Rethinking Responsiveness

46 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 9 Jun 2010

See all articles by Lisa J. Disch

Lisa J. Disch

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor


This essay examines the dilemma that recent findings in public opinionand political psychology pose for representative democracy. Simply put, these fields have made a 'constructivist turn' with the finding that citizen competence develops within the political environment. That turn has proven disconcerting by virtue of a second finding: the political environment is simultaneously heuristic and strategic. Citizens formulate opinions and preferences on the basis of information they glean from elite 'cueing,' 'framing,' and 'priming' - all tactics that elites deploy not primarily with an intent to educate citizens but with an intent to dispose the outcome of a political contest in their favor. That citizens form rational preferences not in spite of but by virtue of the influence exerted by self-interested political elites over public debate confronts researchers with a Hobson's Choice. Making opinion formation contextual enables them to vindicate citizen rationality inthe face of Converse's (1964) infamous 'non-attitudes' thesis. But this vindication raises the discomfiting sense that one form of incompetence simply replaces another. Specifically, while people who rely on party cues avoid basing their preferences on arbitrary information, they also expose themselves to the possibility of elite manipulation (Druckman 2001, 239). Where as this most recent dilemma of citizen competence seems to be a political problem, I argue that it is not one. It does not arise out of the unique contradictions of mass democracy but, rather, out of the discipline of politicalscience where there has developed a disjuncture between empirical research and normative ideals. On the one hand stand empirical findings that individual preferences and collective public opinion emerge out of the representation process and are more rational for that. On the other hand rests the seemingly straight forward normative postulate that democratic legitimacy requires governmental responsiveness to the prior emission of messages by citizens' (Przeworski, Stokes and Manin 1999, 9). I hold normative theory to blame forthis disjuncture: normative conceptions of representative democracy have not kept pace with the constructivist turn in empirical research. It is ironic thatnormative theorists of political representation are more wedded to a rational choice individualist concept of preference endogeneity than are empirical researchers in the fields of public opinion and political psychology. I propose a rethinking of responsiveness in order to make possible not a vindication of the US political system as democratic but, rather, a rapprochement between normative theory and empirical research that reorients the stalemated concern with manipulation toward questions that can enable a more productive assessment of the conditions for and realization of democratic representation.

Suggested Citation

Disch, Lisa J., Rethinking Responsiveness. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Lisa J. Disch (Contact Author)

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ( email )

500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics