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Are Politicians’ Perceptions Out of Touch With Reality?

It has become more and more apparent that those who represent the public are not listening to the people.

In the United States, the people vote for a person to represent their interests in government. This representative democracy is designed to give voice to differing views with the hope that a consensus can be achieved that will benefit most, if not all. While not perfect, this has worked fairly well – until recently. Just as the public has become more engaged and aware of the issues, and as technology has allowed more voices to be heard directly, it seems that legislators across the country and at the national level pursue policies that are not in line with the public’s interests.

There has been more anti-choice legislation introduced in the past four years than any other period since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v Wade. While legislators claim to be listening to the public and doing what the voters want, almost 80 percent of the public believe abortion should remain legal. In the years since ballot measures defining marriage as between one man and one woman, public opinion on same-sex marriage has continued to sway in support, to the point that a majority of the public supports same-sex unions. Yet, states are still trying to fight the inevitable and prevent such unions from happening in their state.

It has become more and more apparent that those who represent the public are not listening to the people.

Two political science graduate students are currently exploring why politicians are so disconnected from the public. A recent working paper by them (they are from the University of Berkeley and University of Michigan) finds that politicians dramatically misinterpret where their constituents stand on issues. When comparing a random sample of 2,000 politicians from across the country and the polling results of the people in their districts, the students found that representatives believed voters are far more conservative than they really are. The disparity was so high it would be comparable to the difference between the views of those in California compared with those in Alabama.

The politicians would be from Alabama.

The survey was done prior to and immediately after the 2012 election and asked several questions covering a variety of topics. The working paper focuses on three hot topics of the election: same-sex marriage, universal healthcare and federal welfare programs. The politicians were asked to rate on a scale their beliefs on the issues as well as what they believed were the positions of their constituents. Generally, the views of liberal politicians tracked similarly as those they represented, whereas conservative politicians were far more conservative than polls show voters are in their views. Both groups were dramatically out of touch with where the public stood.

When the issue of same-sex marriage is broken down along ideological lines, there is a stark difference between conservative and liberal support. However, conservative politicians overestimated the disapproval of their constituents by as much as 90 percent. In other words, they believed the people they represented disapproved of same-sex marriage more than the most conservative district in America disapproves of same-sex marriage.

The current approval rate of same-sex marriage is at an all time high of 59 percent.

Liberal politicians also overestimated the conservativeness of the public. While they were overwhelmingly congruent with their constituents on the issues, they dramatically underestimated how closely their views matched. Conversely, conservative politicians believed their voters agreed with them at a much higher rate than the data showed.

Survey respondents were asked to estimate the public’s opinion of the statement “Abolish all federal welfare programs.” On its face, this statement has a conservative bent, and most Americans don’t believe a complete dismantling of the nation’s safety net is a wise thing to do. However, conservative politicians in the survey believed that 40 percent – nearly half – agree with this statement. Even liberal politicians believed that one quarter of Americans share this belief.

The actual number is closer to 13 percent.

With all of the topics included in the survey, the politicians were repeatedly out of step with their constituents, with conservatives overestimating agreement on average of 20 percent. The paper did not go into why the disparity exists. There have been some attempts to explain the disparity in the past, such as low information voters, coupled with the power of name recognition for incumbents and political manipulation of the voting districts to limit the reach of candidates with opposing views.

There is, of course, the real possibility they have no intention of representing the public at all.

With the increasing amount of money involved in politics, politicians spend more of their time fundraising than actually legislating. The wealth of this nation, and the world, is concentrated in the hands of just a few people (85 people worldwide, to be exact). This has put the one percent of the population in the position to direct policy through campaign contributions to candidates and by extension have an inordinate amount of influence on government. It could be that the politicians are hearing only the voices of those that are paying for access.

It is important to note that this is a working paper (meaning in progress) and has yet to be peer reviewed or published in an academic journal. However, considering current trends in public polling versus legislation, not to mention the lowest approval ratings for Congress ever, these two may be on the right track. If the results continue to hold, it would provide evidence for what we already know: politicians’ perceptions and the public’s reality have never been further apart.

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