American Public Opinion, Advocacy, and Policy in Congress: What the Public Wants and What It Gets, Paul Burstein

Reviewed by Christopher Wlezien



The title of this book sums up what it covers. Paul Burstein addresses the fundamental question of representative democracy: does the public get what it wants from government? He is not the first to do so, but he is the first to do what he does in this book. Burstein identifies a random sample of policy proposals introduced in Congress and then assesses the influence of both public opinion and interest group advocacy on their passage. Do members of Congress represent public opinion when acting on the sample of policy proposals? Do they respond to interest group pressure? Burstein provides surprising answers that challenge the way we think about democracy in America.

It is an empirical book, and the methodology that Burstein employs is its real strength. His approach involves defining and measuring “policy proposals” as distinct from bills, as each proposal can be introduced in different bills, and then sampling from them—that is, he lets public opinion pollsters or interest groups or his own judgment define which proposals he examines. Having produced a sample of 60 policy proposals, Burstein turns to the effects of public opinion and, especially, interest group advocacy on the advancement of those proposals.

Burstein identifies polls corresponding to each policy proposal. There is not a precise matching in each case, as there

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