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Most social scientists who study public opinion and public policy in democratic countries agree that (1) public opinion influences public policy; (2) the more salient an issue to the public, the stronger the rela- tionship is likely to be; and (3) the relationship is threatened by the power of interest organizations,’ political parties, and economic elites (see, e.g., Aldrich 1995; Dahl 1989; Mueller 1999; Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995; Page and Shapiro 1983; Smith 2000). There would be much less consensus, however, on the answers to five follow-up questions widely seen as impor- tant but seldom addressed directly: 1. How much impact does public opinion have on public policy? 2. How much does the impact of opinion on policy increase as the importance of an issue to the public increases? 3. To what extent do interest groups, social movement organizations, political parties, and elites influence policy even when opposed by public opinion? 4. Has government responsiveness to public opinion changed over time? 5. How generalizable are our findings about the impact of opinion on ?

This article distills considerable research directed at these questions. It is not, however, a literature review in the usual sense. Rather than summarizing publications in a con- ventional narrative, I use each publication as a source of data, tabulating the issues and countries studied, and the authors’ predictions, variables, and findings. The analysis will provide the publications’ collective answer to each question, and, at times, show how little evidence is avail- able. Highlighting how little we know on some issues will point to an agenda for future research. It turns out that public opinion influences policy most of the time, often strongly Responsiveness appears to increase with salience, and public opinion matters even in the face of activities by interest organizations, political par- ties, and political and economic elites. Claims that respon- siveness is changing over time or varies across issues rest on very little evidence. The next section describes issues that arise in attempts to answer the questions. This is followed by a description of the data, presentation of findings, and conclusion.

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy No one believes that public opinion always determines public policy; few believe it never does. Even dedicated pro- ponents of democratic theory acknowledge that democratic governments sometimes ignore the public (e.g., Page and Shapiro 1983: 189); those whose theories attribute little power to the public concede that governments sometimes follow public opinion (e.g., Block 1987: 66; Domhoff 1998: 301; Korpi 1989: 313). What distinguishes those who believe democracy gives citizens genuine control over their government from those who believe it does not, is thus dis- agreement over matters of degree: how much impact does public opinion have on public policy? This disagreement is an old one, and one might think it had been resolved, or at least narrowed substantially. 1 The term “interest organization” encompasses both interest groups and social movement organizations; for the rationale for treating them together, see Burstein 1998a. NOTE: I would like to thank William Domhoff, Kim Quaile Hill, Lawrence Jacobs, Florence Katz, and Alan Monroe for helpful advice and comments. This study was partially supported by NSF grant SES-0001509. Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 1 (March 2003): pp. 29-40 29 This content downloaded from 99.172.120.36 on Wed, 08 Sep 2021 15:44:35 UTC All use subject to htt 30 POLITICAL RESEARCH QUARTERLY But this is not the case. Indeed, it may be argued that the range of predictions about impact based on democratic theory has widened in the past 20 years, not narrowed, and that researchers are no closer to consensus now than they were then. A good place to begin is Page and Shapiro’s (1983) clas- sic article, “Effects of Opinion on Policy.” They begin con- ventionally, delineating theoretical controversies about the impact of opinion on policy: some theories (particularly economists’ on electoral competition) predict “a high degree of responsiveness” (175), while others (notably those attributing great power to interest groups) predict much less. Their empirical are presented in a conven- tional way as well: on the one hand, the evidence supports one side (“opinion changes are important causes of policy change” [189]), but, on the other hand, problems in the research require make them hesitate to accept their own conclusion-it would be “unwise to draw normative con- clusions about the extent of democratic responsiveness in policymaking” (ibid).

