Why Americans are better jurors than voters

Galina Davidoff, BridgeTower Media Newswires

I see American people at their best. I watch them discuss complex matters with patience and humor. I hear them expressing their views and reflecting on their biases. Most of the time, they listen carefully to opposing viewpoints and try to reach a compromise. There are all kinds of characters with strong opinions and attitudes, but somehow they all contribute to the process.

I can see this because I conduct trial simulations for parties involved in litigation as well as recruit representative groups of jury-eligible people who learn about the case and then deliberate, just as “real” jurors do.

The reason I like my work, which includes admiring real and “pretend” jurors, may have something to do with growing up in a very different kind of society: the Soviet Union.

When I took my citizenship oath as an American, the judge who administered it spoke most importantly about our duty to serve as jurors, explaining why this duty is the cornerstone of our democracy. Those born here may not get it, but many newcomers, including myself, had tears in their eyes.

So this is how I see my (now) fellow Americans. But this is apparently a minority viewpoint, at least in terms of how many Americans view one another during this election season. If jury service brings out the best in people, elections and political rallies seem to bring out some of the worst.

Ironically, it appears that our best selves come out to make critical decisions for others (in court) and our worst selves come out to make critical decisions for ourselves (in politics).

In jury deliberations, nothing will happen unless a consensus is reached; so people try to formulate their positions in strong terms and relatable terms. Most jurors soon learn that the only way to persuade fellow jurors is to treat them and their individual concerns with respect.

Condescending and overly emotional jurors fail to persuade others, while those who argue little, ask good questions, and listen to others tend to become informal leaders. Jurors brave enough to ask what some may consider “dumb” questions force others to articulate and examine their assumptions. Knowledgeable jurors tend to lead (but not dominate!) the discussion and only after they have shown themselves to be respectful listeners of less informed jurors.

It is rather frustrating to see typically patient and thoughtful people, no matter their political views, tend to become the very opposite when it comes to presidential election politics. Why doesn’t the election process promote the same level of debate and tolerance as jury duty does?

Would the people who shout at the rallies change their tone if they found themselves in a diverse group of people prepared to talk it out? I believe they would.

Because of the format of our interactions, the processes we agree on matter a great deal. Jury deliberations usually succeed because people set their personal feelings aside and follow basic rules while focusing on evidence.

We are not going to do away with rallies and extreme positions, but we desperately need more jury-like deliberations at every level of American political life. But, just like the jury system, these deliberations need to have rules and be properly incorporated in the political institutions.

Live, online or in virtual reality, we need to talk — to deliberately deliberate in accordance with deliberately set out rules and consequences. Otherwise, we may lose the essence of what democracy is all about: self-government and talking it out among ourselves as opposed to submitting to a higher authority and wisdom.

The idea of Deliberative Democracy is not mine and is not new. Professor James S. Fishkin and his colleagues at Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy conducted a number of studies, and the results are not surprising: Citizen deliberations improve the quality of decisions and deepen understandings of the issues discussed. There are other universities and nonprofits working to advance studies like this, but so far they remain on the margin.

American democracy started in small cities and towns, with people coming together to deliberate on a regular basis. Town meetings had a great deal more meaning than they do now. Districts were not yet gerrymandered (this is the most damaging and the most undemocratic deformity that stops dialogue at the grass-root level). The rich and the poor shared more of the same public spaces, leading to more discussion amongst different economic classes.

That America described by Alexis de Tocqueville is long gone, but no doubt some senators still remember the time when they used to hang out and deliberate with their opposition. We need to figure out a way to bring these discussions back.

We need our citizens to have deliberations before they put these politicians in power and then, perhaps, our chosen ones will be able to do the same.

—————

Boston-based Galina Davidoff is director of jury consulting for Magna Legal Services.

Comments

  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »