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Congruence between Citizens and Policymakers in Two Visions of Liberal Democracy

  • John D. Huber (a1) and G. Bingham Powell (a2)


This paper explores two quite different visions of the democratic processes that can create congruence between citizen preferences and public policies. In the Majority Control vision, electoral competition and citizen choices result in the direct election of governments committed to policies corresponding to the preferences of the median voter. In the Proportionate Influence vision, election outcomes result in legislatures that reflect the preferences of all citizens; legislative bargaining results in policies linked to the position of the median voter. The authors give more explicit theoretical form to those visions and link them empirically to specific types of modern democracies. They then attempt to test the success of each vision in bringing about congruence between citizen self-placements and the estimated positions of governments and policymaker coalitions on the left-right scale in twelve nations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although the analysis reveals weaknesses in each approach, it suggests a consistent advantage for the Proportionate Influence vision.



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1 Some of these other virtues are more fully described and elaborated in Powell, G. Bingham Jr., “Elections as Instruments of Democracy” (Manuscript, University of Rochester, 1993).

2 Dahl, Robert A., Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), 95. In a similar vein, see Pitkin, Hanna, The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 234.

3 See Black, Duncan, “On the Rationale of Group Decision Making,” Journal of Political Economy 56 (February 1948).

4 On the general importance of majorities for democratic theory, see Cohen, Carl, Democracy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 6871; and Dahl (fn. 2), 135–53. To recognize the importance of majority positions in democratic theory is, of course, not to deny that taking account of intense minorities is an important theoretical and practical problem for democracy. We do not pretend to deal with it here.

5 See McKelvey, Richard D., ”Intransitivities in Multidimensional Voting Models,” Journal of Economic Theory 12 (June 1976); idem, “General Conditions for Global Intransitivities in Formal Votin Models,” Econometrica 47 (September 1979); McKelvey, and Schofield, Norman, “Generalized Symmetry Conditions at a Core Point,” Econometrica 55 (July 1987); and Plott, Charles, “A Notion of Equilibrium and Its Possibility under Majority Rule,” American Economic Review 57 (September 1967). For some recent challenges, see Kollman, Ken, Miller, John H., and Page, Scott E., “Adaptive Parties in Spatial Elections,” American Political Science Review 86 (December 1994); and Tovey, Craig, “The Instability of Instability” (Manuscript, Georgia Institute of Technology, 1991).

6 Riker, , “Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions,” American Political Science Review 74 (June 1980); and idem, Liberalism against Populism (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1982).

7 There might also be an issue or issue dimension that citizens agree is so important that in comparison to it all other issues or dimensions can be ignored. Part of the power of democracy may, indeed, lie in the fact that a majority would reject the idea of office holders looting the national treasury for their personal benefit, regardless of what other feasible policy promises were offered. Such an issue might never appear on the agenda of party competition, but its elimination as a possible outcome would be a powerful contribution of democracy.

8 On legislative voting behavior, see Poole, Keith T. and Rosenthal, Howard, “A Spatial Model for Legislative Role Call Analysis,” American Journal of Political Science 29 (May 1985); and idem, “Patterns of Congressional Voting,” American Journal of Political Science 35 (February 1991). On party competition, see the contributions in Budge, Ian, Robertson, David, and Hearl, Derek, eds., Ideology, Strategy, and Party Change: Spatial Analyses of Post-war Election Programmes in Nineteen Democracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

9 See Budge, Robertson, and Hearl (fn. 8); and Inglehart, Ronald, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 273—74.

10 See Barnes, Samuel H., Representation in Italy: Institutionalized Tradition and Electoral Choke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); Castles, Francis and Mair, Peter, “Left-Right Political Scales: Some Expert Judgments,” European Journal of Political Research 29 (March 1984); Converse, Philip E. and Pierce, Roy, Political Representation in France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986); Dalton, Russell J., “Political Parties and Political Representation: Party Supporters and Party Elites in Nine Nations,” Comparative Political Studies 18 (October 1985); Dalton, , Flanagan, Scott C., and Beck, Paul Allen, eds., Electoral Change in Advanced Industrial Societies: Realignment or Dealignment? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Inglehart (fn. 9).

