Forward Thinking

Fall 2014 Issue

Public Opinion on Political Representation

Getting Americans to agree on political issues is difficult-sometimes even impossible. Getting Americans to agree on their frustration with politicians-well, that’s a much easier task. While we may not give such political disdain a second thought, Assistant Professor of Political Science Todd Makse does. His research explores the way the public views politicians. Particularly, he has studied the public’s expectations of legislative representatives and whether or not those expectations are reasonable.

Makse’s experimental studies of undergraduates at Ohio State University and Radford University in Virginia suggest that most citizens don’t account for the challenges representatives face due to “asymmetry of representation.” The term refers to the idea that representatives have many constituents while citizens typically have one representative. This leaves representatives juggling various opinions and needs that are often in conflict.

Primarily, citizens judge representatives on whether or not their own personal preferences are being fulfilled. Even citizens who claim to understand the difficulties faced by representatives are no more empathetic in their judgments. Under these conditions, political diversity can pose problems for constituents and their representative. “Heterogeneous districts can be a good thing because they promote competition,” Makse explains, “but it also means there are going to be more people unhappy with outcomes.”

So how do we reduce the dissatisfaction? The solution does not have to be a shift in voters’ attitudes. Rather, Makse’s findings have more to say about reforming institutions than citizens’ expectations.

According to another study he conducted, citizens would prefer to be in districts with communities they perceive as sharing their common interests. He devised a method of redistricting that would focus on bringing together communities according to their political priorities. Makse promotes his students’ creative thinking about the design of political institutions, which is evident in his own work.

During his class on the U.S. Congress last year, he presented conclusions from his research and gave students a chance to draw their own redistricting plans.

Kevin Phelan ’15, a political science and economics major from Charlotte, N.C., participated in the project. He says of Makse, “He has his own ideas … but he always encourages students to come up with their own solutions.”

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