November 9, 2009
Senator Coburn v. the online town meeting experiment
I have enthusiastically summarized a recent NSF-funded experiment in which Members of Congress deliberated with randomly selected citizens about the hot-button issue of immigration. I presented this experiment as "the right way to do a town hall meetings." I noted, as one of the positive outcomes, that participants increased their favorable views of their elected officials as a result of the online deliberations. (We know that is a real effect because there was a randomly selected control group that didn't deliberate.)
I should have seen the objection coming. In fact, it came on the floor of the US Senate, presented forcefully by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Texas), and was then picked up by prominent blogs and mass media. One of the study's authors, David Lazer, has even graphed the way Coburn's speech diffused across cyberspace:
The critical argument is nicely summarized on the Heritage Foundation's web site: "This report urges Congressmen not to actually interact with their constituents, but to avoid them altogether by holding safe townhalls they can completely control. ... Congress is actually using your tax dollars to pay social scientists to find ways they can avoid actually talking to their constituents while improving their chances of reelection." Senator Coburn even used this project as an example of why the NSF should not fund political science at all.
On his blog, Lazer summarizes the various criticisms and responds with commendable civility. For my part, I would say: It was not a good thing in itself that participants became more supportive of Members of Congress. Some Members deserve low support--their reelection rate is, if anything, too high. But it is a good thing that people were able to exchange ideas and values in a civil format with national leaders. This is an educational process for both sides.
I mentioned the fact that politicians' approval ratings rose because I do not think they will be instinctively enthusiastic about this kind of format. Contrary to the fears of the Heritage Foundation, politicians cannot control a true deliberative forum.* Thus we are not likely to see many online deliberations unless Members of Congress stand to gain somehow from participating. It was helpful to learn that their approval ratings rose, because that might motivate them to do more deliberations.
I can grasp a purist argument that any government is prone to protect its own interests, and therefore we should be vigilant about any effort that uses tax dollars and improves the reputation of incumbents. But if we are concerned about the unfair advantages of incumbents, the obvious issues to address are gerrymandered electoral districts, the huge fundraising imbalance, and free mailings for Members of Congress (the "franking privilege").
When incumbents choose to do things that citizens actually like--such as deliberating online; or passing good legislation--their approval is likely to rise, but we can hardly complain. In Federalist 27, Hamilton writes, "I believe it may be laid down as a general rule that [citizens'] confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration." If deliberation is a form of "good administration," it will increase confidence in and obedience to the government. That sounds like a good sign.
*Heritage is concerned that "off-topic, redundant, unintelligible, or offensive questions were screened." They're worried that an angry opponent of federal policy would be blocked. Lazer responds, "As noted in the report, the possibility of screening anything as 'offensive' was theoretical. We did not actually exclude any questions for this reason. ... That said, it is worth noting that the medium is potentially manipulable, and there is nothing to stop someone who is doing an online townhall from excluding difficult questions. (Of course, all communication media are manipulable in some way, so it is not obvious that this is an advantage or disadvantage of online townhalls.) We had a neutral moderator, and included all questions that time would allow, in the order that were posted. This included some that were pretty hostile to the Member. Our assessment (and recommendation) was that these very confrontations made the events more effective, because they reflected the authenticity of the event. In short, the Members approval ratings increased because they had done the right thing."
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