Keeping up with the electorate

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Surveys directly affect the rhetoric of the German federal government – particularly when society deems topics to be important. This is shown by a new study.

19.05.2020 · Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research · WZB Berlin Social Science Center · News · Research result

Surveys directly affect the rhetoric of the German federal government. Anselm Hager and Hanno Hilbig, guest researchers at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), show in their new study published in the American Journal of Political Science that the German federal government panders its communication to public opinion.

The authors arrive at this conclusion by drawing on approximately 150 surveys conducted by the federal press office (BPA) during the 2009-2013 legislative period. In these surveys, conducted by major public opinion research firms for the federal government, the public is asked questions on a variety of topics. The researchers compared the write-up of the survey results to more than 20,000 public government speeches. Using new statistical methods, the authors found significant linguistic similarities between the survey reports and the government’s speeches.

Anselm Hager and Hanno Hilbig's study shows that as soon as the federal press office forwarded representative surveys to the Cabinet and the Chancellor, governmental rhetoric shifted. Not only did cabinet members change the topics of their speeches (‘agenda setting’), they also adjusted their positions to be in line with majority opinion.

The researchers conclude that the German government does not merely follow their respective party bases, but also considers the median citizen, reflected in the polls. "In light of the heated debate on Covid-19, it is quite interesting to see that the federal government keeps a close eye on public opinion and reflects the public’s view in their speeches," says Anselm Hager.

This "rhetorical representation" is particularly pronounced when society deems topics to be important. For less relevant topics, rhetorical representation is less pronounced. The finding suggests that the government keeps upcoming elections in mind. Following public opinion is not only a matter of representation, but also a matter of staying in power.

The government’s strategic use of public opinion is further illustrated by the fact that “rhetorical representation” is particularly pronounced among MPs who won their seats directly. To show this, the researchers analyzed speeches held in parliament. Members of the Bundestag who entered via party lists - i.e. who did not win their constituency's seat directly - are less inclined to follow public opinion than those who were directly elected by their constituency.

Original publication

The study 'Does Public Opinion Affect Political Speech?' by Anselm Hager and Hanno Hilbig was published in the American Journal of Political Science. It is accessible via Open Access here.

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