Who Governs?: Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation

Who Governs?: Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation

by James N. Druckman, Lawrence R. Jacobs

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America’s model of representational government rests on the premise that elected officials respond to the opinions of citizens. This is a myth, however, not a reality, according to James N. Druckman and Lawrence R. Jacobs. In Who Governs?, Druckman and Jacobs combine existing research with novel data from US presidential archives to show that presidents make policy by largely ignoring the views of most citizens in favor of affluent and well-connected political insiders. Presidents treat the public as pliable, priming it to focus on personality traits and often ignoring it on policies that fail to become salient.

Melding big debates about democratic theory with existing research on American politics and innovative use of the archives of three modern presidents—Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan—Druckman and Jacobs deploy lively and insightful analysis to show that the conventional model of representative democracy bears little resemblance to the actual practice of American politics. The authors conclude by arguing that polyarchy and the promotion of accelerated citizen mobilization and elite competition can improve democratic responsiveness. An incisive study of American politics and the flaws of representative government, this book will be warmly welcomed by readers interested in US politics, public opinion, democratic theory, and the fecklessness of American leadership and decision-making.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226234557
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 433 KB

About the Author

James N. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and an honorary professor of political science at Aarhus University in Denmark. Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Who Governs?

Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation

By James N. Druckman, Lawrence R. Jacobs

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23455-7


Presidential Crafted Talk and Democratic Theory

Democracy is the anchor of legitimacy for American governance. A large, varied, and long-standing body of political theory defined this notion of governance as a system of representation and, specifically, the vertical relationship between government officials and citizens and the institutional link created by the vote (for review, see Held 1996). Competitive elections, it has long been argued, motivate politicians seeking office or reelection to follow the policy preferences of the majority or the typical or "median voter" (Downs 1957; Mayhew 1974; Dahl 1971). The combination of a normative commitment to representation and elections supplies the building blocks for numerous empirical studies of "policy responsiveness"—the tendency of government policy to match the policy preferences of citizens (see Manza and Cook 2002a, 2002b; Soroka and Wlezien 2010).

The assembly line of research and theorizing on democracy is impressively productive, but it has missed fundamental realities of American politics and power (see also Disch 2011). The heart of the problem is that normative views about representation and rutted styles of analysis have clouded investigation of the actual process of representation and distracted attention from the ways in which the powerful in government seek to advance themselves by avoiding policy responsiveness and attempting to change citizen evaluations to avoid voter punishment.

Three fundamental research questions stand out. First, what is represented? While past research has concentrated on the policy preferences of the general public, elites strategize to widen their latitude on policy and avoid policy direction from voters. Policymakers do devote disproportionate attention to the select set of what voters consider salient issues (see also Burstein 2003). Although this heightens government attention to this subset of issues, it also narrows policy representation and relaxes the restrictions on decision makers regarding the large pool of remaining issues.

The policy representation described by past research is further constricted by the calculated strategies of politicians to prime the public to evaluate them on their perceived personality rather than just issues. Shifting the nature of representation from policy to nonpolicy considerations generates the potential for "shirking" in order to generate the political leeway from the risk of electoral punishment to exercise discretion to make policy (McChesney 1997; Bianco 1994).

Second, who is represented? Past research on political representation largely studied the relationship of government officials to the general public when in reality politicians are highly attentive to the demands of particular, privileged segments of the electorate with high incomes and other politically valued resources (Bartels 2008; Jacobs and Page 2005).

Third, how do politicians engage citizens? Studies of political representation often depict candidates and officeholders as agents who studiously comply with their principals in fear of losing reelection (King 1997). In reality, they treat public opinion as a movable object, not as a fixed threat. Political elites design sophisticated strategies to attempt to mold the public so that it supports them and their policies. Instead of genuine democratic representation, politicians engage in simulated representation—seeking to create the public opinion to which they respond.

This book takes a new approach. It closely studies the actual motivations and actions of presidents since John Kennedy to track and shape public opinion in order to spotlight theoretical and conceptual ambiguities and blind spots in past research on political representation. We weigh presidential approaches to representation against general questions about what and who is represented and how government officials treat citizens. Our findings suggest that presidents pursue a predictable approach to representation—including efforts to shape public opinion and direct their relationship with voters—that departs in significant respects from the notion of policy responsiveness that dominates research on US political representation (for a review of that literature, see Shapiro 2011).

Later chapters focus on archival and empirical research to investigate the White House's collection and use of its private polling data; this chapter moves in the other direction by inspecting democratic theory and empirical research for their general propositions about the nature of politicalrepresentation by presidents. This chapter begins by critically examining the three questions at the core of debates over representation and then outlines our unique approach to studying them in later chapters.

