Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy

The forthcoming article Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy by Massimo Pulejo is summarized by the author below. 

Despite worldwide trends towards secularization, local religious leaders remain an important point of reference for many communities across the globe, in both developed and developing countries. On top of being spiritual guides, religious leaders are in the position to orient the social and political choices of citizens, especially among the most faithful. Indeed, in the runup to an election, religious authorities often make open endorsements of political parties and candidates, which may have a concrete impact at the ballot box. But what makes religious leaders so effective as political sponsors? And how do they deliver their endorsements in practice? 

Using Italian Catholic bishops as a case study, this article shows that the electoral influence of religious leaders hinges on two key factors. First and foremost, to be able to mobilize the community in support of a candidate, religious leaders need to be sufficiently embedded within their local jurisdiction. Namely, the analyses demonstrate that personal connections between a religious leader and a political candidate are only conducive to more electoral support when the bishop was born within the electoral district, as opposed to having been assigned there at a later stage in his life. In fact, when they enjoy a connection to a bishop native of their electoral district, Christian-Democratic candidates can expect sizable electoral gains, and a significant boost in their probability of winning a seat. Second, as a means to convey their electoral preferences to large segments of their communities, local religious leaders may take advantage of religious festivals. Consistent with this idea, the results show how the impact of connections on votes is stronger if the election takes place shortly after the local religious festival. Third, to be effective, religious leaders also need their organization to approve of their political involvement. Indeed, decomposing the effect over time reveals that the electoral influence of bishops dissipates after the Second Vatican Council, which discouraged the involvement of the clergy into political matters. 

These findings suggest that the electoral influence of religious leaders does not simply stem from their spiritual authority. Rather, it critically depends on both the personal characteristics of leaders and the contextual factors that may favor or impair the delivery of their political messages.   

About the Author: Massimo Pulejo is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Milan. Their research “Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation

The forthcoming article “Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation” by Averell Schmidt is summarized by the author below. 

Over the past few years, there have been several high-profile cases of states withdrawing unilaterally from multilateral treaties and international organizations. These developments have sparked widespread fears about the unraveling of interstate cooperation, the collapse of international institutions, and the demise of the liberal international order.  

Despite these fears, opinion remains divided about whether and how treaty withdrawal affects interstate cooperation. Some theories suggest that withdrawal should not have an independent effect on cooperation because it merely reflects shifts in factors that made cooperation possible in the first place, such as changes in domestic politics or the distribution of power. Other theories suggest that withdrawal could earn the exiting state a reputation for unreliability, undercutting other states’ willingness to enter into agreements with it in the future.   

This article reports that unilateral treaty withdrawal has a significant and negative effect on future cooperation between the withdrawing state and remaining treaty members but does not affect the withdrawing state’s relations with other states. Existing scholarship is hard-pressed to explain this variation. I develop an experiential theory of international cooperation that accounts for states’ differing reactions to exit.  

I argue that states learn through their direct experiences cooperating with one another. Treaty members experience withdrawal differently than non-members in two key respects. First, treaty members experience the breaking of commitments directly, damaging the withdrawing state’s relations with treaty members. Second, treaty members bear the material consequences following the breakdown of cooperation. These relational and material factors interact to shape states’ reactions to withdrawal. Damaged relations undermine treaty members’ willingness to cooperate with the withdrawing state. When the costs of exit are high, the consequences of withdrawal can spill across issue areas. 

I test my argument by applying a difference-in-differences design to an original dataset of all multilateral treaty ratifications and withdrawals recorded in the United Nations Treaty Series. My analysis compares the rate at which treaty members and non-members ratify agreements with the withdrawing state in the years before and after exit occurs. Several important findings emerge from my analysis: 

  • Treaty members ratify 7-8% fewer treaties with the withdrawing state in the years after exit occurs. 
  • This effect is not due to changes in the withdrawing state’s behavior, and withdrawal has no significant effect on the ratification behavior of treaty non-members.  
  • This effect increases with the salience of withdrawal, the amount of public attention it garners.  
  • This effect persists within diverse issue areas, including security, economic, human rights, and environmental cooperation; however, the spillover effect across issue areas increases with the material consequences of withdrawal. 

