Degrees of Democracy

Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy

Degrees of Democracy

This book develops and tests a “thermostatic” model of public opinion and policy, in which preferences for policy both drive and adjust to changes in policy. The representation of opinion in policy is central to democratic theory and everyday politics. So too is the extent to which public preferences are informed and responsive to changes in policy. The coexistence of both “public responsiveness” and “policy representation” is thus a defining characteristic of successful democratic governance, and the subject of this book. The authors examine both responsiveness and representation across a range of policy domains in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The story that emerges is one in which representative democratic government functions surprisingly well, though there are important differences in the details. Variations in public responsiveness and policy representation responsiveness are found to reflect the “salience” of the different domains and governing institutions – specifically, presidentialism (versus parliamentarism) and federalism (versus unitary government).


“This extraordinary book sets out to describe and test a mechanism by which government policy might respond to changes in the preferences of citizens, and citizens might adjust their preferences in light of the policies that governments enact. In the process it investigates the preconditions for efficient working of representative democracy. The authors have meticulously collected the data needed to evaluate the efficiency of representation in three countries – the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom – and have devised rigorous tests that employ these data. The results not only tell us how democracy works but also how well it works in these three countries, providing major insights regarding the impact of institutional differences on representation processes.”
-Mark Franklin, European University Institute

“In a major empirical and theoretical contribution to the study of representative government, Soroka and Wlezien study the complex linkages between public opinion and public policy in three western democracies. They add two critical components to the now classic thermostat model: differences among policy issues (more salient issues are more likely to receive policy responses), and institutions (different democratic political systems represent opinions differently). Based on their extensive empirical analyses, the result is a fresh understanding of the process of democratic representation. Because salience matters, agenda-setting politics matter. Because institutions matter, the manipulation of institutions by politicians matters. Degrees of Democracy is a huge breakthrough in producing a more integrated theory of democratic policymaking.”
-Bryan D. Jones, University of Texas at Austin

“A wonderful book. Soroka and Wlezien provide a clear and forceful description of the influential ‘thermostatic’ model of public opinion, and demonstrate its analytical leverage in different national political contexts. There are many important implications for both empirical democratic theory and practice that all future scholarship in this area will have to consider.”
-Jeff Manza, New York University

“With the current activist presidential administration in Washington, this is an especially timely and groundbreaking book that shows how the public can be counted upon to ‘get the message’ about increases and decreases in government spending, and to react in ways enable it to exert pressure to change course. Soroka and Wlezien persuasively argue how this is as an important an attribute of representative democracy as is government’s responsiveness to public opinion, since it shows that extant communications processes work and that the public as a whole--and all major subgroups of it--are sufficiently attentive to get the message. Moreover, the authors show how this plays out is affected by the defining characteristics of Anglo-American political systems and by the importance of the issues at stake, as perceived by their publics. Providing evidence for this is a major accomplishment: it demonstrates what political scientists can do given the historical data to do so, and it clears a path for others to study these attributes in democratic governments, both old and new, everywhere.”
-Robert Shapiro, Columbia University

“Students of contemporary democracies frequently fret about all sorts of ways in which the will of the people is perverted and popular governance undermined. Soroka and Wlezien bring us important good news: democracy works. Degrees of Democracy carefully and systematically shows that public policy responds to popular preferences, but also that when governments push policy too far in a particular direction, voters adjust their demands and rein them in. Yet, policy responsiveness and representation are shaped by political institutions, and the authors’ comparisons of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States highlight intriguing differences between these democracies. This is an ambitious and important book that deserves a broad audience.”
-Kaare Strom, University of California, San Diego


Winner, 2013 Seymour Martin Lipset Award, Canadian Politics Section, APSA
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