Information & Democracy

Relationships between public preferences and government policies are at the heart of both theories of democratic representation and everyday politics itself. The representation of opinion in policy is clearly important, both theoretically and practically. Equally significant is the extent to which public preferences are informed and responsive to changes in both real-world circumstances and public policy. My research with Christopher Wlezien on these themes has focus on two projects.

Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion & Policy

Relationships between public preferences and policy were the focus of our first project.  A comparative approach allows us to introduce characteristics of policy domains and countries as mediators of opinion-policy relationships. We began with salience. Some policy domains are more important than others. More people care about them and they, thus, are more likely to pay attention to politicians’ behavior in the areas. Politicians, meanwhile, are more likely to pay attention to public opinion in these areas. In effect, we expect a certain symmetry between public responsiveness to policy and policy responsiveness to opinion across policy domains.

Political institutions also matter. We not only need a certain level of accurate media coverage (see below) and political competition, we need government institutions that make it easy for the public to become informed about what policymakers do, and give an incentive to policymakers to represent public opinion. We have argued, for instance, that the division of powers among government institutions has big effects: (1) that vertical division of powers, or decentralization, makes it more difficult for the public to gauge and react to individual governments’ levels of policy, and thus dampens public responsiveness; and, (2) that the horizontal concentration of powers, or parliamentary government, makes politicians less responsive to changes in public opinion.

Project papers, as well as the book Degrees of Democracy, speak to the structure of relationships between citizen preferences and government policies across countries, political institutions, and policy domains.  In some instances, representative democratic government seems to function surprisingly well; in others, less so.

Mass Media & Representative Democracy

This project, currently funded by the National Science Foundation, examines the role of mass media in the functioning of representative democratic government. It focuses on the frequency, accuracy, and clarity of policy cues in media content, and explores how the public uses these cues to inform their preferences for policy in the US. We begin with the following propositions: (a) a responsive democratic public requires only basic levels of knowledge about policy and policy change, (b) the necessary information is (in some domains) readily available in media content, and (c) citizens pick up on these cues and adjust their preferences for policy accordingly. This project tests these propositions, leveraging differences in media coverage across policy areas (and news outlets, and regions) to understand variation in the opinion-policy link. We suspect that there are areas where media coverage provides a reasonably accurate view of policy, and others in which media content is lacking. The accuracy of public perceptions of – and preferences for – policy should benefit or suffer accordingly. This project provides a unique, “big” data-driven investigation into how (and when, and why) representative democracy works. 

The centerpiece of the project is an automated content-analytic dataset of millions of news stories and television news transcripts on US public policy, across a range of spending areas, over the past 35 years. News content is drawn from full-text databases (primarily Lexis-Nexis) and analyzed using dictionary and machine-learning approaches in R and Lexicoder, the reliability and validity of which is tested through human coding. These content-analytic data are examined alongside existing budgetary time series and opinion polling. Analyses offer the first large-scale exploration into the kinds of policy information that do, and do not, appear in media coverage. They also provide a direct comparison of media coverage of policy and actual policy across eight policy areas. Results provide a new and unique view into the role that media play in representative democracy, particularly in public responsiveness to policy, across issue areas and over time.