Politicians and the public

Over time, I’ve been increasingly hit with this creeping notion that my views aren’t represented by the politicians I’ve been tasked at electing. It felt different when I was first old enough to vote and, though my political views have changed substantially and repeatedly in the years since, it’s only been quite recent that I’ve felt completely abandoned politically. This change seems to have corresponded with a period of intense, active reading on my part, so I like to think it may have something to do with becoming less gullible or perhaps more nuanced in my views as I build up my knowledge on numerous subjects. However, I do have enough insight to admit that my understanding of potential reasons is obviously biased and incomplete, and so I decided to do what I usually do to attempt to remedy these deficiencies: read. In my search to learn, I came across Politicians Don’t Pander by Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro1 and, after reading it, I began to realize that at least part of the answer may have less to do with me and more to do with the behaviour of politicians.

In Politicians Don’t Pander, the authors study and describe the causes and consequences of two important phenomena in contemporary American politics. The first is the decline of political responsiveness—the trend of politicians increasingly ignoring centrist opinion when developing and pursuing policy goals.i The second is the reliance politicians have on manipulation of public opinion in support of these policy goals. The authors build and support their explanatory theories through two main case studies, alongside an investigation of their historical contexts: the Clinton healthcare reform campaign that originated in 1993 (and failed in 1994) and the Republicans’ failed “Contract with America” campaign from ’95/’96. Their investigation relies on a mix of insider information—including internal White House records, congressional votes, content analysis of the statements and decisions of the president and other legislators, and semi-structured interviews with senior government advisers—and an in-depth analysis of media coverage and public opinion polling, while comparing both with the content of policy debates. This method allows for insight into how politicians actually understand, evaluate, and use public opinion while also grounding this information in objective fact.2

The authors describe a trend of declining responsiveness that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the ’80s and ’90s, and they attribute institutional and political changes that occurred at the same time as drivers that motivated politicians to pursue partisan-driven policy goals over those in alignment with the general public’s preferences. Reforms in party rules and congressional institutions gave individual legislators greater freedom from party leaders and reduced leaders’ abilities to discipline wayward members, creating leeway for politicians to pursue specific policy positions apart from those directed by the leaders, which were previously concerned largely with electoral victory and were more responsive to public opinion. The electoral advantages for incumbents grew substantially in the ’80s and ’90s, at least in part due to the creation of more ideologically homogeneous congressional districts through redistricting, and politicians thereby felt more secure ignoring public opinion in favour of partisan-driven goals due to the growth of the number of electorally safe districts. At the same time, the proliferation in the number and variety of well-organized and well-funded organizations and coalitions engaged in pursuing their interests in Washington increased the pressure on politicians to advance their specific policy positions through campaign contributions and media campaigns. Divisive interbranch relations intensified polarized policy battles, which pulled presidents and legislators away from centrist preferences in order to gain political ground. And party activists and partisan groups exerted more influence in the selection of candidates over this period by controlling the allocation of volunteers and funds—withholding both to politicians who fail to pursue their preferred policies—and so it became costly to ignore the positions of an increasingly extreme activist base. These factors served in important ways to increase unity within each party while further dividing ideologies between parties—as well as driving these ideologies away from views held by the public, which remained comparatively stable over the same period.3

