A new study comparing public policies relating to 10 high-profile political issues with general public opinion was released last month by the vice dean of the USC Marshall School of Business.
John Matsusaka examined the congruence between the views of the public regarding highly controversial matters such as same-sex marriage, abortion and capital punishment, and the policy choices that are currently being enforced by state governments.
The study found that only 59 percent of the policy choices were representative of the general public’s majority views.
“If policies were selected by flipping a coin, you would get 50 percent congruence. So my finding is that congruence was only 9 percent better than random policy making,” Matsusaka wrote in an e-mail. “I found this surprising and certainly much lower than I expected.”
Nicole Cruz, a junior majoring in psychology, said this particular study emphasizes the belief many hold that their vote ultimately will not make a difference when it comes to specific policy issues.
“As a young voter, these statistics worry me. It upsets me that my vote doesn’t seem to matter, especially with such important and pressing issues during this day and age,” Cruz said.
Matsusaka also found, however, that states which allow citizens to propose and approve laws directly through initiatives are much more congruent with public opinion, such as in California.
“It is clear that ballot propositions help the majority rule. This evidence contradicts those who argue that the initiative process is actually controlled by special interests,” Matsusaka wrote.
Matsusaka collected data for about three years for the study, which was published in the most recent issue of Quarterly Journal of Political Science.
He said that he has been thinking about the underlying issues of the study for at least 10 years.
“I was and am interested in this because, like many people, I have the feeling that our elected representatives often do not represent ‘the people,’ but rather cater to special interests,” Matsusaka said. “I wanted to gather some evidence that would indicate if this feeling was true. And more important, if it was true, I wanted to understand what sort of political reforms might make things better.”
Dayna Walker, a senior majoring in economics, said she was not surprised by the results of Matsusaka’s study.
“Since we have a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy, I’m not that shocked by these results. Of course I would like to see more alignment between public policy and public opinion, but in time I am hopeful that they will become more congruent,” Walker said.
Although Matsusaka said he is unsure of what kind of impact this study might have on the future of politics, he remains optimistic that it will help policymakers in the future.
“I hope that this [study], together with other studies, will paint a better picture of modern American democracy so we can think intelligently about how to modernize it and make it work better for us,” Matsusaka said.