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Who Should Have a Say? Preferences for Unequal Representation

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UNREP (Who Should Have a Say? Preferences for Unequal Representation)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-08-31

The goal of this project was to examine the factors determining when citizens prefer that politicians ignore or pay special attention to minority groups that would be disproportionately affected by a policy decision. The starting point here was that elected officials aiming to represent their constituents are faced with a difficult tension: balancing an egalitarian approach to democratic influence - whereby everyone's opinion is treated equally - with a proportional one based on policy impact - whereby those who would be most affected by a given policy change are granted the most influence over it.

The project's main focus was therefore on attitudes toward, as well as reactions to, public consultations. In particular, it set out to examine how public opinion surrounding these consultation measures were shaped by various factors. Baseline expectations highlighted the potential influence of individual-level factors such as one’s stance on a given policy, one’s partisanship, one’s dislike for an affected group, and one’s levels of internal and external political efficacy.

Overall, results suggest that one’s stance on a given policy, one’s dislike for an affected group (i.e. racial resentment), and one’s levels of internal and external political efficacy all appear to play a role in shaping the attitudes under study. Related results also suggested that a politician’s membership in the consulted group also affects citizen reactions.
Study 1 used a multiple-country experiment (in the UK, Canada, and the US) to examine cross-national patterns in reactions to politicians, focussing on how marginalized class and/or racial backgrounds are perceived vis-à-vis potential descriptive and substantive representation. The study moved beyond past work by examining the potentially multiplicative (rather than simply additive) effects of a politician’s marginalised characteristics. Results suggest that candidates from lower-class backgrounds generally elicited stronger positive reactions than race, while the overlap of marginalised class and racial backgrounds had little effect.

Study 2 (with Joshua Robison) focuses on a policy issue with high substantive importance – race relations and policy brutality toward African Americans – and examines one potential solution proposed in the policing literature: consulting minority populations at the community level. Building from a novel survey experiment, it allows us to better understand how a politician’s race and party affiliation interacts with citizen race, party identification, and racial resentment to shape attitudes toward consultations and the politicians that propose them. Findings suggest a particularly strong structuring impact of racial resentment, with only limited effects tied to a politician’s partisanship and race.

Study 3 builds an experimental study around consultations tied to tax reforms targeting taxpayers in the bottom quartile, comparing reactions to consultations that either aim to reflect the opinion of constituencies as whole, those of interested citizens, or those of policy-affected citizens. It then breaks these responses down by treatment group and levels of internal and external efficacy, as these latter two factors have been shown to shape abstract democratic preferences. The paper thus seeks to bridge the gap between research focused on abstract preferences for how democracy should work and research looking at “process preferences,” typically related to policy-implementation.

Study 4 (with Barbara Vis) examines how consultations shift accountability perceptions and the blame attributed to politicians who hold them. Building from the literature on clarity of responsibility, it focuses on reforms targeting municipal funding for homeless shelters, constructing a survey experiment that allows us to better understand the potential role of both citizen and politician attributes: on the one hand, we consider the impact of a citizen’s stance, party identification, and inherent sexism; and on the other, we study the impact of a politician’s gender, party affiliation, and the (dis-) alignment of their policy position with that constituents. Results suggest a particularly strong role of consultations that align with the opinion of a majority of consultation attendees.

Study 5, in turn, builds on literature looking at abstract preferences for how democracy should work, but focuses directly on the attitudes at the centre of the project: namely, the desired level of influence for policy-affected citizens. It does so using an observational study based on original survey items that break down attitudes toward the influence of those who stand to gain and those who stand to lose from a given policy reform. Findings highlight the importance of respondent external efficacy in the former case, alongside internal efficacy as well in the latter case.

These various studies were discussed over the course of the project in both the Netherlands and abroad. Conference presentations were carried out at the Annual Meeting of the Dutch and Flemish Political Science Associations (Leiden, the Netherlands, 2018; Antwerp, Belgium, 2019), the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (Boston, the United States of America, 2018), and the Annual Meeting of the European Political Science Association (Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2019). In addition, project-related discussions were also pursued via workshop presentations (Aarhus University, Denmark, 2017; University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2019) and research meetings at the Host Institution (Utrecht University 2017, 2018). Other outreach activities included an hour-long presentation at an MA-level colloquium at Tilburg University (Tilburg, the Netherlands, 2019), targeting students in their Research Master in Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as an interview with CORDIS (written up in the Results Pack on Elections and Democratic Participation).
The main scientific achievements that resulted from this project centre around attitudes toward minority representation, reactions to consultation measures, and abstract preferences surrounding the democratic influence of “policy winners” and “policy losers”. Novel survey experiments and items allowed the Researcher to unpack public opinion on these issues, with five related studies centred around the core project topic.

The research carried out in this project enhances our understanding of attitudes toward democratic representation. Its findings have important implications for democratic practice at the institutional-level (e.g. by highlighting reactions to different sorts of decision-making processes), at the party-level (e.g. by highlighting which types of politicians are seen to be capable of representing “ordinary citizens”), and for politicians themselves (e.g. by highlighting how different consultation proposals will be received and affect attitudes toward the politician her- or himself). As a consequence, this project was intricately connected to questions tied to policy-making processes, in particular as they relate to decision-making procedures and different methods of trying to implement democratically “legitimate” policy outcomes. Furthermore, its publications will also be of relevance to NGOs or other societal groups interested in questions of minority representation and better policy outcomes concerning these groups (e.g. regarding police brutality).