Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Representation and Public Opinion

Seth Masket asks:
Shouldn't public policy reflect public opinion?
It's a good post -- I'll wait while you go and read it.

OK, I'll summarize for lazy readers. Seth points to some interesting examples, including the odd case of the estate tax, which apparently has always been unpopular not because people thought it was inherently unjust, but because most people mistakenly expect to be hurt by it (well, I guess they mistakenly expect their heirs to be hurt by it). He also uses the fictional example of West Wing President Bartlet, who doesn't care about public opinion on a complex arms control question because he (presumably correctly) doesn't believe that the public knows or even can know enough to have reasonable, informed opinions. Seth says:
Obviously, a democratic republic should be biased toward following public opinion, but there are legitimate cases for ignoring it. The trick is figuring out when.
tiI have two responses. The first is that this question is partially solved by political parties. Democracies don't need people to understand nuclear physics; they just need people to choose between Martin Sheen and John Goodman...er., between the Democrats and the Republicans. There are all sorts of complexities that follow, but that's one direction one can explore.

The second (and in my view complementary) way to look at it is through representation. Here, what matteres is the representational relationship between elected officials and constituents, which as Richard Fenno tells us involves cycles of promises, interpretations of promises, actions in office, and explnations of those actions in light of the original promises. The key to understanding this is the nature of promises. Promises made by politicians can be issue promises, such as the ones that Politifact tracks. But sometimes, and I think more importantly, they can be about how the elected official will do his job: "I'll listen to you, not to Washington lobbyists." "I'll fight for the little guy." "I'll be a strong conservative voice." "I'll make sure that our town gets its fair share of the pie." "It's time that we sent a woman to the House."

Fulfilling those promises sometimes means sticking to specific issue positions, but sometimes it doesn't. It may be that different promises, even ones that sound similar, require a different action in Washington. Consider two same-state Senators, one of whom promised to fight for the little guy, while the other promised to listen to her constituents. If both Senators agree that public opinion opposes the estate tax but that the tax would be on balance good for middle and working class voters, the "fight for..." Senator might feel obliged to support estate taxes, while the "listen" Senator may feel constrained to oppose such a tax. Sometimes, however, it's more about the way that elected officials explain their actions and interpret their promises than about policy positions per se. Here's an example: Jed Bartlet was elected in part because he was a real smart guy; he promised, in effect, to be a real smart guy in office. He can't break that problem by taking any particular position on arms control, but he could break it, at least in part, if it were revealed that he didn't understand the issue himself.

Back to Seth's claim that "Obviously, a democracy should be biased toward following public opinion." I think this perspective suggests that Seth isn't right. Democracy should be biased toward developing and supporting strong representational relationships. Sometimes public opinion will be important to those relationships, but sometimes it won't; that's up to the particular politician and the particular constituency, and how they interact with each other.

What's nice about that perspective is that it gets around a whole lot of messy things that we know about public opinion itself (such as how inconsistent and uninformed most voters are on most issues). The representation perspective suggests that it's OK if voters don't have opinions on the details of arms control, or that their opinions about other issues are clearly just a function of following opinion leaders. The important thing, for democracy, is only that they elect politicians who try to keep their promises (properly understood).

1 comment:

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