This article is part of a larger project in which I am examining the consequences of treaty withdrawal on the content and evolution of international laws and institutions. This research aims to explain how patterns of interstate cooperation change over time and why cooperation succeeds in some places yet fails in others. 

About the Author: Averell Schmidt is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His research “Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

(The Impossibility of) Deliberation-Consistent Social Choice

The forthcoming article “(The Impossibility of) Deliberation-Consistent Social Choice” by Tsuyoshi Adachi, Hun Chung, and Takashi Kurihara is summarized by the authors below.

There is now a growing consensus among democratic theorists that ‘deliberation’ and ‘aggregation (or voting)’ have their own respective virtues and that each plays an important role in the democratic process that cannot be properly reduced to the role performed by the other. Many people now think that in order to achieve democratic legitimacy/justification of the resulting outcomes, democratic institutions should incorporate both ‘democratic deliberation’ and ‘aggregative voting’ into its process, where people “first talk, then vote.” (Goodin 2008: ch. 6)  

Suppose then we have a two-stage democratic process in which people deliberate and persuade one another by exchanging reasoned arguments in the first deliberative stage, and then vote for the final outcome in the second aggregative stage with their post-deliberation preferences. What is the proper normative relationship between the first deliberation stage and the second voting stage? In this paper, we propose the following normative condition: 

  • NNRD (Non-Negative Response toward Democratic Deliberation): If some individuals, through democratic deliberation (in the first stage), change their preferences toward other individuals’ preferences, then the result of the social choice rule (in the second voting stage) should not make everybody who has successfully persuaded others through reasoned deliberation worse-off than what they would have achieved without deliberation. 

NNRD characterizes what we believe to be the proper normative relationship between the two democratic stages of deliberation and voting. If NNRD is violated, then people can be made worse-off by persuading others via democratic deliberation. This disincentivizes people to deliberate, which defeats the very purpose of introducing a separate stage of deliberation into our democratic processes. Hence, it is important for any two-stage democratic process that involves both deliberation and voting to satisfy NNRD. Furthermore, it turns out that NNRD is weaker than strategy-proofness and is logically implied by it. (Proposition 1) So, if we wish our democratic processes to avoid giving people incentives to strategically misrepresent their preferences, then they must at a minimum satisfy NNRD. 

We prove that there exists no social choice rule that simultaneously satisfies NNRD along with the Weak Pareto and the No Universal Vetoer axioms. The Weak Pareto axiom expresses the democratic requirement to respect citizens’ unanimous preferences, which is a very minimal notion of popular sovereignty. The No Universal Vetoer axiom expresses our democratic commitment to political equality by not conferring too much arbitrary decision-making power on a single individual. Our impossibility theorem shows that these three normative principles cannot be simultaneously incorporated into a two-stage democratic procedure that involves both deliberation and voting.      

Then, how might we escape the impossibility result? It turns out that if we relax Weak Pareto to Top Unanimity—which requires the social choice rule to choose the alternative that is unanimously top-ranked, whenever there exists such an alternative—then we get a possibility result (Proposition 4). However, by giving up Weak Pareto, the democratic process can no longer eliminate dominated and unanimously dis-preferred alternatives that have been identified through democratic deliberation in the first stage. Similarly, if we relax No Universal Vetoer to No Dictatorship, then we again get another possibility result (Proposition 5). However, the cost here is that we must allow a single individual, who (despite not being a full-fledged dictator, who nonetheless) can always get either their best or second-best alternative regardless of the preferences of other individuals, which goes against our normative commitment to political equality.  

In short, our paper formally demonstrates that there are virtually no aggregation rules that can properly accommodate the results of such successful deliberation and at the same time respect deliberative democracy’s ideal of unanimous consensus and political equality. We can escape the impossibility result by relaxing the axioms. However, each potential escape route necessarily compromises some core normative value of democracy. 

