“I Don’t Really Have an Opinion About That.”
The most underappreciated Americans today are those still making up their minds about politics and policy.
Back when I used to conduct regular focus groups with voters on issues ranging from poverty and economic inequality to health care and education to national security and immigration, the most rewarding moment was when a mostly quiet participant would say afterwards: “Thank you for the discussion. I’ve never really thought about this issue at all and learned a lot.”
Focus groups are by design artificial chats with participants who are paid for their time and opinions (or non-opinions) on matters big and small. Professional moderators try to keep things civil and prevent the loudmouths and those with firm opinions from dominating the proceedings too much. For this and other cost-related reasons, many focus groups are now held online over several days allowing for more extensive probing of ideas and presentation of facts, relevant information, and political arguments without the stiff dynamics of sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers talking about arcane topics.
Regardless of the method or platform, political focus groups provide people with a rare opportunity to weigh important public matters. Participants often remark that no one outside of their family or peer group has ever asked their opinion about anything and that they appreciate the chance to think about the issues at hand and offer their perspective.
Americans take the job of citizenship quite seriously.
However, what these groups reveal most of the time is how difficult it is for normal Americans—people with jobs to do, families to take care of, and other interests to pursue—to make informed decisions about pressing public issues. There are precious few chances in modern life for people to sit down—or join an online group—and consider a range of facts, examine different arguments about these facts, and try to make up their minds one way or another about what the country and its leaders should be doing to ensure prosperity and equal opportunities for everyone.
People often leave focus groups on political issues more confused than when they arrived at the conference table, but also more excited to follow up on the matter and talk with others about what they learned.
Unfortunately, politics as practiced today is not set up to provide these forums for public discussion and informed decision making. Politics is mostly made up of interest groups, candidates, parties, and media outlets trying to manipulate people’s emotions to circumvent the rational decision making process and force Americans to jump on “Team Good Guy” and not “Team Bad Guy” with scant evaluation of their respective policy ideas and values.
Consequently, national politics remains fiercely divided between two warring tribal visions that are impervious to measured consideration and wider discourse.
Given how deeply many Americans resent having to choose again between Biden and Trump in the 2024 election, it would behoove a patriotic group, liberal-minded foundation, or other concerned political leader to use the upcoming year to try something different.
Rather than just flooding the zone with social media screeds and inflammatory negative ads, political parties and civic organizations should try holding real discussions with voters in local communities—not contrived ones designed for message purposes or viral hits.
Invite people from all walks of life and set some ground rules for presentation of ideas and civil debate and disagreements. Go in with the sole intention of listening to what others say—and explore their doubts and confusion—rather than trying to browbeat them into accepting a predetermined point of view. Inevitably, the parties and candidates will learn something new about how voters process important economic and social matters that might make them reconsider their own hardened positions on these issues.
American politics is driving lots of good-hearted people crazy with the constant “my way or the highway” false choices and online dogpiling of those perceived to be partisan or ideological enemies.
Instead of spending the next 11 months of the 2024 presidential election at each other’s throats, let’s try to carve out a modicum of space for better public discussions and offer a welcoming hand to those who haven’t made up their minds yet.