According to Aristotle, early in 507BCE, the Athenian Cleisthenes found himself yet again in exile. This situation was not uncommon. Cleisthenes was a member of the Alcmaeonid family, a clan well known in Attica for two things: being politically progressive and being cursed. The curse, for its part, began in 632BCE, when Cleisthenes’s great-grandfather, an archon of Athens, neglected the one unbreakable rule of Classical Antiquity — don’t cross the gods — and slaughtered a group of men while they were tethered by a length of rope to a statue in the temple of Athena. (Some historians claim that the men were not literally tied, just under Athena’s protection, but I think the rope version adds a theatricality—not to mention an unambiguous symbolism that befits the Ancient Greek era.) As a result, the Alcmaeonidae spent much of the subsequent century traveling to and from Athens, either banished from the city or permitted an uneasy return, depending on the regime in power.
Cleisthenes was a proponent of revolutionary democratic reform, and his exile in 507 was notable because it would be the final time he would have to leave the city. Some eighty years before, the Alcmaeonidae had allied themselves with Solon, an archon famous for policies including debt forgiveness for the lowest classes and allowing the (wealthy) middle class a voice in government, and Cleisthenes was heavily influenced by Solonic principles.
Unfortunately for Solon, his policies went too far for the rich but not far enough for the poor, and he — along with the Alcmaeonidae, naturally — was ousted in the mid-century. Athens spent the next few decades tottering between tyrants (the Alcmaeonidae are exiled) and moderate aristocrats (the Alcmaeonidae return!), until Cleisthenes took control in 508 by launching a campaign aimed directly at the Athenian masses, promising them a direct voice in government. (The word “democracy” comes from the Greek demos, meaning “citizen,” and kratos, meaning “rule.”) As a last-ditch effort, Isagoras, Cleisthenes’s political rival and the favorite of the nobility, brought in a small Spartan army to install himself by force as archon. Cleisthenes left the city one last time, but the Spartans were no match for the will of the people, and Cleisthenes returned on a tide of public adulation a few days later, bringing with him the first iteration of Athenian democracy.
I say “the first” because the democracy did not last long. Cleisthenes’s system was simple. Decisions were made in the Assembly, which consisted of a congregation of about 6000 male citizens all clustered on a hill in central Athens called the Pnyx. Any of the members could speak, and voting was done by a show of hands; majority ruled. It was the quintessential example of what James Madison (much) later called a “pure democracy,” which he defined in his essay Federalist No. 10 as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.”
The simplicity of the system was seductive, but it hid two fatal problems. The first was that, for a “pure democracy,” it wasn’t very representative. Six thousand people was only ten to twenty percent of the Attican population, which meant that the vast majority of the eligible voting public was still without a voice, and the vast majority of the whole population was without representation at all, since women, slaves, and metics (legal residents, such as immigrants and freed slaves) were not even eligible to attend.
The second was perhaps more insidious. The structure of the Athenian “pure” democracy meant that the Assembly, for the time they were on the Pnyx, had almost unchecked power to make decisions for the state. There was no oversight committee or advisory board, to say nothing of policy experts or even fact-checkers, and the most momentous decisions were made over the course of an afternoon. In his book The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, the historian Mogens Herman Hansen observed that “a skillful demagogue could win the citizens to his project irrespective of whether it was really in their interest.”
Madison, no doubt aided by the knowledge of history, put it like this: “a pure democracy can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole.” As a result, pure democracies are “as short in their lives as they [are] violent in their deaths.” Fewer than a hundred years after Cleisthenes returned from exile, the demagoguery and “mischiefs of faction” resulted in Athens voting to wage an ill-fated war with Sparta, and Cleisthenes’s democracy met its bloody end in the Peloponnesian Wars.
They were fortunate, however, to be given a second chance. The second iteration of Athenian democracy featured a number of changes designed to, as Hansen described, “obviate a return to the political crises and military catastrophes of the Peloponnesian War.”
The democracy was reinstated, but they also set up a system of oversight and checks, a system less vulnerable to bias, corruption, and impulsiveness, with a more inclusive electorate, decentralized political influence, and a structure that mandated careful consideration before final verdict.
