Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship I

Report
How is the will of the people
expressed?
1. Through votes cast in an election
2. Through the representatives who are
elected
3. Through measures of public opinion
Edmund Burke, Speech to the
Electors of Bristol
3 November 1774
“Your representative owes you, not his
industry only, but his judgement; and
he betrays, instead of serving you, if
he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy:
Participation and Opposition (1971),
p.1
‘a key characteristic of a democracy
is the continuing responsiveness of
the government to the preferences
of its citizens, considered as
political equals’
UK health care: opinion-policy linkage
Source: S B Hobolt & R Klemmemsen, ‘Responsive government? Public opinion and
government policy preferences in Britain and Denmark’, Political Studies Vol. 53 (2005),
Fig. 5, p. 396
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Public opinion
Government policy
Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship I
Opinion on a given issue (e.g. public spending on
defence) is spread along a continuum.

In the following example, public preferences on spending
are represented by a scale ranging from 0 to 22, with 0
representing zero spending and 22 representing maximum
spending

Individuals do not envisage a particular level of public
spending on the issue, but express a preference for more
or less spending

Highest approval ratings are gained when government
spending policy is closest to the median voter’s position

Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship II
When the government identifies the ‘temperature’ of public
opinion – e.g. whether the trend of public opinion supports
more spending on a given issue or less – it will change its
policy to reflect that ‘temperature’. Public opinion acts as a
‘thermostat’.

When the public perceive that policy has moved closer to
the median preference, demand for changes in policy will
decrease correspondingly

If trends in public opinion change (i.e. the ‘temperature’
set by the ‘thermostat’ goes up or down) the government
will respond to that change and shift policy again

Further reading: Stuart N. Soroka and Christopher Wlezien, ‘Opinion-Policy
Dynamics: Public Preferences and Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom’,
British Journal of Political Science Vol. 35 (2005), pp. 665-689.
Policy continuum
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R
Policy continuum
Low
High
Policy continuum & normal
distribution
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Median voter
R
Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship III:
Normal distribution of opinion on issue X
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship IV:
Government policy on issue X overlaid on public opinion
at t1
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship V:
Government policy on issue X overlaid on public opinion
at t2
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship VI:
Government policy on issue X overlaid on public opinion
at t3
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship VII:
Optimal government policy with normal distribution of
public opinion
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship VIII:
Government policy on issue X overlaid on public opinion
at t4
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Thermostatic model of opinion-policy relationship IX:
Government policy realigned to reflect new distribution of
public opinion
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