Quantcast
Connect with us

Do politicians actually care about your opinions? This researcher says no

Published

on

- Commentary

Earlier this month, a New York Times op-ed written by two political science professors, Ethan Porter of George Washington University and Joshua Kalla of Yale, discussed their troubling research findings: State legislators, the two claim, don’t much care about the opinions of their constituents, even if they’re given detailed data regarding their views.

This article first appeared in Salon.

ADVERTISEMENT

As Porter and Kalla explained, over a period of two years they had “provided state legislators in the United States with access to highly detailed public opinion survey data — more detailed than almost all available opinion polls — about their constituents’ attitudes on gun control, infrastructure spending, abortion and many other policy issues.”

What they learned was sobering: “An overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views. Perhaps more worrisome, however, was that when the legislators who did view the data were surveyed afterward, they were no better at understanding what their constituents wanted than legislators who had not looked at the data. For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.”

I recently spoke with Ethan Porter to learn more about the study and its larger implications for American democracy.

In terms of the political scene in America today, what are the larger implications of your study’s conclusions? What does it say about how Democratic and Republican politicians formulate their policy positions?

ADVERTISEMENT

I want to be clear about what the study says and does not say, right? What it says is that, when we randomly provided some state legislators across the country information about their constituents’ policy preferences, we found those legislators largely unwilling to access that information, and among those who did access the information, we found them unaffected by it, in the sense that that information did not make them have more accurate perceptions of their constituents’ preferences.

That’s what the article says. That in itself is an interesting contribution to our understanding of how state legislators behave and the importance they accord their constituents’ preferences. But we’re not talking about Congress members —that’s really important. We don’t have evidence on that one way or another.

ADVERTISEMENT

We’re also not talking about the capacity of some citizens to affect legislators’ perceptions of their constituents’ preferences. So this is a really important point and one that I think can be missed. It may be the case that legislators — and again, only talking about state legislators — are responsive to activist constituents. Constituents that show up to town halls, constituents who go to meetings, show up at their offices, etc. But in terms of what we found, legislators are not interested nor particularly responsive to summary statistics that describe the preferences of the constituents within their district. Does that make sense?

That does. Why did you focus on state legislators instead of federal legislators?

Great question. There are two answers to this. The first is that there are simply more state legislators than Congress members. That’s really important to begin with, so from a research perspective, we wanted to reach as many legislators as possible, which is what we did. And relatedly, we also believe that state legislators would be more responsive to information that came from us, as we conveyed summary data or data originating with the National Science Foundation.

ADVERTISEMENT

The second part of that is to say that any research project, any sort of empirical political science paper, is just one contribution. So questions relating to whether or not Congress members are responsive to the same kind of information would be best answered in another paper. You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, I guess.

In terms of how policies will directly affect the ordinary citizen’s life, what is the difference between the impact that a state legislator will have on a constituent versus a federal legislator?

I don’t know if I’m the perfect person to answer that question. In general — and I imagine you’ll agree — state legislators have all kinds of power that goes unnoticed despite the fact that many Americans are unaware of who their state legislators are, and what their state legislators do. State legislators make consequential decisions about state budgets, about state-specific laws and other matters that, while not as high-profile as federal issues, still end up impacting most people’s daily lives.

ADVERTISEMENT

Do you think perhaps part of the reason state legislators don’t feel as beholden to their constituents’ views is because their jobs are so much lower profile?

That may be part of it, yes, absolutely. In the academic article we offer several speculative reasons for our results. Again, this is only speculation. We don’t have this nailed down. Parenthetically, what we do think we have nailed down relates to the disinterest and the lack of accuracy improvements that we observed among the legislators.

So why do we observe what we observe? One explanation is that U.S. politics are increasingly nationalized. There’s a great book on this topic by Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at Penn, who makes the case that until somewhat recently local politics were still the domain of local issues. Which is to say that people voted at the local levels, cast ballots, and policymakers made decisions at the local level with reference to the issues that divided and united them locally.

ADVERTISEMENT

Whereas today, in our heavily polarized era, where people’s partisanship is so deeply entrenched, it may be the case that policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to national debates. So why does this matter here? Because it would suggest that some legislators at the state level think, “I don’t necessarily don’t need to know my constituents’ preferences. I know the preferences aligned with my party.” Right?

So in this legislator’s mind, he or she might be thinking something like, “It matters little what my constituents think. It matters more what my national party thinks.”

Could you make an argument that because the parties have become so sharply polarized that state legislators could assume that if I won this election as a Republican or as a Democrat, and the average voter knows generally what Republicans and Democrats stand for, then ipso facto, I’m representing their views?

ADVERTISEMENT

Well, I do think that’s a fair interpretation of what possibly could be running through legislators’ minds. The problem with that argument, of course, is in fact everyday citizen’s views are far more complicated and unpredictable than blind adherence to the national party platform might suggest. It turns out that people’s views don’t line up perfectly with what you might think their views do if you only pay attention to what Democrats and Republicans say in Washington.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

2020 Election

‘Pure baloney’: Conservative busts Trump over his bogus reason for holding off on some China tariffs

Published

on

Writing for the conservative Bulwark, columnist Andrew Egger called out Donald Trump's reasoning for his decision to hold off on some tariffs he plans to impose on China -- essentially saying the president is backing off because he now realizes he is dead wrong about the impact on American consumers.

On Tuesday the White House announced the postponement of Chinese imports that included cell phones, laptops and video game console that were  scheduled to go into effect on September 1 -- bumping the date out until 2 weeks before Christmas.

Continue Reading

2020 Election

Julián Castro blasts Twitter CEO for not ‘working to remove white supremacists’ after Steve King’s bizarro rant

Published

on

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro blasted Twitter for allowing white supremacists on its platform, and went after Republican Rep. Steve King, after the Iowa Congressman posted a bizarro rant directed at the Texas Democrat.

“Hey @JulianCastro,” Rep. King tweeted late Thursday night. “You think it’s NOT embarrassing when you declare that men can get pregnant and then you promote federal funding to abort men’s babies? Genius! A Democrat proposal that will have a CBO score of ZERO! And a bizarre score of 100!!”

Continue Reading
 

2020 Election

Trump-backing union workers turn on president over new labor rules as election nears

Published

on

According to a report at Politico, workers who are a part of one of the nation's largest unions are very unhappy with Donald Trump's Labor Department after they had fallen in line behind the president following this election in 2016.

The report states "a deal gone bad between Trump and North America’s Building Trades Unions over a Labor Department apprenticeship initiative" is at the heart of the dispute that could cost Trump votes in the 2020 election.

Politico reports that leadership of the union endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, but the rank and file workers of the "NABTU has always been viewed as more conservative than other labor groups, and since Trump's victory it has weathered criticism from the left for that reason."

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image