About the Authors: Tsuyoshi Adachi is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, Hun Chung is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, and Takashi Kurihara is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Tokai University. Their research “(The Impossibility of) Deliberation-Consistent Social Choice” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action

The forthcoming article “Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action” by Richard Clark and Noah Zucker is summarized by the authors below.

International organizations (IOs) are increasingly focusing their policymaking and rhetoric on issues of climate change. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called for ambitious climate policies including carbon prices and debt relief for climate-vulnerable countries. The World Bank announced plans in the late 2010s to significantly ramp up lending for climate change mitigation and adaptation. These pivots to climate are notable given the halting pace of domestic and interstate action on the issue. The most powerful stakeholders within these institutions vary widely in their climate ambition, which prior work suggests should impede institutional reform. Why, in light of this, are we nonetheless seeing IOs increasingly prioritize climate? 

Classic theories of institutional change focus on top-down or exogenous forces, such as shifts in principal preferences or sudden shocks like war. We advance a novel theory that attributes institutional reform not to these high-level pressures, but rather to an endogenous process of staff learning and rotation. International financial institutions, foreign ministries, aid agencies, and other political bureaucracies regularly deploy staff overseas to carry out their institutional mandate. We argue that when staff are sent to countries where climate vulnerabilities are especially severe, such as low-lying island states, those staff should learn about the impacts of climate change and come to see climate as germane to their institution’s mission. As those staff are then rotated to new countries or promoted, they should carry these new beliefs with them, leading concerns about climate to diffuse horizontally and vertically through their institution. 

We develop this argument in reference to the IMF, which frequently deploys staff to member states to conduct routine economic surveillance and consult with local stakeholders; staff write reports that document their findings and offer policy recommendations. These missions typically concern “bread-and-butter” macroeconomic issues for the Fund, such as levels of public debt and currency regimes. We hypothesize that when staff are deployed to especially climate-vulnerable countries, they should come to see climate as a “macro-critical” issue — something deserving of the Fund’s attention alongside those conventional metrics. 

To test this theory, we collect original data on the IMF’s attention to climate in economic analyses and the career paths of individual bureaucrats. We find that these staff learn from local experiences of climate disasters while on assignment overseas, and that these lessons stick as the staff move between countries. The presence of a “climate-attuned” bureaucrat in a country, someone who previously came to see climate as macro-critical, makes it nearly twice as likely that the IMF will consider climate in its analysis of that country. 

Our findings suggest that seemingly weak states, such as small island states, may be able to advance their climate interests by hosting international bureaucrats. Scholars might examine whether states strategically work to persuade bureaucrats like those sent by the IMF. Our results also offer reason for optimism around the future of climate governance; IO staff may be able to spur greater climate action even when powerful states are divided on the issue.  

About the Authors: Richard Clark is an Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University and Noah Zucker is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Their research “Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action”  is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreements

The forthcoming article “Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreementsby Shannon P. Carcelli is summarized by the author below.

The international relations literature has long debated the effectiveness of international institutions, especially in the form of soft law. Why do countries comply with international agreements that have no teeth to them? And why do countries fail to comply with agreements that they joined voluntarily? 

In this paper, I introduce a previously unrecognized explanation for compliance: a state’s bureaucratic institutions. Specifically, I argue that the structure of a state’s bureaucracy—such as the number of discrete agencies and the division of power between them—is a determinant of that state’s compliance with an international agreement. When a state has many, horizontally organized agencies, compliance will be lower than a state with a single, streamlined bureaucracy. This is because the existence of many discrete agencies can silo pro-compliance bureaucrats into a single agency. The more that bureaucrats are siloed, the less capable a pro-compliance bureaucrat will be to impact the state as a whole. 

