U.S. Needs a ‘Translational Science of Democracy’

Political scientists advocate for research that applies what they know about how politics works to heal our fractured democracy

Kevin Esterling

Kevin Esterling co-authored a paper advocating for political science research that includes recommendations on how to improve our democratic systems.

RIVERSIDE, California – Political scientists are among those who are concerned with the divisiveness of political discourse and the disconnect Americans feel toward their government. While their research continues to illuminate how politics works, little of it translates into recommendations to improve how democracy functions.

That needs to change, according to a team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, The Ohio State University, Northeastern University, and Harvard University.  In a Policy Forum article published today in the journal Science, the team articulated a need for a “translational science of democracy” – research that includes recommendations on how to improve our democratic systems.

The research team includes lead author Michael Neblo, associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University; 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.

“This is the first time in my lifetime that we regularly see opinion pieces in the major newspapers speculating whether our democracy is going to survive,” said Esterling, professor of political science and public policy at UC Riverside. “Examples of our democratic illnesses include the acrimony and divisiveness in our political discourse, and the fact that so many people feel disconnected from government and elected officials, both of which you can see with the angry crowds at town halls that are hosted by members of Congress.”

Healing our democracy should follow a similar path to that taken when someone is ill, he said.

“When a person is sick, they go to the doctor and the doctor administers some therapy or medicine. The therapy itself usually results from some breakthrough in basic science, and then translational researchers apply the breakthrough to develop a cure,” he said. “For decades, however, political science has focused almost exclusively on basic science and has neglected translational science that can apply the knowledge that comes from basic research to applications that can improve democracy.”

Political scientists generally have avoided that area of research, however, in an effort to remain impartial as scientists, Esterling added. “But as a result, as a discipline we have over-invested in basic science and we do not have enough investment in translational science – so we know a lot about why politics works the way it does, but we do not have many research-based best practices to recommend for how to solve the problems our democracy faces.”

“We need a translational political science that bridges the gap between abstract political theory and nitty gritty policy work,” Ohio State’s Neblo said.

One rare example of translational political science is the 2015 study by Neblo, Esterling, 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 in 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 officials actually changed their minds 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. … Using this deliberative frame is not a cure-all for the problems of our political culture, but it can help nurture a healthier democracy.”

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-7847
E-mail: bettye.miller@ucr.edu
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Additional Contacts

Kevin Esterling
Tel: (951) 827-6114
E-mail: kevin.esterling@ucr.edu

Michael Neblo
Tel: (614) 292-7839
E-mail: Neblo.1@osu.edu

Jeff Grabmeier
Tel: (614) 292-8457
E-mail: Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

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