The Ohio State professor has a crazy idea for reform: What if we talked with our representatives in Washington?

Despite the ugliness of politics—the cynicism, the disinformation, the poisonous rhetoric—Michael Neblo is hopeful. The Ohio State political science professor is trying to reconnect citizens and their representatives by building a deliberative, directly representative government, all while congressional approval languishes and the country becomes more polarized. He swears it’s not as bad as it seems. 

Neblo, the director of OSU’s Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability, or IDEA, studies the gap between textbook democracy and how it actually functions. He acknowledges that interest groups and the influx of money have aggravated the divide between the people and their leaders, but he believes the key problem is structural. In 1793, U.S. House districts contained 34,000 people on average; today, the number is 750,000, according to Vox. In that time, voting rights and the scope of federal government expanded greatly, making it more difficult for members of Congress to interact with a representative group of voters or learn how they feel. 

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.

Meanwhile, the town halls meant to make members accessible have had the opposite effect. “There was no point to it, other than to have politicians stand up there and be piñatas for angry people,” Neblo says. 

In response, he and his colleagues Kevin Esterling and David Lazer upended the format, creating deliberative online town halls. These forums, which began in 2006, pair an elected official with a random, representative sample of constituents, totaling a few hundred to several thousand per event. Each one is about a single topic—immigration, the future of work, terrorism—and researchers share nonpartisan background information beforehand so basic facts are agreed upon. Participants submit questions live, and a moderator poses them to the legislator after redundancies and off-topic questions are eliminated. Neblo says it forces politicians off talking points and into substantive discussions. 

As outlined in the 2018 book “Politics with the People,” the results have been promising. On average, officials receive a 35 percent increase in job approval and a triple-digit bump in their handling of the issue, says Amy Lee, IDEA’s associate director. Participants were 10 percent more likely to vote for that member and 9 percent more likely to vote in the next election. It turns out, the average person isn’t into politics as blood sport, Neblo says. 

Yet voices on the fringe are angrier than ever. This summer, a contingent of disenchanted Republicans took to the state party’s Facebook page to decry the failure to impeach Gov. Mike DeWine over his COVID restrictions, some even calling chairwoman Jane Timken, Ohio’s conservative standard-bearer, a Marxist. How can deliberative discussions be effective when the loudest people in the room teeter on the edge of reality? 

Neblo emphasizes that the odds of the small number of fringe voters making it into a representative cross-section are tiny, and the researchers have never had to remove a question for being vulgar, abusive or inciting in 15 years. Still, comments and questions have been more intense this year, and though the virtual forums continue to produce gains in approval and likelihood to re-elect, Neblo and Lee won’t be surprised if they’re less dramatic than past results. 

All eight town halls in 2020 have been about COVID, and a few have featured a bipartisan pair rather than one officeholder, in part to combat disinformation. Lee moderated an August forum between Republican Rep. David Joyce from Ohio’s 14th District and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan from the 13th. They differed mildly on some topics, but they spent most of the 90 minutes echoing public health officials’ messages and finding areas of agreement. It was pleasant, even overly chummy at times. 

That difference in tone is the point. There are persuadable voters in these forums—a rarity, Neblo says—so elected officials know they can’t just toss out red meat like they would to diehard supporters. His core idea is that frequently placing officeholders in front of these cross-sections will motivate them to be more moderate, and hopefully more responsive, while also informing the public about important topics. He and Lee plan to scale them up, and he would like it to become the norm for representatives to hold these forums weekly. It won’t change how anyone feels about divisive topics like abortion, but he knows there’s plenty of consequential policy beyond that. 

“I’m not saying that we’re all just going to wake up and it’s going to be unicorns and fairy dust,” Neblo says. “I do want to maintain that we’ve got a real opportunity to make a significant difference in improving our politics and making it function like it’s supposed to be for the average constituent.”