The main themes of the restructure: representation and deliberation. A group of 500 randomly selected citizens was created to choose the issues to be put forth in front of the Assembly; another group of 500 served as a special court to the Assembly, with the power to prosecute any members not acting in the public good. (This was, predictably, not exactly incorruptible.) Perhaps most significantly, a third group of 500 people, called the Nomothetai, served as overseers to the Assembly. For a decree passed by the Assembly to become a law, the Nomothetai would deliberate on the issue for a day, listening to arguments on either side, then would take a final vote to pass it as law.
More than 2000 years later, history repeated itself.
Another group of 500 citizens, also randomly selected to represent a democratic nation’s diverse electorate, was brought together to discuss a society’s most pressing issues. For three full days, from September 19-21, 2019, a group of registered United States citizens spent a long, sultry weekend at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Dallas, Texas, where they dissected policy, shared experiences, grilled experts and presidential candidates, and engaged with one another on the main issues facing the country. The event was named America in One Room, and it was the largest experiment with what political scientists call deliberative democracy in the country’s history.
The features that defined Athens’s second iteration of democracy—more equal representation; a more informed electorate; careful, thoughtful, unhurried deliberation—are the defining features of deliberative democracy today, and its lessons are no less necessary.
“All over the world democracy is in disarray.”
This is the first line of a 2019 article published in the American Philosophical Society called Democracy When the People are Thinking: Deliberation and Democratic Renewal. Its author is James Fishkin, Helena Member, professor of communications and political science at Stanford University, and the director of its Center for Deliberative Democracy. Professor Fishkin has spent much of the last three decades working on deliberative democracy in some form and is widely considered the world’s foremost expert on the topic.
The easiest way to understand deliberative democracy might be to compare it to its relatives. According to Fishkin, there are four forms of democratic practice: competitive democracy, elite deliberation, participatory democracy, and “deliberative democracy by the people themselves.” In a competitive democracy, the system is built around electoral competition, in which parties do not try to reflect “the will of the people,” but engage instead in what the political economist Joseph Schumpeter described as a “competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” (He went on to say, with perhaps a bit of disdain, that “the ways in which issues and the popular will are being manufactured is exactly analogous to the ways of commercial advertising.”)
Elite deliberation is when issues are filtered through small exclusive entities, where they are discussed and considered but where there is little room for public influence. (It should be noted that this was quite close to how Madison envisioned the United States’ government operating.) And participatory democracy is what most of us think of when we hear the word “democracy”; mass participation, with equal value to every vote. (Athenian democracy version one, but on a wider scale.)
Almost every current democratic government is some amalgam of those three forms. The idea of the fourth form, deliberative democracy, is that it combines the strengths of each of the other three and mitigates their weaknesses. Its goal is to accurately reflect the will of the people (unlike competitive democracy) by engaging with the public themselves (unlike elite deliberation), while also ensuring that the voting public is informed on the issues and motivated to participate (unlike participatory democracy).
Philosophically, this all sounds great, but how would something like this actually be realized? Fortunately, Fishkin has a Ph.D. in political science as well as philosophy, and he invented an answer: the Deliberate Poll. In the late 1980’s, Fishkin was already a decade into his academic career when he came across the book Presidential Primaries and The Dynamics of Public Choice by then-Princeton professor Larry Bartels. “It dramatized for me how stupid our primary system is,” Fishkin told me. “It’s unrepresentative and unthoughtful, and it’s arbitrary in the sequence of states. It’s a kind of sound bite campaign, where nobody can really think in any depth.”
He continued, “So then I asked myself, as a sometime philosopher, ‘well how would you fix it?’ And this idea sprang into my head. That was the idea of the Deliberate Poll. The primary was just the occasion for me to think about it.”