To illustrate the theory, I introduce a simple formal model of bureaucratic structure. Holding constant the preferences and resolve of individual bureaucrats, I find that the configuration of those bureaucrats into different structures can create material differences in a state’s response to an international agreement. When pro-compliance bureaucrats are put into agencies with other pro-compliance bureaucrats, there is a floor effect: they are unable to change overall policy because they are not represented in much of the bureaucracy. 

The theory provides two main hypotheses. First, I hypothesize that agencies controlled by pro-compliance interests will be more likely to comply with an international agreement than those controlled by anti-compliance interests. Second, I hypothesize that states containing a higher number of discrete bureaucracies will be less compliant overall than states with only a few bureaucracies. Once again, this is because increasing the number of bureaucracies tends to silo pro-compliance interests together, where they have little control over other agencies’ compliance. 

I test these hypotheses using newly coded data from a 2001 international agreement to untie foreign aid. Foreign aid “tying,” a practice in which donors require that aid funds be spent on the donor’s domestic products and services, is controversial. On one hand, the aid community points out that it tends to decrease aid’s effectiveness. On the other hand, domestic suppliers in donor countries benefit from the practice. Using a panel difference-in-difference design, I find that a state’s compliance with the 2001 agreement depended on the structure of its domestic bureaucracy. First, agencies controlled by pro-development bureaucrats were more likely than other types of agencies to comply with the agreement. Second, states that streamlined their aid into one or two agencies were more likely to comply than states that fragmented their aid into many discrete agencies. 

The findings suggest that structure matters: how domestic bureaucrats are configured into the overall government can impact state behavior. Regardless of the preferences of leaders and bureaucrats, the organization of bureaucrats can help determine policy, and is worth future study. 

About the Author: Shannon P. Carcelli is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of Government and Politics. Their research “Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreements”  is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Does Democracy Reduce Ethnic Inequality?

The forthcoming article “Does Democracy Reduce Ethnic Inequality?” by Lasse Egendal Leipziger  is summarized by the author below.

Do democratic transitions reduce socioeconomic inequality between ethnic groups? I argue that democratization empowers previously excluded ethnic groups, enabling them to mobilize and hold governments accountable, ultimately leading to the implementation of more egalitarian policies. However, the equalizing influence of democracy depends on the level of ethnic inequality under the previous, non-democratic regime. Non-democracies with high levels of ethnic inequality are likely to experience larger reductions following democratization than more egalitarian non-democracies. This is because disadvantaged groups in the most unequal countries tend to have more pronounced collective grievances that they seek to address. 

For example, the MAS party in Bolivia or the ANC in South Africa came to power following democratization and represented Indigenous Bolivians and Black South Africans, respectively. These parties leveraged their newfound political influence to advance universal and targeted social policies and pass legislation to reduce discrimination against the historically marginalized groups. 

To examine the argument, I draw on three different measures that reflect a country’s level of socioeconomic ethnic inequality. My findings show that countries experience substantive reductions in ethnic disparities following democratic transitions. However, this pattern is more pronounced in countries that had greater inequality during autocratic rule. Additionally, I examine the socioeconomic situation of different ethnic groups and observe that democratic transitions lead to a convergence between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. For example, democratization narrowed the socioeconomic gap between Bolivians of Indigenous and European descent. Consistent with the argument, I also show that democratic transitions are associated with increased ethnic political inclusion, reduced discrimination, and shifts in social policies. 

The findings contribute to our understanding of democracy’s impact on inequality. Despite the persistence of ethnic disparities, democratization can set in motion dynamics that favor historically marginalized groups. By promoting equality between groups, democracy also helps to reduce many of the negative effects of ethnic disparities, including civil conflict, difficulties in public goods provision, and reduced individual well-being. 

About the Author: Lasse Egendal Leipziger is a PhD Candidate at Aarhus University. Their research “Does Democracy Reduce Ethnic Inequality?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India

The forthcoming article “Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India” by Anjali Thomas, Sayan Banerjee, Charles Hankla, and Arindam Banerjee is summarized by the authors below.