What has happened in the 20 years since the publica- tion of “Effects of Opinion on Policy”? Theoretically, those expecting responsiveness to be low have generally held fast to their ideas, but the paths of those initially identified with the high responsiveness view have diverged. Some (e.g., Stimson, Mackuen, and Erikson 1995) still argue that democracy works much as it is supposed to, with public officials consistently responding to shifts in public opinion. Others have come to claim, however, that the complexity of modern politics makes responsiveness problematic. Demo- cratic institutions may link opinion and policy on issues that are especially important, relatively simple, and addressed by legislatures straightforwardly, but such issues are few. Jones (1994) argues that inherent limitations in both the cognitive capacities of individuals and the organi- zational capabilities of Congress mean that responsiveness is likely on only the few issues that the public cares about a great deal at any given time. Zaller (1992) and others (see Glynn et al. 1999: ch. 8) contend that on many issues the public cannot be said to have meaningful political opinions, so policy must be the product of other forces. And Arnold (1990: 271-72) suggests that many issues are so complex, and the legislative process so arcane, that most citizens are unable to ascertain whether their interests are being served. Thus, predictions about the impact of opinion on policy range from its having a very substantial influence (Stimson MacKuen, and Erikson 1995) to its keeping policy, rather vaguely, “in bounds” in its distance from public opinion (Jones 1994: 238). Increasing theoretical sophistication about opinion and policy has not narrowed the predictions; instead, they have become more diffuse. One might hope that 20 years of research would enhance the credibility of some theories and reduce that of others. But this does not seem to have happened, partly for a reason rarely discussed: researchers regularly describe their conclusions in terms too vague to be very useful. For example, Wlezien (1996: 81) writes that research “generally corroborates a linkage between public preferences and policy;” Page (1994: 25) that evidence shows “substantial empirical relationships” between opinion and policy; S. Hays, Esler, and C. Hays (1996: 58) that state environmen- tal regulation is “quite responsive” to public opinion, and Erikson, Wright, and McIver (1993: 80) that the relation- ship between opinion and policy in American states is “awe- some.” Are they agreeing with each other about the impact of opinion on policy? Or disagreeing? Faced with this conundrum, a recent review (Glynn et al. 1999: 301) decides to “let the cases and data speak for themselves, so that the reader may judge.” This does not seem very satisfactory. Thus, our first task is to develop a way to report findings consistently, so that we can address the first question: what does the evidence show about how much impact public opinion has on policy?

What has happened in the 20 years since the publica- tion of “Effects of Opinion on Policy”? Theoretically, those expecting responsiveness to be low have generally held fast to their ideas, but the paths of those initially identified with the high responsiveness view have diverged. Some (e.g., Stimson, Mackuen, and Erikson 1995) still argue that democracy works much as it is supposed to, with public officials consistently responding to shifts in public opinion. Others have come to claim, however, that the complexity of modern politics makes responsiveness problematic. Demo- cratic institutions may link opinion and policy on issues that are especially important, relatively simple, and addressed by legislatures straightforwardly, but such issues are few. Jones (1994) argues that inherent limitations in both the cognitive capacities of individuals and the organi- zational capabilities of Congress mean that responsiveness is likely on only the few issues that the public cares about a great deal at any given time. Zaller (1992) and others (see Glynn et al. 1999: ch. 8) contend that on many issues the public cannot be said to have meaningful political opinions, so policy must be the product of other forces. And Arnold (1990: 271-72) suggests that many issues are so complex, and the legislative process so arcane, that most citizens are unable to ascertain whether their interests are being served. Thus, predictions about the impact of opinion on policy range from its having a very substantial influence (Stimson MacKuen, and Erikson 1995) to its keeping policy, rather vaguely, “in bounds” in its distance from public opinion (Jones 1994: 238). Increasing theoretical sophistication about opinion and policy has not narrowed the predictions; instead, they have become more diffuse. One might hope that 20 years of research would enhance the credibility of some theories and reduce that of others. But this does not seem to have happened, partly for a reason rarely discussed: researchers regularly describe their conclusions in terms too vague to be very useful. For example, Wlezien (1996: 81) writes that research “generally corroborates a linkage between public preferences and policy;” Page (1994: 25) that evidence shows “substantial empirical relationships” between opinion and policy; S. Hays, Esler, and C. Hays (1996: 58) that state environmen- tal regulation is “quite responsive” to public opinion, and Erikson, Wright, and McIver (1993: 80) that the relation- ship between opinion and policy in American states is “awe- some.” Are they agreeing with each other about the impact of opinion on policy? Or disagreeing? Faced with this conundrum, a recent review (Glynn et al. 1999: 301) decides to “let the cases and data speak for themselves, so that the reader may judge.” This does not seem very satisfactory. Thus, our first task is to develop a way to report findings consistently, so that we can address the first question: what does the evidence show about how much impact public opinion has on policy? Issue Salience and Government Responsiveness Issue salience has long been seen as a key element of democratic responsiveness. Citizens who care about an issue are especially likely to take elected officials’ actions on that issue into account on election day (Arnold 1990: ch. 6; Jones 1994; see also Lindaman and Haider-Markel 2002). This leads elected officials to be particularly responsive on highly salient issues. The impact of salience on responsiveness has implica tions not only for particular issues, but for overall govern- ment responsiveness as well. If only a few issues at a time can be salient to the public and the legislature, and if responsiveness is high primarily when salience is high, then responsiveness will be high on only those few issues (Jones 1994: ch. 10). Policy would be kept from drifting too far from public opinion on low-salience issues mainly by elected officials’ realization that their salience might increase at some future date. These arguments about overall responsiveness presume that salience has a powerful impact on responsiveness. But does it? Our second question: How much does the impact of opinion on policy increase as an issue’s salience to the public increases? Interest Organizations, Political Parties, and Elites vs. the Public The most common objection to the claim that public opinion influences public policy is that policy is really determined by interest organizations, political parties, and elites, particularly economic elites. The resources available to interest organizations and elites may enable them to get what they wa

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