One Simple Way to Break the Partisan Echo Chamber

Maybe it sounds obvious, but people in Congress aren’t hearing enough from constituents who don’t agree with them.

Over the last decade, the volume of calls, letters, emails, tweets and other messages sent to Congress has exploded exponentially – both in decibel level and sheer quantity.

The Congressional Management Foundation reports that many Congressional offices now struggle to keep up with the barrage of constituent opinions brought on by the Internet and social media and by online grassroots campaigns that put email petitions one click away from a member’s inbox.

All this sound and fury, however, may not signify a better-informed Congress. Rather, research finds, it could be worsening the partisan echo chamber and contributing to polarization.

The reason, say political scientists David Broockman of Stanford University and Timothy Ryan of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is that even when it comes to something as banal as constituent mail, the feedback members get is disproportionately one-sided and polarizing.

In a recent study published by Broockman and Ryan in the American Journal of Political Science, the scholars find that constituents are more likely to contact only those members who belong to their political party. On an issue such as immigration, for example, a Democratic constituent might contact the office of a Democratic senator, but not the office of a Republican, even though both senators represent that citizen.

The result, write Broockman and Ryan in the American Journal of Political Science, is a “feedback loop” where members are more likely to hear from citizens who agree with them and less likely to hear differing viewpoints. This in turn could aggravate polarization on Capitol Hill and distort members’ perceptions about how constituents feel.

“Two senators of different parties representing the same state might each see their state as cheering on their respective party’s platform, when in reality the state is more moderate than either senator might realize,” says Broockman.

Broockman and Ryan suggest a simple solution for how conscientious members of Congress can break the feedback loop: Seek out different opinions.

“Research in other areas has shown that making a conscious effort to remain aware of and counteract one’s biases is one of the best ways to reduce it,” Broockman says. Simply knowing that the contacts a member of Congress is receiving are lopsided can help discount their impact.

Ryan says that grassroots citizens groups could also benefit from reaching out across the aisle. “To my mind, the activist organizations tend to focus on what will generate the greatest sheer number of messages,” he says, but a better strategy might be “to think more carefully about which politicians are most likely to be influenced by the messages they receive.”

“A smaller number of messages directed at the persuadable people might have a greater effect than a larger number of messages that are directed at natural allies,” says Ryan.

While technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary citizens to participate in democracy, it’s also allowed an already vocal minority to build itself increasingly bigger megaphones. Individual members of Congress, however, can mitigate these polarizing impacts by becoming better consumers of the messages they hear at home.