Can a Different Kind of Talk Reduce Polarization? Seniors in Auburn, Alabama, Test a Hybrid Model

By Mark Wilson and Nick Felts

Is it possible for people of vastly different political outlooks to have productive conversations on political issues and forge common ground? Kettering research with the National Issues Forums suggests that moderated “choice work” based on carefully prepared materials helps participants identify areas of common ground. But are similar outcomes possible outside of formal NIF settings? And are they realistic in today’s polarized political climate?

In the spring and summer of 2021, a group of seniors in an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at Auburn University tried a new approach. All had experience with the NIF forums through an OLLI public deliberation course. Several wanted to harness the power of public deliberation in a more ideologically diverse environment and outside the classroom.

  • One participant took the lead in gathering a 10-person group that was intentionally composed of half liberals, half conservatives, and a few who had not attended the earlier OLLI classes.
  • The participants decided what issues to cover and how to structure their sessions.

Their goal was to understand different perspectives, find areas where they could move forward, and clarify areas where they disagreed.

  • They agreed to allocate significant time to harvesting the participants’ reflections and looking for areas of agreement where action could be taken.
  • Mark Wilson, the OLLI course leader, served as a self-described “guide on the side,” but not as a full-fledged moderator.

The group met over a period of several weeks in the spring of 2021, with sessions focusing on issues such as immigration, economic recovery, race relations, and mental health. In some sessions, the group used NIF issue guides, but other sessions were less structured.

Immigration

The group’s discussions on immigration were illustrative of what can and cannot be expected when people from opposing political starting points deliberate. Participants often disagreed about the nature of the problem itself. (Is it more a matter of visa overstays or border crossings?) And they struggled to find areas of agreement. However, they ultimately landed on a shared appreciation of everyone’s immigrant past and a desire for the US to have a more robust guest worker program with paths for citizenship.

In observing the session, Wilson noted a turning point when a participant who was an immigration hard-liner referred to the issue guide and said, “I have a fourth option—and I can’t believe I’m saying this. We should create a path for the current 11 million AND shut down the borders completely for five years.”

In this instance, the participant identified a trade-off she was willing to make—one that she was unwilling to make before the forum. She surprised herself in the process. Although the immigration conversations did not produce a lengthy list of agreements, the group was able to forge a small area where they could agree and move forward, which was something to build on.

Voting and Elections

Here, too, the group struggled to find areas of agreement. One person’s “commonsense reforms” were another person’s undue restrictions on voting. Even after more discussion and deliberation, the group remained divided on issues such as term limits and the role of lobbyists. However, they were able to create common ground on the extended length of campaigns, the excessive money involved, and the appeal of federal funding of elections. 

Reflections on the Experience

In reflecting on the sessions, all the participants said they had learned quite a bit. Some were quick to note that the conversations, while positive, did not carry over to the rest of their lives. In other settings, they pointed out, friends don’t “play nice” when it comes to politics.

But others believed their conversations with the group were having a “trickle out” effect in other areas of their lives and an impact on their everyday conversations. One participant kept the conversations going at home with a spouse and via long distance with a longtime friend in another state. Others said their friends were curious about the discussion group and surprised that it found any common ground at all. Several others noted how their experience with the discussion group was helpful as the community wrestled with a contentious local housing issue. 

This politically mixed group was an experiment in creating an informal setting where people who disagree, but live in the same community, might be able to “test the waters” on making decisions on shared problems. The group was small, ideologically diverse, and composed solely of retirees. It did not make enormous strides in finding policy agreements or identifying areas for citizen action. But most participants saw the conversations as productive and, at some level, notable, especially given the prevailing state of political discourse.

One participant described how unusual his experience seemed to others and their surprise that a group of liberals and conservatives could find any common ground at all. “Perhaps there is hope,” he continued, “if people start believing that [some areas of common ground] can be achieved once more.”