That kind of faith might seem naive today. Two months before the midterm election, politics seems more about mobilizing the base and scrambling to get fellow partisans to write checks and cast votes than about substantive policy discussions and the common good. However, as a series of practical experiments that we ran demonstrates, it is possible to use new technologies to create real conversations between elected representatives and the general public.
It’s harder to have real public debate than it used to be
In the modern era, the relationship between elected officials and their constituents has become critically strained. President Abraham Lincoln held office hours for constituents. That seems more than a little quaint today.
Districts have become much larger and policy much more complex. The entire population of the United States in 1790 was less than six congressional districts today. Contemporary politics are less welcoming to meaningful deliberation. Instead, members of Congress are flooded with an unmanageable volume of correspondence; much of this is a kind of political spam. Town halls evoke scenes of angry confrontations and “gotcha” moments. It is unsurprising that many members of Congress avoid unscripted public interactions. After all, they have little to gain and much to lose.
New technology can help debate as well as harm it
The current state of affairs is unfortunate. However, it is also partly unnecessary. Carefully designed online platforms can more effectively embed elections in ongoing conversations about public policy and the future of the republic. In our new book, “Politics With the People,” we show how to build new communication channels between elected officials and constituents. This helps representative democracy become more than just a Darwinian electoral struggle.
Our book describes the findings of an experiment in democracy. Many scholars agree with Tilden that responsible conversation about politics — which they call deliberation — is at least as important to democracy as voting. We tested whether we could foster deliberation under modern conditions by developing an online town hall platform that gave constituents an opportunity to have direct interactions with their current member of Congress. We randomly invited people to the town halls and compared participants with equivalent individuals who did not participate.
Our results were highly promising. We found that our online town halls were remarkably good at fostering substantive and civil discussion between members and constituents about two hotly contested topics: immigration policy and detainee policy (e.g., issues such as waterboarding, and the detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo).
Online platforms can create real debate and real learning
We observed very different patterns within our specially designed town halls when compared with the shouting contests one sometimes sees in traditional town halls. First, the people who showed up were not the usual suspects. People who actively vote in elections are not typical citizens in many ways. They tend, for example, to be more politicized, whiter, older and more highly educated than the broad body of people who are eligible to vote. Remarkably, we found that participants in our online town halls were more representative of eligible voters than actual voters are. Nonpartisans, racial minorities, women and younger and less affluent participants were more likely to participate in our online discussions than their share of the voting population would suggest.
Moreover, the discussions proceeded on the basis of much more and better information than is typical in standard town halls. As a part of the design of our experiment, we provided high-quality background materials. Participants sought out more information about the issues, knowing they were going to be talking to a high-level decision-maker. We measured the knowledge participants gained about the policy issues and found they learned considerably more than those who did not participate in a town hall (even when they read the same background materials).
For their part, the members of Congress did not oversimplify or talk in sound bites. We used the well validated Discourse Quality Index to measure the quality of their interventions. The average ratings in our sessions were higher than members’ speeches on the floor of Congress. The discussions were direct and frank. Yet despite almost 2,000 anonymous, online questions and comments on these hot-button issues, never once did we have to exclude any that were vulgar or abusive.
People like to talk when they know their representatives are listening
These sessions were extraordinarily popular with participants: Ninety-seven percent reported they would be interested in doing another. This suggests the experiment could work on a broader scale. Crucially, members of Congress can get direct benefit from these sessions. Four months later, participants from both parties were more likely to vote and more likely to vote for officials who engaged them substantively. Both the members and the constituents found the town halls very worthwhile, and not just the “eat your spinach” civic reforms enthusiasts sometimes propose.
Finally, while most of our town halls involved relatively small groups of constituents, we also found that everything scaled up well to larger groups of nearly 200. If these online town halls were held regularly, they could plausibly have meaningful consequences for politics. If every member of Congress spent two hours per week in such deliberative consultation, in principle, they could reach about a quarter of the electorate every six years.
Elections matter greatly, of course. But building a representative democracy that informs and engages citizens between elections can make us more confident that majorities form in a way becoming of the power we afford them. As Tilden emphasized, the logic of representative democracy requires something more than just an electoral majority.
Kevin Esterling is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, and Director of the Center for Technology, Communication and Democracy at the University of California, Riverside.
This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.