Responding to the Crisis of Democracy

PPC was developed in response to extensive evidence that democracy is in a crisis. The core principles of democracy are widely endorsed around the world, especially the principle that the will of the people should be the legitimating basis for government decisions. However, there is a widespread perception in the publics of democratic countries that their governments do not serve the common good of the people, but rather serve organized special interests that have the means to exert disproportionate leverage over government decisions.

For example, in a recent survey of Americans, only one in ten said their country is “is run for the benefit of all the people” while nine in ten said the country is “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” Other democracies have similar views. (1)

This problem seems to be getting worse. When this question was first asked to Americans in 1964 two thirds said that the country was run for the benefit of all the people, but this number has been descending ever since.

People are also frustrated with the level of partisanship in government decision-making. Asked how they feel “when different political parties compete for influence” only 31% selected the position that “The competition of ideas creates a vibrant system where many voices are heard, leading to decisions that best reflect the will of the people.” Rather, 64% chose the position “The parties fight for their narrow interests, the will of the people is ignored, and the results do not serve the people.”

This has contributed to severely low levels of confidence in government decision making. Government is one of the least trusted institutions and elected officials are held in very low regard. This has undermined social cohesion and made it difficult for governments to govern effectively.

A symptom of this condition is the high budget deficits that plague most democracies. In a recent poll, when Americans were asked what percentage of their taxes does not serve the values or interests of the people, the mean estimate was a bit more than half.(2) When people have such a belief, this naturally leads them to resist paying taxes while still demanding government services and functions that they deem worthwhile. Elected officials attempt to accommodate these demands through deficit spending.

What Do People Think is the Antidote?
Based on numerous polls, it appears that citizens in democracies believe that the antidote to the disproportionate influence of special interests is to give the citizenry as a whole a clearer voice in the public policy process by having policymakers actively consult the people on the key decisions that they are considering.

Low trust in government is highly correlated with the perception that government is not responding to the will of the people. Presented the argument that “Government tends to get bogged down in partisan conflict and distorted by the influence of moneyed interests. Thus, it is necessary for the public to have a stronger voice in shaping government decisions,” 78% found it convincing.

This does not mean that people think that government should follow public opinion in a lock-step fashion. Asked how much influence the will of the people should have on government decision-making on a scale of 0 to 10, the mean response was 7.9–a high level, though well below 10. But asked how much influence the people are having, the mean response just 4.0. More than 8 in 10 said the public should have greater influence.

The theme that comes through an abundance of polls is that government should make greater efforts to consult with the public by listening to its views and by being more responsive to them to their priorities and values. Citizens strongly reject the classical view of Edmund Burke that once elected, leaders should act on their own views and regard the views of his or her constituents as a distraction.

Citizens understand and accept that there will be times when their elected officials will take actions that are contrary to the public will. This is not inherently a problem, provided that citizens are confident that the official does genuinely listen to his or her constituents, that the official is truly acting from convictions rather than accommodating a special interest that has made a campaign contribution, and the official engages in a dialogue in which he or she recognizes the public’s concerns and explains clearly the reasons for taking a different course.

But Is It True That the Public Has Little Influence?
Given that the electorate ultimately chooses their representatives in government, it is natural to ask whether it is true that the public has so little influence. Since the electorate can vote the government out, can we not assume that the political market works and that ultimately what the government does is representative of the people?

This is a question that the PPC has been exploring over the last 15 years in a variety of studies. Its basic conclusion is that there is an abundance of evidence that in the United States there has been a substantial failure of the political market and that the process of democratic representation is working poorly.

If the process of representation were working well, elected officials and their appointees would have a pretty good understanding of the attitudes of their constituents. However, substantial research has shown that their estimations of the public’s specific attitudes–both in terms of the country a whole and in terms of the constituents they represent–are barely better than chance.(3)

Research also shows a weak correlation between how members of Congress vote and the attitudes in their district.

The Inadequacy of Current Means for Understanding the Public
Many elected officials spend substantial amount of time trying to understand the views of their constituents. They read letters, hold town meetings and in a variety of settings interact with constituents. In the run-up to elections some may conduct polls. Why then does it happen that elected officials have a poor understanding of their constituents?

One factor is that some elected officials tend to regard the fact of their election as a general majority endorsement of their policy positions, which is not necessarily accurate. In most cases voters are presented a simple choice between two candidates. Research shows voters often have a poor understanding of candidates’ positions on more than a few key issues–enough to make a decision, but hardly a blanket endorsement. Further voters clearly do not feel that their vote should be read as obviating the need for continued dialogue. Studies show that Americans do not endorse the views of the social philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke who argued that, once elected, leaders should not be distracted by paying attention to public opinion.

Another factor that undermines elected officials’ understanding of their constituencies is that the individuals that leaders encounter are not necessarily a representative sample of the constituency as a whole. Citizens who make efforts to communicate with their representatives by writing letters or attending town hall meetings are often more ideological than average or have specific interests in specific legislation. People who make campaign donations tend to gain greater access and attention, and may also have interests that are not representative. Clearly the totality of all these inputs does not necessarily create an accurate impression of the general public.

Some elected officials conduct public opinion polls. Such polls, through scientific sampling and carefully constructed and fairly worded questions, are effective in that they give voice to the public as a whole and can provide government officials with meaningful public input.

However, most polls also have significant limitations. Many polls do not go beyond trying to determine what candidate or party a respondent is likely to vote for, and how a candidate’s positions are likely to affect that vote. Many polls are conducted by media outlets, driven by the objective of making an engaging news story rather than the objectives of policymakers interested in consulting the public on the issues they face.

Many polls are also limited in that the attitudes that they elicit may be based on limited or incorrect assumptions, and thus are not a reliable indicator of respondents’ underlying values. Such misinformation in many cases arises not only from a lack of knowledge but an active effort by candidates to mislead the electorate on key issues.

1. PPC. (2018) Americans on Consulting the People, Final Questionnaire

2. BBC. (2010) Governments Misspend More than Half our Taxes – Global Poll

3. See Kull and Destler, Misreading the Public: the Myth of a New Isolationism (Brookings 1999) ; 2004, a joint study of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.