Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda

Article excerpt

This article considers the impact of public opinion on public policy, asking: (1) how much impact it has; (2) how much the impact increases as the salience of issues increases; (3) to what extent the impact of public opinion may be negated by interest groups, social movement organizations, political parties, and elites; (4) whether responsiveness of governments to public opinion has changed over time; and (5) the extent to which our conclusions can be generalized. The source of data is publications published in major journals and included in major literature reviews, systematically coded to record the impact of public opinion on policy. The major findings include: the impact of public opinion is substantial; salience enhances the impact of public opinion; the impact of opinion remains strong even when the activities of political organizations and elites are taken into account; responsiveness appears not to have changed significantly over time; and the extent to which the conclusions can be generalized is limited. Gaps in our knowledge made apparent by the review are addressed in proposals for an agenda for future research.

Most social scientists who study public opinion and public policy in democratic countries agree that (1) public opinion influences public policy; (2) the more salient an issue to the public, the stronger the relationship is likely to be; and (3) the relationship is threatened by the power of interest organizations,1 political parties, and economic elites (see, e.g., Aldrich 1995; Dahl 1989; Mueller 1999; Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995; Page and Shapiro 1983; Smith 2000).

There would be much less consensus, however, on the answers to five follow-up questions widely seen as important but seldom addressed directly:

1. How much impact does public opinion have on public policy?

2. How much does the impact of opinion on policy increase as the importance of an issue to the public increases?

3. To what extent do interest groups, social movement organizations, political parties, and elites influence policy even when opposed by public opinion?

4. Has government responsiveness to public opinion changed over time?

5. How generalizable are our findings about the impact of opinion on policy?

This article distills considerable research directed at these questions. It is not, however, a literature review in the usual sense. Rather than summarizing publications in a conventional narrative, I use each publication as a source of data, tabulating the issues and countries studied, and the authors' predictions, variables, and findings. The analysis will provide the publications' collective answer to each question, and, at times, show how little evidence is available. Highlighting how little we know on some issues will point to an agenda for future research.

It turns out that public opinion influences policy most of the time, often strongly Responsiveness appears to increase with salience, and public opinion matters even in the face of activities by interest organizations, political parties, and political and economic elites. Claims that responsiveness is changing over time or varies across issues rest on very little evidence.

The next section describes issues that arise in attempts to answer the questions. This is followed by a description of the data, presentation of findings, and conclusion.

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy

No one believes that public opinion always determines public policy; few believe it never does. Even dedicated proponents of democratic theory acknowledge that democratic governments sometimes ignore the public (e.g., Page and Shapiro 1983: 189); those whose theories attribute little power to the public concede that governments sometimes follow public opinion (e.g., Block 1987: 66; Domhoff 1998: 301; Korpi 1989: 313). What distinguishes those who believe democracy gives citizens genuine control over their government from those who believe it does not, is thus disagreement over matters of degree: how much impact does public opinion have on public policy? …

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