gt;gt; Chapter One gt; gt;Citizen Competence and Democratic Decision Makinggt; gt; gt; This book is about the relationship between what the American public wants government to do and what government does. I analyze the relationship between public preferences and government policy in order to determine the conditions under which government responds to the will of the governed, and to identify who it is among the governed that government responds to. In the chapters that follow I document enormous inequalities in the responsiveness of policy makers to the preferences of more- and less-well-off Americans, inequalities that have both practical implications for the lives of the rich and the poor and normative implications for our understanding of the society in which we live. gt; The radical idea at the core of democracy—that the power to shape public policies should be widely and more or less equally shared among citizens—presupposes that citizens are widely (and more or less equally) competent to exercise that power. It is helpful, therefore, before setting off to assess public preferences and their relationship to government decision making, to identify the role assigned to such preferences according to different understandings of democracy, and to assess the role the public reasonably can be expected to play in the process of democratic governance, given what we known about the nature of public opinion and the modest levels of political knowledge and engagement of the American citizenry. gt; Critics of democracy since Plato have questioned the ability of citizens to guide their political rulers. If citizens' preferences on policy issues are fickle or misinformed, or if they are too easily manipulated by powerful interests, then equality of influence over government decision making would produce undesirable, if not disastrous, results. However appealing equality of representation may be from a normative perspective, the limitations of the public may present a practical impediment to meaningful democracy. If the public is incapable of forming sensible preferences on matters of public policy, then the representational inequalities that I document in the following chapters take on a very different normative hue. In this case inequality in responsiveness to the public may reflect not the shortcomings of government decision makers in responding to the public, but the failures of the public to form meaningful policy preferences to begin with. gt; In this chapter I address the problem of citizen competence. Drawing on the extensive empirical research on public opinion, I argue that democracy's critics are in many ways right in their understandings of citizens' limited political knowledge and abilities. But they are wrong in the implications of those understandings. Citizens, I argue, need not be informed about and attentive to every issue on the agenda as long as they are reasonably knowledgeable about the subset of issues they care about most. In addition, citizens need not become experts in the technical complexities of public policy as long as they can identify experts who share their general values and outlooks and can guide them in forming their political preferences. Finally, the shortcomings in individual citizens' political knowledge are substantially mitigated when individuals' preferences are aggregated; collective opinion is more consistent, more predictable, and more cogent than the individual opinions that make it up. In short, the public's preferences, imperfect as they are, constitute a reasonable basis for democratic decision making. gt; If the public, as I argue, is reasonably competent in forming policy preferences, then the failure of government policy to reflect those preferences, or stark inequalities in the responsiveness of policy makers to the preferences of more- and less-advantaged Americans, imply a failure of democratic governance. While we would not expect, and perhaps not desire, a perfect correspondence between majority opinion and government policy on every issue, large and persistent inequalities in responsiveness to public preferences impugn our understanding of America as a democratic society. gt; In the following pages I look first at the role assigned to the public according to different understandings of democracy and then assess how well the public can be expected to fulfill this role, given what we known about the nature of public opinion and the modest levels of political knowledge and engagement of the American citizenry. After concluding that the public is indeed capable of fulfilling its assigned function in democratic governance, I address some of the practical challenges involved in measuring public attitudes and assessing the responsiveness of government to citizens' preferences. gt; gt; What Is a Democracy? gt; Democracy is not one idea or even one set of ideas about the way a political community might be governed, but a disparate array of related conceptions. Rousseauean notions of the General Will and the direct participation of citizens in lawmaking contrast with republican conceptions of checks and balances in a government of elected representatives, while both are distinct from substantive conceptions of democracy involving human rights, freedoms of expression, due process of law, and universal suffrage. gt; Common to all conceptions of democracy is the idea that the power to shape political decisions should be shared widely. But just how citizens are expected to exercise this power varies widely across different democratic theories and different democratic polities. One school of democratic theory highlights the role of citizen engagement in democratic decision