Top-down or bottom-up? Sinister interests – vs – the median voter strategy

For some time I’ve been puzzled as to why empirical political scientists and normative political theorists have taken up antithetical positions on what has to be the central issue of democratic politics – who rules?. In the former community there is widespread agreement that the demos has kratos – elected politicians are obliged to formulate policies that are designed to attract the support of the ‘median’ voter. Political theorists, however (along with their colleagues in media studies), in so far as they are interested in the topic at all, view this as little more than a confidence trick, designed to conceal the identity of the shadowy ‘sinister interests’ who are really pulling the strings of power. Given that political scientists and political theorists are both housed in the same faculties, and drink their cappuccinos in the same common rooms, why should they come to such diametrically opposed conclusions?

Political scientists would argue that their views are informed by their study of the empirical data. According to Anthony King (1997), politicians in ‘hyper-responsive’ democracies like the US are ‘running scared’ – their political programmes being largely dictated by the (uninformed) wishes of their constituents. John Geer (1996) argues that American presidents have always been acutely conscious of public opinion, the only difference between ‘conviction’ politicians like Abraham Lincoln and ‘weather-vanes’ like George H. Bush being that the former had to rely on ‘reading the tea-leaves’ whereas the latter could base his policies on scientific public opinion surveys. Since the birth of the Gallup Poll in the 1930s only two presidents (Truman and Eisenhower) ignored polling data. In Kennedy’s first State of the Union speech the President took positions that were consistent with his private pollster’s findings in 19 out of 20 instances (Jacobs and Shapiro, 1992). And this is a general finding:

Our work indicates that when the public asks for a more activist or a more conservative government, politicians oblige. The early peak of public opinion liberalism during the early 1960s produced liberal public policy; the turn away from activism and the steady move toward conservatism was similarly reflected in national policy . . . large scale shifts in public opinion yield corresponding large-scale shifts in government action. (Stimson, Mackuen, & Erikson, 1995, p. 559)

Of course polling and focus groups can have two uses, they can be ‘bottom-up’ (a way for politicians to find out what policies their constituents want) or ‘top-down’ (a way for political elites to fine-tune their rhetoric in such a way as to better manipulate dumb voters by choosing the ‘words that work’). Republican pollster Frank Luntz (2007) denied that his political masters formulated policies on the basis of his polling results but it remains the case that Newt Gingrich’s ‘contract with America’ was entirely poll-driven:

As we now know, the GOP relied heavily on the surveys of Frank Luntz and Associates when writing the contract. The issues that garnered very favourable ratings with the public were included in the contract and those that did not were left off. There was little discussion about how these policies fit together, rather the concern was maximizing popularity. (Geer, 1996, pp. 34-5, my emphasis).

Tony Blair’s pollster Philip Gould (1998) was emphatic that the point of his focus groups was to change the policy of the Labour Party in order to better reflect the priorities of working people, rather than being an adjunct to Alastair Campbell’s spin doctoring activities.

So why do political theorists assume that this is just a con-trick, and that ‘democratic’ politics is still a top-down elite practice? John Horton attributes this to the ‘normative’ turn in political theory ushered in by John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Since then political theorists have been primarily concerned with ‘social justice, rights, equality, freedom/autonomy and (more recently) democratic deliberation . . . liberal theorists pay little attention to what is ordinarily thought of as the day-to-day “stuff” of actual politics’ (Horton, 2009, pp. 16,17). Or, in the words of Glen Newey:

Most political philosophers are currently not providing very much philosophical reflection on politics – at least not on politics as it is. The central concern of political philosophy since the publication of A Theory of Justice has been to arrive at a set of ideal prescriptions rather than attempting to provide a descriptive account of politics as it non-ideally exists. (Newey, 2001, p. 18)

Elections clearly give rise to a formal inequality of political power between electors and the elected, so political theorists are naturally attracted to Mosca, Pareto, Michels and the other elite theorists, who regard democracy as anything but the rule of the people. Habermasian deliberative democrats are equally concerned with the formal egalitarian requirements of the ideal speech situation and are loath to dirty their hands by getting involved with actual democratic decision making.

Political scientists, by contrast, are more interested in measuring actual kratos – policies formulated as a response to opinion polls clearly refute the views of the elite theorists. Whilst this is clearly a democratic form of policy making (assuming a liberal pluralist perspective on the formation of public opinion), epistemic considerations would suggest that Fishkin-style deliberative opinion polls would be a significant improvement on the rational ignorance uncovered by polling data. Although I consider myself a political theorist, I believe that theorists should follow Aristotle and Oakeshott in ‘providing a descriptive account of politics as it non-ideally exists’ and adumbrating (tentative) intimations as to how existing practice might be improved, rather than drawing deductive conclusions from platonic ideals such as equality and rationality.