Though this all contributed to declining political responsiveness, elections still push politicians—leaders, especially—to become more visibly responsive to centrist opinion in order to attract “swing voters” and out of fear of electoral punishment.4 This means that political responsiveness isn’t fixed or in constant decline, that politicians can be observed to moderate earlier positions and approach centrist opinion close to elections, while they tend to return to more extreme positions when elections are far away. But the importance here is the appearance rather than the substance of responsiveness. If politicians are able to win the support of centrist opinion for their preferred policy rather than compromising their goals and changing policy to align with public opinion, it allows them to keep their partisan-backed benefits while maintaining electoral protection and gaining additional political capital in the process.ii This has elevated the perceived importance of orchestrated national appeals—what the authors refer to as “crafted talk.” When crafting presentations in order to change public opinion, politicians first conduct extensive research on public opinion—using methods such as polling and focus groups—and use the information to identify the words, arguments, and symbols about specific policies that the centrist public finds most appealing. This is in support of a “priming” strategy, in which the public is prompted to retrieve attitudes and memories they already possessed in order to incorporate these ideas into their judgments. A priming strategy is commonly viewed as superior to a detailed argument regarding policy positions for a number of reasons. Efforts at priming impose less stringent requirements on the public than directly persuading the public on the merits of a policy proposal—neither requiring them to pay attention to and follow detailed and complex reasoning nor requiring them to change their existing values and fundamental preferences. As well, it’s less susceptible to distortion by journalists and opponents, and is thus seen as simpler and more effective than more time-consuming or expensive tactics. Once the crafted “message” is developed, politicians will attempt to saturate the press with it in order to inundate citizens and crowd out opposing messages, relying on simple, attractive themes that would satisfy the press’ economic pressures to draw audiences.5 Though public presentations by politicians have always been used to sway listeners in a way that is neither transparent nor neutral, by the ’90s political efforts to change public opinion had been transformed into a qualitatively different exercise than had previously existed. New technologies in mass communications and public opinion research increased the speed, reach, and effectiveness of political efforts to target public feelings and thoughts. It becomes therefore tempting to conclude that changes in technology alone caused politicians to craft their presentations to change public opinion but, in reality, it was the change in politics that created the environment in which new technological capacities were perceived as strategically valuable and then adopted.6,iii

Priming strategies and crafted talk inform the authors’ understanding of political coverage in the media. Few political observers doubt the power of the press to influence public opinion and control public debate, and many scholars and pundits are highly critical of a degradation in the quality of political reporting, with a tendency of contemporary journalists to focus on political conflict and strategy over discussions of substantive policy issues. The blame for this reporting shift has almost universally fallen upon the media’s internal, economic pressures—which do logically influence it to an extent—but we create something of an overly simple picture by neglecting the influence that actual changes in political behaviour had on this shift. Though the media offers a somewhat distorted portrayal of events through the choices of what to cover and how to cover it, increased coverage of political conflict and strategy occurred at a time when politicians were growing more ideologically extreme and were leaning more heavily on targeted priming strategies over substantive discussions to win over the public. As such, this shift in coverage followed the broad, but very real, contours of political developments. And this effect feeds back to the policymakers themselves. A large majority of politicians interviewed by the authors saw the obvious shift in the direction of media coverage and felt the need to more cautiously craft their messages and further neglect substantive policy discussions out of fear of distortion from journalists and political opponents. Not only does this cycle perpetuate itself further—politicians’ actions confirm journalists’ perception of politicians as schemers and further encourage journalists to portray conflict and strategy, which encourages politicians to further plan their public statements—but it also increases the visibility of political conflict and manipulation, which ultimately sows the public’s distrust in politicians.7

There’s ample evidence of the public’s strong and growing sense of detachment from the government since the ’70s,iv and two quite different bodies of evidence suggest that trust in government is related to the public’s sense that it exerts influence on government. Firstly, public opinion surveys (including the authors’ own) provide evidence that the decline in trust is associated with large majorities who expect strong government responsiveness but conclude that today’s government is captured by privileged private interests. Americans also made clear that they feel that government officials not only fail to listen and attend to the public’s wishes, but they attempt to deceive them. Secondly, public trust has improved drastically when citizens have been incorporated in running state and city government programs.v Government responsiveness to citizens increases their perception that they can influence decision making and that public officials listen to them and can be trusted.8 But there wasn’t just a decline in trust over this period: Increases in government officials’ use of crafted talk to offset the political risk of discounting centrist opinion has occurred simultaneously with falling levels of political participation. Voter turnout declined sharply in spite of the initiation of programs aimed at increasing it, and indicators of civic participation similarly declined over the same period.vi Decline in participation reflects a dramatic change in the strategy of elected officials and other political activists. Prior to the ’60s, politicians, political parties, and other political organizations equated their success with mobilizing the electorate. For voters, relatively little time and energy was necessary to become interested, informed, and engaged in politics. In this way, elites lowered the costs of participation and boosted its benefits. The decline in voting and participation in the years since is connected to the strategic choice of political leaders to abandon this tactic, relying instead on blanketing the country with their crafted presentations. The consequence of the strategic shift was that political activism became more costly and less attractive, in that citizens needed to devote more time to become informed. At the same time, the unmistakable strategic focus on manipulating their opinions rather than responding to them depressed their interest in becoming engaged in politics, and thus they participated less.9

