My new book, Artists of the Possible, will offer little solace to those concerned with the public’s absence from public policy. I find a policy process driven by experienced insiders and behind-the-scenes deal making with little room for public input. Policy history, however, does challenge the claim that the public’s influence is declining: policymaking has always been insular.
My results show that the public plays a surprisingly limited role in policy outcomes. I find only tenuous connections between ideological trends in public opinion and policy results since 1945. Even clear election results do not usually translate into shifts in policy direction. The public also fails to direct policymakers to particular problems. There is no domestic policy issue area where public opinion is the dominant factor in policy results. According to policy historians, interest groups play a more frequent role in all issue areas.
The figure below illustrates the relative importance of different categories of factors in explanations for policy change. I use two measures, both based on analysis of policy history books. The grey lines report what percent of explanations for policy change include each category of factors (out of 1,943 explanations in 268 sources). The black lines report how often any historian studying a policy change mentions each factor (out of 790 total significant policy changes). Policy historians usually agree on the story surrounding each policy change, so there is little difference between the two standards.
There is a clear hierarchy, with inside factors dominant. Executive branch factors, especially presidential leadership, are the most commonly cited. Interest group lobbying and advocacy is also common, as is deal-making in Congress and path dependence (usually previous policies with built-in deadlines). According to policy historians, even research findings are more frequent determinants of policy change than public opinion. (Scholars should not get too excited; the influential research findings are mostly summaries by government agencies and interest groups.)
The insularity of policymaking is nothing new. Public opinion has been substantially less influential than political institutions and interest groups over the last 70 years. If there is any trend, I find a slight uptick in reported public influence since 1980. An exhaustive study of the relationship between public opinion poll results and policy outcomes also finds that public influence has increased slightly, even though it is normally quite low.
Of course, we expect representation to be indirect. Each legislator is more likely to vote for their district’s interests and each party is likelier to pass their program when they win a majority. Yet these findings may not produce policy aligned with public ideas or interests. A small coterie of active policymakers often determines results long before final votes; their actions do not follow uniformly from the party or program that won the previous election.
Most commonly, policymakers ignore public concern by achieving little. When policymakers do sustain a policymaking drive, it is often in the face of public opposition. The active policymaking of the 1960s and 1970s ignored a public backlash against the Great Society. More recently, Obama’s health-care achievement was passed despite public opposition.
The insularity of policymaking is not all bad news. The public is notoriously fickle, responding to the policy change they endorsed in the previous election by turning against those that push it through and swinging in the opposite ideological direction. Since new policy takes time to develop and features many details to work through, it may be advantageous to have policymakers that ignore the polls and perfect their ideas.
Public policy may work out well—even without the public.