Democracy for Realists, Part III

There are two ways of thinking of the role of politicians in a representative democracy. The first, which was previously addressed, is a vision of the politician as an avatar: they are to ‘represent’ the majority views in their constituency, and put aside any personal views that conflict with that. This is the operative view of the folk theory of democracy, which the authors of Democracy for Realists have provided ample evidence against.

For another quick example of the flaws in this view, take the recent polls showing that Obamacare, now that it’s on the chopping block, is more popular than ever. Republicans believe they were elected with a mandate to repeal it (set aside the problem that more people actually voted for Democrats). The only thing that has changed about the ACA over the last year has been who controls political power. If we were to take the folk theory seriously, it would imply that a non trivial percent of the population has simultaneously carefully considered the evidence and come to new conclusions regarding their preferred health care system. This strains credulity. Instead, it stands as testament to the fickleness of our opinions. Which beliefs should politicians represent? The one the people held when they elected them, or the ones they have a few months later?

In the accountability model, the primary way democracy operates is by holding politicians accountable for their past performance. In contrast to the folk theory, politicians are viewed not as avatars but as as trustees of districts. Voters have the power to remove politicians if they don’t like their performance, but otherwise there is no active mandate.

The accountability model, then, views voters as exercising indirect control of policy without sophisticated knowledge by assessing politicians’ performances, rewarding success with reelection, and failure with ouster. Would I need an understanding of the mechanisms of monetary policy to know that tight money leads to recessions? No, because I need only see that I lost my job because the tight money policies of the party in power led to a shrinking economy.

Through the threat of diselection, politicians are incentivized to act in the interest of the voters – if a policy were good for a politicians but bad for voters, the accountability model would predict that politicians would not implement that policy lest they are kicked out at the next election. Elections serve as a solution the principal-agent problem between constituents and their representatives.

The accountability models faces two challenges: 1) It requires voters to accurately calculate changes in their welfare between elections, and 2) Separate out the things which the government is responsible for from those that are not. If these conditions are not met, the accountability model falls apart; when a politician’s chance of reelection is no longer tied to their performance, they are free to act in their own interest without fear of assured consequences. As you might suspect, Achen and Bartels provide considerable evidence that this is the case.

To begin, it is very well established that the state of the economy (particularly income growth) has a measurable effect on election outcomes. This makes sense; the economy is central to our lives and is responsible for a great deal of our well being. Politicians that manage an economy poorly are most certainly not acting in the general interest, and should be appropriately removed from office.

However, there’s a catch: studies show that it’s only the performance of the economy in the six months before an election that matters to voters. Our memories are too short; we overweight recent performance and underweight the past. So, an economy could be in shambles for 3+ years, but if personal income begins to grow substantially in the summer before a presidential election, the incumbent party’s chance of reelection is much higher than it ‘should’ be.

The potential consequences of this fact are worse than simple unfairness. It incentivizes incumbents to intervene and juice the economy just before an election. I’m a bit skeptical as to the role this plays in American elections, though the authors do show that personal income growth is statistically significantly higher in US presidential election years, over and above the growth rate of national GDP.

That being said, the degree of control the president has in controlling of the economy is often popularly overrated. Perhaps there is tinkering around the edges, but the timing of major economic events, like recessions, is essentially random. It follows from this that the results of elections will tend to be random also. Take the 1992 election for example. It was preceded by a mild recession in 1990-91 that still lingered into the summer of ‘92 – unemployment was still rising as late as that June. If that recession had happened just one year earlier, the effects would have largely been gone by election time and George H.W. Bush would have certainly won reelection. In this instance, the policy consequences were probably not that great; Bill Clinton’s New Democrats were not that far away from the Republicans of that era. But today, the divide between the parties is wider and growing. In an era of polarization and a powerful executive, random control of the presidency seems disastrous.

Of course, there is more to the story than the economy. Achen and Bartels also cover popular punishment for natural disasters and other events that government has no plausible control over. The main example they use are droughts. They provide convincing evidence that drought leads to more anti-incumbent votes in areas that are reliant on farming and ranching. Why is this problematic for the accountability model? If voters were punishing poor responses to such events, by definition half of the time the response will be above average. But the authors show this makes no difference in people’s voting patterns: above average, below average, incumbents are punished just the same. Again, this removes the operating mechanism through which the accountability model works, namely, actual accountability.

To close, an interesting concept the authors address is the ‘social construction of blame.’ After all, it’s not as though we hold government responsible for any bad thing that happens to us; if we get into a car wreck on the way to the polls, we aren’t going to change our vote. (Though there is some evidence that events like important sports championships may influence voting by affecting mood; the Cubs did win the World Series just before Donald Trump was elected president…).

What is necessary is a popular story linking blame to the incumbents, whether accurate or not. Two examples to illustrate: Repeated plagues of locusts in the 1870s seemingly had no effect on incumbents in sparsely populated Nebraska, despite devastating effects on farmers; without clear communication and organization, there was no shared interpretation of the plague that placed blame on the incumbent Republicans. And during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed about half a million people in the United States, there was also no punishment effect. At that time, there was no plausible popular story linking government to a public health issue.

Again, another theory of workings of democracy is shown to be inadequate. People are simply not ‘rational’ enough in aggregate for the accountability model to be plausible. So if voters do not vote in accordance with ideology, nor do they consistent elect competent managers, then why do people vote the way they do? And can the idea of democracy as producing responsive government be saved? We’ll see next time as Achen and Bartels begin to construct a realist theory of democracy.


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