Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust

The article “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust” (AJPS 60:4 – October 2016) by Joanne M. Miller, Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart is summarized by the authors here:

Contrary to the popular conception that conspiracy theorists are a small group of tinfoil hat-wearing men who spend most of their time in bunkers, conspiracy theories are not solely the domain of extremists and paranoids. They cut across demographics and political identities, and are pervasive across the globe. Conspiracy beliefs can also affect policy attitudes, social behaviors, and even medical choices. Further, just the presence of these theories in the public zeitgeist can distract political elites from attending to more pressing public policy concerns. For example, President Bush had to repeatedly respond to accusations that he and Dick Cheney staged the 9/11 attacks, and President Obama had to hold a press conference for the sole purpose of releasing his long-form birth certificate.

Given the potential political and social significance of conspiracy beliefs, a substantial and growing body of work examines the individual-level correlates of conspiracy endorsement. Our article builds on this extant literature to posit that conspiracy endorsement is a motivated process that serves both ideological and psychological needs. In doing so, we develop a theory that argues that the tendency to endorse a conspiracy theory is highest among people who 1) have a particular ideological worldview to which the conspiracy theory can be linked (i.e. liberals or conservatives), 2) have the motivation to protect that worldview and the ability to see how endorsing the conspiracy would serve that purpose (i.e., political sophisticates), and 3) believe that the world is the type of place in which secretive, malevolent actions are not only possible, but also probable (i.e., people low in trust). In other words, knowledge should exacerbate ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement and trust should mitigate it.

To test the hypotheses derived from our theory, we administered an original survey via MTurk in 2013 and replicated our findings using the 2012 ANES. We assessed belief in “conservative” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn liberals/Democrats) and “liberal” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn conservatives/Republicans), as well as ideology, political knowledge, and generalized trust.

Consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning, conservatives are more likely to endorse the conspiracy theories that impugn their political rivals, and vice versa. Our results also confirm our hypothesis that political knowledge exacerbates ideologically-motivated conspiracy endorsement whereas trust simultaneously mitigates it. Interestingly, however, this hypothesis is only confirmed for conservatives (i.e. high knowledge-low trust conservatives are the highest endorsers of conservative conspiracy theories). For liberals, trust is negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories, but knowledge is either not associated with or independently negatively associated with endorsement of liberal conspiracy theories.

This ideological asymmetry—a result that was consistent across both datasets—was unexpected, but is consistent with the notion that conspiracy endorsement, and science denial more generally, is a more attractive worldview-bolstering strategy for conservatives than liberals. It is also consistent with an alternative explanation–given that both surveys were conducted during a Democratic presidential administration, conservatives may have been situationally induced to be more motivated to bolster their worldviews (as would have liberals if the political situation had been reversed). We consider these and other alternative explanations for the asymmetry in the article.

Our results have broader implications for an increasingly polarized political discourse. As we well know, political sophisticates tend to be among the most active citizens in the United States; our findings therefore highlight a normatively displeasing notion for those who wish to view democracy through even the most rose-colored of lenses. In today’s political environment, elites (however defined) can cast outrageous aspersions against their nemeses, and can count on at least a segment of their knowledgeable (and less trusting) base to endorse (and possibly spread) what is essentially misinformation. Not only does elite polarization increase motivated reasoning within the mass public, but it is precisely this kind of motivated reasoning (endorsing ideologically-consistent conspiracy theories) that would also exacerbate polarization and rancor among elites and active partisans.

The Company You Keep: How Citizens Infer Party Positions on European Integration from Governing Coalition Arrangements

The forthcoming article “The Company You Keep: How Citizens Infer Party Positions on European Integration from Governing Coalition Arrangements” by James AdamsLawrence Ezrow, and Christopher Wlezien is summarized by the authors here:

Democratic accountability requires citizens to inform themselves about political parties’ issue positions.  Citizens may employ heuristic “shortcuts” to update their perceptions of parties’ positions, for a number of reasons, for example because collecting detailed political information is costly or because the political landscape is uncertain.

Our paper examines how citizens infer parties’ policies on European integration based on the set of parties participating in the coalition government.  Recent studies document that voters infer that coalition partners’ Left-Right policy positions converge when these parties enter into a joint governing coalition.  We show that citizens apply a similar coalition-based heuristic to infer parties’ positions along the European integration dimension.  Specifically, citizens infer that, over time, junior coalition partners shift their European integration policies in the same direction as the Prime Ministerial (PM) party’s perceived shift on this issue.  Figure 1 depicts these effects.  It displays how the PM party’s perceived shift on European integration correlates strongly with the perceived policy shifts of its junior coalition partners, but not with opposition parties’ perceived shifts.  (Junior coalition partners are displayed as a dotted line in the figure and opposition parties as a solid line, with shaded confidence intervals).  These patterns suggest that voters employ a coalition-based heuristic to update their perceptions of party policy positions on European integration.

