Winning Proposal to the Converse-Miller Scholar's Fund: 2015 Competition

Project Title: The Clue’s in the News: Unpacking the Thermostatic Model’s Mechanism of Policy Responsiveness

Faculty Sponsors: Stuart Soroka

Graduate Student: Fabian Neuner

Project Description

The relationship between government outputs and public preferences is central to political representation and democratic responsiveness. One theory that has recently gained substantial traction in this literature suggests that citizens respond thermostatically to policy change. Critics of this model – drawing in large part on work by Converse himself – are quick to point out that the average citizen has only a very limited grasp of politics and an even hazier understanding of the policy process and ensuing policy outputs. This alleged dearth of knowledge clashes with the normative ideal of democratic responsiveness, which requires citizens to be able to connect policy outputs to their preferences.

It nevertheless appears to be the case that government spending affects the public’s preferences for the amount of future spending. How can we reconcile evidence of thermostatic responsiveness with evidence of uninformed publics? Professor Soroka’s current theorizing suggests that even very basic information in media content provides cues facilitating an understanding of the direction of policy change. Tentative support for this theory comes from an analysis of media content, which reveals that the tone and emphasis of the news environment provides basic cues on the direction in which policy is moving. Media content analyses suggest that the public may be able to glean the information that is necessary for thermostatic responsiveness.