Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Three Essays on Mass Preferences and Public Policy
by Simonovits, Gabor, Ph.D., New York University, 2018, 135; 10845475
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation analyzes the complex interrelationship between mass preferences and public policies. Using a range of public policies enacted in the U.S. at both the federal level and in the states we explore two related questions. First, through a comparison of policy outcomes and corresponding preferences we assess the degree to which public policies in U.S. states reflect constituent preferences. Second, using experiments embedded in public opinion surveys we demonstrate how the range of viable policies that are discussed in everyday political discourse feed back to mass preferences.

In Chapter 1, we introduce a new framework to compare the ideological orientation of public policies to mass preferences both within and across U.S. states. The approaches that have so far been employed in empirical research on this important question fall short for two reasons. First, they fail to quantify the degree to which policies are more or less liberal than preferences. Second, they do not assess the heterogeneity of preferences within jurisdictions, and thus do not consider how the quality of representation depends on the level to which policy decisions are delegated. Here we overcome both of these problems by generating estimates of Americans’ preferences on the minimum wage, which are measured on a scale that is comparable to observed policies and describe low levels of geographic aggregation.

Using these estimates, we demonstrate that most people are poorly represented by state minimum wage laws for two reasons. First, in each state, the minimum wage is much lower than the average rate preferred by state residents, leading to a pronounced bias against the preferences of the poor. Second, because preferences vary within states to a great deal, they are difficult to match by a single policy even in the absence of an overall policy bias. While minimum wage laws in the U.S. are typically set by elected officials and cover entire states, our results show that policies brought about by direct democratic institutions and at more local levels reflect preferences substantially better. These findings suggest that standard data and measures yield incomplete evidence about the relationship between public opinion and policy in the U.S.

Chapter 2, expands this framework to assess representation in issue domains where individual policy outcomes cannot be mapped onto an ideological scale. Following recent advances in the study of dyadic representation, we utilize the technique of joint scaling to simultaneously estimate the ideological content of policy outcomes and issue-specific attitudes underlying individual policy preferences on the same scale. We apply this method to study how well abortion and gun control laws enacted in U.S. states represent corresponding mass preferences.

We find that in the context of both issue domains policy outcomes are far removed from average preferences in the states for two reasons. First, both abortion and gun control laws exhibit a pronounced nationwide conservative bias leading to overly restrictive abortion laws in nearly all states and overly lax gun laws in every state. Second, while the conservatism of policy outcomes in the case of both issues is strongly associated with corresponding mass preferences across states, this relationship is best described as hyper-responsive. Relatively small preference differences across states are magnified into enormous variation in state laws. We demonstrate that a relatively broad range of nationwide policies would outperform the current status quo in terms of ideological divergence.

Chapter 3 presents a new theoretical framework to study the formation of policy preferences that accounts for the notion that choices between policies depend on the ideological range of alternatives that are salient in the ideological discourse. In particular, following the psychological literature on range effects, we argue that the introduction of policy alternatives that are far from the political mainstream can re-structure voter perceptions of where alternatives lie in the ideological space.

We provide strong support for the observable implications of this theory based on six survey experiments using a variety of policy contexts and samples. In particular, we find that the introduction of extreme alternatives into the public discourse makes mainstream policies on the same side of the spectrum look more centrist in the public eye, thus increasing support for these moderate alternatives. We discuss the implications of these findings for both theories of opinion formation and substantive debates on political extremism.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Egan, Patrick J.
Commitee: Beck, Nathaniel, Malhotra, Neil
School: New York University
Department: Politics
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 80/03(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Political science, Public policy
Keywords: Public opinion, Public policy, State politics
Publication Number: 10845475
ISBN: 978-0-438-63484-8
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