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Degrees of Democracy


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 (ISBN-13: 9780521868334)

Degrees of Democracy
Cambridge University Press
9780521868334 - Degrees of Democracy - Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy - By Stuart N. Soroka and Christopher Wlezien

Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy

This book develops and tests a “thermostatic” model of public opinion and policy. The representation of opinion in policy is central to democratic theory and everyday politics; so too is the extent to which public preferences are informed and responsive to changes in policy. The ongoing coexistence of both “public responsiveness” and “policy representation” is thus a defining characteristic of successful democratic governance, and the subject of this book.

The authors examine both public responsiveness and policy representation across a range of policy domains in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The story that emerges is one in which representative democratic government functions surprisingly well, although there are important differences in the details. Responsiveness and representation are found to reflect both the public salience of different domains and the design of governing institutions – specifically, federalism (versus unitary government) and presidentialism (versus parliamentarism). The findings alter our understanding of both opinion-policy relationships and the functioning of representative democratic institutions.

Stuart N. Soroka is associate professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Political Science at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. He is also adjunct professor and director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, and co-director of the Media Observatory at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He is the author of Agenda-Setting Dynamics in Canada (2002) and articles in journals including the Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, the Canadian Journal of Political Science, and Comparative Political Studies.

Christopher Wlezien is professor of political science and faculty affiliate in the Institute for Public Affairs at Temple University. He previously was on the faculty at Oxford University and Nuffield College, where he co-founded the ESRC-funded Oxford Spring School in Quantitative Methods for Social Research. He co-edited The Future of Election Studies and Britain Votes, and his articles have appeared in numerous journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Analysis, and Comparative Political Studies. He is co-editor of the international Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.

Degrees of Democracy

Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy

Stuart N. Soroka

McGill University

Christopher Wlezien

Temple University

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Dubai, Tokyo

Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013–2473, USA
Information on this title:

© Stuart N. Soroka and Christopher Wlezien 2010

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2010

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication dataSoroka, Stuart Neil, 1970–Degrees of democracy : Politics, public opinion, and policy / Stuart Soroka, Christopher Wlezien.p. cm.Includes bibliographical references and index.ISBN 978-0-521-86833-4 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-521-68789-8 (pbk.)1. Political planning. 2. Policy sciences. 3. Public opinion. 4. Representative government and representation. I. Wlezien, Christopher. II. Title.JF1525.P6S66 2010320.6–dc22 2009013068

ISBN 978-0-521-86833-4 Hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-68789-8 Paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


1             Public Opinion and Policy in Representative Democracy
Policy Representation
Public Responsiveness
Synopsis and Prognosis
2             The Thermostatic Model
The Mechanics of Public Responsiveness
The Mechanics of Policy Representation
Public Preferences and the Polls
The Reasonableness of the Thermostatic Model
3             Adding Issues and Institutions
Adding Salience
Adding Institutions
System Efficiency
From Theory to Practice
4             Public Preferences and Spending – A Preliminary Analysis
Measuring Public Preferences
Measuring Spending Policy
The Measures Summarized
5             Parameters of Public Responsiveness
Modeling Public Responsiveness
A First Test: Defense and the Domestic Domains Taken Together
Public Responsiveness, by Domain
Parameters of Public Responsiveness
6             Public Responsiveness Explored
Budgetary Policy versus Actual Spending
The Timing of Responsiveness
Policy, Outcomes, and Public Responsiveness
Federal versus Consolidated Spending
“Global” versus “Specific” Responsiveness
The Focus of Public Responsiveness
7             Policy Representation
Modeling Policy Representation
A First Test: Policy Representation in Defense and the Social Domains
Policy Representation, by Domain
Representation in Budgetary Policy
Representation and Marginality: The Electoral Connection
Representation or Manipulation?
Responsiveness and Representation
8             Disaggregating Public Responsiveness and Policy Representation
On Equality
Group Differences in the Literature
Parallel Publics?
Groups and Public Responsiveness
Groups and Policy Representation
The Homogeneity of Opinion-Policy Dynamics
9             Degrees of Democracy
On Responsiveness and Representation
Institutions and Representative Democracy
The “Efficiency” of Political Systems
Final Thoughts


This is a book about representative democracy. We are interested in seeing how well it works – specifically, how consistently governments make policy that reflects public preferences. There is a good deal of academic work demonstrating quite a strong connection between opinion and policy. Even as there seems to be representation, however, there seems to be little basis for it in the public itself. That is, even while showing that governments tend to follow preferences, the body of evidence suggests that the public is largely inattentive to politics, and uninterested and uninformed about the goings-on of governments.

The problem is that the representation of opinion presupposes that the public actually notices and responds to what policymakers do. Without such responsiveness, policymakers have little incentive to represent what the public wants in policy – there is no real benefit for doing so and no real cost for not doing so. Moreover, without public responsiveness to policy, expressed public preferences contain little meaningful information – they are unanchored to the policy status quo. As a result, there is not only a limited basis for holding politicians accountable, but expressed preferences also are of little use even to those politicians motivated to represent the public for other reasons. We need a responsive public; effective democracy depends on it.

