Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2012

Public Opinion and Public Policy

Lecturer: Associate Professor Stuart N. Soroka,
Department of Political Science,
McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Main discipline: Political Science
Dates: 30 July - 3 August 2012
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 25 participants

Responsible institutions
This course is a summer school course for the ECPR standing group on Public Opinion and Voting Behaviour in a Comparative Perspective. The course is financed by The Centre of the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, The Department of Political Science at University of Oslo, and The Training Network in Electoral Democracy (ELECDEM).

A fundamental principle of democratic government is that policy will be a function of opinion. There are accordingly large and growing bodies of literature focused on whether and the extent to which there is an opinion-policy connection. Do governments respond to, and do policies reflect, public opinion? Does the public respond to changes in policy? These are critical questions for those interested in the structure and value of public opinion, and in the nature and quality of representative democracy as well.

This course focuses on the reciprocal links between public opinion and public policy. The ten lectures fall into four themes: (1) we review normative and empirical political theory dealing with the role of public opinion in representative democracy;  (2) we explore different approaches to empirically connecting public opinion to legislative behavior and/or policy outcomes; (3) we examine the extent to which public opinion is  responsive and well-informed; (4) we review two of the (many) ways in which the strength of opinion-policy links may vary — across political institutions, and across individuals with varying levels of income. In a final class, students (as well as the instructor) have the option of presenting a research proposal for discussion by the class.

The course is intended to provide students with some of the critical tools — both theoretical and empirical — to understand and engage in research on public opinion and policy.

Students have the option of writing a 6,000- to 10,000-word essay within eight weeks after the course to receive a course certificate and earn credit for a PhD program. Fulfilling this requirement gives you 10 ECTS points. Please note that consultation with the instructor prior to deciding about your essay topic is highly recommended.

Readings for Course Preparation
This course is relatively short, and as a consequence we focus almost exclusively on work that deals directly with our most central concern: public opinion. There is a good deal of theoretical work on democracy and representation that is relevant, however, in spite of the fact that it deals with public opinion only indirectly. Students are accordingly required to have read the following books in preparation for the class:

  • Dahl, Robert A. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pitkin, Hannah Fenichel. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

In addition, note that the course is structured in part on a review of the literatures dealing with public opinion and policy available here:

  • Christopher Wlezien and Stuart Soroka. 2007. “The Relationship Between Public Opinion and Policy,” in Russell Dalton and Hans-Deiter Klingemann, Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, Oxford University Press.

Lecture Outline (Draft)

Lecture 1: Public Opinion in Democratic Thought I


  • Speier, Hans. 1950. “Historical Development of Public Opinion.” American Journal of Sociology 55(4): 376-388.
  • Noelle-Neuman, Elisabeth. 1979. “Public Opinion and the Classical Tradition: A Re-evaluation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 43(2): 143-156.
  • Nikolaus, Jackob. 2007. “Cicero and the opinion of the people: The nature, role and power of public opinion in the Late Roman Republic.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 17:293–311.
  • Cutler, Fred. 1999. “Jeremy Bentham and the Public Opinion Tribunal.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 63(3): 321-346.
  • Herbst, Susan. 1993. Numbered voices: How opinion polling has shaped American politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 43-68.

Lecture 2: Public Opinion in Democratic Thought II


  • Berelson, Bernard. 1950. “Democratic Theory and Public Opinion.” Public Opinion Quarterly 16: 313-330.
  • Key, V.O. 1961. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf. Chapter 1.
  • Converse, Philip. E. 1987. “Changing Conceptions of Public Opinion in The Political Process.” Public Opinion Quarterly 51/Supplement: 12-24.
  • Geer, John. 1996. From Tea Leaves to Public Opinion Polls: A Theory of Democratic Leadership. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. [selections]

Lecture 3: Representing Public Opinion: Dyadic Representation


  • Eulau, Heinz, John C. Wahlke, William Buchanan, and Leroy C. Ferguson. 1959. “The role of the representative: Some empirical observations on the theory of Edmund Burke.” American Political Science Review 53:742–756.
  • Miller, Warren E., and Donald Stokes. 1963. “Constituency influence in Congress.” American Political Science Review 57:165–177.
  • McCrone, Donald J., and James H. Kuklinski. 1979. “The delegate theory of representation.” American Journal of Political Science 23:278–300.
  • Bartels, Larry M. 1991. Constituency opinion and Congressional policy making: The Reagan defense build up.” American Political Science Review 85(2): 457-474.
  • Soroka, Stuart, Erin Penner, and Kelly Blidook. 2009. “Constituency influence in Parliament.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 42.3: 563–591.

