The first New York City Asteroids Club Dinner
[Cross posted from CivilPolitics.org]
The Asteroids Club is any group of people with diverging political views who gather not to debate, but to listen to the other side explain why it is concerned about certain threats. The metaphor is meant to capture the fact that there are many threats coming at the United States–like asteroids scheduled for direct hits—yet each side of the political spectrum focuses on a few of them and ignores or discounts the asteroids that most worry the other side. As John Stuart Mill said in 1840: “in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.” The Asteroids Club is a novel format for bringing people together, over a meal, for a discussion in which each side helps the other to see more clearly. The format has been developed by The Village Square, in Tallahassee Florida.
The Nathan Cummings Foundation hosted the first New York City Asteroids Club dinner on February 26, 2014, in the home of its president, Simon Greer. The foundation is in the process of updating its research and funding portfolios, and its leaders were interested in learning more about the issues of income inequality and the causes of poverty. They were also interested in developing relationships with experts from diverse perspectives who could help them understand these complex topics. Simon and I therefore chose the two asteroids of rising income inequality (a topic of greater concern on the left), and declining rates of marriage and family stability (a topic of greater concern on the right).
This report is intended to be useful for anyone interested in hosting future dinners, or in bridging the political divide more generally. However, we note that we decided to invite experts from right and left to the first dinner, rather than ordinary people, to maximize the degree to which we could learn about the best thinking and research on these topics. This dinner may therefore not be representative of what will happen if the Asteroids Club format is rolled out and used widely by civic groups across the nation.
Preparing For the Dinner
We ran the dinner using the Chatham House rule, which says that participants are free to write about the event, but cannot reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers. So we will simply say that we invited two very prominent and well-respected journalists, one clearly identified with liberalism, one with conservatism. We asked these two co-hosts to suggest additional people they wanted on their “team.” (We had hoped to avoid the terms “team” or “side,” but it was hard to do so.) These two co-hosts then nominated several other experts, and took a few suggestions from Simon and me about experts we know on both sides. All 10 people who were invited accepted the invitation. The final dinner was attended by 18 people: 6 liberals, 6 conservatives, Simon and me (who served as co-hosts), and four observers affiliated with the foundation. The expertise in the room was extraordinary, including journalists, economists, activists, and people with experience in government and policy-making.
Two weeks before the dinner, we assembled a list of readings nominated by the participants and posted them all in a google document that we used to share information and coordinate the evening. Because these prominent participants were all extremely busy, we did not push for them to do much preparation beforehand, although we did encourage them to read one or two articles from the other side, and to watch my TED talk that introduced the idea of the asteroids club.
The evening began at 7:30 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and unstructured socializing, which was quite cross-partisan. At 8:00 the two teams convened separately to go over final plans for their presentation. (In retrospect we should have encouraged the two teams to do more of this online, before arriving at the dinner). Around 8:30 everyone moved into the dining room and sat in seats that had been assigned to ensure a good mix of people at each of the two long tables. Simon welcomed everyone to his home and presented the Hebrew conception of two kinds of argument: machloket l’shem shamayim – argument that is for the sake of heaven which is intended to better discern truth and move the world forward, and 2) machloket she’lo l’shem shamayim – an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, but is just for the sake of itself or for the sake of being controversial. Argument in pursuit of truth is considered sacred in the Jewish tradition.
I then explained the history of the Asteroids Club format, and went over the groundrules, including the Chatham house rule, the exact schedule, and the role that I would play as timekeeper and moderator. Each of the participants then offered a 1-minute introduction of him- or herself. We then served ourselves dinner from the buffet, and began the structured discussion. The schedule that we intended to follow was this:
9:00 begin Asteroid #1: rising inequality, liberal side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent….During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — conservatives ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.
9:20 begin Asteroid #2 family breakdown, conservative side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent…. During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — liberals ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.
9:40: dessert served, short break
9:45 Integrative discussion, 20 min.
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #1: Inequality. Go deeper: what does the liberal side most want to change, address, or at least have understood (taking into account family breakdown)
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #2: Family Breakdown: Go deeper: what does the conservative side most want to change, address, or at least have understood? (taking into account rising inequality)
10:05 Concluding discussion and resolutions.
10:30: End of formal discussion, take closing survey.
The schedule we actually followed was close to this, but because we were running behind and because there was clearly a surprising amount of agreement on what aspects of poverty were of great concern, I decided to merge the two parts of the integrative discussion into a single discussion of what really matters – what issues either side had raised that seemed to elicit at least some assent from the other side.
In general there was bipartisan agreement that income inequality has been rising in recent decades, although there was NOT bipartisan agreement that rising inequality itself was a problem that needed to be addressed. There was, however, bipartisan (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement that the following issues are concerns or problems, and that we would be a better country if we could address them:
- Dignity, and the indignities disproportionately suffered by the poor
- Distrust of government and democracy
- Waste: the financial squeeze and inefficiency caused by “arms races” as people spend more money to attain “positional goods” such as a home in a good school district.
- Lack of opportunity for large segments of society; The waste of human potential among the poor.