11 See Huber, John D., “Values and Partisanship in Left-Right Orientations: Measuring Ideology,” European Journal of Political Research 17 (September 1989); Inglehart, “The Changing Structure of Political Cleavages in Western Society,” in Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck (fn. 10); and Inglehart, and Klingemann, Hans, “Party Identification, Ideological Preference and the Left-Right Dimension among Mass Publics,” in Budge, Ian, Crewe, Ivor, and Fairlie, Dennis, eds., Party Identification and Beyond (London: Wiley, 1976).

12 Huber (fn. 11).

13 See fn. 10. Most of our estimates of the positions of the median voters are taken from the Eurobarometer surveys, which use a scale that ranges from 1 to 10. We also use citizen surveys taken in Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand. We convert the scales from these surveys, as well as those from the Castles and Mair expert survey, to the 10-point scale used by the Eurobarometer. Our analysis assumes that the experts on the country used a scale whose meaning was similar to that used by citizens in that country and that the distance between scale numbers was roughly the same for the experts and citizens in all countries.

14 Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E., “Constituency Influence in Congress,” American Political Science Review 57 (March 1963). See also Achen, Christopher H., “Measuring Representation: Perils of the Correlation Coefficient,” American Journal of Political Science 21 (November 1977); idem, “Measuring Representation,” American Journal of Political Science 22 (May 1978); Barnes (fn. 10); Converse and Pierce (fn. 10); Dalton (fn. 10); Fiorina, Morris, Representatives, Roll Calls, and Constituencies (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1974); Miller, Warren E., “Majority Rule and the Representative System of Government,” in Allardt, Erik and Littunen, Yrjo, eds., Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems (Helsinki: Academic Bookstore, 1964); and Powell, Lynda, “Issue Representation in Congress,” Journal of Politics 44 (August 1982).

15 Dalton (fn. 10) also uses parties as the unit of analysis.

16 For linkage analysis confirming this point, see Converse and Pierce (fn. 10); and Barnes (fn. 10).

17 Achen (fn. 14, 1978).

18 Downs, , An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957); see also Eulau, Heinz and Prewitt, Kenneth, Labyrinths of Democracy: Adaptations, Linkages, Representation and Policies in Urban Politics (New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1973); Schlesinger, Joseph, Ambition and Politics: Political Careers in the United States (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966); and Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).

19 See Birch, Anthony, Representation (London: Macmillan, 1972); and Ranney, Austin, The Doctrine of Responsible Party Government (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

20 See Kollman, Miller, and Page (fn. 5); and McKelvey, Richard D. and Ordeshook, Peter C., “Elections with Limited Information: A Fulfilled Expectations Model Using Contemporaneous Poll and Endorsement Data as Sources,” Journal of Economic Theory 36 (June 1985).

21 For theoretical results, see, e.g., Alesina, Alberto, “Credibility and Policy Convergence in a Two Party System with Rational Voters,” American Economic Review 78 (September 1988); Coughlin, Peter J., “Candidate Uncertainty and Electoral Equilibria,” in Enelow, James M. and Hinich, Melvin J., eds., Advances in the Spatial Theory of Voting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Hinich, Melvin J., “Equilibrium in Spatial Voting: The Median Voter Result Is an Artifact,” Journal of Economic Theory 16 (December 1977); Wittman, Donald A., “Candidates with Policy Preferences: A Dynamic Model,” Journal of Economic Theory 14 (February 1977); and idem, “Spatial Strategies When Candidates Have Policy Preferences,” in Enelow and Hinich. For empirical results, see, e.g., Robertson, David, A Theory of Party Competition (London: Wiley, 1976); Budge, Ian and Fairlie, Dennis, Voting and Party Competition (London: Wiley, 1983); and Grofman, Bernard, Griffen, Robert, and Glazer, Amihai, “Identical Geography, Different Party: A Natural Experiment on the Magnitude of Party Differences in the U.S. Senate, 1960–84,” in Johnston, R. J., Shelley, F. M., and Taylor, P. J., eds. Developments in Electoral Geography (London: Routledge, 1990).

22 See Rae, Douglas, The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

23 Lijphart, , Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); see also Lembruch, G., “A Non-Competitive Pattern of Conflict Management in Liberal Democracies,” in McRae, Kenneth, ed., Consociational Democracy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974); and Steiner, Jürg, “The Principles of Majority and Proportionality,” British Journal of Political Science 1 (January 1971).

