In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Opinion and Public Policy in Advanced Democracies

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Literature Reviews
  • Fiscal Constraint and Representation
  • Issues and Representation
  • Electoral Competition and Representation
  • Inequality in Representation

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Political Science Public Opinion and Public Policy in Advanced Democracies
Christopher Wlezien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0045


The representation of public opinion in public policy is of obvious importance in representative democracies. While public opinion is important in all political systems, it is especially true where voters elect politicians; after all, opinion representation is a primary justification for representative democracy. Not surprisingly, a lot of research addresses the connection between the public and the government. Much of the work considers “descriptive representation”—whether the partisan and demographic characteristics of elected politicians match the characteristics of the electorate itself. This descriptive representation is important but may not produce actual “substantive representation” of preferences in policy. Other work examines the positions of policymakers. Some of this research assesses the roll call voting behavior of politicians and institutions. The expressed positions and voting behavior of political actors do relate to policy but are not the same things. Fortunately, a good amount of research analyzes policy. With but a handful of exceptions noted below, this research focuses on expressed preferences of the public, not their “interests.” That is, virtually all scholars let people be the judges of their own interests, and they assess the representation of expressed opinion no matter how contrary to self-interest it may seem.

Theoretical Works

There is a long history of writing about political representation. Herbst 1993 and Nikolaus 2007 provide useful historical perspectives reaching back to ancient Greece and Rome, and Manin 1997 clarifies the evolution of thinking about representative democracy. Much of the theoretical work was written in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Early statements tended to be “normative,” advocating a role for the public in governance. Other newer works are more “empirical” in focus.

  • Herbst, Susan. Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    A book on public opinion since the advent of polling that provides a useful historical perspective. The author demonstrates that the public has featured in the work of philosophers since Plato and Aristotle, and that the meaning of public opinion has changed in interesting and consequential ways over time.

  • Manin, Bernard. The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659935

    The author traces the history of representative government. According to Manin, representative democracy evolved in opposition to democracy proper and is best understood as a mixed political institution, one that combines democratic and undemocratic features.

  • Nikolaus, Jackob. Cicero and the Opinion of the People: The Nature, Role and Power of Public Opinion in the Late Roman Republic. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 17 (2007): 293–311.

    DOI: 10.1080/17457280701617128

    This essay examines the place of the public in the writings of the well-known Roman philosopher-politician Cicero. The author shows that Cicero considered public opinion to be a powerful force that influenced everyday life and much of politics in the ancient republic.

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