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The Impact of Public Opinion on Policy in Cross-National Perspective

Mon, August 14, 4:30 to 5:30pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 517B


Previous research has found strong support for the opinion-policy relationship, especially for salient political issues. Contrary to this dominant view, we find that previous cross-national research has overestimated the importance of public opinion for policy by failing to simultaneously account for within-and across-country trends. This shortcoming has led to the spurious conclusion that public opinion influences welfare state spending in modern democratic society. Using pooled individual-level survey data from four waves of the ISSP Role of Government module (1985-2006) combined with country-level data from 19 OECD countries, we measure the effect of public opinion on four salient policy areas: pensions, health care, unemployment, and education. Our analysis explores whether (1) public opinion influences social policy spending in OECD democracies, and (2) the opinion-policy relationship is stable over a range of policy issues at the country-level. We find no support for either query. Rather, our data show that when longitudinal within-country change is considered, the importance of public opinion for policy virtually disappears, implying that most democratic governments enact policy change for reasons other than public opinion.