How does the rising tide of ethnonationalism shape gender disparities in the political sphere? The question is timely and urgent since ethnonationalist parties – which often serve to protect the status of historically advantaged “elite” groups – are increasingly a part of mainstream politics in many societies across the globe. While it is widely known that these parties have important implications for the representation and well-being of minorities, few scholars have explored how they shape the fate of women politicians seeking to run for office.   

We examine this critical question in the context of India.  Here, the core ideology espoused by the Hindu nationalist ruling party encompasses patriarchal norms targeted towards the party’s elite Hindu upper-caste core constituency. To explore the implications, we conduct a large-scale survey experiment in the North Indian state of Bihar where we present voters with profiles of paired hypothetical candidates that vary according to gender, caste and party affiliation. This survey shows – somewhat paradoxically – that the profiles of upper-caste women candidates who are affiliated with the Hindu nationalist ruling party receive less support than both the party’s lower-caste women candidates and the party’s upper-caste men candidates. Further analyses show that this loss of support is driven by voters outside the ruling party’s core upper-caste constituency. We attribute these findings to its embrace of patriarchal gender norms which – as we show using descriptive evidence – are systematically more prevalent amongst the party’s core upper-caste supporters. Moreover, we show that these patterns present in our survey experiment mirror those found in real-world elections. 

Why might elite women politicians suffer an electoral disadvantage even, or especially when they belong to their party’s core constituency? Our research addresses this puzzle by drawing attention to “ethnonationalist gender norms,” which we define as patriarchal norms targeted towards women belonging to an ethnonationalist party’s core constituency. We argue that while these norms cater to the interests of party loyalists and help preserve the existing ethnic hierarchy, they also provide informational cues to voters about the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of elite women politicians affiliated with the party in representing their interests. In particular, voters may expect that these norms which place limits on the mobility and assertiveness of elite women may hinder their ability to effectively advocate for the interests of their constituents. Moreover, while ethnonationalist parties may select elite women candidates to signal a commitment to ethnonationalist gender norms to their base, these norms may run counter to the interests of voters outside the ethnonationalist party’s core constituency. Thus, ethnonationalist parties – who often need to attract voters outside their core constituencies in order to win a majority – often experience a backlash from these voters when they field elite women candidates from their core ethnic constituency. 

Overall, our findings have important – and previously overlooked implications – for how ethnonationalism shapes the representation of women. They suggest that ethnonationalist parties and the ideologies they embrace may not only have negative consequences for minorities and historically disadvantaged ethnic groups, but also for elite women.  They also highlight the complicated trade-offs that ethnonationalist parties must make if they are to succeed at the polls. 

About the Authors: Anjali Thomas is an Associate Professor of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Sayan Banerjee is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, Charles Hankla is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, and Arindam Banerjee is a Co-Founder and Partner at Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG). Their research “Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy

The forthcoming article “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” by Luca Bellodi, Massimo Morelli, and Matia Vannoni is summarized by the authors below.

Much has been written on the causes of populism, and much on its most frequent features, but little has been documented about its consequences. The literature on the causes of populism emphasizes the role of globalization and immigration in triggering voters’ demands for economic and identity protection and support for populist parties. As a result of these economic and cultural shocks, voters’ trust in traditional tools of representative democracy plummeted. The political response to this erosion of trust has been the systematic use of simple protection commitments that could give voters tighter control over policy. “I will build a wall”, “deliver Brexit”, “citizenship income”, and “economic protectionism” became key messages of candidates’ electoral campaigns, as well as a strong anti-elite and pro-people sentiment. When politicians resort to simple commitments to win the support of disillusioned voters, they also fuel distrust towards the corrupt politicians protecting the corrupt elites who are profiting from the economic and cultural order to the detriment of “the people”. Simple commitments and anti-elite rhetoric hence become the electoral tool kit of populist politicians. When in power, populists try to implement their policy commitments regardless of financial constraints and expert assessment, worsening government economic performance and dismantling the bureaucracy. 