Lecture 4: Collective Representation: Correspondence, Consistency & Covariation


  • Weissberg, Robert. 1978. “Collective vs. dyadic representation in Congress.” American Political Science Review 72:535–547.
  • Monroe, Alan. 1979. “Consistency between constituency preferences and national policy decisions.” American Politics Quarterly 12:3–19.
  • Brooks, J. E. 1985. “Democratic frustration in the Anglo-American polities: A quantification of inconsistency between mass public opinion and public policy.” The Western Political Quarterly 38:250–261.
  • Page, Benjamin I., and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1983. “Effects of public opinion on policy.” American Political Science Review 77:175–190.
  • Erikson, Robert S., Gerald C. Wright and John P. McIver. 1989. “Partisan Elections, Public Opinion and State Policy.” American Political Science Review 83(3): 729-750.
  • Brooks, Clem and Jeff Manza. 2006. “Why Do Welfare States Persist?” The Journal of Politics 68(4): 816-827.

Lecture 5: Dynamic Representation: Policy Representation, and Public Responsiveness as Well


  • James Stimson, Michael B. MacKuen and Robert S. Erikson. 1995. “Dynamic Representation.” American Political Science Review 89: 543-65.
  • Soroka, Stuart, and Christopher Wlezien. 2010. Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press. [selections]
  • Eichenberg, Richard, and Richard Stoll. 2003. "Representing defense: Democratic control of the defence budget in the United States and Western Europe." Journal of Conflict Resolution 47:399–423.

Lecture 6: The Problem(s) with Citizens


  • Converse, Philip. 1964. "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics." In Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter. New York: Free Press. Pp. 206-61.
  • Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter. 1996. What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. selections
  • Bartels, Larry M. 2003. “Democracy with Attitudes.” In Michael B. MacKuen and George Rabinowitz, eds., Electoral Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 48-82.
  • Special Issue: Public Ignorance and Democracy. Critical Review 12(4). [selections]

Lecture 7: Overcoming Ignorance? Heuristics, Issue Publics, and/or Aggregation


  • Lupia, Arthur and Matthew McCubbins. 1998. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What they Need to Know? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [selections
  • Neuman, W. Russell. 1986. The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [selections]
  • Page, Benjamin I. and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in American Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [selections]
  • Converse, Philip. 2000. “Assessing the Capacity of Mass Electorates.” Annual Review of Political Science 3: 331-353
  • Althaus, Scott. 1998. “Information Effects in Collective Preferences.” American Political Science Review 92 (3): 545–58.

Lecture 8: Institutions and the Opinion-Policy Link


Huber, John D. and Powell, G. Bingham. 1994. “Congruence between citizens and policymakers in two visions of liberal democracy” World Politics 46(3) pp.291-326.

Soroka, Stuart and Christopher Wlezien. 2011. “Political Institutions and the Opinion-Policy Link.”  Paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions, 2011.

Hobolt, Sara Binzer and Robert Klemmensen. 2008. “Government Responsiveness and Political Competition in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies 41: 309-337.

Lecture 9: Unequal Responsiveness and Representation


  • Berinsky, Adam. 2002. “Silent Voices: Social Welfare Policy Opinions and Political Equality in America.” American Journal of Political Science 46:276-288
  • Bartels, Larry. 2005. “Homer Gets a Tax Cut.” Perspectives on Politics 3(1): 15-31.
  • Enns, Peter K. and Christopher Wlezien, eds. Who Gets Represented? New York: Russell Sage.  [selections]

Lecture 10: TBA


The Lecturer
Stuart Soroka is associate professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Political Science at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Stuart’s research focuses on the connections between public opinion, public policy, and media content. Stuart is a member of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, and founding co-director of the Media Observatory at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. His work has been published in a wide range of volumes and journal, including the Journal of Politics, the American Journal of Political Science, the British Journal of Political Science, and Comparative Political Studies. His most recent book, co-authored with Christopher Wlezien, is Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion and Policy (Cambridge University Press).

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Tags: Summer School, Political Science, Public Opinion, PhD, Democracy, Public Policy
Published Oct. 10, 2012 1:19 PM - Last modified Oct. 10, 2012 1:55 PM