24 Lijphart, Arend, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-one Countries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984); see also Dahl (fn. 2), chap. 11.

25 In Lijphart's empirical analysis of “consensus” systems, the number of effective parties virtually defines one of his dimensions (fn. 24), 214.

26 For an excellent review of the coalition formation literature, see Laver, Michael and Schofield, Norman, Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), chap. 5.

27 Ibid., 111; de Swaan, Abram, Coalition Theory and Cabinet Government (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1973); and Austen-Smith, David and Banks, Jeffrey, “Elections, Coalitions, and Legislative Outcomes,” American Political Science Review 82 (June 1988).

28 For a discussion of the Fifth Republic, see Baumgartner, Frank, “Parliament's Capacity to Expand Political Controversy in France,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 12 (March 1987); and idem, Conflict and Rhetoric in French Policymaking (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Pittsburgh University Press, 1989).

29 See Strom, Kaare, “Minority Governments in Parliamentary Democracies: The Rationality of Nonwinning Cabinet Solutions,” Comparative Political Studies 17 (June 1984); and idem, Minority Government and Majority Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

30 It would be ideal to be able to analyze congruence for this entire twenty-year span, but since the Castles and Mair expert survey measured party positions in 1982, we have used only the 1978–85 period so that we can rely on the assumption that party positions have not changed much. There are thirty-eight governments in these twelve countries in this time period. Various readers have suggested that we extend our time period and bring in more cases, but we simply cannot locate a comparable survey of experts at another time period that asks the appropriate left-right question.

31 Some readers may be troubled by the absence of electoral laws from the analysis. Clearly the electoral law of a given political system shapes many features of electoral competition and government formation that are important to this study, including the effective number of parties, proportionality, identifiability, and the election of single-party majorities. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this study, it would be difficult—if not wrongheaded—to categorize a country as either a Majority Control or Proportionate Influence system on the basis of its electoral laws. One problem is the difficulty of developing an appropriate measure of electoral laws because each one has unique features, with important differences in aggregation rules and in districting. (For example, Spain and the Netherlands both have proportional representation [PR], but the proportionality of electoral outcomes in Spain is much lower than in the Netherlands, as shown in Table 1.) More important for analysis, the nature of electoral competition varies over time within systems having the same election law. In systems with single-member district pluralities, for example, if there is a minority government at the time of an election, clarity of responsibility for past policy-making will be low. In systems with PR, to take another example, there are often cases in which identifiability is high because of the formation of preelection coalitions. As our analysis focuses on election-specific characteristics of party competition, we do not use the election laws directly to classify the various political systems. However, analysis of the indirect impact of election laws on congruence under various conditions, through the features here examined, is an interesting topic for future research.

32 The measurement of this variable was suggested by the creative work of Strom (fn. 29, 1984, 1990). Unfortunately, we cannot validate our measures with Strom's because we measure identifiability at each election, whereas Strom measures it by decade. However, an impressionistic comparison suggests very similar assessments in countries in which the levels of identifiability were relatively stable over time.

33 Powell, G. Bingham Jr., and Whitten, Guy D., “A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context,” American Journal of Political Science 37 (May 1993), 403. See also Rose, Richard and Mackie, Thomas, “Incumbency in Government: Asset or Liability,” in Daalder, Hans and Mair, Peter, eds., Western Party Systems: Continuity and Change (Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage, 1983); Paldam, Martin, “How Robust Is the Vote Function? A Study of Seventeen Nations over Four Decades,” in Norpoth, Helmut, Lewis-Beck, Michael, and Lafay, Jean-Dominique, eds., Economics and Politics: The Calculus of Support (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 23; Strom (fn. 29, 1990), 124 (on lower vote losses for minority governments); and Lewis-Beck, Michael, Economics and Elections: The Major Western Democracies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 108–9 (on lower vote losses for coalition governments).

34 Powell and Whitten (fn. 33), 407. In our analysis, we have also examined a scale of the clarity of government responsibility for policy outcomes and considered separately the effects of multiple government parties and majority versus minority governments. However, the most consistent and robust effects are based on the simple distinction between incumbent single-party majority governments and all others. We have therefore used this measure in our subsequent analysis.

35 See Laasko, Markku and Taagepera, Rein, “Effective Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to Western Europe,” Comparative Political Studies 12 (April 1979). Although a party choice measure that specifically considers the ideological location of each party might be more theoretically appropriate, Powell (fn. 1) shows that such measures are closely related to the effective number of parties, which is more intuitively interpretable and widely used.

