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What Mechanisms Drive Elite Responsiveness towards Public Opinion? An Experimental Study with Belgian MPs

Survey Experiments
Karolin Soontjens
Universiteit Antwerpen
Karolin Soontjens
Universiteit Antwerpen
Julie Sevenans
Universiteit Antwerpen

Democracy is built on the idea that representatives must, at least to a certain extent, be responsive towards the demands of whom they represent. Addressing such macro-level congruence between public opinion and actual policy-making, scholars bring up two possible explanations. First, electoral incentives presumably incentivize politicians to strategically adapt their behavior towards public opinion (Canes-Wrone, Brady, & Cogan, 2002; Mansbridge, 2003; Mayhew, 1974). Next to such extrinsic pressures, politicians might as well be intrinsically motivated to act in line with the opinions of those whom they are expected to represent, feeling that it is their duty as a representative to translate their desires into public decision-making (Butler & Broockman, 2011; Searing, 1985). While extant research has theorized about the mechanisms that cause individual politicians to adapt their behavior in response to information about public preferences, it has never been put to an empirical test. Drawing on a survey experiment in which Belgian politicians are confronted with real public opinion information, this study examines whether intrinsic or extrinsic pressures moderate how responsive they (hypothetically) behave, with a distinction being made between communicative behavior, intra-party behavior and actual voting behavior in parliament. Both the differential impact of public opinion information on these different types of political behavior, and the variation among individual politicians adhering different representational roles and feeling more/less accountable, provide unique insights in the mechanisms driving elite responsiveness.
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