When asked how he expects to pass some of his proposed, sweeping legislation such as his “Medicare for All” and “free college tuition” proposals, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders often responds that he intends to start a “political revolution,” Vox.com explained.
A mass movement of public opinion in favor of his broad social policies and reforms, he says, will essentially force politicians to support those policies.
But a new research study by political scientists from Yale University and George Washington University suggests that Sanders may be in for a disappointment — as will anyone who believes that public opinion can influence the actions of elected representatives.
The study, published on July 7 and available online from OSF Preprints, found that politicians, at least at the state legislative level, simply do not care about their constituents’ viewpoints at all.
“An overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views,” wrote researchers Joshua Kalla and Ethan Porter in a New York Times op-ed summarizing the findings of their two-year study.
“For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.”
Kalla and Porter surveyed 2,346 state legislators, picked at random. They then gave those legislators access to an online “dashboard of constituent opinion” from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. But despite what the researchers called “extensive outreach” to the legislators, only 11 percent bothered to access the detailed information on their constituents’ opinions.
As disheartened as the researchers were by the fact that barely more than one out of 10 legislators took the time to examine the constituent opinion data at all, they found it “more troubling for democratic norms” that the legislators who did actually examine the data were not any better at correctly understanding the views of their voters than legislators who ignored the data, according to an abstract of the article, “Correcting Bias in Perceptions of Public OpinionAmong American Elected Officials.”
Why do politicians care so little about the views of their own voters? According to Porter in an interview published Saturday by Salon.com, party loyalty has become more important to legislators than what their own voters want.
“In our heavily polarized era, where people’s partisanship is so deeply entrenched, it may be the case that policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to national debates,” Porter told Salon. Legislators appear to now believe that, “it matters little what my constituents think. It matters more what my national party thinks,” the researcher said.
But Porter cautioned that the data collected in the study was taken only from state legislators. Federal congressional legislators may respond differently to voter opinion data — but the researchers did not collect data on federal legislators “one way or the other,” he told Salon.com.