We bring these predictions to the data in the context of local government in Italy. With novel data on more than 8,000 municipalities over more than 20 years, we estimate the effect of electing a populist mayor with a close-election regression discontinuity design. We find that the election of a populist mayor leads to smaller repayments of debts, a larger share of procurement contracts with cost overruns, higher turnover among top bureaucrats – driven by forced rather than voluntary departures – and a sharp decrease in the percentage of highly skilled bureaucrats. The long-term consequences of these dynamics are hard to predict, although they are likely to be persistent and significant. 

About the Authors: Luca Bellodi is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Bocconi University, Massimo Morelli is a Professor of Political Science and Economics at Bocconi Universityand Matia Vannoni is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at King’s College LondonTheir research “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Globalization and Promissory Representation

The forthcoming article “Globalization and Promissory Representationby Christina J. Schneider and Robert Thomson is summarized by the authors below.

This article reports that globalization has a significant and negative effect on governing parties’ ability to fulfill the promises they made to voters in previous election campaigns. We argue that this is a key aspect of the debate on the impact of globalization on national democratic representation. Opinion is divided on the question of whether countries’ integration into the international economic system has negative consequences for the quality of national representation. Some scholars contend that exposure to globalization poses a grave threat to meaningful national democracy, while others argue that national democracy can still thrive in a globalized world. This debate has become all the more pertinent in the context of recent developments that have been described as deglobalization. Our focus on the fulfilment of election pledges sheds light on this debate in relation to promissory representation, which holds that parties should make promises to voters during election campaigns and follow through on those promises if the election results give them sufficient governing authority to do so. If governing parties are habitual promise breakers, then at least one common justification for elections is called into question. 

We argue that countries’ exposure to economic globalization is associated with increased economic uncertainty, international legal constraints, and the empowerment of internationally oriented market actors. These constrain governing parties in their attempts to follow through on their campaign promises. Our empirical strategy consists of quantitative and qualitative analyses. The quantitative analyses draw on work by the Comparative Pledges Project (CPP), which has assembled detailed evidence on thousands of campaign promises made by parties in twelve countries. Previous studies by CPP researchers, including a previous article in the AJPS, focused mainly on the domestic power-sharing arrangements that constrain governing parties in fulfilling their election pledges, and has not yet considered the possible impact of countries’ exposure to globalization. A series of statistical models show that the negative effect of globalization on promise keeping is robust to a range of different plausible specifications.  

The qualitative part of the study consists of a detailed case study of the UK Conservative Party’s infamous campaign promise from 2010 to cut net migration to the UK to under 100,000. This is a typical case study in that it is a broken promise made in a country that is highly exposed to economic globalization. Notwithstanding the government’s serious attempts to reduce migration to the UK, factors relating to economic uncertainty, international legal constraints and powerful market-oriented actors prevented the government from fulfilling the pledge. 

The article is part of a larger project in which we are examining the consequences of globalization for a broad range of indicators of democratic performance in established democracies. This includes the extent to which globalization affects parties’ responsiveness to public opinion, and the possible tradeoffs between responsiveness and responsibility. In doing so we seek to add insights into the polarized debate on the impact of globalization on national democracy. 

About the Authors: Christina J. Schneider is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego and Robert Thomson is a Professor of Political Science at Monash University. Their research Globalization and Promissory Representation is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation

The forthcoming article “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” by William Minozzi, Ryan Kennedy, Kevin M. Esterling, Michael A. Neblo, and Ryan Jewell is summarized by the authors below.

As trust in government and democratic institutions continues to hit new record lows, the push to scale up the most effective forms of civic engagement are intensifying, and governments are becoming more invested partners in such efforts. But robust civic engagement, such as public deliberation, is a heavy and expensive lift not only for planners but also for participants. To reach beyond the affluent and already-engaged, planners have to offer not only all the necessities for a high-quality deliberation, but multiple timeslots, childcare, perhaps incentives if participants have to miss work. 