Figure 1. Predicted effects of Perceived PM Party Shifts on the
Perceived Shifts of Junior Coalition Partners and Opposition Parties

Notes. The figure charts the predicted effects of the Prime Ministerial (PM) party’s perceived shift on the perceived shifts of junior coalition partners (the solid line) and on opposition parties (the dotted line), based on model estimates presented in the paper. The shaded regions are set so that the probability is under .05 that the predicted values overlap.

Notes. The figure charts the predicted effects of the Prime Ministerial (PM) party’s perceived shift on the perceived shifts of junior coalition partners (the solid line) and on opposition parties (the dotted line), based on model estimates presented in the paper. The shaded regions are set so that the probability is under .05 that the predicted values overlap.

Furthermore, we show that citizens’ coalition-based inferences on European integration conflict with alternative measures of party positions; in particular, neither political experts’ perceptions of party positions nor the codings of parties’ election manifestos support voters’ inference that junior coalition partners adjust their own positions on Europe in response to the PM party’s policy shift.  This disconnect implies that citizens might be cautious about applying the coalition-based heuristic to the European integration dimension.  We also show that citizens’ perceptions of party positions on Europe matter, in that citizens react to parties’ perceived shifts by updating their own policy views and/or their party support, i.e., these perceived party policy shifts drive partisan sorting in the electorate.

Our findings have straightforward implications for mass-elite policy linkages and for parties’ election strategies.  For example, the European issue is relevant to the strategic calculations of radical right parties, whose electoral appeal is tied to their anti-EU stances, including the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the British National Party, and the Dutch PVV.  To the extent that these parties’ images as staunch anti-EU parties are compromised when they govern in coalition with a more moderate Prime Ministerial party, these radical right parties may have electoral incentives to withhold this support from the government.

The Voters’ Curses: Why we need goldilocks voters

The forthcoming article “The Voters’ Curses: Why we need goldilocks voters” by Carlo Prato and Stephane Wolton is summarized by the authors here:

It is commonly accepted that a more engaged electorate would improve the performance of the democratic system. Indeed, voters who care significantly about politics should possess better information and consequently, encourage politicians to choose policies more in line with their interest. In `The Voters’ Curses: Why We Need Goldilocks Voters’, we find that this intuition is correct as long as politicians’ behavior is constant in voters’ level of political engagement. However, we also demonstrate that this logic is fundamentally flawed because politicians strategically respond to changes in voters’ political engagement. As a result of politicians’ behavior, high interest in politics can be associated with a poor performance of the democratic process.

We analyze a game-theoretic model of elections which distinguish between voters’ interest in politics (how much they care about politics) and attention to politics (how much they listen to candidates). Building on Downs’ (1957) notion of rational ignorance, we suppose that voters need to pay costly attention to the electoral campaign to learn candidates’ platforms.

In line with existing theory, we find that when voters’ interest is low, candidates have little incentive to choose policies beneficial to voters and the democratic system performs poorly. We term this phenomenon `the curse of the uninterested voter’. Our theory also predicts a low performance of the democratic system when voters’ interest is very high. High interest can create the wrong incentives for the wrong kind of candidates: Candidates would propose the voters’ preferred policy even when they do not have the necessary competence to successfully implement it. We term this phenomenon `the curse of the interested voter.’ Like Goldilocks who “likes her porridge not too cold, not too hot, likes it just right,” the best policy outcomes occur when voters care about politics not too little and not too much.

A direct implication of our results is that policy intervention meant to decrease voters’ cost of acquiring political information (e.g., subsidy for public service broadcasting) can have negative unintended consequences. A lower cost of attention would increase the electoral reward from proposing voters’ preferred policy augmenting the risk that incompetent candidates promise change despite being unable to successfully carry it out.

A slightly more subtle implication regards the relationship between interest and attention. Previous empirical studies have conflated these two notions of engagement; our paper shows the importance of distinguishing between them. When voters’ interest is high, incompetent candidates imitate competent ones by proposing the same type of policies. Voters become skeptical about learning candidates’ platforms since they do not know whether they will benefit from the policy announced by the candidate. Consequently, they pay little attention to the campaign despite a high interest in politics.

Our paper, therefore, shows that the well-documented fact that voters’ political knowledge is limited is not necessarily the result of voters’ caring little about politics, it can also be caused by candidates’ strategic behavior.