I suspect this places me in a minority position on this blog, especially in the light of its Rawlsian title.

References

Geer, John G. (1996). From Tea Leaves to Opinion Polls: A theory of democratic leadership (New York: Columbia University Press).

Gould, P. (1998). The Unfinished Revolution: How modernisation saved the Labour Party (London: Little, Brown & Company).

Horton, John (2009), ‘Political leadership and contemporary liberal political thought’, Political Leadership in Liberal and Democratic Theory (Exeter: Imprint Academic).

Jacobs, L. R., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1992). Public decisions, private polls: John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Paper presented at the Midwestern Political Science Association.

King, Anthony (1997), Running Scared: Why America’s politicians campaign too much and govern too little (New York, The Free Press).

Luntz, F. (2007). Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear (New York: Hyperion).

Newey, Glen, After Politics: The rejection of politics in contemporary liberal philosophy (Basinstoke: Palgrave).

Stimson, J. A., Mackuen, M. B., & Erikson, R. S. (1995). Dynamic representation. American Political Science Review, 89(3), 543-565.

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17 Responses

  1. PS The other reason that political theorists dislike their polsci colleagues’ take on democracy is because it has its roots in economics (Anthony Downs’s Economic Theory of Democracy). Nobody likes to see their own discipline reduced to another, particularly as public choice theory has no place for political ideologies. This has led to rejoinders by the likes of Richard Tuck and Gerry Mackie, but don’t expect the economists to remove their tanks from the neatly-mown lawns of Harvard’s government department any time soon.

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  2. Either Sutherland has done a very poor job of reading his own references or those references provide very scant evidence for Sutherland’s claims (or quite likely both). Nothing in the above even comes close to empirical evidence that policy is determined based on public opinion (informed or otherwise). Relying on testimony of propagandists about the way policy is set is too ridiculous to merit a substantive response.

    For those interested in empirical evidence, I suggest having a look at the paper “Inequality and democratic responsiveness” by Martin Gilens.

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  3. >Either Sutherland has done a very poor job of reading his own references:

    From the same collection as John Horton’s piece:

    “The assumption that the crucial criterion of democratic and representative government is the responsiveness of public policy to the preference of citizens is broadly shared in empirical political science, see e.g. Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, ‘Effects of public opinion on policy’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 77, no. 1 (March 1983), pp. 175-90; Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro, ‘Studying Substantive Democracy’, Political Science and Politics, Vol. 27, No. 1 (March 1994), pp. 9-17; Sarah Binzelt Hobolt and Robert Klemmemsen, ‘Responsive Government? Public Opinion and Government Policy Preferences in Britain and Denmark’, Political Studies, Vol. 53 (2005), pp. 379-402.” Andras Korosenyl, ‘Political Leadership: Classical vs. Leader Democracy’, Political Leadership in Liberal and Democratic Theory, p. 83.

    As a political theorist I’m not in a position to judge whether this ‘broadly-shared assumption’ of political scientists is warranted or not, but as political science is an empirical discipline, it is certainly evidence based (as opposed to a deduction from normative theory). I’m currently looking for a second supervisor for my PhD to help me evaluate these empirical claims. I’ll take a look at the Gilens paper and come back to you.

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  4. >Relying on testimony of propagandists about the way policy is set

    The only “propagandist” I was relying on was Philip Gould, all the other pollsters (along with their political masters) deny that the policies that they offer are derived from opinion polls/focus groups. This is because voters want to have their cake and eat it (policies that are in their interest and strong leaders) on account of the paradox of democratic leadership, attributed both to Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and Martin Luther King Jr:

    “There go the people, I must follow them for I am their leader”.

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  5. Keith, I must say your description of the literature bears little semblance to the reality of the field. Political scientists have been documenting for years the ignorance and inattention of American voters. It has been commonplace for years for those doing empirical research in political science to express support for the less democratic parts of the government, like the bureaucracy and the courts. As for political theorists, well, yes, they often talk about what policies would be just, without regard to whether or not they enjoy majority support. That’s not being anti-democratic; it’s just acknowledging that one can care about two things at once, what the laws are and how they are enacted. It’s not that complicated, really.

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  6. >For those interested in empirical evidence, I suggest having a look at the paper “Inequality and democratic responsiveness” by Martin Gilens.

    An interesting paper — as neither you or I are political scientists (that’s why I’m looking for a second supervisor) we’re not really qualified to evaluate it, but there is a danger of overstating the conclusions. The author acknowledges or reports that:

    “I find a moderately strong relationship between what the public wants and what the government does”. (p.778)

    “This work typically finds strong correlations between constituents’ preferences and legislators’ voting behaviour.” (p.779)

    ” [Erikson et al] find an extremely strong influence of public mood on policy outputs, concluding that there exists ‘nearly a one-to-one translation of preferences into policy” (p.780)

    Gilens’ research claims that legislators are more responsive to the preferences of the rich than median or poor voters. Given that the rich only represent a small minority of opinion poll participants and voters, I’m not sure how this can be reconciled with his earlier claim “I find a moderately strong relationship between what the public wants and what the government does”. The rich generally represent 1-10% of the overall population, so the “moderately strong”, “strong” and “extremely strong” correlations cited above would suggest that the rich do not exert a disproportionately strong influence.

