In a recent op-ed, the political scientists Joshua Kalla and Ethan Porter draw on a fascinating experiment to conclude that politicians are largely indifferent to their constituents’ views. The authors provided data to state legislators about prevailing public opinion in their districts. But the lawmakers turned out to be largely uninterested in accessing it. Even when they did so, they didn’t seem to learn from it. “For most politicians,” the authors say, “voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.
This is great empirical work, and it tells us something about politicians. What it doesn’t tell us, however, is that they don’t care what their constituents think.
For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence that politicians act as if they are indeed interested in what voters think – or at least some voters, about some things. My initial interpretation of this experiment is that these successful politicians simply believed (perhaps mistakenly) that their traditional methods of learning the district – going door to door, talking with organized groups, reading constituent mail, taking phone calls – are sufficient, not that they lacked interest in district opinion.
For another, the experiment may be eliding some complexities. The political scientist Richard Fenno argued long ago that members of the House tended to think of their districts as a set of concentric circles, with those personally close to the politician as the smallest circle and the entire district as the largest. Fenno, listening to these politicians talk, heard different levels of concern in different contexts; sometimes they’d be thinking mainly about their strongest supporters, sometimes about all their supporters, sometimes about everyone. If the politicians Kalla and Porter surveyed were similar, then they might’ve ignored the new data because it wasn’t broken down in the ways they understood their districts.
That’s particularly important during the current partisan era. In their underlying paper, Kalla and Porter suggest that legislators may think of themselves primarily as participants in national political debates, and therefore care less about district sentiment. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t imply poor representation so long as that’s what the politicians have promised. They also may think of themselves as responsive to the party in the district, or perhaps to a coalition or faction within the party. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re representing their districts badly; it all depends on what they’ve based their relationship on.
Representation, after all, doesn’t simply mean taking policy positions that correspond perfectly to district sentiment. In fact, it may not have much to do with policy at all. Fenno found that legislators tended to make promises to their constituents about how they’d act in office, and then tried to make good on those promises. Policy, for those legislators, may only be a way of expressing some sort of political style, which may have more to do with symbolic actions or descriptive representation. In other words, what matters is the relationship politicians have with their constituents, and promises – of all kinds, not just policy – are central to those relationships.
Again: We have plenty of evidence that politicians do in fact care about such things. Even someone as atypical as President Donald Trump is constantly referring to both the policy and style commitments he made to his strongest supporters. More adept politicians do the same, but for weaker supporters and their larger districts as well.
None of this is to take anything away from what appears to be solid and informative research. I would just say it’s a big jump to conclude that politicians don’t care what voters think.
1. Erica Chenoweth, Tommy Leung, Nathan Perkins and Jeremy Pressman at the Monkey Cage on the modest turnout at rallies for impeaching Trump.
2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Andrew Rudalevige on presidential war powers and Iran.
3. Emily Baer-Bositis on Donald Fraser’s career in the House.
4. Brendan Nyhan on the damage Trump is doing to U.S. democracy.
5. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux on voters and women running for president.
6. Jamelle Bouie on Trump and citizenship.
7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien on Trump’s bigotry.
8. Paul Waldman on what to expect for Trump’s 2020 campaign.
9. Nate Cohn on the likely effects of high voter turnout in next year’s election.
10. And Philip Bump has a little quiz for the “go back” scandal. Since I wrote about this yesterday, I should note that on day two, a number of congressional Republicans did in fact speak out against Trump’s bigoted comments. Not enough, and some were wishy-washy, but some did, and of those a few made excellent statements.