The Art + Science of
The Village Square:

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole:
A Citizen’s Election Season Survival Guide

The Model

white rabbit colorAlmost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to resolving disagreement through statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses AND we enjoy our work).

Our model has been centrally influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

The Program: “A Citizen’s Election Season Survival Guide”

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically.

In the fall of the most contentious presidential election in recent times, with two presidential candidates who were highly disliked by the other political “team,” this program had a very high level of difficulty (and risk). Anticipating an audience that leans somewhat left (all of our Tallahassee audiences do because of local demographics), and with a Republican candidate who many citizens found highly offensive, we made an early decision to make our choice of the conservative panelist the highest priority – as it had the greatest risk to provoke the audience, which we think could have actually increased antipathy for “the other.” We invited Sally Bradshaw, former Chief of Staff to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who closely advised candidate Bush through the presidential process. While Governor Bush was a popular governor statewide, he was very controversial in liberal-leaning Tallahassee. Sally was primarily chosen because of personal traits – she’s likeable, smart, gracious and believes in the Village Square value of dynamic engagement between citizens with diverse opinions.

We very intentionally work to create crosscutting relationships on our panel, which helps ensure our success in creating more empathy, first on the panel and then in the audience. So we want our panelists to have some point of mutual interest or understanding, even as they often disagree fundamentally on our central topic. Crosscutting relationships can be a powerful tool – they were heavily leveraged by European monarchs marrying their children off to their country’s enemy to make war less likely. Even as Americans have increasingly divided ourselves into likeminded groups in almost all areas of our lives (where we live, attend church, which groups we join, what we watch on television), inside a hometown there are far more opportunities for crosscutting collisions. And there is empirical data that those collisions make shifts in attitudes even when they are extremely superficial in their nature – say your kids play on the same softball team. When we can see the “them” as more than our foe in politics – they’re in fact one of “us” in some areas of life – forms a bond of common humanity. We once used the power of crosscutting relationships between GOP Senator Marco Rubio’s Chief of Staff and a liberal immigration advocate who were in a Fantasy Baseball League together to have a deeply honest conversation on immigration (many spouses will note the strength of sporting bonds).

“If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.” — Jonathan Haidt

Starting with Sally, we looked for people in Sally’s network of acquaintances who differed strongly from her politically, yet enjoyed a friendly relationship. We chose polling guru Steve Vancore of VancoreJones Communications. Steve and Sally have expertise in complementary aspects of the political process and interacted in a easy, friendly way – describing each other as real friends. This very high level of pre-existing empathy and cross-cutting relationships made this program quite easy compared to our usual programs, as well as especially enjoyable – though it lacked as much tension as some programs have. Our ultimate goal for this programs was that liberals in the audience leave feeling like they’ve bonded to Sally and conservatives in the audience leave feeling like they’ve bonded to Steve so Steve and Sally’s ability to express empathy toward each other is an important aspect of that. (When panelists don’t know each other we specifically ask them to be a team – we ask that they have each others’ back if an audience member is hostile in an effort to define an “us” that crosses partisan tribes.)

We had a complication between the time we locked this panel in and the date of the program – Sally left the Republican party and the national media picked up the story (Washington Post story here). We were concerned that the conservative members of our audience would be hostile, though that fear did not materialize.

We always arrange a meeting between panelists ahead of the program, whether they know each other or not. If they don’t know each other this gives them the opportunity to break bread together and bond as human beings, by the time they’re on stage they feel to all like friends. When they already know each other, it gives us a chance to let them catch up. As we met for coffee the week ahead of the program, I had a hard time getting a word in. I sat back and said to our facilitator “my work here is done.” We think of this whole process leading up to whoever is on our stage as choreography. We think it is central in delivering results. By the time the program begins, much of the fate of the program is “baked in.” In fact, one could reverse these principles to engineer a disaster, or pay no attention to them and throw the results out to luck. We specifically avoid choosing panelists who represent a particular advocacy group in their job – their positions are too entrenched, and conversations between them inevitably turn into debates (which don’t improve empathy).

Note that the audience size was approximately 170 people. We’ll need to keep working on new ways to increase our sample size (of those who participate in both pre and post event measures), especially in order to have the ability to measure shift in our relatively lower number of conservatives in attendance.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

Processing the Results

We theorize there is more of a pre-event measure bias than a post-event bias, such that we believe our real effectiveness is under-represented in positive findings rather than exaggerated. We presume that people who come to our events are more likely to exhibit more willingness to see the other side and less Manichaeism. But that doesn’t make them easier to move through an event, it means that more of the favorable movement toward “the other” has likely already occurred. So we believe we’ve actually executed at a higher level of difficulty because the more favorable attitudes were already baked in the cake a bit.

We also believe there is a pre-event bias that bumps the favorable view of “the other” numbers up higher than they truly are, simply because of who is asking the question – they’re being asked by an organization that promotes the value of respect toward people with different opinions. While there may be some of this same effect evident in the post-event results, we think it’s far less the stronger contextual effect, since they’ve just experienced a vivid discussion first hand. Before the event that The Village Square is asking a question is the only context they have to react to.

Truly the biggest hurdle in doing this work is getting people who are more Manichaen in their thinking into the room. We try all sorts of things and have had various successes with that aspect of this challenging work. But we live in very tough times to gather people together who can’t stand each other. If one could waive a magic wand and have Manichaens in the room and if you could insure that you created the conditions that we theorize are correct, we’d expect you’d see a huge effect because the pre-measure would represent so much more negative (and Manichaen) opinion. Our thinking on this fits with Haidt’s theory – you change THE PATH, NOT the elephant, NOT the rider.

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. But in this case all humans delivered and we hoped for a measurable increase in empathy. We expected our more heavily liberal audience to come to the event with a high level of empathy toward the idea of limiting free speech to protect minorities, so the central effect we hoped to have would be to make our more liberal audience more empathic to those concerned with protecting free speech.

While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory and empirical data about changing attitudes, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.

Beyond chalking instances where we fail to achieve attitude shift to “you win some, you lose some,” we believe there is a real shift that occurs through our ongoing efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the web of connectedness between our events and between people in our community where our impact has the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship in order to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance shifts. (cross-cutting relationships again).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Useful Links

“Citizen’s Survival Guide” event page.

Program audio.

Photos from event.

Other strategies used in this program.