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What democracy do we want? The problematic focus on the median voter

One of the key principles of democracy is responsiveness (May 1978: 1). Democracy is based on institutions, which allow citizens to control their governments by granting them a political mandate based on citizens’ policy-making preferences, and revoking it in subsequent elections if the government does not respond to citizens’ expectations. However, in all democracies the interests and preferences of citizens on political issues vary. As citizens will never have identical opinions on an incumbent government, direct control by the citizens requires a rule that establishes how opinions are aggregated and to whom governments should be responsive. This article argues that the widespread belief that democracy should resort to the rule of the median voter is too shortsighted. Democracy may take many different shapes and forms that go beyond the rule of the majority, but the extent to which democracies make use of these options differs vastly between countries (Bühlmann et al. 2011). Reviewing new empirical research from The National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Democracy, we show that the still dominating focus on the median voter risks excluding important groups and legitimate preferences within the population. More inclusive models of democracy not only allow a larger number of citizen preferences to be considered, but they also lead to less conflict and higher degrees of political support (among minorities). Both, political practitioners and academics usually associate democracy with majority rule, which is widely understood as the rule by the median voter. From a theoretical perspective, the importance of the median in politics stems from the fact that “the position of the median voter is the only policy that would be preferred to all others by a majority of voters” (Powell, 2000: 163). A more careful investigation of the effect of institutions associated with the majoritarian model of democracies, such as the plurality rule or multi-round majoritarian elections, shows that they often fail to represent the median voter (see Grofman 2004 for a review). However, the main underlying question of this discussion are less the failures of majoritarian institutions to represent the median voter, but the normative ideal as such. From an empirical perspective, an abundance of studies deal with questions of policy responsiveness and issue or policy congruence (Golder and Stramski 2010; Huber and Powell 1994; Powell 2000; Powell and Vanberg 2000; Wlezien and Soroka 2012), or representation more generally (e.g. Shapiro et al. 2010). Most studies of policy congruence primarily analyse whether policy-making reflects the position of the median voter or how preferences among legislators reflect preferences of the population as a whole. Going beyond this, there is increasing empirical interest in identifying systematic deviations from the median voter model. In some democracies, specific groups of citizens tend to be more influential. In particular, these are wealthy citizens, specific interests, which are more easily organised than others, or particularly engaged citizens (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2012). These studies report a bias of representation towards privileged groups, which is understood as undermining the quality of democratic representation. Instead, we ask whether the particular consideration of groups other than majorities can improve democratic representation, i.e. we discuss the quality of representation beyond the common focus on the median voter.

Project Number Democracy Barometer
Author(s) Bochsler, Daniel & Miriam Hänni
Series/Publication Swiss Political Science Review 23(3)
Year 2017
Pages 270-278
URL http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spsr.12262/full
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