Territorial Representation and the Opinion-Policy Linkage

AJPS Author Summary of “Territorial Representation and the Opinion-Policy Linkage” by Christopher Wratil 

Territorial Representation and the Opinion-Policy Linkage

A central promise of democracy is that government will follow the wishes and opinions of the people. A large body of literature in American and comparative politics has demonstrated that in many situations governments react to shifts in mean public opinion and enact policies that are supported by the majority of citizens across the country. However, the idea that policy-makers follow country-wide mean opinion to get re-elected is most straightforward in political systems where policy-makers are elected by ‘the people’ as a whole. But many political systems elect policy-makers in sub-national constituencies: from U.S. Senators elected only by the citizens in each of the 50 constituent states to national governments in the European Union elected only by the citizens of each of the 28 member states. How do these arrangements of ‘territorial representation’ influence whose preferences will be reflected in policy output in case citizens in different states or territories disagree over policy change?

To answer this question my research uses the case of the EU, where national governments are major policy-makers accountable only to their national publics which have varying opinions on EU policies. I argue that governments will focus on achieving policy change on those issues their national citizens at home care intensely about and have a uniform view on, and potentially make concessions to other governments on issues their citizens’ opinion is ambivalent and less salient. The analyses show that measures weighting opinion across member states by how much national citizens care about an issue rather than by population sizes better explain EU-level policy change than mean opinion across the EU. Moreover, when a national public views an issue as particularly salient, the probability that EU policy on this issue will be in line with majority opinion in this member state increases the more clear-cut public opinion on the matter.

The results do not only highlight that political systems that elect key policy-makers territorially, such as the EU or federal systems, may reallocate influence to citizens in certain parts of the political system depending on how much they care about an issue and how malapportioned the legislative power of policy-makers is compared to voter populations. But they also provide the first quantitative assessment of the responsiveness and congruence of EU-level policy outputs with public opinion on specific issues. The findings challenge the widely-held belief that the EU system is largely insulated from public opinion. Instead, they pose the question of how exactly we should normatively assess the quality of democracy in systems that may not react most strongly to mean opinion but to opinion in different territories depending on the distributions of salience, opinion, and power.

About the author: Christopher Wratil is a John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. His research, “Territorial Representation and the Opinion-Policy Linkage: Evidence from the European Union (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12403)” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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.

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