Segregation and Inequality in Public Goods

The forthcoming article “Segregation and Inequality in Public Goods” by Jessica Trounstine is summarized by the author here:

America remains an extremely segregated nation.  Although neighborhood racial segregation has lessened in recent decades, today the typical white American lives in a neighborhood that is about 75% white, while Black, Latino, and Asian Americans live in substantially more integrated places (Logan and Stults 2011). [1] These patterns have created stark divides between white and non-white communities (Enos 2011).   When a city is residentially segregated by race, issues cleave along racial and not just spatial lines and groups are more likely to be intolerant, resentful, and competitive with each other.  The result, is that segregated cities have a high degree of racial political conflict.

In an analysis of 91 mayoral election contests in the 25 largest cities in America, I find that more segregated cities are more likely to witness racially polarized voting.

Note: Predicted marginal effects of regressing racial divide in mayoral vote on segregation with controls for city demographics and governmental institutions. Racial divide in mayoral vote measured as the absolute value of the largest difference in racial group support for winning candidate. Segregation measured using Theil’s H index calculated for two groups (whites and non-whites). Gray shading represents 95% confidence interval

Note: Predicted marginal effects of regressing racial divide in mayoral vote on segregation with controls for city demographics and governmental institutions. Racial divide in mayoral vote measured as the absolute value of the largest difference in racial group support for winning candidate. Segregation measured using Theil’s H index calculated for two groups (whites and non-whites). Gray shading represents 95% confidence interval

I also find that segregated cities spend less on a wide range of services and public goods for their residents.  They raise fewer dollars, and have smaller budgets for roads, law enforcement, parks, sewers, welfare, housing, and community development.

 segregation3  segregation4
 segreation5  segregation6
Note: Figures show predicted relationship between Theil’s H segregation index and per capita spending on public goods in constant 2007 dollars.  Gray shading represents 95% confidence intervals.

Compared to a city in the 25th percentile of segregation (like Palm Bay, Florida, Oregon City, Oregon, or San Louis Obispo, California) a city in the 75th percentile (like Madison, Wisconsin, Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Jersey City, New Jersey) will spend about $100 less per resident each year.  Given that the average per capita expenditure on police is about $180, and about $57 on parks, this difference has the potential to dramatically affect the quality of public goods that individuals experience.

White residents are more likely than people of color to live in cities with low levels of segregation.  So, not only are whites segregated from racial and ethnic minorities within cities, they are also segregated from people of color across city lines.  This fact means that access to public goods is segregated along racial lines as well.  As the nation has become more diverse, it has also become more unequal.  Segregation and access to public goods play important roles in linking these phenomena.

[1]  African Americans, Latinos, and Asians live in neighborhoods that are comprised of 22%-46% of their own group.

The Dynamics of State Policy Liberalism, 1936-2014

The forthcoming article “The Dynamics of State Policy Liberalism, 1936-2014” by Devin Caughey and Christopher Warshaw is summarized by the authors here:

Many political science theories rely explicitly or implicitly on models of policy change. This is true of both of the determinants of government policies, such as shifts in public mood or changes in the eligible electorate, and of the effect of policy feedback on political and social outcomes. Moreover, many of the most ambitious theories focus not on individual policies or policy domains, but on the character of government policy as a whole. In short, most theories of policymaking are both dynamic and holistic: they are concerned with changes in the general orientation of government policy.

However, the literature on U.S. state politics relies almost exclusively on policy indicators that are either measured at a single point in time or else cover only a partial subset of state policy outputs. Static measures are poorly suited to studying causes of policy change over time. And while domain-specific measures may provide useful summaries of some aspects of state policy, such as welfare spending or gay rights, they are imperfect proxies for the overall orientation of state policy.

In this paper, we develop a holistic yearly summary of the ideological orientation of state policies, which we refer to as state policy liberalism. This measure is based on a unique dataset of 148 policies, which covers nearly eight decades (1936–2014) and includes policy domains ranging from social welfare to abortion to civil rights. Based on these data, we estimate policy liberalism in each year using a dynamic Bayesian latent-variable model. Despite the disparate policy domains covered by our dataset, we find that a single latent dimension captures the bulk of the systematic variation in state policies. Indeed, our dynamic measure is highly correlated with existing cross-sectional measures of state policy liberalism as well as with issue-specific scales on gay rights, welfare benefits, anti-discrimination laws, and abortion policies.

We interpret our measure of policy liberalism as capturing a set of ideas and issue positions that, in the context of American politics, “go together”. Relative to conservatism, liberalism involves greater government regulation and welfare provision to promote equality and protect collective goods, and less government effort to uphold traditional morality and order at the expense of personal autonomy. Conversely, conservatism places greater emphasis on the values of economic freedom and cultural traditionalism.

