When Conservatives and Liberals Agree

I recently joined 50 people in a debate sponsored by Braver Angels. The goal of Braver Angels is to bring politically diverse people together in civic dialogue in order to depolarize US politics. This particular debate focused on Medicare for All.

The debate followed parliamentary procedure. The rules were modified to exclude voting, or any activity that would determine winners, losers, and/or promote a specific truth. Rather, according to the organizers, the aim was to create a space for the collective search for truth, and in so doing, foster civility, communality and respect. Participants were asked to act in good faith and assume the same about others.

In private pre-debate correspondence with the organizers, participants were required to identify with a political side. Half the attendees identified themselves as conservative, the other half liberal, but none of us were told who believed what. Participants took turns giving speeches defending and/or opposing Medicare for All. Healthcare is a highly personal issue for Americans, and I noticed my own emotions sway in response to alternating pro/con speeches.

I suppose this was the point: to debate a hot topic in US politics, one likely to challenge people to hold their feelings in check. The format anticipates these reactions, and so establishes a protocol requiring participants to direct queries to a Chairperson, and to address the speaker only in the 3rd person through the chair. In so doing, we found ourselves focusing on the idea being proposed, not the person giving the idea.

The objective was to get an idea “out there,” even if not fully formed, with the intent that participants see others as human beings “face-to-face.” The format does not flinch away from hot button issues nor does it embrace a politically “woke” discourse. There is no “safe space.” Said one organizer, “democracy is uncomfortable, and that’s how it should be.”

Some of the perspectives shared include:

  • although imperfect, Obamacare “saved” a participant’s son who endured a business bankruptcy and health scare simultaneously
  • the nightmarish experience of a couple figuring out the Medicare bureaucracy led them to question whether the government should be trusted with healthcare
  • how disadvantaged communities suffer from lack of access to mental health care
  • how the current private system helped a business owner become sensitive to costs by not running to the doctor for small problems such as common colds
  • the difficulty being locked in a job with a dysfunctional organization because quitting would mean the loss of health benefits
  • a physician’s difficulties with the bureaucracy and complexity of Medicaid
  • a medical professional’s struggles with the lack of transparency in health care pricing and accounting
  • a physician’s concern that the current system incentivizes medical procedures, not health
  • wanting to start a business but being unable to secure health insurance due to a “pre-existing condition,”
  • how a lack of healthcare made a participant forego preventative health, leading to more costly intensive care down the line
  • how Medicare payments to a doctor were so small that the doctor had to stop seeing patients on the program
  • a participant does not want to pay for the healthcare of others who are not pulling their own weight in society, who will not access free information online, and/or who make poor choices about their health
  • the experience of a holistic practitioner who sees evidence that environmental factors (climate, chemicals, air quality) affect personal health
  • it’s unfair for politicians to award themselves with high quality health care on the public dime while preventing the same from ordinary Americans
  • tax cuts for the rich are unfair if it means people go without healthcare

At the end of the debate, most of our group agreed on the following:

  1. As many people as possible should have access to affordable quality health care.
  2. Medicare for All is not a consensus opinion. We agree on the goals but not the means.

We were asked to contribute feedback about the process. Responses include:

  • “The format allows people to focus on the issues, not the personality”
  • “I was struck by how much more consensus and civility there was about this issue, a lot less polarized than what we see on TV”
  • “I cannot tell if a member is red or blue, and I think that’s good”
  • “I’m happy to hear another person’s point of view if I’m not attacked”
  • “Enjoyed participating in a civil discussion”
  • “I didn’t see a lobbyist in here”
  • “If this group were Congress we could solve this problem”

I found that participants probed deeper and more extensively on this issue than those who typically discuss it in Washington and on network news. Interactions were markedly less polarizing and vitriolic than what typically happens on TV.