How to Save Our Dysfunctional Democracy

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A political scientist argues the case for bringing more citizens into the political discussion.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Anthony Delanoix/Unsplash)

Michael Neblo uses an aeronautical metaphor to describe our doddering democracy. “We’ve got a jet fighter of a Constitution,” he says, “but the informal norms that undergird our ability to fly the plane are breaking down.”

The reasons for this — hyper-partisanship, declining trust, increasing economic inequality — are well-documented, but creative ideas about how to break this cycle of dysfunction are much harder to find. Neblo, an associate professor at Ohio State University, has one to offer: getting more citizens actively involved in the political process.

His research suggests the Internet — which has contributed to the current stalemate by creating ideological echo chambers — could play a positive role by serving as a platform for virtual town halls. He argues that substantive, solutions-oriented conversations with our elected representatives give people the sense they are being heard, and often prompts them to moderate their positions.

Neblo, author of the 2015 book Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice, writes about this idea in the current issue of Science magazine, and discussed it further in a telephone interview with Pacific Standard.

In today’s political climate, we’re more likely to be shouting at, rather than talking with, one another. So why would more town halls make a difference?

There is some truth to the belief that average citizens are intransigent partisans who are holding members of Congress’ feet to the fire. That’s what you find if you ask people in opinion polls. However, if you put them into groups and talk about things, the difference is quite remarkable. The question shifts from “What do I want?” to “What should we do?”

There’s no magic wand you can wave to make disagreements go away, but a couple of things change when you put people into groups. First, they feel they are accountable to each other for what they believe. Under those circumstances, they are far less extreme, and far less intransigent. They’re willing to acknowledge other people’s points of views.

Even when they don’t change their core position on something, they’re dramatically more likely to be tolerant, and to realize you don’t have to be stupid or morally corrupt to hold the opposite point of view. These effects can be quite dramatic, and they have been shown to stick for at least four months afterwards.

It’s not just the citizens behave differently: The members do too. They attempt to persuade people on the merits of their position. We get much more representative samples than they typically get at town hall meetings, which tend to attract either their fans or their strongest critics. These are persuadable constituents, so they try to persuade them.

How do you organize a discussion with your Congressional representative, either online or in person, so that it doesn’t devolve into a shouting match?

We think there are a couple of key ingredients to making online town halls successful. One is to not have them run by Congressional staffers. We strongly recommend you get a well-respected journalist, or someone from the League of Women Voters, to be the moderator. The second is to reach out to people who don’t normally show up. Research shows the main reason people don’t participate in politics, other than voting, is nobody asks them to. We found there is huge, latent demand for this sort of process.

The people who don’t participate in standard politics think it’s either a rigged game, or an irrational blood sport. When you give them an alternative that looks more attractive and reasonable, they’re thirsty for it.

You’ve conducted several studies that back up these assertions. Describe them briefly.

The first round was in 2006; it featured 12 members of the House of Representatives. A second round, in 2008, featured one senator, Carl Levin of Michigan. We’re now conducting a third round with 15 members of the House and two senators.

In each case, we created one-hour online forums. We pulled a random sample of constituents and invited them to participate. About 68 percent of people said “yes,” even though it was a more onerous task than just voting. We got a pretty good cross-section of the public.

Beforehand, we gave participants background material to read. We used Congressional Research and Congressional Budget Office reports, and scaled them to a ninth-grade reading level. Each forum was on a single issue, which meant the members had to talk about it in depth. They couldn’t just throw out 30-second sound bites.

The 2006 forums were on immigration; the 2008 one, with Levin, was on torture and detainee policies. Constituents loved the fact that members were speaking in depth, and they were really learning something. Ninety-seven percent of participants said they would do this again.

So is this a good way to counteract the feeling that “I don’t count” or “Nobody in Washington listens to me”?

Yes. People’s sense that somebody was listening to them skyrocketed. Interestingly, there was not a big difference between people who got their questions answered, and those who merely participated. That’s encouraging; it means these could scale up. The House forums were relatively small; they had about 30 people. The one with Levin had 175. Right now, we’re testing tele-town halls. We’re trying to get thousands of people into the ones featuring the two senators: Thom Tillis from North Carolina, and Mike Crapo from Idaho.

Our back-of-the-envelope estimate is that, if each member of Congress spent two hours a week doing these things, they could reach a quarter of the electorate every Congress. That’s not a ridiculous amount of time, especially compared to fundraising.

I suspect the only way Congressional representatives can be convinced to do this is if they think it will help them win re-election. What does your data suggest on that score?

We found about a 14 percent bump in approval of the member (after participating in such a forum), and a 10 percent bump in voting for the member in the next election, which took place four months later. That’s kind of remarkable.

It sounds like these are promising alternatives to angry town hall meetings.

I think there is room for angry protest in a democracy. If you think the Affordable Care Act is crucial legislation, by all means get out there and show them how angry you are at the prospect of it being dismantled. But there should also be room for civil, substantive discussion.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.