Make America Dinner is a deliberative innovation created by Tria Chang and Justine Lee shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Guests with differing political views are invited to dinner to discuss current issues in an attempt to heal the divides in American society.
Problems and Purpose
Organisers Tria Chang and Justine Lee decided to create ‘Make America Dinner Again’ (MADA) after the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States (U.S), as the fierce rivalry between Republican and Democrat supporters has generated a divide in American society (Make America Dinner Again, no date). A poll conducted shortly after the election showed that 77% of Americans viewed their country as divided on important issues (Gershon, 2017). Therefore, in order to address the disconnection of American society, Chang and Lee thought it was necessary to broaden their social sphere and begin setting up dinners where supporters of Democracts or Republicans are able to have difficult, however, necessary conversations about political issues. The aim of this organisation is not to change the minds of participants, but better yet deepen their knowledge on specific issues, which ultimately will have an impact on the political environment (Common Ground Solutions, no date). By speaking directly to MADA, their goal is to impact equally both the individual and the nation as a whole, as well as continuing this innovation into 2020 and further.
Background History and Context
The first organised dinner occurred in San Francisco, where the organisers Lee and Chang reside and consisted of 8 Asian-Americans, half Democrats and the other Republican voters (BBC,2018). There is no evidence which suggests why only Asian-Americans were chosen for the first dinner, however, this was not continued throughout the project as a majority of the dinners are filled by 6-10 guests who are considerably different in terms of their background, nationality, ethnicity and political views (Make America Dinner Again, no date). To date there have been 30 dinners which are diffused across a variety states, such as New York and California (Lee and Chang, 2017) and have attracted wide media attention. Lee and Chang’s message has reached Americans in 50 U.S states and citizens of 20 countries (http://justineraelee.com/, no date).
MADA was established to address a growing divide in society among U.S citizens, therefore, these dinners provide a safe space for participants who can deliberate through guided discussion and can begin to understand the people behind their political views. Lee and Chang hoped this would help reform the current trends of informal discussion- online conversations which are typically disrespectful, as people are much likely to be polite and understanding when they are face-to-face with other person (Common Ground Solutions, no date). This is a collective project in which the creators, hosts and guests all work toward the goal of reunifying society together. As a result, every time a dinner is held, and the participants have a deeper understanding of an issue, the closer they are to reaching their goal. Lee and Chang realised when organising the first dinner that they didn’t know anyone who supported Trump as their social sphere was made up of people with views similar to their own. Luckily they had the initiative to contact and speak with Trump supporters via Facebook, it was important to deliberate with people they would not normally have contact with (Free Think, no date).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
As MADA involves guests deliberating over a meal, the hosts are responsible for providing food for up to 10 participants. Though in a substantial number of cases guests do bring their own dishes with them to share, the dinners can become costly for the hosts (Clement, 2018). Initially Lee and Chang paid for the first dinner out of their own wages, which cost approximately $250, however, now a selection of hosts are reimbursed for any costs of the meal via a ‘GoFundMe’ page, which has raised $2,800 since September 2017 (Corbley, 2018). Despite the dinners being cost-free for guests, they are still encouraged to give a donation in order to fund future dinners (Make America Dinner Again, no date).
The MADA innovation has several sponsors, many in which have a similar a role and aim as this innovation. ‘The People’s Supper’ aims to rebuild “interpersonal relationships across political, ideological and identity differences”; since January 2017 over 900 dinners across the U.S have been successfully hosted, and aims to build an online deliberative platform (The People’s Supper, no date). Similarly, ‘Bridge The Divide’ is a youth initiative where young people can have online discussions about core political issues in an attempt to heal the divide in society (Nevins, 2017). There is no data which shows the details or the amount of the sponsor’s contributions to MADA.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Anyone can host a dinner or attend, you simply sign up at the MADA website and answer simple questions about your political viewpoints. 6 to 10 participants (Make America Dinner Again, no date) are chosen at random and are strangers to one another, importantly the dinners aim to have a balance between Democrat and Republican supporters. This can be difficult to achieve- a host Emily Nelson struggled to find participants who identified as Republicans, therefore, Nelson had to contact Republican Facebook groups in order to find guests to attend her dinner (Clement, 2018).
One of the most vocal participants- Walt, a dinner host, lawyer (Free Think, no date) and a white, Trump voter who got involved with MADA at one of the first dinners. In contrast, Min a transgender who was born in Korea but had lived most of his life in America (Taylor, 2017). Both attended the same dinner and found they were more alike than would be expected. This pair clearly demonstrates MADA aim not to exclude any social groups, only to represent as many different groups as possible (Make America Dinner Again, no date).