The structure Fishkin came up with is as follows. First, you take a random but representative sample of people from a given electorate. Then, you poll them on whatever issues you want to discuss in order to get a baseline opinion. Theoretically, this baseline is indicative of the general opinions of the country as a whole. After the initial poll, you give the people objective, balanced, evidence-based briefing materials to help educate them on the issues at hand, and arrange to bring the whole sample together in one place. Once there, the sample is split into smaller, moderated discussion groups, where they engage with each other and formulate questions for organized town halls with policy experts and political leaders. At the end of the event, the sample is given the exact same poll again. Theoretically, this final poll is indicative of what the country’s general opinions would be, were the entire electorate informed and engaged. Throughout the process, the media is given access, since the goal is to reach — and reflect — the widest possible audience.
“My idea is to create public spaces,” he said to me, “where we can have a microcosm of the electorate in a setting where we can actually have good materials and a good process to see what the people would think. Then we make it consequential through the media, so that the people involved can focus on the issues, because they feel like their opinion matters.”
Fishkin conducted his first Deliberate Poll in Britain in 1994. Since then, he has refined his technique by conducting 110 more in 28 countries. (“I feel evangelical about spreading deliberative democracy wherever possible,” he told me.) Deliberate Polls are wonderfully scalable. They can be used with a community of almost any size and level of diversity, and they can deal with issues of almost any scale of specificity or significance.
Fishkin conducted one in Japan to discuss post-Fukushima energy policy, in Bulgaria to gauge the public on the potential desegregation of Roma-only schools, and in China to examine government involvement in the regulation of the press. When I spoke with him over the phone earlier this year, he had just returned from Iceland, which had conducted a Deliberate Poll to discuss constitutional amendments. Prior to America in One Room, Mongolia was perhaps Deliberate Polling’s biggest success. After his work, the country passed a “Law on Deliberate Polling” in 2017, which mandates that, before Parliament can even consider a constitutional amendment, a representative sample of voters must be convened to discuss the proposals.
The idea of Deliberate Polling was born out of a desire to improve the system in the United States, yet in over a quarter century of Deliberate Polling, Fishkin had yet to find an opportunity to bring the experiment to United States soil on a national scale. In 2017, purely by chance, he happened to be seated next to Henry Elkus, CEO of Helena, at the ceremony for the annual Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture at the New York Public Library.
At the time, the country was coming off one of the most vicious, divisive presidential elections in its history. Political affiliations seemed as entrenched as they had ever been; new media had opened up accessible ideological echo chambers as well as unprecedented avenues for the spread of misinformation; and across the country the perception was that the electorate was becoming more hostile, more tribal, and less inclined to listen.
At the heart of Deliberate Polling is the unshakeable belief that, with enough open and honest communication, it is possible for people to find common ground, that a “will of the people” as a whole can exist. After that dinner, Helena and Fishkin decided to put that belief to the test. And they had less than two years to do it.
I first met Fishkin at the Helena office in Los Angeles late in 2018. He flew down from Palo Alto with Helena member Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, professor of political science and sociology, and author of a number of books, most recently Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. By that point, America in One Room (which had until recently been called “The National Caucus”) was less than nine months away. It was time to nail down the logistics.
Fishkin is an unmistakable academic. He has soft blue eyes and a hoary beard that creeps up to his cheekbones; he speaks with an earnest sincerity that makes it abundantly clear that he is not a native of downtown LA, and he’s a fan of nature metaphors. (“Polls are like shifting sands,” he said to me. When describing his first attempted Deliberate Poll: “Funders went away like snow on a summer’s day.”) Apart from his computer, he brought with him a new iPhone, which he was still getting the hang of, and a portable espresso maker, which he excitedly told us had accompanied him on Deliberate Polling trips to Africa and Mongolia, and which he made use of four times in the hour I spent with him. The boarding pass for his afternoon flight back to the Bay Area poked prominently out of the breast pocket of his Oxford shirt.
Earlier, I called Deliberate Polls “scalable”; well, America in One Room would be the real test. The goal of the project was to conduct a Deliberate Poll on a sample that represented the entire United States electorate, and it aimed to poll that sample on the five biggest, most divisive issues in American politics: the economy, the environment, foreign policy, healthcare, and immigration.