    But assuming the integrity of his statistics he devotes little space to discussing what causes the disproportionate influence of the rich. Campaign contributions and the fact that legislators are themselves drawn from higher income groups are undeniable factors in US-style democracies where there are no caps on donations. But other factors might well contribute. As well as reflecting public opinion, legislators and government officers do have a duty of care towards the economic health of the nation and perhaps the wish-list of the median/poor voters is simply unaffordable. Those who have been successful in their own lives might even have a better handle on how to improve the wealth of the nation (I use these terms, as the correlation is largely on “salient” issues, which are primarily economic in nature). Most advocates of “right wing” policies would seek to deny that they are merely looking after their own interests.

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  7. Peter,

    Neither you or I are political scientists, that’s why I’m looking for a suitably-qualified second supervisor. The empirical literature that I’m referring to is all on polling and it overwhelmingly supports the view that politicians simply pander to popular opinion (ignorant and inattentive as it may well be). By all means point me in the direction of some empirical research that refutes this claim — the paper that Yoram cited agrees with the pandering thesis but argues that it is slanted towards the rich. John Horton claims that political theorists are simply not interested in politics — his article is strongly recommended (Joe Femia and Gabriella Slomp are the editors of the collection it appears in). I remember a discussion I had with Helene Landemore who agreed, albeit reluctantly, that deliberative democracy was merely a set of normative standards and if it didn’t work in the real world then that wasn’t her problem!

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  8. >It has been commonplace for years for those doing empirical research in political science to express support for the less democratic parts of the government, like the bureaucracy and the courts.

    Peter, who are you referring to here? This is certainly true for liberal political theorists, but why is it the business of empirical researchers to express support for anything?

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  9. Keith,
    You missed the point of the paper. The Gilens paper demonstrates that on those specific policies where high and low income people disagree, government appears “responsive” to high income and hardly at all “responsive” to low and middle income citizens. Your quote that he finds a “moderately strong relationship” between the population as a whole and government action is exactly the point he dissects in his research showing this is masking an underlying convergence with high-income preferences…simply because on many policies the high and low income have the SAME preference… but there is virtually no correlation with low and middle income when they diverge in preference from the wealthy.

    I put “responsive” in quotes above, because the paper does not dig into any causality, merely correlation…and it seems just as plausible that members of Congress, being almost exclusively high-income individuals, simply share the preferences of other high-income individuals and there is no “responsiveness” by government at all.

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  10. Terry,

    Thanks for the clarification on the correlation — I’m glad that we agree politicians are, in the general case, responsive to the preferences of the majority of citizens. I didn’t notice any evidence indicating whether this or the diverging-preferences scenario prevailed in the majority of cases — this would be necessary in order to decide whether or not elected politicians generally rule in the interests of the elite or the masses. Which is the exception and which is the rule? The other empirical work he cites would certainly indicate that diverging preferences were the exception.

    As for the causality issue, in addition to the author’s hypothesis and your own, I would add my earlier suggestion (the wish-list of the median/poor voters might simply be unaffordable). In the UK the rich few already provides the majority of income tax revenue and increasing rates for high earners leads to marginal returns (and increased emigration/tax avoidance). So the redistributive preferences of median and poor voters generally leads to increased budget deficits and responsible legislators will seek to avoid such outcomes. (Given your acknowledged socialist provenance, I don’t anticipate a sympathetic response to this argument).

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  11. Terry,

    I’m reading Max Weber at the moment and came across his dictum “all politics is struggle”. This reminded me of your earlier argument that assemblies selected by sortition were key to the (epistemic) problem-solving process once the struggle over broad policy objectives has been resolved. If this is true then what mechanism do you propose for the latter? This isn’t a problem for deliberative democrats, as they deny Weber’s dictum, claiming instead that the competitive struggle can be replaced by deliberative reasoning. Weber argued that the struggle is resolved by the ‘craft of demagogy’ — in my proposal the outcome of the demagogical joust is determined by the allotted jury, but this is very different from your own proposal.

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  12. Keith asked: what mechanism do I propose for resolving the struggle over broad policy objectives?

    Firstly, I disagree with Weber that “ALL politics is struggle.” Within an electoral system it often seems that way, but far more of it can be basic problem solving once electoral imperatives are eliminated.

