How Politicians Discount the Opinions of Constituents with Whom They Disagree

The forthcoming article “How Politicians Discount the Opinions of Constituents with Whom They Disagree” by Daniel M. Butler and Adam M. Dynes is summarized here:

Why aren’t elected officials more responsive to their constituents’ policy preferences?  Most explanations focus on either electoral or legislative institutions. They assume that politicians learn about and evaluate their constituents’ policy preferences in an unbiased manner, but then institutions — such as partisan primaries or influential donors — incentivize politicians to enact policies that counter what their constituents want.

In this paper, we propose an alternative explanation for incongruence that stems from psychological biases. Specifically, we test whether politicians discount the preferences of those they disagree with.  In other words, do they believe that disagreeing opinions are less legitimate and less informed?  We refer to this phenomenon as disagreement discounting.

To test whether elected officials are prone to this bias, we conducted experiments on both state legislators and elected municipal officials from across the U.S. through an online survey. In the experiments, actual politicians were asked to evaluate a letter that was ostensibly written by a constituent to their elected official. The content of the letter was randomized so that half of participants read a letter supporting their position on an issue while the other half read one opposing their position.

The elected officials who read a letter opposing their position were less likely to believe that the letter writer understood the complexities of the issue or that they strongly held their position. They also thought that the letters expressing an opposing position were more likely to be a form letter from an interest group. Together, these perceptions on the legitimacy of constituents’ opinions incentivize officials to be less responsive to voters when their policy preferences are dissimilar.

In the paper, we also show that disagreement discounting is exacerbated by an activity central to representative governance—taking and explaining one’s policy positions to others. Through a survey experiment on U.S. adults, we found that requiring survey respondents to explain their position on an issue made them much more likely to discount opinions that opposed their position. This suggests that an activity that elected officials regularly engage in also has negative repercussions for policymakers’ responsiveness to constituents’ preferences.

These findings address a broader question for future work to consider: what other institutions and common political practices exacerbate biases in elected officials’ perceptions and decision-making? Here, we identify one common practice, but others are likely at play.  At the same time, other institutions may help reduce biases. Identifying how different institutions affect these biases is important for reformers and policymakers who seek to improve democratic responsiveness.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.