And it wasn’t just the public that experienced negative consequences of declining responsiveness. Political leaders in the case studies pursued a strategy of influencing public opinion that is at once enticing and yet perilous. The confidence that they could dominate public debate and move public opinion lured them into championing proposals that overreached what the public or moderate politicians were willing to accept. In both cases, the strategy of crafted talk failed for two main reasons. Firstly, politicians were unable to saturate the public debate with clear or nearly uniform messages regarding the direction in which to head. Promoters of reform found it maddeningly difficult to control their message due to unexpected events, leaks, or interference from the opposition. Secondly, Americans were not blank slates passively waiting to receive information. They came to public debates harbouring complex values and attitudes, which made even well-orchestrated propaganda campaigns susceptible to effective counterattacks that primed Americans to weigh conflicting values and attitudes. But the reliance on crafted presentations to move public opinion not only backfires on politicians who fail to achieve their policy goals and suffer political retribution for overextending their resources: It also corrupts public communications and the public debate by making manipulation and deception the currency of political discourse. Politicians openly settled for deception as a pragmatic adaptation to the reality of contemporary American politics. In both case studies, deceit arose from orchestrated campaigns that promised just the opposite, and public dissensus was used to justify intensified efforts at further deception. Attempts to dominate public communications both degrade the credibility of government officials and inhibit the internal deliberations of policymakers, which imperils the effective operation and credibility of political institutions.10


Partisan-driven manipulation is justified through the trustee model of political representation, which assumes that elite independence is necessary for the effective governing of an incompetent public.vii And contemporary politicians largely subscribe to this way of thinking. The authors’ interviews revealed a strong and consistent disdain for the public’s competence to understand policy and offer reasoned input into policymaking, and this attitude has been shown by other sources.viii They also found a long-standing bias against government responsiveness to public opinion amongst politicians, presuming that responsiveness presents a dire threat to stable government.11 These views are unsurprisingly not shared by large majorities of Americans, and a growing but diverse number of researchers and political theorists, collectively known as “deliberationists,” have challenged advocates of the trustee model in agreement with the public at large, asserting that ordinary citizens possess the innate temperament and cognitive skill to be reliable partners in governing. Deliberationists focus on two distinct dimensions of public opinion—consisting of vertical communications, or the process by which the public obtains, interprets, and comes to understand the information it receives from elites, and horizontal communications, or those that occur between citizens—to provide the basis for the public as a collectivity to react in explicable and reasonable ways to events and information. And research backs this up, showing that the public reacts in a sensible way that even approaches reasonable principles and directions for new policy that compares with the understanding that specialists possess regarding the basic contours of reality.12