- Declining motivation and economic dynamism – which can be stimulated by moderate degrees of inequality (this point was noted by a liberal)
- Abuses of power, which becomes easier for those with a lot of money
- Separateness – having communities that are cut off from the mainstream of society; having low social trust and cohesion.
In general there WAS bipartisan agreement that marriage rates and family stability have declined in recent decades. There WAS bipartisan agreement that these trends are bad for society, and that it would be good if we could find ways of reversing the trends. There was a very high degree of bipartisan concern about poverty, especially for its pernicious effects on children. There was also a consensus that the people who suffer most from these trends are single mothers (who bear the main costs and stresses of raising children under often adverse circumstances) and their sons. Daughters suffer too, of course, but there was consensus that boys’ outcomes are more adversely affected by the absence of a father, and these adverse outcomes then set up a feedback loop for the next generation in which there are way too few stable, employed, and marriageable young men who could break the cycle of father-absence.
The Post-Dinner Assessment
We are working with my colleagues at CivilPolitics.org to develop assessment tools that can be used by any organization running any kind of civility-enhancing event. For future events, we will send all participants a link to a web-based survey a few days before the event, then pass out a paper questionnaire at the conclusion of the event, then send out a web-based followup survey a week after the event, to assess the effects of the event on attitudes about the asteroids, and about the people on the other side. For this first dinner, with 12 super-busy people, we only obtained four responses to the first web survey. (You can see that first survey here. Future versions will be much more extensive.) We therefore decided to focus our efforts on obtaining measures of the key variables at the conclusion of the evening. Did people come to see the asteroid presented by the other side as a clearer or more pressing threat than they had before the dinner? That is the central goal of an Asteroids Club dinner.
We collected responses from all 6 liberals and from 5 of the conservatives. For each asteroid, we asked participants whether their views had changed regarding both the PACE of the threat and the SEVERITY of the threat. For example, here is the exact text of one of the four main questions:
How has tonight’s discussion influenced your beliefs about the severity of the problem of income inequality for the USA?
___I now see it as a much less severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a slightly less severe problem than I did a week ago
___The discussion did not influence my beliefs in either direction
___I now see it as a slightly more severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a much more severe problem than I did a week ago
The graph below shows the results. Let’s start with family decline. The liberals (shown on the left half) DID move in the desired direction. They now see it as a more rapidly approaching threat (gold bar, 4 moved), and a more severe threat (purple bar, 5 moved). The conservatives did not really move on family decline, nor did we expect them to. (The gold bar doesn’t even show because nobody moved.)
On inequality, the story was quite different. No conservative moved at all on the speed of the change (which is why the blue bar does not show), and the only movement on severity came from a single conservative who said that he/she now sees the problem as “slightly less severe” than before. (The liberals also showed no movement on inequality, except for a single participant who said “slightly more severe” than before.)
What can we make of this pattern? It appears that the asteroids club format worked for the family decline asteroid. The conservatives presented the asteroid, the liberals listened, and then came to see it as a greater threat. This is very encouraging.
But it is harder to know how to interpret the results on the inequality asteroid. The lack of movement could have resulted because A) the liberal team made a weaker case about inequality than the conservatives had for family decline, or B) the conservatives were less open-minded and willing to listen, or C) the facts about inequality and its harms are truly more ambiguous and contestable than they are for the family decline asteroid. My conclusion from the background reading, and from the conversation during the dinner, is that C is true and is at least part of the explanation.
We also asked: “Compared to other discussions about policy and politics you’ve had in politically ‘mixed company,’ how enjoyable was this ‘asteroids club’ format?” We offered 5 choices, ranging from “much less enjoyable” (scored as -2) to “much more enjoyable” (scored at +2). Six respondents said “much more enjoyable,” one said “about the same,” and four said “slightly more enjoyable.” There was no significant difference between the liberals and conservatives, which is quite encouraging
Conclusions and advice for future Asteroids Club dinners:
Based on the data above, and on comments made by participants after the dinner, I draw the following conclusions and lessons:
1) The format is enjoyable and promotes civil interaction. Sharing a meal in a private home seems to have made people particularly polite and open.
2) It is difficult to do two asteroids in a single 2 hour discussion. There are advantages to doing two – it led to a sense of balance and fairness. But at least 3 hours of discussion would have been needed to cover both.
3) Relationships matter, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. Ideally, asteroids clubs will be true clubs, with a stable membership that meets every month or two.
4) The exact instructions for each part of the evening matter. More work is needed, drawing from experts in negotiation and facilitated discussion, on how to optimize the integrative discussion and conclusion.
5) More “warmup” exercises could be tried. We kept this evening fairly direct and cerebral – focused on the ideas and research. But future events could begin with more activities to build trust and cohesion, such as singing the National Anthem, or doing introductions in a much more personal way, or pairing off in bipartisan teams for short initial discussions, and then having participants report to the group by introducing their partner and his/her main concerns.
The bottom line is that we created a novel social situation which called for openness, trust, and collaborative thinking, and the participants rose to the occasion. There was no partisan sniping and not a shred of hostility. People sometimes made points that supported the other side. Many on both sides expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Which we will do, in a way soon to be announced.
If you are interested in hosting an Asteroids Club dinner yourself, please visit: www.AsteroidsClub.org