Policy Preferences and Policy Change

Chris Warshaw | MIT

Friday, February 3, 2017 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM


In a democracy, government policies should not just be correlated with citizens’ preferences, but also respond dynamically to them. Using eight decades of data, we examine the magnitude, mechanisms, and moderators of dynamic responsiveness in the American states. We show that on both economic and (especially) social issues, the liberalism of state publics predicts future changes in state policy liberalism. Dynamic responsiveness is gradual, however; large policy shifts are the result of the cumulation of incremental responsiveness over many years. Partisan control of government mediates only a fraction of responsiveness, suggesting that, contrary to conventional wisdom, responsiveness occurs mainly through the adaptation of incumbent officials. Dynamic responsiveness has increased over time but does not seem to be influenced by institutions such as direct democracy or campaign finance regulations. We conclude that our findings, though in some respects normatively ambiguous, on the whole paint a reassuring portrait of statehouse democracy.

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