America in One Room: Deliberating the Issues that Divide Us

American democracy is increasingly polarized and dysfunctional.  Levels of public trust in the Congress and politicians are at virtually all-time lows, and so is the ability of members of different parties to work together in Washington, D.C., and in many state capitols, to find solutions to our major public policy problems.  Much is written about the growing polarization of American society, yet public opinion polling suggests that the public is not as bitterly divided as the political class.

One perspective on the current crisis stresses the lack of opportunities for the American public to deliberate on key issues and challenges under good conditions—where they can receive balanced and informed briefings and talk with one another face to face, away from the glare of broadcast media and social networks that only reinforce their initial points of view.  “Good” conditions also provide trained moderators to encourage and ensure mutual respect for divergent points of view.  When a representative, random sample of a population—be it a city or an entire nation—is brought together in this way to deliberate, while being polled on their opinions before and after deliberation, new insights emerge about what decisions “the people” collectively might come to if they could talk in one room together as fellow citizens.  We call this innovative method of democratic dialogue and opinion formation “Deliberative Polling.” It has been used over 100 times in 28 countries to help register public opinion in a more democratic and constructive fashion.

This course will first examine the state of polarization in American democracy and the issues that appear to most bitterly divide the American public.  Then it will study the method of Deliberative Polling and look at a number of specific instances where it has been applied to help inform public policy dialogue or decision-making.  We will read studies evaluating applications of deliberative polling in cities and countries around the world. We will watch documentary films describing the experience with deliberative polls in several settings.  We will examine in detail some of the statistical polling results from previous deliberative polls to determine whether and why (and to what extent) people change their opinions on policy issues as a result of the deliberative process.

Finally, in the middle of the third week of Sophomore College, on the weekend before Fall Quarter, the entire class will travel to a major American city to help staff and study a major new application of deliberative polling to the American democratic process. The students will be present as a random sample of Americans meets in one room to discuss the issues they consider most important to the country, and how those should be reflected in the 2020 presidential campaign. The Deliberative Poll requires strict political neutrality during the engagement with the citizen delegates, even in the face of opinions with which you may vehemently disagree.

Students will complete background reading over the summer and will write short papers during the course analyzing specific previous experiences with deliberative polling.  They will also be asked to write short reflection papers on their own experiences at the September 2019 Deliberative Poll.


Important Logistics

Students will arrive on campus on Monday, September 2 (Labor Day) and will be housed at Stanford before departing for the deliberative poll on Wednesday, September 18, returning on Sunday evening September 22.  They will assist onsite with the organization and support of the poll.  Each student will be assigned to one of the small groups into which the sample will be broken, and will be asked to take notes and support the work of that group (which will meet periodically over the three days of the DP).  All travel and hotel expenses will be covered by the Deliberative Poll, and all students must be able to travel by air to a city in the middle of the country for the weekend prior to the start of Fall Quarter.

Peek Inside a Deliberative Poll in this New Yorker article.


Meet the Instructor(s)

Larry Diamond

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and at the Hoover Institution and Professor, by courtesy, of Sociology and of Political Science

Larry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and also Professor by Courtesy of Political Science and Sociology.  He also co-edits the Journal of Democracy and consults extensively on global democratic development.  He is the author of The Spirit of DemocracyDeveloping Democracy, and the forthcoming book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.

James Fishkin

Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication and Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science

James S. Fishkin holds the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he is Professor of Communication, Professor of Political Science (by courtesy) and Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy.

He received his B.A. from Yale in 1970 and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale as well as a second Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cambridge.

He is the author of Democracy When the People Are Thinking (Oxford 2018), When the People Speak (Oxford 2009), Deliberation Day (Yale 2004 with Bruce Ackerman) and Democracy and Deliberation (Yale 1991).

He is best known for developing Deliberative Polling® – a practice of public consultation that employs random samples of the citizenry to explore how opinions would change if they were more informed. His work on deliberative democracy has stimulated more than 100 Deliberative Polls in 28 countries around the world. It has been used to help governments and policy makers make important decisions in Texas, China, Mongolia, Japan, Macau, South Korea, Bulgaria, Brazil, Uganda and other countries around the world.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and a Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Alice Siu

Alice Siu is the Associate Director at the Center for Deliberative Democracy. Siu received her Ph.D. from the Department of Communication at Stanford University, with a focus in political communication, deliberative democracy and public opinion, and her B.A. degrees in Economics and Public Policy and M.A. degree in Political Science, also from Stanford. Siu has advised policymakers and political leaders around the world, at various levels of government, including leaders in China, Brazil, and Argentina. Her research interests in deliberative democracy include what happens inside deliberation, such as examining the effects of socio-economic class in deliberation, the quality of deliberation, and the quality of arguments in deliberation.