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Yelling protesters at health care reform town hall meeting in West Hartford, CT, in 2009. Sage Ross, CC BY-SA

Digital town halls take political discussions beyond sound and fury

Our civics textbook version of American democracy has traditionally depended on an engaged and vocal citizenry to operate. Yet in today’s increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere, many citizens are both disengaged and cynical, dismissing politics as something filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So how then can elected officials inform and persuade their constituents about much of anything? A disengaged citizenry threatens one of the basic processes underwriting representative democracy.

At best, Democratic officials might be able to cue Democrats about how to think and vote; Republicans might do the same. At worst, communication with average citizens is merely cover for interest-group power dynamics and partisan blood sport.

Decades of research on the relationship between elite behavior and mass opinion has yielded remarkably little evidence of elected officials directly persuading their constituents about anything.

But can digital technology be used to re-create the kind of persuasive give and take envisioned by our Founding Fathers? Could elected officials find new opportunities to connect with voters via the internet?

Staging a digital town hall meeting

With colleagues Kevin Esterling, David Lazer, and William Minozzi, as well as the Congressional Management Foundation, I coordinated a series of internet town hall meetings to see if we could re-create the kind of interactions called for in our civics textbooks.

We recruited one US Senator and 12 members of the House of Representatives – both Republicans and Democrats – who wanted to try potentially better ways to interact with their constituents. Our results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Normally, congressional town halls attract the organizer’s strongest supporters or people with specific complaints. That’s a recipe for a fiercely partisan event, filled with grandstanding and red-meat politics – something that turns off many citizens. We wanted to try something different.

So we invited random samples of the senator’s and representatives’ constituents (verified by a survey firm to reside within their districts) to take part in online town halls in 2006 and 2008.

Given many citizens’ disgust with and disengagement from politics, one might presume that only people who already loved politics would log into the forum. Instead, our participants were actually more representative of eligible voters than of actual voters who tilt toward being wealthier, older, more educated, more partisan, and male.

Faced with such a broad cross-section of their constituents, the participating members of Congress offered substantive, thoughtful discussion of the issues, rather than just repeat talking points.

A focus on explaining positions

Under the town hall format we employed, participants listened to their congressperson through their computers’ speakers while a live transcription of the discussion appeared on their screen.

Questions from participants popped up on the screen, along with the senator’s or representatives’ answers. The town halls that featured representatives were moderately sized, with about 20 citizens each. The session with the senator was larger, including 175 constituents.

The online discussions focused on either one of two important policy issues: immigration or terrorist detainee policy. In both cases, the representative or senator expressed clearly defined views on the subject.

But were these leaders persuasive using this format?

The answer was a clear “yes.” We found that the members of Congress actually persuaded their constituents on substance – they moved opinions regarding immigration or detainee policy toward what the member of Congress believed, according to surveys before and after the event.

In addition, participants in the online discussions showed higher levels of trust in their member of Congress after the town hall – more evidence of the persuasive power of our elected officials in this format.

Finally, members of Congress persuaded many of the people who attended these town halls to vote for them. Attendance at the representatives’ town halls increased constituents’ intent to vote for their representative by 13.8%. Participants were surveyed again after the November election and the researchers found a 9.8% increase in the likelihood of these constituents actually voting for the representative in that election. Similar results were found with those who participated in the senator’s town hall.

People listened across party lines

Perhaps most remarkably, such persuasion was broadly ecumenical, with members of Congress being roughly as persuasive with constituents from the opposite party as those who identify with their party.

Importantly, then, our findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that politicians should focus largely on trying to appeal to their base.

More generally, our results highlight the potential for the internet to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their representatives and to alleviate some of the culture of cynicism and distrust.

One key takeaway from this study is that we need to find ways to involve all citizens and not just the political “junkies” who keenly follow all of the latest partisan battles in Washington. We need such people’s passion, but an exclusive diet of the resulting take-no-prisoners debates can turn off average citizens who see politics as a rough-and-tumble game rigged against them. The citizens we recruited were not generally political junkies. Many of them didn’t even regularly vote before this experience.

Yet after the study, 94% of them said they enjoyed the town hall experience and would do it again. Members of Congress told us they liked the experience, too. Rather than just focusing on their partisan talking points, they could delve into the issues and explain the merits of their position.

The internet makes it easier than ever for representatives and their constituents to connect like they did in our town halls.

Maybe then we can move toward a representative democracy that looks more like the one we learned about in our civics textbooks.

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