Methods and Tools Used
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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
When guests arrive at the dinners, first they get a name-tag; present any food they have bought with them (Kwong, 2018); told the rules of the dinner such as any safe words, etc (Clement, 2018). Depending on the host, the participants are put into pairs as an ‘ice-breaker’ and have to find similarities and differences between them which they report back to the group afterwards. For instance, in the case of Walt and Min previously mentioned, despite their fundamental differences both found common ground as they were extremely proud fathers (Free Think, no date). When the guests begin the main meal, the hosts tend to guide the discussion in order to address various topical political issues (Lee and Chang, 2017). For instance, just one dinner can cover concerns such as abortion, gun control, immigration, ‘Black Lives Matter’ (Clement, 2018). Another dinner discussed affirmative action and whether there it is still appropriate, which led to disagreement over the extent of social inequalities within American society (BBC, 2018). Hosts try to encourage everyone at the table to interact in the discussion, therefore, they try to have follow-up questions targeted at specific guests (Ketner, 2018). This ensures dominant characters cannot dominate the deliberation.
The main goal of the deliberation is to be respectful, make others feel safe and have a deeper understanding of different view-points, not to try and change people’s minds or prove people wrong (Common Ground Solutions, no date). To try and achieve this some dinners have safe-words such as avocado (Clement, 2018). No decisions are made from this innovation as it is simply informal deliberation, and any minimal monitoring is carried out by the hosts which is to ensure that everyone is respectful (Lee and Chang, 2017).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The main influence of this innovation is on the participant’s mind-sets, many come away knowing a completely new perspective that they would have never heard or considered before (Make America Dinner Again, no date). MADA undoubtedly increases politicization as guests understand issues more deeply and inspires many of the guests to host dinners of their own. Some participants realise that their knowledge lacks in some areas and want to make an effort to learn about an issue independently (Ketner, 2018). The ice-breakers at the beginning of the dinners are extremely important as by socialising and understanding the other guests it will help eradicate labelling or stereotyping people as either Trump or Democrats supporters (Free Think, no date). Overall, the majority of guests leave the dinners feeling moved and positive about the experience, for instance Norm said, “I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and would love to attend a future dinner” (Make America Dinner Again, no date). Though, there is no data on guests after the dinners and whether they have been inspired to participate in other forms of deliberation or politics.
Mansbridge (1999) might argue that MADA does have significant effects on wider society, as she claims informal deliberation or ‘everyday talk’ is the key contribution to the deliberative system. It “stirs the intellectual and emotional pot”, as well as, paves the way for formal deliberation and ultimately decision-making by elites (Mansbridge, 1999).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
MADA is a successful innovation as though its impact is slight and gradual, by working alongside its sponsors, such as, ‘Bridge The Divide’ these innovations are allowing informal deliberation to expand and grown across American society. Divisions in opinion are being addressed and progression towards the reunification of American society is being made. The next step should be for hosts to challenge their guests to create informal solutions which take all perspectives at the table into account, compromise is key in order for them to be a realistic. This way guests can leave feeling they have achieved at solving political issues and will create the opportunity to impact formal decision-making.
Creators Lee and Chang have admitted their own weaknesses to their deliberative innovation- having such small dinners does mean that only a limited number of people are affected, therefore, MADA is trying to have an additional online platform via Facebook (Lee and Chang, 2017). However, as Chang and Lee created MADA in order to avoid online discussion as it can become impolite, by developing an online platform it may undermine the purpose and aim of the innovation.
MADA has recently turned its attention to universities, and has held workshops, as well as dinners at a number of establishments in order to teach the importance of political deliberation, and participation to the younger generation (Lee and Chang, 2017). Potentially, this could have lasting effects for the future as this form of deliberation could translate into a norm for these students and be continued as they become part of American political society.
The dinners should have less of a focus on being polite and using safe-words (Clement, 2018), as the emphasis on political correctness and potentially offending someone, may lead to participants not feeling they can speak their opinions freely. This is particularly relevant to Trump supporters who have offended other guests at previous dinners; in order for MADA to be successful at breaking down societal divides, liberals or Democrat supporters must also be prepared to hear perspectives they do not agree with. However, the value of respect is fundamental for this innovation and must be continued in order for the guests to relate with one another, feel compassion, as well as, gain a greater understanding of an issue.
The evaluation of MADA by the media and participants is typically positive; both praise the innovation as being a step in the right direction for American politics (Make America Dinner Again, no date). MADA is still a reasonably new project and therefore has not received extensive media coverage and opponents to the innovation may become prominent as its reputation grows.
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