making. Such participatory conceptions of democracy call for the direct involvement of the citizenry in the process of deliberation and collective decision making, bringing to mind New England town meetings or ancient Athens. Theorists of deliberative democracy have identified an array of institutional forms that might facilitate deliberation in larger polities as well, like neighborhood councils or stakeholder meetings that bring together representatives of the various interests involved in a particular issue or policy decision. Central to theories of deliberative democracy is the notion that citizens' preferences and their understanding of their own interests are not exogenous to the political process but can and should be shaped by it. Through deliberation, by this account, citizens come to better understand both the issue at hand and their fellow citizens' perspectives on that issue, and through this understanding refine and revise their preferences and beliefs. gt; In contrast to deliberative theories, aggregative theories of democracy take citizens' preferences and interests as given and focus on the mechanisms by which those preferences are incorporated (or aggregated) into political decisions. The more demanding versions of aggregative democracy require citizens to be well informed about the issues of the day and the alternative policies proposed by candidates and parties. In one widely quoted formulation of this conception of democracy, Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee write, "The democratic citizen is expected to be well informed about political affairs. He is supposed to know what the issues are, what their history is, what the relevant facts are, what alternatives are proposed ... [and] what the likely consequences are." As Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee note, actual citizens rarely meet this lofty ideal. gt; Minimalist conceptions of democracy view citizens of modern polities as too uninterested and uninformed about politics and social policy to fulfill their assigned role in either the deliberative or aggregative theories of democracy sketched above. The most influential formulation of the minimalist conception of democracy is Joseph Schumpeter's. Schumpeter believed that most citizens, including the most educated and successful in society, simply do not apply much effort to formulating political opinions. As one person among a huge multitude, the average citizen lacks any clear sense of responsibility for political matters and thus lacks the motivation to acquire information or to use the information he or she has in a disciplined, rational manner. "The typical citizen," Schumpeter writes, "drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests." gt; Believing that few citizens hold preferences worthy of shaping government policy, Schumpeter put forward a model of democracy in which the role of the public is limited to choosing between competing candidates for political office. Democracy, for Schumpeter, is strictly a mechanism of governance based on the competitive selection of political leaders. "The principle of democracy then merely means that the reins of government should be handed to those who command more support than do any of the competing individuals or teams." But once those leaders are selected, the preferences of the citizenry should have no bearing on government decision making. "The voters," he writes, "must understand that, once they have elected an individual, political action is his business and not theirs." gt; gt; gt;Citizens' Role in Democratic Governancegt; gt; To explore the role of citizens in democratic governance, I start by looking at the expectations or requirements of the public as embodied in the minimalist conception of democracy. The central task for the public, according to Schumpeter and other theorists of "minimal democracy," is to choose among alternative political parties or candidates. But what might the basis of this choice be? If voters are unable to form sensible policy preferences, as minimalist theories of democracy suggest, how can they decide which candidate they prefer? gt; The least demanding basis for choosing among competing candidates is a simple evaluation of the incumbent officeholder's performance, as elaborated in theories of retrospective voting. According to the retrospective voting model, citizens need not form preferences on a multitude of political issues but simply assess the performance of the incumbent politician or administration. The voter returns the incumbent to office if he or she has performed above some threshold, and if not the voter casts a ballot for the challenger. Central to this view of the public's democratic role is the ease with which it can be carried out. As Morris Fiorina writes, "In order to ascertain whether the incumbents have performed poorly or well, citizens need only calculate the changes in their own welfare." gt; Many voters do seem to behave in accord with the retrospective model, as reflected in the strong association between economic conditions and election outcomes. But other voters have strong ties to political parties and are unlikely to be swayed by economic conditions. Moreover retrospective voting in this simple form applies directly only to "consensus issues" on which all voters prefer the same outcome, like a good economy or low crime rates. Yet many prominent issues that government addresses are matters of contentious disagreement: the level and progressivity of taxes, gun control, abortion, foreign military engagements, environmental and energy policy, and so on. As Fiorina points out, judging retrospective performance on these issues