To be successful, it would need to recruit a delegation that was ideologically and demographically representative of the American voting public; it would need to produce briefing materials carefully curated by a bipartisan committee of policy experts on all five of the issues at hand, as well as moderators trained to facilitate conversation on those issues; it would need scholars to engage with the citizens in plenary sessions; and it would need to coordinate travel for more than five hundred citizens hailing from all over the country and a place to fit them all. (Of course, “a place to fit them all” was undoubtedly the easiest; there’s always plenty of room in Texas.)
Fishkin first conceived of the Deliberate Poll because he was looking for a better approach to American democracy. America in One Room was designed to be his answer. Somehow, in less than two years, a nationwide Deliberate Poll in the United States was going to become a reality. The question, though, was would it work?
If you’re looking for a contemporary American equivalent for the Athenian Pnyx hill, you could do worse than the Gaylord Texan Resort in Dallas. Sprawled over 125 acres at the southern tip of Lake Grapevine and a lasso’s throw from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, the Gaylord Texan is to the American frontier what Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel is to the City of Canals. With one sweeping look over the climate-controlled, vegetation-suffused atrium, you can see an oil derrick, a bell tower affixed with a rather anachronistic video screen, the batwing doors of an old-timey Saloon, and a replica of the facade of the Alamo (with water feature).
The employees who work the floor are referred to as “STARS.” (All caps; it’s an acronym for “Smiles, Teamwork, Attitude, Reliability, and Service with a lowercase-p-passion.”) There are roughly 1500 of them, and they are easily identifiable by their teal blazers a few shades too blue to grant them membership to Augusta. As befits a microcosmic America, there is a lot of floor to work. After a 120 million dollar upgrade a few years ago, the Gaylord has almost half a million square feet of meeting space and over 1,800 rooms. (For context, the Madrid Marriott, the largest hotel in Europe, has 869 rooms.) There are also ten restaurants, miles of running trails and waterways—the Venetian has gondolas; the Gaylord has flatboats—and a nightclub called “The Glass Cactus,” though I think they missed an opportunity by not making the Saloon a functional bar.
The space was necessary. America in One Room brought together 526 citizens from around the country, each one chosen by the NORC at the University of Chicago to collectively form the most perfect statistical representation of the current electorate in the United States. (The academics attached to the project would undoubtedly bristle at my use of “chosen”; the delegates were selected by what is called stratified random sampling, meaning that each delegate happened to be picked from a group of people who shared a similar demographic profile. NORC had over forty metrics that they used to make sure that the group was as representative as possible.) For the experiment to work, there needed to be a ballroom with space for the whole sample, as well as enough meeting rooms for the delegation to break off into small, independent discussion groups. And, of course, at least 526 hotel rooms.
When the delegates arrived on Thursday, September 19th, the first thing they did after receiving their nametag (on which was simply their first name and their city of residence—Alan – Quitman, AR; Nadia – Long Beach, CA; Keyshuna – Sioux Falls, SD; Wilbert – Brunswick, OH) was get their picture taken. These portraits—over 500 of them—can be seen spread across October 2nd, 2019 issue of The New York Times.
It’s an arresting collection, a kind of mosaic of the contemporary American electorate. Up close, every face is unique— you can see the amused glint in Eric’s eyes, the turn of Thomas’s nose, Patricia’s budding smile, the “River State Farms” written across Jim Bob’s trucker hat. But take a few steps back, and the faces start to lose their distinction—is Kurt’s hair gray, or is he bald? Is Nathan smiling or grimacing? Are Nancy and Nancy sisters?
A few more steps and the portraits begin to resemble each other—you can generally make out where the frames begin and end, possibly hair color, skin color, gender if there’s a particularly pronounced beard, but little else. Continue backing up and eventually the pictures lose all individual distinction; they almost melt together. The collection becomes a continuous, flesh-toned swirl, and you have to squint really hard to pick out any differences.