These requirements make efforts to scale up to the point necessary to impact our democracy quite daunting, leading some democratic theorists and funders to propose individual deliberation as a better vehicle. After all, individual deliberation could be made asynchronous, available on-demand whenever a citizen wants to engage, and perhaps even be less subject to some of the vagaries of group dynamics. It’s easier to sweep a thousand pebbles than move one huge boulder. Maybe this is what it would take to involve enough people to change our institutions—a Candy Crush for deliberation? 

It’s an open question: there has been little empirical evidence so far on the specific value of public deliberation over individual deliberation. We therefore decided to try to test exactly that, to see if individual deliberation could achieve similar results to public deliberation, presumably at much lower cost when taken to scale. 

Our team designed an experiment to test the effects of three different levels of engagement: public deliberation, individual deliberation and an information-only control. Our experiment’s participants were constituents of two participating U.S. Senators. We randomly assigned the constituents to one of the three conditions. In the public deliberation condition constituents participated in online group deliberation using the Common Ground for Action platform with other residents of their state, structured around an issue guide and short videos that discuss policy options and elucidate tradeoffs. The individual deliberation condition walked participants through a questionnaire that simulated the online discussion, encouraging individual deliberation by requiring subjects to watch the same videos from the discussions and confront the same tradeoffs. To independently measure the value of both public and individual deliberation, some participants were assigned to a control group. Members of the control group were provided access to the same information and the same videos but could skip this part of the experiment if they wished. We informed participants in all three groups that the results of the study would be shared with their respective Senators via a report that we submitted to each office. We conducted pre- and post-event surveys with all participants, so that we could compare the results for those who did the individual vs the public deliberation on the following measures: 

  • satisfaction with the experience  
  • change in opinion  
  • gains in knowledge  
  • gains in enthusiasm 
  • increased trust in government and their own sense of civic efficacy

When we compared the pre- and post-data from all three types of engagement, we found that individual deliberation did offer clear benefits over merely providing access to information, but it fell well short of the gains produced by public deliberation. Public deliberation produced an overall effect almost double that of individual deliberation, even though our sessions were online rather than face-to-face. Further, we found no evidence that important limits sometimes observed in face-to-face public deliberation—such as disparities in the experience that arise from conflict avoidance or less education, or social dynamics that can arise based on race and gender—reduced these benefits. Specifically, we found that: 

  • Public deliberation did produce higher levels of satisfaction than individual deliberation: an 11 percentage point rise in participants’ attitudes toward the session vs 4% for those who did the individual deliberation.  
  • Deliberating with others also produced more opinion change than individual deliberation: while the number of participants who reported changing their minds was fairly small, 9%, it was more than double that (4%) of those who changed their minds after individual deliberation. Both forms of deliberation also caused small knowledge gains.  
  • Public deliberation increased enthusiasm on the immigration issue, causing a 9% increase, three times the increase caused by individual deliberation.  
  • Public deliberation also slightly increased participants’ sense of efficacy and trust, although not significantly more than individual deliberation. This may have been due to the horizontal nature of the deliberation, in that there was no direct interaction between the Member of Congress and constituents— our previous research showed notable increases in both when there was such direct interaction.  
  • These increases were made equally across demographic groups, showing that public deliberation does not, as sometimes feared, provide its gains only to the more privileged of its participants.  

If we had found little evidence of differences in the effects of public and individual deliberation, that would have called into question the large investments that institutions and governments have made in the practice. But instead, our findings suggest that public deliberation may well be worth that cost. Actors in this space who wish to scale up this form of civic engagement should absolutely rigorously examine ways to bring down the costs of public deliberation— by moving online, by finding more cost-effective methods of constituent recruitment, etc.— but it appears to be significantly more effective than individual deliberation on many of the measures crucial to helping repair our democracy. 

About the AuthorsWilliam Minozzi is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, Ryan Kennedy is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, Kevin M. Esterling is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, Michael A. Neblo is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, and Ryan Jewell is a Senior Applied Data Scientist at Civis Analytics. Their research “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.