America in One Room

06. November 2021
Helena Foundation (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Informed US citizens are in favour of concerted action on climate protection. This is the result of the "America in One Room" project conducted by the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD) in September 2021 on the topic of "Climate and Energy". The results were now published.

The project's findings were intended to help delegates to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference better understand US citizens' views on climate change. "The goal is to see what the public is willing to do when they have good information about the pros and cons of one set of choices versus another," said CDD Director and international communication and political science professor James Fishkin. "Ultimately, the results will be used to help gauge what policy changes an informed American public will buy into and for what reasons."

Nearly 1,000 participants

Nearly 1,000 randomly selected participants, along with a control group of more than 600 people who did not participate in the project, engaged in in-depth online engagement with more than 70 proposals for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. All participants had received a questionnaire and information material on all possibilities that are an option on the way to net-zero carbon emissions. Thematically, the questions dealt with urban planning, transport, energy, land use and carbon capture.

While 65.7 percent of the participants were concerned about the state of the environment in the USA before the project began, 76.6 percent were concerned afterwards. After the meeting, 76.5 percent agreed that the current change in the world's climate is man-made, including going from 35 percent to 54 percent among Republicans. Before the meeting, the figure was 65.6 percent. While before "America in One Room" 53.7 percent supported the call to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the USA by 2050, afterwards it was 65.6 percent. After the event, 78.2 percent of participants supported the demand to take "serious action" against climate change. Previously, the figure was 62.8 percent. Accordingly, the willingness to pay higher taxes and energy costs and to use less electricity grew.

High satisfaction, much learned

Overall, the event increased the participants' knowledge of political conditions in the USA and climate change in all the sub-items surveyed. Satisfaction with the implementation of "America in One Room" in terms of information and discussion reached figures above 90 percent in some cases. 75.2 percent of participants said they learned a lot about people who are different from them through the event. It reduced "affective polarization," says sociologist Larry Diamond, which is "the emotional, psychological, 'I just hate the other side.'" "Instead of being manipulated or propagandized," James Fishkin says of the participants, "they feel empowered. And, they feel that they have opinions worth listening to."

The project was modelled on a 2019 gathering, also called "America in One Room", of 526 randomly selected voters who participated in a three-day non-partisan discussion on important political issues in Dallas.

Deliberation changes political attitudes

The participants had received comprehensive and balanced information on five topics: Immigration, the economy, health care, foreign policy and the environment. Over the course of four days, they discussed these issues in small facilitated groups and larger plenary sessions.

Before and after the event, participants had completed a detailed questionnaire. After participating in America in One Room, participants had moved towards the political centre on almost every issue. In addition, the proportion of participants who thought that American democracy "works well" doubled. The proportion who thought that people with different opinions had "good reasons" for doing so increased by 20 percentage points. The effects also persisted in the long term.

Out of the filter bubbles

The aim of such events is to get people with very different backgrounds and different political attitudes out of their "filter bubbles". "Distrust and partisan enmity are heavily driving defection from democratic norms, and deliberation is one tool that can be employed to change the political culture," says Larry Diamond about the impact of informed deliberation.

"What happened in Dallas was magical," Diamond says of the depth and duration of the connections made at America in One Room 2019. "Seeing Americans connect despite their vast political differences was one of the most profound experiences of my life."

Better citizens through proper procedures

Called "Deliberative Polling", the process aims to demonstrate that people become better citizens when an orderly process is used to promote dialogue among people, explains CDD Deputy Director Alice Siu.

Since 1994, the CDD has conducted over 110 deliberative polls in 32 countries worldwide, including in China, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Bulgaria, Brazil and Uganda - enabling governments and policymakers to make important decisions around the world.

"People are smart"

As a result of the CDD’s work in Mongolia, the government passed a law requiring constitutional amendments to undergo a national deliberative poll. "The Mongolian government had their first national deliberate poll on constitutional amendments," Siu explained, "and then the parliament actually amended their Constitution based on the results. It was historic."

Having worked on Deliberative Polling for more than 30 years to address societal issues, James Fishkin is as optimistic as ever. "People are smart," he said. "Especially if you give them a chance, and you create conditions where they can actually talk to each other without insulting each other, and where they can get good information and think about the challenges we face together."

Read more: America in One Room: Climate and Energy