    However certainly SOME political decision making…and perhaps the hardest part… will be struggle between mutually exclusive claims or “rights.” I don’t offer any silver bullet, but rather simple majority rule within the legislative decision-making body.

    Democracy does not guarantee justice for all…it merely avoids the injustice of domination by a powerful minority. NO system of government can guarantee justice will always win out. For justice to prevail in a democracy, a society needs widely spread ethics, compassion and tolerance. However, justice is more achievable when nobody has to fight for the basic essentials of a secure life (adequate food, health care, old-age retirement, education for their children, etc.). Much of the injustice in the world revolves around a zero-sum game scenario with a felt need to keep THEM down as a necessary step to assuring security for US.

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  13. >Firstly, I disagree with Weber that “ALL politics is struggle.” Within an electoral system it often seems that way, but far more of it can be basic problem solving once electoral imperatives are eliminated.

    It’s just as plausible that Clausewitz got it back to front — politics is the continuation of war by other means. The reason politics in the UK is less partisan than the US is we got our civil war out of the way two centuries before you guys. The upsurge in partisan politics in the US dates back to the federal civil rights legislation in the 60s and 70s, so it really is a reenactment of the civil war. It’s just that the tribes have switched sides, with the grand old party of Abraham Lincoln now opposed to big government/federal initiatives and the Democrats a bunch of northern Yankee meddlers. Seek to remove agonism and you end up with antagonism.

    >I don’t offer any silver bullet, but rather simple majority rule within the legislative decision-making body.

    Agreed, but large-scale democracy presupposes representation (in both of Pitkin’s modes) and therein lies the problem, for all the reasons that we have gone into over and over again (please don’t anyone just trot out the all you need is a descriptively-representative microcosm trope). Weber’s perspective was remarkably Athenian, as charismatic politics is all about demagoguery. The Athenians realised the truth of this but in the 4th century derived a better way of adjudicating the agonistic exchange.

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  14. Thanks Keith for mentioning ‘kratos’ as in Demos-Kratos — Democracy. It emphatically does NOT mean Rule of or by the People, rather Power of People, which usually translates into allowing voting from time to time.

    Maybe that’s why Burnheim coined the word ‘Demarchy’ for his idea of rule BY the people.

    To test the idea of ‘Who Rules?’ ask
    –Who decided on the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War?
    –Who decided to bail out the banks via QE in England, USA or EU-land?

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  15. >To test the idea of ‘Who Rules?’ ask
    –Who decided on the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War?
    –Who decided to bail out the banks via QE in England, USA or EU-land?

    Notwithstanding in the former case the protest marches and in the latter all the (retrospective) banker bashing are these the kind of issues that most voters know and care about? Perhaps the Iraq war is the exception that proves the rule (I single it out in my PhD chapter as a good example of Blair not following the public opinion lead). In the case of QE are you suggesting that most citizens had any idea what it is? (even if they couldn’t spell it properly). Voters were certainly happy with all the cheap money sloshing around before the crash.

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  16. *** The politicians in our polyarchies take into account the moods of ordinary citizens. Sure. Actually, excepting some lunatic exceptions, all regimes take them more or less into account. In polyarchies it is even more important: it is a concern, clearly, for the personal careers of the politicians; and one of the ways of power for oligarchising groups is through manipulation of popular moods.
    **** Keith Sutherland says: “Of course polling and focus groups can have two uses, they can be ‘bottom-up’ (a way for politicians to find out what policies their constituents want) or ‘top-down’ (a way for political elites to fine-tune their rhetoric in such a way as to better manipulate dumb voters by choosing the ‘words that work’)”. “Top-down” is not democratic. But is “bottom-up” really democratic? The moods perceived through polling are not the result of real deliberation. Wide use of “deliberative polls” would be better. But only democracy-through-sortition can lead to real dêmokratia: because all the final decisions would come through deliberation by alloted juries, and because the sovereign dêmos could set a better media system – less sensitive to lobbies and elite groups, and more prone to rational discussion.
    *** The Second Athenian Democracy is a model it would be absurd to copy in details in a modern society. But it puts us on the good way. And the process of decision by a legislative jury of nomothêtai, even if too simplistic and too sensitive to rhetoric, was really an act of will after hearing the different sides of the subject, and with full sense of responsible rule. It is no possible to compare this process with contemporary opinion polls.
    *** Those people who think that political decisions must follow opinion polls should extend the idea to criminal trials, at least to those cases which got wide publicity. Let’s cancel the criminal jury system, and let’s the polls decide.

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  17. Andre

    I’m happy to agree with all you say here. Nobody was advocating following opinion polls as a normative goal, I was merely claiming that it is a more accurate description of modern democratic politics than the competing claim (rule by an oligarchic elite). I deal with these two competing models in my latest post https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/commentary-on-gilens-and-page-average-citizens-have-no-political-influence/

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