GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?
MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.
GAZETTE: How do we know these assemblies foster civil dialogue?
MANSBRIDGE: Let’s take the deliberative polling organized by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford that I’ve worked with, in informal ways, for a couple of decades. If you look at those gatherings, one important way to get citizens to listen to one another comes from their design, in which they alternate small groups of 12 or so people, randomly drawn from the random selection, with larger assemblies, in which the citizens ask questions to experts. One of the tasks they have in their small group is not only to deliberate about the issues, but to design questions they want to ask the experts. As it happens, the project of asking a common question becomes a task that binds citizens together across the lines of difference.
GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?
MANSBRIDGE: I attended the deliberative polling “America in One Room” in September 2019. In our group of 12, we had some very right-wing Trump supporters and very left-wing folks from the East Coast. But the process of coming together to work on a question allowed each group to build a sense of a common purpose. I remember that people in my group were almost doing high fives as they were agreeing on the questions and the wordings. Another thing that happens in a small group is that you can speak from personal experience in a way that is direct, unpretentious, and not preachy or ideological, which can be a very powerful way to break down barriers. The third thing that happens is that sometimes people begin to change their minds publicly in the group. This has ripple effects because when people see others open to change, they too become more willing to be more open to taking in new arguments. The fourth thing is that because everyone is working with the same background materials, they come to agree on the same facts. Those background materials are very important because they’re balanced and provide far more information to people than what they might have gotten through their own networks or news bubbles. That’s a big intellectual breakthrough in the polarization dynamic. Agreeing on the same facts is rare on some issues today. The process of citizens’ assemblies gives people a common basis of facts to work from. And the last thing is that people are just registering their opinion; they’re not voting, as in a town meeting.
It’s extremely impressive to go to a citizens’ assembly and interact with people you would never have bumped into in the course of your everyday life. You get an emotional sense of effective democracy. Everybody gets the feeling that they’re doing something somewhat historic, extremely unusual, and worthy because it’s very expensive to conduct, both in time and money. The seriousness of the endeavor opens people’s minds and allows them to think differently from the way they think in their normal, dismissive, everyday way.