in a post-survey that reevaluated their perceptions of other partisans and the issues.

The authors argue that fact-based discussions reduce extreme polarization when they occur in an environment with balanced information and discussants make connections with people with different opinions, appealing to accuracy-based reasoning. Balanced information represents the range of evidence for and against the proposals, and the participants had access to a panel of experts for questioning. Their theory suggests that when there is space for respectful communication, equal access to unbiased information, and an incentive to find the logic in another person’s argument, people are much more likely to find common ground. Indeed, the authors demonstrate that deliberation significantly reduces the differences between partisans’ evaluations of policy proposals.

“What’s the worst that could happen? People might argue? This country has overcome far worse.” The authors compared the survey responses to measure the effect of deliberation and found 26 proposals that were characterized as extreme polarization. They defined “extreme polarization” as an instance where at least 15% of responses indicate either a 0 or 10 and a majority of one party evaluates the position in the same direction. After the weekend of deliberation, Democrats and Republicans moved their positions closer to one another in 22 of 26 of the extremely polarized proposals. Interestingly, the respondents who were most likely to choose extreme positions (0 or 10) were more likely to be persuaded by the conversation and change their position. Further, the deliberations improved the perceptions of the opposing party, with Democrats rating Republicans 13 points more positively than at the beginning of the poll and with Republicans rating Democrats 14 points more positively.

The “America in One Room” poll created an ideal situation for deliberation. Unfortunately, real-world situations are rarely ideal. The authors suggest that future work should build on these findings by designing and implementing deliberation opportunities in everyday life. For example, they note the potential for deliberative exercises in schools, local-level policy review boards, and even scaling up to sub-national and national candidate evaluation. The move to online gatherings significantly decreased the cost of gathering large groups, which expanded opportunities for researchers to gather groups representing a range of different populations.

Overall, these results demonstrate that deliberation is a necessary process for healing the damage wrought by political extremism. On the one hand, it is comforting to remember that people have the potential to change. On the other hand, there are steep requirements to create the ideal information-sharing situation. But the authors suggest different ways to replicate this experiment on smaller-scaled populations and issues, which should make the situation more manageable. Further, the benefits of deliberative polls outweigh the risks by far. What’s the worst that could happen? People might argue? This country has overcome far worse.