What Is Represented?

What elected officials represent affects their degree of freedom to make policy and chart a political strategy that advances them and their allies. Government that is responsive to citizens' policy views restricts elite decision making, while forms of representation that loosen the connection of policymakers to citizens create more leeway. Regulating the power of citizens is the project of elite governance and has fundamental implications for democratic legitimacy.

Representative Democracy and Government Responsiveness to Policy Preferences

The dominant approach to American political representation posits government policy as "responsive" to the public's policy preferences—individuals' directional predilection to support or oppose a specific policy of liberal or conservative leaning (e.g., Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002). We refer to this type of vertical relationship that restricts government policy to what citizens prefer as the responsiveness account. Theoretical explorations of political representation pinpoint the "specification of the proper relationship between citizen preferences and the laws that govern them [as] the 'central normative problem' of democracy" (Rehfeld 2009, 214). Robert Dahl declares that the normative standard of American democracy is the "continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens" (Dahl 1971, 1; see also Pitkin 1967, 140).

The median voter theory reaches a similar conclusion; it predicts that politicians converge to the median voter's preference (Downs 1957; Black 1958). For example, as more Americans prefer that taxes be decreased, a left-leaning politician may alter his or her position to become more opposed to taxes. Politicians are expected to be motivated to adjust their issue positions—even those that are at odds with personal beliefs—because voters tend to support politicians who share their issue positions (Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder 2008).1

The focus on how government officials react to the policy preferences of citizens also guides the bulk of empirical research on democraticrepresentation, which compares publicly available surveys of mass opinion to policy decisions. "The connection between public preferences and public policy," Soroka and Wlezien (2010, 3) explain, "is one of the most critical components of representative democracy." This connection is inferred from evidence that the policy decisions of government officials or one of the elected branches correspond with the direction of public preferences for specific policies or general ideology. Until recently, most of the research on political representation reported evidence of high responsiveness and assumed one-way directionality—the causal flow starts with opinion and ends with subsequent government decisions (for review, see Disch 2011).

Despite broadly similar conclusions about responsiveness, research on political representation varies on the basis of the conceptualization of outcomes (dyadic or collective), the measurement of outcomes (e.g., spending and policy positions based on statements or votes), and the measurement of public opinion (from specific preferences for a particular policy to general ideological mood). Dyadic studies focus on the relationship between an individual representative, such as a member of Congress or the president, and the attitudes of his or her constituents. For example, Miller and Stokes (1963) conducted a seminal study that examined the correspondence between a House member's roll call voting behavior and the preferences of the voters from his or her district for positions on three policies—action on social welfare, support for American involvement in foreign affairs, and approval of action to protect civil rights. This dyadic approach spawned a veritable industry that generally confirmed the relationship between legislator behavior and constituency opinion even as it used new sources of data (Stone 1982; Powell 1982; Page, Shapiro, Gronke, and Rosenberg 1984; Shapiro, Brady, Brody, and Ferejohn 1990; Bartels 1991), improved statistical methods (Achen 1977, 1978; Erikson 1978; Hill and Hurley 1999), and intensively examined mechanisms that might account for responsiveness (Jacobs 1993; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994). The dyadic approach also expanded to consider the association of presidential budget proposals with public preferences regarding spending (Canes-Wrone 2006).

A second approach to studying representation focuses on the relationship between the public's policy preferences and system-level or collective policy outcomes (rather than the individual actions of representatives) (Druckman and Jacobs 2009). For example, Page and Shapiro (1983) examine thousands of policy preference survey questions, over time, and identify 357 cases where Americans' directional preference for a specific policy (e.g., level of taxation or military action) changed over time in conjunction with congruent changes in government policy (see also Weissberg 1978; Monroe 1979, 1998; Erikson, Wright, and McIver 1993; and Brooks and Manza 2006). Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson (2002) compare a measure of collective policy along a continuum from liberalism to conservatism with a global measure of liberal or conservative public opinion (or "mood") that is based on aggregating more than fifteen hundred survey questions from 1956 to 1996. They conclude: "A shift in Mood yields an almost immediate shift in Policy Activity.... Like antelope in an open field, [officials] cock their ears and focus their full attention on the slightest sign of danger" (319–20).

