June 19, 2013

What Americans really want from their lawmakers

Americans often say they want their representatives in Congress to put the country’s needs over local concerns. But four novel experiments suggest that the public does just the opposite.  In a new study, respondents rated a member of Congress far more favorably if the lawmaker put the interests of his or her district or state over those of the country as a whole.

In one experiment, political scientist David Doherty of Loyola University-Chicago asked 851 participants in an online survey about their support for building more nuclear power plants. He also asked respondents if they wanted U.S. senators to do “what people in the country as a whole want or more interested in doing what people in their own state want.” Most said they wanted the senator to serve the interests of the nation, first and foremost.

Two weeks later these respondents were again contacted and asked to read a short story about a U.S. Senator preparing to vote on a bill funding construction of a new nuclear power plant.

But there was a twist: Three details were manipulated in the vignette. One half of the sample read that that the senator favored the bill; the other half were informed that the lawmaker would vote against it.  Similarly, half the respondents were told that polling data showed that most people in the state supported the legislation while most people in the country opposed it, and vice-versa. Finally, the groups were either told that the senator represented their own state or a different state.

Respondents were then asked, “based on the senator’s decision to support/oppose the bill, how would you rate the job this Senator is doing as a representative?”

By a landslide, people thought the Senator who voted with his state’s majority on this issue was doing a better job than one who sided with the consensus of the country.  The study also found that people gave even higher marks to a senator who put state concerns over national priorities if the lawmaker was identified as being from their state.

“When presented with a concrete instance where the preferences of a legislator’s district conflict with those of the broader public, people prefer representatives who side with district preferences,” Doherty concluded, according to an article in the latest issue of Public Opinion Quarterly.

Even among respondents who said in the first round of questioning that they preferred lawmakers to vote in line with the national majority gave higher marks to the senator who consistently voted with the majority view in his or her state, he found.

However, it should be noted that these results assume that study respondents and the general public view survey results as accurate reflections of national and state interests, a presumption that was not tested in this study.  Also, the dichotomy between national interest versus state interest is often not as crisp as this experiment suggests and may be a hard distinction for people to make.

Still, three other studies that used the same vignette approach but referenced different issues—stem cell research, farm subsidies and a bill capping carbon emissions—produced the same basic finding.  Substantial margins preferred a U.S representative or senator who voted consistent with his constituency to one who put the nation’s priorities first.

So, what does this prove?  The study’s author says legislators who ‘nobly’ put national preferences ahead of local ones will be punished by constituents. “Instead,” he wrote, “they suggest that people understand the incentives representatives face and (all else equal) prefer legislators who respond to them.”

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Congress

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.

1 Comment

  1. rc115shepherd4 years ago

    Mr. Blow’s sentimental fiction makes for sympathetic reading but it’s historically incorrect. The one-Party “Stalinist” conformity of politics in the Confederate and Boarder States of this union has merely returned the US to its “normal”, political state.

    America has had irreconcilable sectional divisions since her berth. She was a continental nation in 1787 (a huge land mass and small population); and New England and New Orleans (after the Louisiana Purchase); are just as much two different nations in 2013; as they were in 1803.

    Modern systems of technology, and thought-control propaganda (a.k.a. the News Corporation), have attempted nationalize the politics of the Confederate and Boarder States, but the propaganda has only succeeded merely in energizing pockets of Confederate and Boarder State whites to maintain their southern, and border state extremism, in isolated pockets of white rage, outside of the south.
    But America is, on its own terms; a hard idea to make into a “machine that will go of itself”. And therefore, in the absence of perpetual wars; against Native Americans, Mexicans, communism, terror, Islam, poverty, space; and anything else that can be thrown up, to cover-up; the historically irreconcilable divisions of race, religion, section, and wealth; the whole rotten edifice begins to come apart. Not as a cracking under the weight of external forces, but by dissolution, by simply dissolving, like a beach sand-castle in a high tide. There is really nothing holding the grains of sand together; and, the castle eventually falls down of its own weight, or, its swept away by time and the tide. Our time and tide are now here.