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“It would be naive to expect perfect congruence in any real system of political representation.”
— Thomassen and Schmitt 1999b: 186
Measuring policy congruence
IN MOST STUDIES OF POLITICAL REPRESENTATION, THE PRIMARY TOUCH-stone for ‘good representation’ is that elected politicians act in accordance with the preferences of their electorate. In cross-sectional studies this criterion is usually called ‘policy (or issue- or ideological-) congruence’ and the main debate is whether majoritarian electoral systems or proportional representation (PR) systems produce higher congruence (e.g. Huber and Powell 1994; Miller et al. 1999; Blais and Bodet 2006; Powell 2009). In longitudinal studies it is often called ‘policy responsiveness’, with studies debating whether some representative institutions adapt to changes in public opinion more quickly (Stimson et al. 1995), and whether responsiveness is caused by representatives adapting to voters, or the other way around (Esaiasson and Holmberg 1996; Holmberg 1997). All such studies agree that policy congruence (or responsiveness) indicates good political representation. This communis opinio, however, hides considerable disagreement about the proper operationalization and measurement of policy congruence/responsiveness.
Ideally, in order to gauge policy congruence, we need to compare the policy preferences of voters with the policy preferences of representatives. Voter preferences are customarily measured in surveys, often using a general Left-Right scale or specific issue scales. Occasionally, voter preferences are not measured directly, but are considered to be revealed by their party preference: all voters for a party are assumed to agree with that party’s manifesto. Obviously, such a strategy biases the results in the direction of high congruence. The preferences of representatives are sometimes measured through content analysis of election manifestos, unrealistically assuming that all representatives belonging to a party agree with all proposals in that party’s manifesto. As most of such studies in the manifesto approach count words or sentences devoted to particular policy areas, they measure a party’s issue saliency rather than a party’s issue position. A lively debate has ensued over the question whether policy positions can be derived from saliency measures (see e.g. Laver 2001). Alternatively, some studies employ expert surveys to measure the policy positions of the various political parties (also assuming that there is no variation among representatives of a party).
The ascendancy of proportional representation as the electoral system of choice, and pervasive concerns with the demographic representativeness of parliaments, both testify to the importance that is attached to ‘descriptive’ or ‘microcosmic’ representation in politics, despite persistent doubts about its desirability. This paper makes three points. First, representation as representativeness presupposes the existence of stable and meaningful social or political collectivities, which can be reflected in the composition of parliament, and this condition is undermined by the general trend towards individualization, which can be observed throughout Western Europe. Second, this trend necessitates a conceptualization of political representation not as a state, but as a dynamic relationship between the citizen and the representative. This relationship can be characterized both by its direction (from below or from above), and by the moment at which popular control is exercised (before or after the representative's period in office). Third, it is argued that both growing uncertainty about citizen preferences and the transformation of political parties into para-statal agencies push towards representation from above; and that both growing unpredictability of the political agenda and European integration push towards ex-post popular control. These developments call for greater attention to mechanisms of accountability in representative democracies.
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