Public Release: 

To improve our political climate, change the questions we ask

The United States needs a 'translational science of democracy'

Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Our fractured political climate in the United States might be made worse by how we approach difficult problems, researchers say in the journal Science.

A team of political scientists suggests rather than asking citizens "What do you want," questions should be asked in a deliberative frame: "What should we do?"

"Even this small shift in how we ask questions can have profound effects," said Michael Neblo, lead author of the paper and associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University.

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

Neblo co-authored the Policy Forum article in Science with colleagues from Ohio State, the University of California, Riverside, Northeastern University and Harvard University.

Neblo and several colleagues have studied how this deliberative approach can help promote democracy. But that kind of research -- which actually includes recommendations on how to improve our democratic systems - have become rare in contemporary political science.

In the years after World War II, about 20 percent of all articles in political science's flagship journal, the American Political Science Review, made policy recommendations. That figure is less than 1 percent today.

Neblo and his colleagues say that should change.

"We need a translational political science that bridges the gap between abstract political theory and nitty gritty policy work," he said.

One example is the 2015 study by Neblo and colleagues that showed the value of a deliberative approach in politics. They found that it worked well in online town halls between members of Congress and representative samples of their constituents.

The town halls designed for this study were not like the typical ones organized by members of Congress, which generally attract strong supporters and people with specific grievances. These town halls for the study featured a randomly selected, diverse set of constituents, many of whom were not politically active. This helped the representatives and constituents to get beyond partisan talking points and discuss why they believed what they did, Neblo said.

The result was that both constituents and members of Congress gave high marks to these town halls and said they would participate again. Many citizens who took part in the town halls said their elected official actually changed their mind on issues.

"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."

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Neblo wrote the article with William Minozzi, Jon Green and Jonathon Kingzette of Ohio State; Kevin Esterling of the University of California, Riverside; and David Lazer of Northeastern and Harvard universities.

Contact: Michael Neblo, 614-292-7839; Neblo.1@osu.edu

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