Over the following two and a half days, the delegates were steeped in policy. Each delegate was randomly assigned to a small group with around a dozen other delegates and one moderator. Over the course of the weekend, the small groups met seven times—a short introductory meeting, one long meeting for each of the five topics of discussion (the economy, the environment, foreign policy, healthcare, and immigration), and then a concluding meeting at which they took their exit polls. In total, each delegate had over ten hours dedicated entirely to discussing policy with people whose life experience and views they never would have been exposed to otherwise. In one room, I listened to a debate on the future of electric cars between a mechanic from Pennsylvania and a schoolteacher from central California; in another, a lawyer from Florida discussed illegal immigration employment with a housekeeper from Michigan.
Beyond the small groups, the sample came together — in the appropriately massive Texas Ballroom — for ten separate plenary sessions. Five of these were with pairs of ideologically competing policy experts (one pair for each of the topics) and five with presidential candidates hot on the campaign trail. The sessions were fully interactive and long-form, with each small group crafting detailed questions for each of the speakers.
The way Fishkin sees it, there are three main problems with polls today, and America in One Room was designed to address all of them. The first is what he calls “rational ignorance”: the fact that much of the voting public is not informed on the issues because they (reasonably) have more pressing things to worry about. The second is “phantom opinions,” which describes the reticence of people to admit what they don’t know. And the third is “selectivity of sources,” which is the tendency for people to listen to the side they already agree with.
By being a public event, America in One Room created an urgency in the participants to become informed. By supplying them with nonpartisan briefing documents and access to some of the most knowledgeable minds in policy, America in One Room ensured that their opinions would be supported by facts and reason. And by surrounding them with disparate opinions in an atmosphere conducive to open discussion, America in One Room exposed them to views and perspectives that were entirely new.
What flourished was empathy. Donnie from Colorado told me, “you found a lot of optimism, of open minds.” The country may be divided, but inside the Gaylord, the discussions were polite, the disagreements respectful, the environment—dare I say it—communal.
“There was one girl in our group who was so intimidated, it made her ill.” Donnie remembered. “To watch the camaraderie of the folks in our group understand that immediately and without looking down their nose at her. By the end of it, the tears came out, the hugs, the ‘thank you for helping me.’ It truly was the experience of a lifetime.”
Perhaps the purest distillation of the idea behind deliberative democracy was delivered by perhaps the most famous Alcmaeonid of all: Pericles, Cleisthenes’s grand-nephew and the archon during the Athenian Golden Age. “Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, and we are able to judge proposals even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”
The results of the America in One Room exit polls saw tremendous quantitative impact from both sides, with swings of upwards of twenty to thirty points from those with the most extreme views. On immigration, support for DACA from Republicans who initially opposed it increased by 25%. Economically, support for raising the national minimum wage dropped 23% among Democrats. On healthcare, Republican support for repealing the Affordable Care Act dropped 20%. Foreign policy saw the largest jump, with Republican support for rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership increasing by 39%; while the environment saw more modest changes, including a 6% increase in support for rejoining the Paris Accord.
But the most impactful lesson from America in One Room wasn’t statistical; it was interpersonal.
When Barack Obama tweeted about the event, he didn’t mention the accuracy of the policy discussions or the reasons behind opinion shifts. His tweet read “Here’s an interesting read—a reminder that behind every opinion lies a human being with real experiences and a story to tell. Sometimes we’ll agree and sometimes we won’t, but if we want our democracy work, listening to each other isn’t optional.” Did we learn we can change our minds, that we’re not as intractable as so many would lead us to believe? Yes, we did. But we also learned how capable we are of honest, open, respectful discussion, and how willing we are to listen. Fishkin insists that Deliberate Polling “can become a part of our democratic life if the people are willing to go to the trouble. In my opinion, it’s needed.”
For Sunday morning’s small group session, I sat in on Group 9. This was the last one, where everyone makes their final statements then takes the exit poll. Jodi from Iowa opened the proceedings with a spoken word poem. It was titled “My Superpower,” and she had written it over the course of the weekend.
The poem, more than three minutes long, ends with this verse. “Invisible people are worthy to be known, to be seen, to be heard, and their stories matter. Therefore I have chosen to live my life with an open mind, open ears, and open heart, watching for them, listening for their unheard cries of, “Can you see me now?” And doing my best to answer, with my words and my smile, ‘Yes I see you.’
“And that, my friends, is a superpower.”