Oct 10, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The limits of political tribalism

Data: NORC survey of 523 registered voters, Sept. 2019; Note: Support is share of voters who said they supported policies between 6-10 on a 0 (oppose) to 10 (support) scale; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Most Americans would move toward the center on policies including health care, immigration and the minimum wage if Republican and Democratic voters spent more time together face-to-face — or at least that's the takeaway from "America in One Room," a social experiment conducted over a single weekend last month in Dallas.

Why it matters: As Congress considers impeachment and voters brace for another divisive election, the experiment suggests there could be another way for the politics of the future.

  • Policies might change if voters had more opportunities to be pulled away from polarized echo chambers that strangle the movement of public opinion.

The big picture: Political tribalism thrives when voters create a self-satisfying bubble stoked online and through the TV shows they watch. But moderation prevailed offline — even at a time when both parties are moving to the extremes.

  • Henry Elkus, founder of Helena, a nonpartisan problem-solving organization that hosted the experiment, acknowledged it's a "weird utopia" designed to counteract the everyday, polarized experience most people live in — but there's already talk of how they can replicate and scale this ahead of the 2020 election.

Between the lines: This controlled environment isn't the reality for most Americans. We're tantalized by social media and political hot takes and "alternative facts."

  • But this study is consequential for policy because it reveals how people actually think about the most important issues when they're not confused by the noise.

The results showed Republican participants weren't wedded to policies that are farther to the right, nor were Democratic participants dug in on far-left policies.

  • Republicans softened on “reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the US” by large margins before and after their weekend of deliberation and discussion with policy experts, candidates, and people they had never met.
  • They warmed to ideas such as like continuing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, increasing visas for low-skilled workers from other countries, and allowing everyone to buy a public health care plan like Medicare.
  • Democrats weren't as steadfast about increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour, baby bond programs, free college tuition, or automatically enrolling people in a "more generous" version of Medicare the more they talked about it.

What they're saying: "If we don’t figure out a way of instilling some connection between what people want and what happens, Democracy will lose its legitimacy," Jim Fishkin, a professor at Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, which partnered with Helena for America in One Room, told Axios.

  • "I believed going in, because I see this on TV, that it’d be full of ad hominem attacks and personal strife," Elkus said. "But there was so little of that. There was actual nuanced, respectful discussion."
  • "Maybe our country isn’t screwed," he added.

Methodology: Participants were asked to rank on a scale from 0 to 10 how much they oppose (0) or support (10) these policies ahead of the weekend-long workshop and after the four days of deliberation. During the weekend they were guided by a 55-page handbook compiled by policy experts from both parties arguing for and against each proposal, and they attended small-group discussion sessions with these experts. The voters who were included in our chart are only people who scored 6 to 10 on these issues before and after the weekend’s discussions.

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