Our dynamic measure of state policy liberalism opens up multiple avenues of research not possible with cross-sectional measures. Most obviously, it facilitates descriptive analyses of the ideological evolution of state policies over long periods of time. The map below shows the geographic distribution of state policy liberalism in 1940, 1975, and 2010. Blue shading indicates liberalism and red shading indicates conservatism. The map shows that the geographic distribution of policy liberalism has remained remarkably stable, despite huge changes in the distribution of mass partisanship, congressional ideology, and other political variables over the past seven decades. Throughout the period, Southern states such as Mississippi have had the most conservative policies. This holds not only on civil rights, but on taxes, welfare, and a host of social issues. By contrast, the most liberal states have consistently been in the Northeast, Pacific, and Great Lakes regions. New York, for example, has long had among the most liberal tax and welfare policies in the nation, and it was also one of the first states to adopt liberal policies on cultural issues such as abortion, gun control, and gay rights.figure1_map_policy_liberalism_141226


The overall picture of aggregate stability, however, masks considerable year-to-year fluctuation in policy liberalism as well as major long-term trends in certain states. These details can be discerned more easily in a plot of the yearly time series of four states— Mississippi, Idaho, Vermont, and New York—along with the average policy liberalism across all states. As this figure illustrates, states’ policy liberalism can change substantially between years. For example, until the mid-1960s Vemont’s policies were a bit more conservative than the average state, but since then Vermont’s policies have become steadily more liberal relative to the nation. Whereas it had been a laggard in passing racial anti-discrimination laws in the 1950s and 1960s, in more recent decades Vermont has been at the forefront of adopting gay marriage and other rights for homosexuals. Its welfare benefits and regulatory policies exhibited a similar evolution. The liberalizing trajectory of Vermont and other Northeastern states, such as Delaware and Maryland, have made the region’s policies much more unifomly liberal than they once were. By contrast, several Midwestern, Mountain, and Southern states have followed the opposite trajectory. Idaho, for example, became much more conservative over this period. In the 1930s–1950s, Idaho actually had some of the most generous welfare benefits in the nation, but by the early 2000s they were among the least generous.


Our yearly estimates of policy liberalism are illuminating for their own sake, revealing historical patterns in the development of state policymaking that would be hard to discern otherwise. But they also open up research designs that leverage temporal variation in state policies to explore questions involving the causes and effects of policy outcomes. For example, scholars could examine how the cross-sectional relationship between public opinion and state policy liberalism has evolved over time; estimate the state-level relationship between changes in opinion and changes in policy; or analyze how interest groups or electoral institutions moderate the link between public opinion and state policy. Scholars could also evaluate the policy effects of electoral outcomes or the partisan composition of state government.

The relevance of our paper extends well beyond the field of state politics. In addition to facilitating the study of topics of general significance, our measurement model could be applied to policymaking by local governments as well as in cross-national studies. Even more generally, our dynamic approach to measurement helps to illustrate the value of data-rich, time-varying measures of important political concepts like policy liberalism.

Devin Caughey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (caughey (at)

Chris Warshaw is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (cwarshaw (at)

Electoral Backlash against Climate Policy: A Natural Experiment on Retrospective Voting and Local Resistance to Public Policy

The forthcoming article “Electoral Backlash against Climate Policy: A Natural Experiment on Retrospective Voting and Local Resistance to Public Policy” by Leah C. Stokes is summarized by the author here:

In many policy areas, the public holds a shared view. For instance, we would all like cleaner air and a stronger economy. But for some policies, not all groups in society share the same preferences. Sometimes, local costs are imposed disproportionately on some groups, while the entire country and planet benefits. Controversies have arisen when local communities are asked to host airports, housing projects, roads, subways, hospitals, jails, and waste facilities. While we might all benefit from these projects, local groups often resist putting them in their backyard.

This dynamic also occurs with climate policy. Across the globe, the majority of people strongly support climate policy, with actions including installing wind and solar projects, or creating a fee for carbon pollution. However, some groups in society may disproportionately bear the costs of these changes. Specific communities have industries that rely heavily on carbon pollution, and they will face significant costs in the transition away from fossil fuels. Other communities will have wind energy projects installed in their backyards, creating sound and visual changes to the landscape.

If these small groups in society are able to mobilize politically, they may be able to block the will of the majority. This dynamic is amplified if opponent groups are spatially concentrated—if opponents live and vote together. In the case of climate policy, groups have mobilized to block wind energy projects across North American and Europe, often succeeding in blocking projects. But is this mobilization politically consequential? Does the protest spill over from the local level to impact state or national elections?

