Political Agency (Second Edition)

May 17, 2020

One of the pleasures of revising my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics has been discovering work that speaks to our current politics. I began a series of posts on forthcoming changes to the text with a discussion of Wiola Dziuda and Antoine Loeper's model of dynamic veto bargaining, which helps to explain Republican resistance to economic aid that might outlast the COVID crisis. Last month, I wrote about the Krasa/Polborn model of issue ownership, which suggests that a "Downsian" change in electoral platform may not resolve the GOP's dilemma in the face of shifting demographics. Today, I turn attention to the politics of natural disasters, of which the COVID pandemic is a prime example.

Existing work--empirical and theoretical--suggests that a pandemic could have at least three possible effects. First, one might expect voters to react "irrationally," punishing incumbents for events beyond their control, just as voters are alleged to have responded to shark attacks or losses in college football games. Even if one is willing to assume, however, that nothing about the course of the pandemic is within the control of governing elites, recent scholarship casts doubt on whether claims in the empirical literature generalize or hold in the cases originally examined. Second, it is in fact not obvious that voter "competence" is necessary for political accountability. Indeed, the strategic incentives of politicians who want to communicate that they are deserving of reelection may rely on the Formal Models of Domestic Politics.

Third, and perhaps most relevant to our times, the presence of a disaster such as a pandemic may provide an exceptional opportunity for voters to evaluate an incumbent politician's fitness for office. Scott Ashworth, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, and Amanda Friedenberg argue this point in a model of pure selection that is a primary addition to my chapter on political agency. In the Ashworth-Bueno de Mesquita-Friedenberg model, the possible impact of a disaster on an incumbent's fortunes depends on whether she was previously "ahead" or "behind" in a race for reelection. If voters ex ante believe that an incumbent is more competent than her challenger, then a disaster--which may reveal the incumbent to be either competent or incompetent--can only reduce her probability of reelection. In contrast, those (possibly exceptional) incumbents who are disadvantaged relative to their competitors may benefit from events beyond their control: in essence, nature has gambled on their resurrection, providing them an opportunity to reveal their competence, should that be present.

Whether you think the pandemic increases or decreases Donald Trump's chances of reelection thus depends on whether you think he entered 2020 the favorite or the underdog. If you believe, as I do, that he was behind, then COVID likely increases the probability of both a landslide loss and a narrow victory. Before you dismiss the latter possibility, ask yourself the following question: How will the American electorate respond if Trump moves beyond Lysol-gate and somehow manages to badger the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry into an effective vaccine ahead of schedule? It's maybe not the most likely outcome, but it's the sort of outcome that is more likely in the presence of a pandemic.

One more question: Why does it take so long to develop a vaccine anyway? I am no expert, but Bill Gates asserts that, had we invested heavily in vaccine production over the past decade, we could have been across the finish line in a year. Empirically, we know that voters fail to reward politicians for disaster preparedness, even though the returns to such investments are enormous. In the exercises (one could learn an enormous amount of theory just working through the exercises), I present a model by Sean Gailmard and John Patty that makes sense of such behavior. In the Gailmard-Patty model, voters prefer prevention spending but worry that politicians are investing in preparedness for the wrong reasons--say, to steer government contracts to friends or supporters. In equilibrium, even honest politicians may therefore fail to invest in prevention, as doing so may convey the impression that they are corrupt.

So, that’s about it. I have one more blog post planned on changes to my textbook, and it’s a big one: a discussion of a new chapter on models of nondemocracy. Stay tuned.