However, there are important measures of the quality of public opinion that forms the basis of a functional democratic society. There is widespread agreement that this requires a public that is informed, exercises critical reasoning, and engages in open and fair discussion. Research and theorizing about public deliberation have identified three broad requirements for the formation of high-quality public opinion, which also help to determine standards for evaluating the nature and content of political competition over government policy. Firstly, high-quality public opinion forms in a “public sphere” where citizens can discuss and scrutinize government actions in an open and critical manner. Secondly, public communications in support of such opinion formation should be characterized by rational and critical debate. In this way, government actions should not only be subject to open and public communications, but also to “critical publicity,” meaning it relies on the conscious cognitive process of private citizens to initiate questions of government officials, it identifies the interests advanced by each proposed policy, and it articulates the pro and con arguments for choosing one option over another.ix Thirdly, for either of these processes to be effective, they must be free from government domination. This then puts contemporary political strategy observed by the authors into better perspective. Politicians in the ’90s viewed public criticism as a political threat and attempted to shape public opinion as an integral component of their campaigns to enact the policies they wanted. They calculated that political success goes to the faction that most completely suffocates criticisms and sets the terms of public debate. The intended effect of their strategies is, therefore, to invade public communications and to disrupt the formation of public opinion of a higher quality.13

With all this in mind, changes to political strategies should be expected if we intend to cultivate and protect an informed, reasoning, and deliberative public, and to increase government responsiveness at the service of a stable democracy. Some maintain that the system contains mechanisms that can prompt such changes without requiring reform, but a look at the two main proposed mechanisms will show them to be insufficient for the changes necessary. The first is through democratic accountability, which assumes that competitive and inclusive elections allow voters to remove officeholders. Though a general electoral punishment was well-illustrated in the case studies, public disapproval of specific policies rarely resulted in a more directed electoral punishment that effectively drives the behaviour of politicians because a multitude of considerations enter into voters’ choices of candidates, the public has an incomplete knowledge of most officeholders’ positions, and political strategies work to obscure information available to voters,x thereby making it difficult to assign responsibility for policy changes. The second mechanism is through political adjustments by incumbents, which assumes that legislative defeats of prominent policy initiatives will prompt politicians to respond to centrist opinion in anticipation of electoral defeat. However, in both case studies, neither party viewed their previous attempts of crafted talk as a complete failure, because it worked effectively as an opposition strategy. As such, both sides blamed their defeats on tactical errors in executing their strategies for winning public opinion, and neither attributed failure to the strategy itself. As well, both parties continue to face strong incentives to tailor their decisions to policy goals rather than to centrist opinion, which makes compromise more politically threatening than defying the median voter. As such, reforms to the system should be required to cause a sustained increase in government responsiveness to centrist opinion and a significant decrease in politicians’ reliance on manipulation.14

A critical dimension of public communication about government must involve the processes of private citizens forming and disseminating opinions far from government. The authors promote the participation of private citizens in associations, networks, and organizations,xi but note that hoping for something of an organic flowering of citizen organizations alone runs a high risk of failure unless we design practical solutions to support this and defend it from government domination.15 For this task, the authors propose reform by altering the process of public communications, largely targeting the media.16 The press is susceptible to being used as a tool for distributing misleading messages by political factions and special interest groups, but also has the potential to make the actions of the government plainly visible, to create a space for private individuals to converge, and to provide the basis for public deliberation and criticism.17 To get closer to this ideal, the authors suggest two different aspects to target. The first is public opinion research. The current reliance on public opinion surveys as a common device for prompting citizens to form attitudes and for measuring them gleans poor-quality data, precludes discussion, is based on limited choices, and fails to capture the complexity of public thinking. Innovations in surveys and public deliberation forumsxii offer an incremental improvement in stimulating individual and group reasoning, measuring public opinion, and enhancing our collective understanding of the views of a better informed and thoughtful public, but they do not replace the need and importance of expanding and protecting the private world of citizen engagement.18 The authors suggest that such innovations to public opinion research can be used to address the second aspect more effectively: raising visibility of politicians’ actions as they relate to informed public opinion. They assert that media coverage can better draw attention to officials’ distance from what the public prefers, and this can be maintained by directly scrutinizing the media’s performance in distributing coherent information about public opinion and widely publicizing the results.xiii Such developments within journalism alongside innovations in stimulating and measuring public attitudes provide readily available means to increase the incentives for politicians to weigh public preferences when reaching policy decisions.19


