Changing How We Study Political Divisions Just Might Help Us Heal Them

Our democracy may depend on it.

To determine if a drug works, medical researchers don’t just rely on lab results. They do studies to collect data on how actual people respond to treatment in real life.

A group of political scientists want to apply this same real-life approach to their field in an effort to better understand (and heal) politically divisive moments like the one we currently find ourselves in.

What’s missing from traditional political science research, they argue in the latest issue of the journal Science, is the essential question of how the agents of democratic systems ― in other words, citizens and politicians ― interact and engage with one another.

Understanding this process would help politicians better meet the needs of their constituents and turn all those complaints being raised in town hall meetings into real policy changes. Without this kind of research, politicians may lack the tools and skills to mend America’s political divisions over crucial matters like health care, jobs and education.

The Huffington Post spoke with Michael Neblo, associate professor of political science at the Ohio State University and co-author of the Science article, to learn more about how people like him do this type of research.

Constituents in Clemson, South Carolina, disagree with Sen. Lindsey Graham during a town hall meeting on March 4.
Constituents in Clemson, South Carolina, disagree with Sen. Lindsey Graham during a town hall meeting on March 4.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

What is your primary criticism of today’s political science research?

Right now, there are really two kinds of research. One is basic research, fundamental inquiry about how to make democracies and non-democratic states work. And on the other hand, you have research in public policy that addresses very specific types of policy questions.

It’s not that either of those are bad by any stretch. The problem is that the bridge between those two is very narrow, and there’s not a lot of support between them.

So what’s missing? What type of political science research or work needs more study and attention?

Our own research [for example] addresses basic questions about persuasion in democratic politics, but does so in a way that is intended to help members of Congress do a better job of representing their constituents. Who shows up? How do citizens become informed about politics? Who changes their minds and why?

What ends up happening is quite a bit of the basic research gets done without an orientation toward its potential policy implications, and a lot of policy work gets done at too much of a distance from what we know about the basic mechanisms and institutions of politics. Researchers don’t spend a lot of time trying to draw the connections out.

Did your research answer that question about how members of Congress can better represent their constituents?

So we did experiments pairing real sitting members of Congress with their constituents in [electronic] town halls that we ourselves designed.

We found that if we can prompt people to think about themselves in their roles as citizens along with other citizens, then they answer questions as if the question is “What should we do together? ― [as opposed to] a lot of standard public opinion polling that isolates people and prompts people to answer a question in terms of “what do I want.”

[The town halls we designed] prompted more of a republican (with a small ‘r’) government, where people were engaged substantively on the issues to inform democratic practice.

A lot of that has been crowded out of political life as the country has grown and congressional districts have grown and the complexity of the problems we are facing has grown. It’s harder to get to this level of direct interaction between elected officials and their constituents. Members will meet with their constituents occasionally ― in Washington, in their districts or in town halls. But town halls [tend to] primarily be about constituents airing out grievances or rallying support.

And the difference between that emphasis can be profound in how people behave. Their expressions of opinions, their rationale, their tolerance with disagreement and their willingness to learn all shift.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) and then-Rep. Tom Price celebrated anti-Obamacare legislation in January 2016. A year later Americans are yelling at each other over health care.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) and then-Rep. Tom Price celebrated anti-Obamacare legislation in January 2016. A year later Americans are yelling at each other over health care.
Al Drago/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

But there’s still politics in politics. How would having more “bridging” research actually help make it less divisive?

Recently a lot of the applied political science work has been done primarily in the areas of campaigns and elections. We’ve learned a lot in political science about how to persuade people and how to motivate people to vote. And a fair bit of that research has rolled out into campaigns and elections. It undergirds the strategies that elected officials and candidates use to win their campaigns.

Part of what we’re calling for is to use that knowledge also in the service of government ― so not just for getting into power, but for using that power. How do you do a better job of representing your constituents while you’re in office? The ideal is [for research] to provide insights for good government, not just good election strategies.

Is there a real-life example where this type of research could help make some of the interactions happening now less fractured?

The disruptive protests at town halls where Democratic constituents are engaging with Republican members.

There’s room for angry protests in American politics. The Constitution guarantees the right to address the government for redress of grievances. There’s nothing wrong with that.

We believe that we can and should find room for other sorts of interactions between elected officials and their constituents that are more rational, in-depth, and a form of engagement that involves a certain kind of reciprocity rather than just drawing battle lines.

Most of us won’t actually be doing the political science research you’re calling for. What can we learn? How can we become more informed?

There is something available beyond scripted interactions and screaming at each other. It’s not that angry protest is a bad thing. But if that’s not for you or you want something else, that something else is available.

We’re trying to help members of Congress to be able to do much more of this [on a larger] scale in order to engage with their constituents substantively.

From the constituent’s point of view, ask that from your members. Ask for these substantive, in-depth, focused, one-issue forms of interactions.

And the message to the members is we can show you how to do this.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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