Policy Preferences and Policy Change: Dynamic Responsiveness in the American States, 1936–2014
by Devin Caughey, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Christopher Warshaw, George Washington University
What drives policy change in the American states? The full answer is surely complex, but in a democracy policy change should be largely driven by citizens’ policy preferences. In this paper, Caughey and Warshaw use eight decades of data to show that on both economic and (especially) social issues, the liberalism of state publics predicts future change in state policy liberalism. Given the particularly high barriers to responsiveness in state politics—limited state control over some policies, the competitive constraints of federalism, citizens’ inattentiveness to state politics—this fact alone should provide a counterweight to more pessimistic accounts of American democracy. Dynamic responsiveness is gradual, however; large policy shifts are the result of the cumulation of incremental responsiveness over many years. Caughey and Warshaw also find that partisan control of government mediates only a fraction of responsiveness, suggesting that, contrary to conventional wisdom, responsiveness occurs in large part through the adaptation of incumbent officials. Dynamic responsiveness has increased over time but does not seem to be influenced by institutions such as direct democracy or campaign finance regulations. On the whole, Caughey and Warshaw’s findings paint a reassuring portrait of statehouse democracy.