The Political Construction of Representation: The Flight from Policy Responsiveness

The previous preoccupation with government responsiveness overstates the degree to which citizen preference restricts elite discretion; it neglects important components of the practice of political representation. Political theorists question the authenticity of government responsiveness to authentic citizen deliberation. Jürgen Habermas (1989) derides what passes for "public opinion" as a "fiction" that "merely supplies acclimation" to elite exhortations (219, 238). Bernard Manin (1997) traces the shift from substantively rich parliamentary deliberation to poll-driven "audience democracy" in which citizens become passive receptacles for elite messages.

Research in coming chapters will investigate the possibilities and limits of presidential efforts to drive public opinion, as political theorists speculate. Our investigations excavate the tools and strategies of the White House's strategies to widen its policy latitude by redefining the nature of representation—to telescope the president's relationship with voters into a relatively small subset of issues that are salient and to recast his link to citizens from government policy to the nonpolicy dimension of personal image.

Presidents invest in extensive private polling in order to identify which specific policies are salient and then sink in still more resources in tracking the public's preferences regarding these individual issues. Their motivation to invest heavily in systematically collecting polling data on the public's preferences is to minimize the risk of alienating voters; this helps account for past evidence that politicians are "splitters" who respond to the public's preferences for specific policies (e.g., Canes-Wrone 2006; Page and Shapiro 1983; Manza and Cook 2002a, 2002b).

The detailed and resource-intensive tracking of salient issues generates discretion for presidents to fashion a less restrictive form of representation geared to the public's general mood. When issues lack particular salience, presidents capitalize on the leeway given them by a lack of close public scrutiny to broadly gauge the public's broad ideological leanings in conservative or liberal directions. This strategic orientation is consistent with past research finding that government officials act as "lumpers" who monitor aggregated public opinion for general ideological trends toward liberalism or conservatism (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002).

What presidents represent extends beyond policy preferences, as previously studied. Modern presidents beginning with Kennedy increased their investment of financial and organizational resources in tracking the public's evaluation of the chief executive's personal attributes. The president's political needs calibrated which personal traits the White House tracked and how it profiled them. In particular, it routinely showcased positively perceived personality traits. For instance, after conducting "image polls" that reported the public's positive ranking of his traits of leadership and experience, Richard Nixon seized on his historic opening to China to showcase his skills in pulling off a daring breakthrough that projected American strength and national standing. The White House was also attuned to countering poor image perceptions—Nixon and his aides responded to his negative image for "caring" by orchestrating public activities and statements to spotlight his experience and competence.

White House efforts to highlight or bolster perceptions of the president as a strong leader embodying the nation resemble what the political theorist Hannah Pitkin (1967) describes as "symbolic representation" (see also Edelman 1985; Disch 2011; and Mansbridge 2003). This is a type of vertical relationship with citizens that depends on the president's ability to induce the public to believe that he "stands for" the country. Symbolic representation qualitatively differs from substantive representation along two dimensions: its form (appeals to symbols and alluring personality rather than policy) and the restraints on elite decision making (the leeway that flows from nonpolicy appeals in place of close government responsiveness to citizen policy preferences).

What is represented must become a central research question. Presidential strategies to construct the nature of representation suggest a concerted effort to widen White House discretion by narrowing substantive accountability to a limited set of salient issues and by shifting its appeal from government policy (the exclusive focus of most studies of political representation) to the nonpolicy dimension of personality traits and personal image.

Who Is Represented?

Research on political representation focuses on whether politicians are responsive. This misstates the question. The central issue for representative democracy is, Whom do government officials respond to when making policy?

Presidents Represent the Nation

Whom government officials respond to has often been equated with the "different modes of election," as Madison put it.2 Legislators elected by local or state constituents are projected to serve these parochial interests, while the president's national electoral constituency is expected to motivate them to serve the overall public good. Woodrow Wilson (1908) built his scholarly reputation on his critique of Congress as overly particularistic and his lauding of presidents as the "one national voice in the country" (202). Summarizing the institutional approach to defining who is represented, Terry Moe confidently declares that presidents "addres[s] the needs and aspirations of a national constituency [while] ... [legislators] are driven by localism" (2003, 425).


Excerpted from Who Governs? by James N. Druckman, Lawrence R. Jacobs. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part I. Political Representation and Presidential Manipulation

Chapter 1. Presidential Crafted Talk and Democratic Theory
Chapter 2. The Political Strategy of Tracking the Public

Part II. Presidential Strategies to Shape Public Opinion

Chapter 3. How White House Strategy Drives the Collection and Use of Its Polling
Chapter 4. Segmented Representation
Chapter 5. Elite Strategies to Prime Issues and Image

Part III. America’s Democratic Dilemmas

Chapter 6. The Effects and Limits of Presidential Efforts to Move Public Opinion
Chapter 7. Rethinking Representation


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