State Government Is Unresponsive To Public Opinion

One of the more problematic assumptions in American political thought is the idea that more elections and more elected officials will equal less democracy. The way I see it, citizens are sharply bounded in the amount of time and attention they give to politics. Voters know the President’s same and something about him. But very few voters are up to speed on state senate elections or what the difference between the State Treasurer and the State Comptroller is. So I liked this result from Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips (PDF) on the democractic deficit in state government:

We study how well states translate public opinion into policy. Using national surveys and advances in subnational opinion estimation, we estimate state-level support for 39 policies across eight issue areas, including abortion, law enforcement, health care, and education. We show that policy is highly responsive to policy-specific opinion, even controlling for other influences. But we also uncover a striking “democratic deficit”: policy is congruent with majority will only half the time. The analysis considers the influence of institutions, salience, partisan control of government, and interest groups on the magnitude and ideological direction of this democratic deficit. We find the largest influences to be legislative professionalization, term limits, and issue salience. Partisanship and interest groups affect the ideological balance of incongruence more than the aggregate degree thereof. Finally, policy is overresponsive to ideology and party—leading policy to be polarized relative to state electorates.

For you in your personal life, the lesson is (as it often is) to get more involved with politics on a state and local level.