A sizeable body of work in political science implies that elected officials differ from citizens in how they think, reason, and react to politics. Some suggest that indirect democracy provides an efficient and adequate representation of the public's interests, while others advocate a more deliberative democracy with direct public involvement in governance and decision-making. Amidst the clamor of this debate, these competing viewpoints have overlooked a simple but fundamental question: how different are elected officials from everyday citizens, really?
Via an information board experiment of ninety elected officials and one hundred seventy-nine everyday citizens in two states, I examined how individuals use information to make political choices. In the study, participants were asked to solve two hypothetical public policy problems. I equalized the amount and content of information available to them, and tracked how individuals used information before selecting one of three policy options to solve the policy problems.
I found that while elected officials differ from everyday citizens on several demographic factors (on average, elected officials tend to be significantly more educated, more knowledgeable about politics, more politically involved, and wealthier than everyday citizens), these groups do not differ significantly in how they use information to make political choices. By way of the volume of information sought, their tendency to compare alternatives, and decision-making speed, elected officials and everyday citizens in the study were far more similar than different. These findings held across both decision-making problems and under a variety of experimental contexts. The findings of this study suggest that the potential benefits and potential limitations of direct democracy are far less clear than previous research suggests.