requires a preference or criterion by which success or failure can be measured. Far from being undemanding, retrospective voting on nonconsensual issue requires gt;bothgt; a policy preference and the knowledge of whether the incumbent candidate has helped advance the desired outcome. gt; Consensus issues like economic well-being may appear to avoid the necessity for citizens to form preferences on complex policy issues. But even as seemingly simple a judgment as economic well-being can be quite complex. For example, individual voters must assess the degree to which their own economic fortunes reflect those of the country. If they've lost a job and the national unemployment rate has increased, voting against the incumbent seems straightforward. But what if they've lost their job while the national unemployment rate has declined? In that case citizens must make some assessment of the tie between their personal situation and broader national conditions. Studies show that voters do attempt to make these sorts of distinctions. gt; Furthermore, accurate retrospective evaluations require citizens to distinguish between those aspects of current conditions for which incumbent politicians might plausibly be held responsible and those that are clearly outside their control. For example, voters are more likely to reelect their governors when state economic conditions are good and cast them out of office when times are bad. But when state economic conditions appear to reflect national conditions (which are presumably beyond any governor's control), voters adjust accordingly and attribute less blame or credit for state conditions to their incumbent governor. While such patterns suggest a degree of rational accounting among members of the public, apportioning blame for current conditions, economic or otherwise, is a difficult task (even for economists), and voters seem to do a mediocre job of it at best. gt; Minimalist democracy could persist, of course, even if voters do a poor job of forming retrospective evaluations, ignoring concerns about the extent to which incumbent politicians are responsible for changes in social conditions or using such simple but misleading criteria as only the most recent trends in economic performance. But uninformed or misguided retrospection is no more viable a basis for democracy than uninformed policy preferences. In short, even the least demanding conceptions of democracy require citizens to form preferences and to make difficult assessments of the responsibility of political leaders. But are citizens capable of fulfilling even this least demanding understanding of their role in democratic governance? Skeptics of democracy since Plato have held that ordinary citizens are ill-equipped to guide government decision making, and a half-century of survey data on political knowledge lends credence to this skepticism. My view is that few Americans fulfill the stringent expectations of the more demanding conceptions of democracy, but that public opinion is nevertheless a worthy, if imperfect, guide for government policy. gt; gt; Does the American Public Hold Meaningful Policy Preferences? gt; Scholars of American public opinion can be roughly divided into two schools of thought: One concludes that Americans' low level of political knowledge and apparent lack of clear and consistent policy preferences show that the public is indeed incapable of providing meaningful guidance to government decision makers on policy matters. The other school of thought acknowledges the gap between traditional expectations and the public's performance but believes that compensatory mechanisms allow citizens to form meaningful preferences, at least in the aggregate, even in the face of low information levels and considerable inconsistency in preferences as revealed by survey responses. gt; In his seminal paper "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," Philip Converse paints a bleak picture of the American public as largely lacking coherent political preferences. Converse observed that survey respondents are apt to express different preferences when presented with the identical question on different occasions, that preferences on one policy issue are at best weakly associated with preferences on seemingly related issues, and that most Americans poorly understand broad organizing principles like liberalism or conservatism. Confronted with this evidence, Converse concludes that the preferences respondents report on surveys consist largely of "non-attitudes" and that "large portions of [the] electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time." gt; Many subsequent assessments of Americans' political preferences have been only slightly more hopeful. After examining hundreds of survey measures of political information, for example, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter conclude that "more than a small fraction of the public is reasonably well informed about politics—informed enough to meet high standards of good citizenship. Many of the basic institutions and procedures of government are known to half or more of the public, as are the relative positions of the parties on many major issues of the day." But the flip side of this coin is that a large proportion of the public does not rise to this level. "Large numbers of American citizens are woefully underinformed," Delli Carpini and Keeter write, and "overall levels of knowledge are modest at best." gt; gt;(Continues...)gt; gt; gt; gt; gt;gt; gt;gt;gt; Excerpted from gt;Affluence and Influencegt; by gt;Martin Gilensgt; Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.gt;Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.