In This Article Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Democratic Responsiveness and Theories of Representation
  • Voters and Policy Issues
  • Politicians and Public Opinion
  • Connecting Opinion and Policy at the National Level
  • Connecting Opinion and Policy at the State Level
  • Reasons for Caution
  • Inequality of Influence
  • Political Polarization

Political Science Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion
by
Robert S. Erikson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0103

Introduction

Policy responsiveness is a goal of democratic government—that government action responds to the preferences of its citizens. It is conceptually distinct from “representation,” whereby government actions mirror the preferences of public opinion. Governments can be representative without a direct responsiveness causal mechanism. Policy can respond to public opinion but remain biased due to other influences besides the public. Responsiveness is no certain result in a democracy, as there are many links in the causal chain that must be unbroken for it to be at work. Citizens can vote politicians in or out of office based on the adequacy of their policy representation. But are they up for the task? Do elected officials believe they must follow public opinion, and do they know what their constituents want? Ultimately, how strongly does government policy reflect citizen views? This essay addresses these questions. The literature reviewed here covers only policy representation in the United States. For related coverage, including outside the US sphere, see essays by Will Jennings (Mechanisms of Representation) and Christopher Wlezien (Advanced Democracies: Public Opinion and Public Policy in Advanced Democracies) as part of this Oxford Bibliographies in Political Science series. One conclusion is that public opinion is an influential force in determining public policy in the United States, especially when it comes to setting the ideological tone of policy in the states or the nation. The degree of influence may seem surprising given what we know about voters’ capabilities. Yet there is reason for caution as well as optimism. The general public’s influence sometimes faces the headwinds of hostile economic forces. Influence is not equally distributed across all segments of the public.

General Overviews

Some authors offer general discussions of the process of democratic responsiveness in the United States. Burstein 2003 offers one general review of the literature on democratic representation. Manza and Cook 2002 contrasts research that finds evidence of large responsiveness with literature that argues that the public has a limited role in policymaking. Hurley and Hill 2012 presents the issues involved in estimating responsiveness and the causal structure responsible. Shapiro 2011 reviews research on public opinion and its role in democratic representation. As for mechanisms, Miller and Stokes 1963 provides the classic paradigm of how constituencies can influence their representatives’ behavior. Soroka and Wlezien 2010 presents a thermostatic model of representation in their discussion of representation across three nations.

  • Burstein, Paul. “The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda.” Political Research Quarterly 56 (2003): 29–40.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a useful and careful review article regarding studies of public opinion impact as of 2003. The author makes a plea for collection of more systematic and comparable data.

  • Hurley, Patricia A., and Kim Quaille Hill. “In Search of Representation Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Elections and Political Behavior. Edited by Jan E. Leighley, 716–740. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors place policy representation in the context of alternative views and discuss the mechanisms involved in their thorough literature review.

  • Manza, Jeff, and Fay Lomax Cook. “A Democratic Polity? Three Views of Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion in the United States.” American Political Research 30 (2002): 630–667.

    DOI: 10.1177/153267302237231E-mail Citation »

    The authors compare optimistic views of policy responsiveness with alternative interpretations.

  • Miller, Warren E., and Donald E. Stokes. “Constituency Influence in Congress.” American Political Science Review 57 (1963): 45–57.

    DOI: 10.2307/1952717E-mail Citation »

    This classic article made some estimates of constituency influence on Congress members, but is best known for its “diamond” model of constituency representation. Electorates influence their representatives in two ways: by getting their representatives to perceive their opinions correctly, which they will then support, or affect the identity of the representative (via elections) who then votes their own views.

  • Shapiro, Robert Y. “Public Opinion and American Democracy.” Public Opinion Quarterly 75.5 (2011): 982–1017.

    DOI: 10.1093/poq/nfr053E-mail Citation »

    This article is an extensive review of research pertaining to public opinion and democracy, mainly in the United States. It concludes that there is evidence of considerable responsiveness to public opinion at many government levels, but notes the limitations as well.

  • Soroka, Stuart, and Christopher Wlezien. Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This ambitious multination study models the representation process on spending issues in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Soroka and Wlezien see policy as responsive to public opinion across many issues. They emphasize the thermostatic model, originated by Wlezien, whereby government policy responds to public opinion and voters respond, in turn, to change in policy.

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