There are likely a few points regarding the applicability of Politicians Don’t Pander in the here and now worth discussing. Certain aspects of the discussion are very specific to the American situation, and so may not be particularly informative to other nations, including Canada.xiv That said, much of what the authors more generally describe can be felt in some form in contemporary Canadian politics, which leads me to believe that similar processes have been at play across borders. Specific differences exist which may have altered the pace and extent of similar political changes over the period that incentivize partisan-driven policy, muted responsiveness, and a reliance on manipulation to support policy goals, but they appear to still have occurred here. It would be interesting to find a similar study that is more specific to Canada—or even to other nations as a comparison.

Because the book concerns politics from nearly thirty years ago, I wonder how much more recent political and social developments may influence different observations and conclusions. As an example, because the growth of digital media has increased economic pressures on traditional news publications, would the authors still place their faith in targeting journalism for reforms, and would this still seem practical and effective? And, with the widespread use of social media providing a novel technology that appears to encourage polarization and the spread of misinformation, to what extent does this degrade the public sphere—and is it enough to make media reform an unworkable solution? More than anything, it feels to me that politics has become more polarized and politicians have maintained their reliance on manipulation to support their policy goals since this was written, and it’s likely resulted in some of the harms to the public and democratic society just as the authors warned here but, so long as I’m unable to find more recent publications confirming this, it’s plausible that this is empty speculation on my part.

Even if things aren’t as dire as I’m imagining, and even if some of what the authors suggest here lost at least part of its relevance in the here and now, it would do us well to listen to their main arguments. As they say in conclusion, “The continued slippage in government responsiveness threatens the foundation of our democratic order … Whether democratic government survives is not foreordained or guaranteed; it is the challenge of each generation to be vigilant and reassert its importance. Insisting that politicians follow the popular will and allow citizens to engage in unfettered public debate is central to that struggle.”20


i. By “centrist opinion,” the authors specify that they refer to the median voter or citizen in the distribution of public opinion, and not in an ideologically fixed “left” or “right.”21

ii. Successfully moving public opinion produces political capital by more effectively “pressuring other politicians and securing the votes of the small but critical cluster of congressional moderates who tend to be most sensitive to centrist opinion.”22

iii. The authors demonstrate this point by contrasting the responses to the parallel cases of President Kennedy’s televised appeal in support of healthcare reform to that of Clinton’s similar appeal three decades later. In spite of the use of similar technology, the former was considered a disaster while the latter was well-received largely due to major differences in their distinctive political eras and environments. In Kennedy’s era, elite bargaining and negotiation were the primary means for influencing policy, and so his televised address was viewed as inappropriate and manipulative, whereas politicians routinely employed orchestrated presentations to minimize the electoral risk of pursuing their preferred policy goals in Clinton’s time, and so it was better planned and viewed as acceptable and expected.6

iv. Since the 1970s, there has been a significant drop in Americans’ confidence in the government’s ability to solve problems, in their sense that their political activities influence government actions, and that Washington policymakers listen to them, as reported in nearly four decades of surveys.23

v. Cities with high levels of trust used public hearings, open meetings, voter referenda, citizen panels, and surveys to identify public preferences, which were reported—along with accomplishments—in mass mailings.24

vi. This includes volunteering for political parties and candidates, turnouts for rallies or speeches, attendance of meetings on town or school affairs, writing to members of Congress, and signing petitions.25

vii. I described this model in greater detail in last month’s essay.26 Refer to Hanna Fenichel Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation for a more complete discussion of this, as well as for other theories and models of political representation.27

viii. Multiple surveys of legislative and executive branch officials cited found that “two-thirds or more of government officials doubted that the public was sufficiently informed, long-sighted, and emotionally detached to provide guidance for government decisions.”28