36 This measure also owes a debt to Strom (fn. 29,1984, 1990), although his work has been adapted and supplemented as described in Powell and Whitten (fn. 33), 400.

37 Table 2 gives figures for both the larger time period (1968–87) and the narrower time period (1978–85). The data reassure us that system characteristics during the time period that we study below do not differ substantially from the system characteristics during the larger time period.

38 Since the left-right scales have discrete boundaries between the different cells, we approximate the location of the median voter using a technique described in Wonnacott, Thomas H. and Wonnacott, Ronald J., Introductory Statistics for Business and Economics, 3d ed. (New York: John Wiley, 1984), 671.

39 Browne, Eric and Franklin, Mark, “Aspects of Coalition Payoffs in European Parliamentary Democracies,” American Political Science Review 67 (June 1973); Gamson, Peter, “A Theory of Coalition Formation,” American Sociological Review 26 (April 1961); Schofield, Norman and Laver, Michael, “Bargaining Theory and Portfolio Payoffs in European Coalition Government, 1945–83,” British Journal of Political Science 15 (April 1985).

40 The mean scores by country for Government Distance I (II) are Australia 1.35 (1.35), Belgium .74 (.74), Denmark 1.36 (1.46), France 1.96 (2.15), West Germany 1.55 (1.81), Ireland .47 (.84), Italy .92 (1.24), Netherlands .90 (.50), New Zealand .95 (.95), Sweden 1.28 (1.17), Great Britain 2.39 (2.39), and Spain 1.94 (1.94).

41 In Britain the closest parties to the median voter were the Liberals in 1979 and the Alliance in 1983, but neither of these parties won as much as a quarter of the votes, and both were heavily penalized by the election laws. The Conservatives were somewhat closer to the median than was Labour, but both large parties were rather far away.

42 Our theoretical discussion does not suggest what the appropriate functional form should be, so we examined a wide variety of functional forms and a simple linear relationship turned out to be the most appropriate for each variable.

43 Our findings regarding the Proportionate Influence variables are interesting when compared with empirical studies of budget deficits by political economists; for a recent review of this literature, see Alesina, Alberto and Tabellini, Guido, “Positive and Normative Theories of Public Debt and Inflation in Historical Perspective,” European Economic Review 36 (April 1994). Roubini and Sachs, for example, find that systems with a high incidence of coalition and minority governments have relatively large levels of public debt; Roubini, and Sachs, , “Political and Economic Determinants of Budget Deficits in the Industrial Democracies,” European Economic Review 33 (May 1989). Since the central characteristics of Proportionate Influence systems lead to coalition and minority governments, it appears that system characteristics which improve congruence between governments and citizens may also be associated with large budget deficits. We are grateful to Bill Keech for pointing this out to us.

44 See Austen-Smith, David and Banks, Jeffrey, “Stable Governments and the Allocation of Portfolios,” American Political Science Review 84 (September 1990); and Laver, Michael and Shepsle, Kenneth A., “Coalitions and Cabinet Government,” American Political Science Review 84 (September 1990).

45 This approach is adopted from Powell, G. Bingham, “Constitutional Design and Citizen Electoral Control,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 1 (April 1989).

46 If we relax our assumption of unidimensionality, we might expect the governing parties to bargain with all the other legislative parties, increasing the weight of all the oppositions. We think that in practice some minority governments bargain only with ideologically proximate parties whereas others face a more open situation. However, our reading is that the former situation is more common and, of course, is the situation that makes the concept of congruence more interpretable.

47 The mean scores by country for Policymaker I (II) are Australia .65 (.65), Belgium .45 (.63), Denmark .57 (.64), France 1.59 (1.76), West Germany .94 (1.14), Ireland .43 (.72), Italy .49 (.63), Netherlands .51 (.19), New Zealand .73 (.73), Sweden .95 (.95), Great Britain 1.88 (1.88), and Spain 1.28 (1.28).

48 Congruence of policymakers was not greater than that of governments in every case, however. It is not a tautology. In eight of the thirty-eight cases the congruence was less for policymakers on at least one of the two measures, although the differences are usually not very large.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1992 annual meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago. The authors would like to thank Larry Bartels and Nancy Burns for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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