ML Cavanaugh

“The biggest argument against democracy is a five-minute discussion with the average voter,” said the great Winston Churchill.

Inadvisable as it may be, I’d like to push back on old Winston, with the help of my new favorite lady up in Woodland Park. And her story might just light a path for our split society out of our darkened, divided present.

It begins with stories. They matter a lot to a society. Historian Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out that humanity’s superpower is our ability to cooperate in large groups through stories and myths. We work well together, in general, because we share big beliefs. For example, we all agree that fistfuls of greenish paper with tiny pyramids can be traded for food and toys.

Stories are also what democracy is built on. Stories inspire and drive us deeply.

And there are so many stories in every society. This was one of the themes in the recent “America in One Room” study (conducted by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Chicago, funded by a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and reported by the New York Times). Researchers gathered 526 Americans, geographically and demographically representative of registered voters across the electorate, over a long weekend in September at a resort near Dallas. Participants joined focus groups and answered questions about hot-topic political issues to better understand the voting public.

When out of session, they hung out. They drank beers together. They drank coffee together. They talked about their kids, their grandkids, and the kids they might have. They mingled. They got to know one another. One of these 526 was Bonnie Sumner of Woodland Park and, if I’m honest, her testimony from the study filled me with hope.

When asked about her experience, she said, “I may not have changed my position. But I’ve changed my understanding of the woman in the group who said, ‘You know what, I had great health care, it worked for me, and the Affordable Health Care changed things, and I’m worse off now.’ I didn’t change my position that I think we should take the A.C.A. and tweak it. But I’ve changed my understanding that there are people who’ve tried their best and done nothing wrong, and it put them in a worse situation.”

“But you already knew that,” her husband interjected.

“But to me,” Sumner replied, “a perfectly rational person who has no political agenda just said to me, ‘Oh, you know what, this was bad for me.’”

Setting aside the politics of the thing, in the space of a single conversation, a political opponent became human. A political opponent became a person. Just by listening, a political opponent became a name, a family, a life, and a story.

And that bonny lass Bonnie, she recognized this and walked out of the weekend with a slightly different perspective.

Most importantly, researchers noted that this “America in One Room” had one key feature that distinguished it from the rest of the country. Out in America right now faith in democracy is relatively low, while the percentage of study participants who said they believed American democracy worked well nearly doubled — to over 60%. It turns out that sharing stories is good for democracy.

Of course, the researchers can’t simply jump to the certain conclusion that human connection made all the difference. But it’s hard not to notice the social environment likely had an impact on that faith figure.

What should this tell us? Hard as it may be, we’ve got to connect with those that are different from ourselves. Democracy’s health is the sum total of these little story-swapping sessions. The more and better those interactions are, the healthier our democracy will be.

Which brings us back to Churchill and his five-minute theory. For once, at least, he was wrong. He was impatient and should have stuck around for more than a grin and a handshake. He needed more time. Because it may well be that the biggest argument for democracy is an hour-long discussion with the average voter. Start with Bonnie Sumner of Woodland Park. She’d show Winston the way, and maybe all of us, too.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” from Potomac Books.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, a professor of practice with Arizona State University, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books.

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