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A novel idea for fixing our political system: Talk it through.

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Is it even possible to have a civil discussion about politics anymore? Actually, Michael Neblo knows it is because he sees it. Regularly.

Since 2006, the professor of political science at Ohio State and his colleagues have been conducting online Deliberative Town Halls, an innovation that connects elected officials to constituents for more civil and substantive discussions about policy decisions.

Citizens get to learn about all angles of an issue and why their members of Congress make their decisions, while representatives get to talk directly to and hear from their constituents.

“The goal is to make representative democracy look more like our civics textbooks and less like a blood sport,” Neblo said.

And in 2020, during a pandemic and a presidential election year, Deliberative Town Halls may hold considerable promise for creating a more constructive political environment.

What is a Deliberative Town Hall?

Deliberative democracy calls for lawmakers and citizens to discuss and deliberate about issues instead of merely counting votes — as in, citizens voting for representatives who then vote on issues with no real back and forth.

For each Deliberative Town Hall, Neblo and his colleagues recruit a random sampling of citizens to attend online. That means that you don’t get only people on the extreme ends of politics, political junkies and lobbyists, who already tend to reach out to representatives regularly.

“Most people don’t have the time or wherewithal to engage with their elected officials in a meaningful way,” Neblo said. “So the elected officials have no clue what the distribution of views looks like in their district. They hear only from the lobbyists and the people who feel the most strongly about an issue. Deliberative Town Halls are designed to remedy that.”

Prior to the town hall, the audience gets non-partisan factual background on the issue to be discussed. They can also submit questions or comments to the congressperson. The town hall is moderated by Neblo’s team, not the elected officials’ staffers.

“If constituents think that it’s just going to be an infomercial, they’re not going to be receptive,” Neblo said. “When we’re moderating, people are much more responsive.”

Understanding COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these virtual Deliberative Town Halls were the perfect way to stay connected, demystify the government response, and allow citizens to voice concerns directly.

COVID-19 town halls often included elected officials from both sides of the aisle along with representatives from public health or the small business administration to discuss policy responses.

For these particular town halls, in addition to citizens being randomly recruited to join in, anyone who wanted to could attend to learn everything from public health best practices to what was happening with stimulus checks.

In one of them, which featured Oklahoma City U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn (D) and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt (R), 7,000 people attended. Others featured Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and Rep. John Katko (R) from New York and representatives David Joyce (R) and Tim Ryan (D) from Ohio.

At the end of each, Neblo and his team asked the audience for their reactions. More than 90% said they felt better empowered to handle the COVID-19 crisis and that they’d recommend the town halls to a friend.

“Those are big numbers; we think good things come from this,” Neblo said. “People really liked them and, especially early in the crisis, a lot of useful information flowed each way.”

Crossing the divide

Oh by the way, we’re in a presidential election year at a time when most people feel a strong political divide within the country.

“Right now, it’s difficult for people who are not in the same party or don’t hold the same ideology to talk to each other civilly and constructively,” Neblo said. “But with our structure of getting random samples of people, focusing on a single topic, providing information ahead of time, and using light-handed moderation, it all contributes to people interacting better.”

In fact, in the first round of town halls, of over 1,400 questions or comments that were submitted from the audience, not one had to be filtered out because it was judged to be vulgar, abusive or capable of inciting violence.  

Throughout his years of doing virtual Deliberative Town Halls, Neblo and his colleagues have found that 95% of those invited would do another one and 97% said discussions like this were “very valuable” for the health of our democracy.

“It’s remarkable,” Neblo said. “The questions that get submitted are challenging for sure, but not abusive, and we think that type of political discourse is valuable. In our experience, when most people are treated civilly, they’re prepared to do that in return.”

Reason for hope?

Perhaps these Deliberative Town Halls are successful for a reason: Most people generally don’t like screaming matches.

“We’re battling a trend of polarization and the degradation of political discourse,” Neblo said, “but I don’t think it’s quite as bad as people think. The things that make it on TV or go viral are always the worst ones. The vast majority of the people in the country don’t want to yell at each other. They’d like to talk civilly and substantively. And that’s what we’ve found.”

Neblo said his research on these Deliberative Town Halls has shown that audiences left with more knowledge about the topic, a higher approval of their elected officials (even if they wouldn’t vote for her or him), and were more likely to vote in an upcoming election.

“Not to sound corny, but the big takeaway is: Don’t give up, don’t become cynical and disengaged,” Neblo said. “We can preserve the quality of our public discourse if we’re patient with each other and recognize we’re all in the same boat.”