A responsive public behaves much like a thermostat. It adjusts its preferences for “more” or “less” policy in response to what policymakers do. Imagine a situation in which the public prefers more defense policy. If policymakers respond, and provide more (but not

too much) for defense, then the new policy position will more closely correspond to the public's preferred level of policy. And, if the public is indeed responsive to what policymakers do, then they will not favor as much more activity on defense. They might still favor more, on balance, but not as substantially as in the prior period. (And if policymakers actually overshoot the public's preferred level of spending, they will favor less.) In effect, following the thermostatic metaphor, a departure from the favored policy temperature produces a signal to adjust policy accordingly; once policy has been sufficiently adjusted, the signal stops.

Whether this is the case in reality is the subject of the work that follows. We are interested in capturing the reciprocal, “thermostatic” relationship between public opinion and policy – (a) the degree to which public preferences adjust thermostatically to policy change, and (b) the degree to which government policies reflect these public preferences. We are interested in this relationship not just in one country, or one domain, but across policy domains and countries. Indeed, we are interested not just in whether “public responsiveness” and “policy representation” exist in multiple circumstances, but also in the ways in which they vary across policy and institutional environments. That is, we would like to learn where the opinion-policy relationship is strong (or weak) and the conditions that help make it so.

Before starting in, we have a lot of appreciation to share. This book has been long in progress; it began in 2001 when we both were at Nuffield College, Oxford. We owe a great deal to the institution itself for providing the infrastructure – administrative, intellectual, and social – that was so valuable in the early phases of this work. We are particularly thankful to three Nuffield colleagues, Iain McLean, Tony Atkinson, and Byron Shafer, each of whom provided support and comments as we started the project.

Financial support has come from various sources. We received support from the Nuffield Foundation for a conference on the subject of budgetary policy in the United Kingdom, which was essential to our research there. Subsequent data-gathering and research assistance were funded in part by Nuffield College, by an Internal Research Development Fund Grant from McGill University, and by a Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We benefited from the expertise of Russell Hubbard, Stuart Mitchell, Allan

Ritchie, Eleanor Ball, and Philippa Todd at Her Majesty's Treasury, and of Terry Moore and Claude Vaillancourt at Statistics Canada. We were also lucky to have had very good research assistants – Robert Bowles, Michelle Meyer, Erin Penner, and Lori Young.

This work also has benefited from comments by scholars at numerous universities and conferences. We are thankful to participants in seminars at the University of British Columbia, Concordia University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Indiana University, Juan March Institute, University of Manchester, University of Mannheim, McGill University, Nuffield College, University of Pennsylvania, Queen's University, Sciences-Po, and the University of Washington. We also are thankful to participants in panels at professional meetings in Aarhus, Albuquerque, Chicago, Corpus Christi, Edinburgh, Fukuoka, Halifax, Manchester, Nottingham, Philadelphia, Pisa, Toronto, Washington, D.C., Uppsala, and Vancouver.

Countless scholars have contributed in significant ways, and we note only some of them here. Patrick Fournier gave invaluable advice on a first full draft of this manuscript; Jamie Druckman did the same for the first three chapters. The resulting manuscript has benefited greatly from the contributions of these two reviewers. Additional commentary on previous papers and nascent ideas came from Arash Abizadeh, Kevin Arceneaux, Joseph Bafumi, Keith Banting, Frank Baumgartner, Marc Andre Bodet, Deborah Jordan Brooks, John Carey, Chris Carman, David Cox, Fred Cutler, Dave Cutts, Richard Deeg, Sophie Duchesne, Diana Evans, Ed Fieldhouse, Orfeo Fioretos, Mark Franklin, Emiliano Grossman, Jane Green, Thomas Gschwend, Florence Haegel, Michael Hagen, Armen Hakhverdian, Peter Hall, David Heald, Michael Herron, Sunshine Hillygus, Sara Hobolt, Brian Hogwood, Will Jennings, Peter John, Martin Johnson, Richard Johnston, Bryan Jones, Mark Kayser, Dean Lacy, Patrick Legales, Julia Lynch, Pat Lynch, Jose Maria Maravall, Nonna Mayer, Amy Mazur, Iain McLean, Jose Ramon Montero, Wolfgang Muller, Jack Nagel, Pippa Norris, Josh Pasek, Mark Pollack, Robert Rohrschneider, Andrew Russell, Laura Scalia, Hermann Schmitt, Joseph Schwartz, Robert Shapiro, Robert Stein, James Stimson, Christina Tarnopolsky, Guy Whitten, and Dick Winters. We also thank our many other colleagues over the years at the University of Houston, McGill University, Oxford University, and Temple University.

The book itself would not have happened without many people at Cambridge University Press, from the editor on down. We thank the inimitable Lew Bateman for showing interest in our work and patience as we worked past several deadlines. We also thank Emily Spangler and, especially, Mary Cadette.

Finally, we thank our families for putting up with us over the course of the project.

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