Could a 'Facebook' for democracy help save American politics?

Political scientists say how we debate, vote, and change our minds can be put to work in an ambitious plan for improving the political process and combat polarization.

John Minchillo/AP
Police stand guard as protesters line a street as Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the Frame USA facility for a meeting with small business owners, Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Springdale, Ohio.

Anyone who’s spent much time on Facebook and Twitter might not have much faith that online discussion could be the savior of democracy, but that’s precisely what one team recommends.

Lamenting the lack of useful policy suggestions in recent years, a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science takes aim at bridging the bitter political divides causing friction in both the US and Europe. The authors propose a model of “deliberative” democracy, which they say could promote engagement and dialogue between citizens and representatives.

Political scientists know more about political behavior than ever before. They know that inequality contributes to disengagement, what makes people want to vote, how people curate their media to create echo chambers, and that people will choose group membership over objective evidence contradicting the beliefs of that group.

But despite a deeper understanding of human behavior, academics' recommendations for concrete action are few. In the years immediately following World War II, as many as 20 percent of political science papers published in American Political Science Review contained policy suggestions. Today, that figure that has fallen to 1 percent, according to the new paper.

In this spirit, lead author Michael Neblo, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, calls for a "translational political science that bridges the gap between abstract political theory and nitty gritty policy work," as he said in a press release. 

The team’s suggestion hinges on changing the way we think about political discussion. The secret, they say, is to change the question driving conversations, from “What do you want?” to “What should we do?”

"Even this small shift in how we ask questions can have profound effects," said Dr. Neblo.

The idea is that focusing the conversation on possible solutions rather than desires can encourage citizens to have deeper dialogues that might minimize partisanship and the influence of special interest groups.

Two other key features of the deliberative model are that a diverse and representative selection of citizens join the discussion, and that the discussion be able to influence lawmakers’ decisions in a meaningful way.

In support of the model, the group cites a handful of field tests, including ones that brought citizens into direct contact with elected officials through online forums and gave them a chance to discuss the issues. In a sense, they built a "Facebook" for democracy. 

Participants in these digital town halls spoke highly of the programs, with both constituents and members of Congress saying they would like to participate in the future. Some voters even reported that their representative actually succeeded in changing their minds.

"These deliberative moments gave elected officials the opportunity to persuade people on the merits of their rationales," Neblo said. "Our current political system is based too much on scripted messages and doesn't give many opportunities for this kind of honest dialogue."

The secret sauce is technology, which allowed the team to break down echo chambers by populating their digital town halls with randomly selected citizens, some of whom weren’t even politically active. This approach allowed for an environment different from that of the typical town hall, often attended largely by supporters and people with specific complaints.

The paper makes three recommendations as to how proponents can pave the way for a shift to the deliberative framework. First, they recognize that legislators are already overworked, so digital town hall participation should be paid, or encouraged through other means. Second, governments need to realize the power of digital communication to supercharge their outreach efforts. Third, lawmakers need to realize that the focus on messaging and talking points is doing more harm than good; they’ll be more effective at winning hearts and minds with frank and open conversation.

The authors are the first to recognize that these digital town halls are not a silver bullet, but they suggest it’s a good first step.

"Using this deliberative frame is not a cure-all for the problems of our political culture, but it can help nurture a healthier democracy," said Neblo.

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