ix. This process is said to be expected to deliver two practical payoffs. For one, it should prompt citizens to assemble and think about a large volume and diversity of information relevant to evaluating government actions. It should also encourage citizens to weigh the reasons for competing positions and to revise their own initial opinions as they become aware of the views of others. Advocates warn, however, that this process is threatened by publicity for manipulative ends: “The problem, then, is not publicity but rather the shift in public communications from critical publicity to manipulative publicity.”29

x. This includes strategic packaging to obscure otherwise unpopular positions, but politicians also employ crafted talk to obscure their actual policy goals and avoid embracing their true positions. “While the true policy goals of each party have diverged, the public rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans has converged as each professes support for what the public favors.”30

xi. These arenas where private citizens congregate in public to trade arguments and ideas exhibit a number of important traits: they’re geared to forming opinions but exist outside the formal government structure; arguments are evaluated based on whether they make sense rather than on the status or official position of the individuals; and these diverse sites of public discussion are dispersed and loosely organized rather than concentrated and tightly controlled. As such, this type of participation creates opportunities for individuals to engage in free and spontaneous communications that impart important information about government and teach skills in argumentation and compromise.15

xii. Reforms have been attempted to the way surveys are constructed in order to capture the opinions of an informed set of respondents. These initiatives “educate” respondents by providing them with information on multiple policy options and the possible consequences of their opinions. Other initiatives involve convening groups of citizens (made up of representative samples of the larger population) to both stimulate face-to-face discussions of prepared informational materials on policy issues and direct the dialogue toward identifying desirable solutions for national and local problems.31

xiii. Though the media is already consistently criticized for soliciting the public’s views too often and hunting down politicians who wander away from these views, the evidence found by the authors shows that the real problem is that the press distorts public opinion and fails to chronicle politicians’ distance from centrist opinion. Movements and innovations that are currently attempting to reverse this trend include “civic journalism,” which more fully incorporates the public’s preferences and concerns into news coverage, and the “pollwatch,” which monitors reporting about public opinion and polling by independent critics in order to scrutinize the media’s often misleading portrayals of public opinion and voter preferences.32

xiv. As a good example, the authors were clear that the institutional changes that allowed for greater independence of individual legislators positioned even the rank-and-file to pursue their policy goals and resist their party and leadership in ways that aren’t possible in parliamentary systems.33


  1. Jacobs LR and Shapiro RY. Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  2. Ibid., pp. 68-69.
  3. Ibid., pp. 28-42.
  4. Ibid., pp.42-44.
  5. Ibid., pp. 44-52.
  6. Ibid., pp. 52-54.
  7. Ibid., pp. 55-67.
  8. Ibid., pp. 315-318.
  9. Ibid., pp. 318-320.
  10. Ibid., pp. 320-323.
  11. Ibid., pp. 298-302.
  12. Ibid., pp. 306-307.
  13. Ibid., pp. 306-311.
  14. Ibid., pp. 326-329.
  15. Ibid., pp.331-332.
  16. Ibid., p. 331.
  17. Ibid., p. 311.
  18. Ibid., pp. 332-333.
  19. Ibid., pp. 333-337.
  20. Ibid., p. 339, italics theirs.
  21. Ibid., p. 6.
  22. Ibid., p. 45.
  23. Ibid., pp. 313-314.
  24. Ibid., p. 318.
  25. Ibid., pp. 318-319.
  26. Kosoris A. “Patient-centred care in Opioid Agonist Therapy.” 14 Jan 2022. kosoris.com/essays/patient-centred-care-in-opioid-agonist-therapy/
  27. Fenichel Pitkin H. The Concept of Representation. University of California Press, 1972.
  28. Jacobs LR and Shapiro RY, op. cit. p. 301.
  29. Ibid., p. 309, italics theirs.
  30. Ibid., p. 327, italics theirs.
  31. Ibid., pp. 332-333.
  32. Ibid., pp. 334-335.
  33. Ibid., p. 37.