To answer this question, I studied a specific policy that created a ‘natural experiment’ by sorting communities’ receipt of wind projects as a function of local wind speed. The case is Ontario, Canada, which established an ambitious climate and clean energy policy at the provincial-level in 2009 and did not allow communities to reject wind projects. I investigated whether citizens living near wind energy projects punished the government more than we would otherwise expect. Using a variety of statistical estimators, I identify electoral losses for the governing party ranging from 4% to 10%. Even people living up to 2 miles or 3 km away from these wind projects punished the government more than we would expect.

We often think that voters are not able to follow public policy, particularly in a complex area like energy policy. However, my research shows that voters only punished the provincial government responsible for the climate policy, not the federal government. Together, these findings provide evidence that voters can be informed about public policy, at least insofar as it impacts their ‘backyard.’

Despite majority support for policy to thwart climate change, implementing this policy is often difficult. As this study shows, when opponents are concentrated in communities, they can reduce democratic accountability and exacerbate political barriers to addressing climate change. Similar to locating other kinds of controversial facilities, policymakers may need to engage citizens more during project development, to build trust, address concerns about fairness, and if necessary, require revenue sharing with the community to build support. Experimenting with policy designs that lead to greater political acceptance of renewable energy will be crucial to minimizing political barriers to effectively addressing climate change.

Leah C. Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (

Death & Turnout: The Human Costs of War and Voter Participation in Democracies

The forthcoming article “Death & Turnout: The Human Costs of War and Voter Participation in Democracies” by Michael T. Koch and Stephen P. Nicholson is summarized by the authors here:

International conflict has the potential to engage even the least politically interested individuals in society. In our research, we examined whether international conflicts that witnessed combat casualties mobilized voters. We proposed that this happens because mortality salience causes people to defend their beliefs. Studies from psychology have shown that if reminded of death, people are more likely to defend their worldview and others who share it. Since casualties invoke thoughts and feelings related to death, we predicted that increasing casualties would motivate people to vote.

Using both cross-national and individual level data, we examined whether combat casualties increased voter turnout in established democracies. Studying twenty-three democracies over a fifty-year period, we found that mounting casualties increased national-level turnout. We also examined survey data from the United States and United Kingdom during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and found that the effect of casualties on turnout is enhanced if they are from the local community and happen close to the election. Although one might expect that people who opposed the war are most likely to turnout, we found no clear partisan effects. In the United States, for example, neither Democrats nor Republicans were disproportionately mobilized to vote. Nor was the effect concentrated among Independents. Rather, we found that the effect happened among the least politically interested members of society regardless of party affiliation. In both the United States and United Kingdom, those who were least interested in politics were just as likely as the most interested to vote as casualties accrued.

Our research has important implications for democracy as well as democratic foreign policy making.  Increased voter participation, especially in response to local combat casualties suggests that democratic institutions provide the public with a means of expressing voice. Increased electoral participation during wartime might also increase the responsiveness of elected leaders to the public. However, the absence of a partisan dimension to the mobilizing effects of casualties during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars likely mean that U.S. leaders were more beholden to their base constituencies.  It suggests that leaders may anticipate the public’s response to the use of force abroad, informing their preferences about whether to engage in international conflict. Policy choices that ultimately involve the human costs of war, can deeply engage audiences, mobilizing even the least politically interested

Are Voters Equal under Proportional Representation?

The forthcoming article “Are Voters Equal under Proportional Representation?” by Orit Kedar, Liran Harsgor, and Raz A. Sheinerman is summarized by the authors here:

Are voters equally represented under proportional representation? We focus on countries employing proportional representation with districts – the most prevalent electoral system in the democratic world – and draw on an often overlooked fact: in most such countries some voters cast their ballots in districts of few representatives (usually in agricultural areas and small towns) and others (residing in cities) in large districts of many representatives. While in some countries the latter is larger than the former by up to twenty-fold in others the variation is quite small. This implies that in countries with substantial variation in district magnitude some votes are counted by quasi-majoritarian rules and others by proportional ones.

Given that in Western democracies cities tend to be liberal in comparison to rural areas and small towns that are often conservative, we show that the majoritarian boost in small districts is granted to conservative votes while large and proportional districts do not offer a comparable boost to liberal votes. This leads to a systematic ideological inequality in parliamentary representation within countries: the parliamentary pie is often biased in favor of conservative voters compared to their share the electorate.

In our journey to analyze inequality in parliamentary representation we borrow and adapt tools of analysis from the study of income inequality — Gini index and Lorenz curve. Our index of representational inequality (RI) allows us to compare the level of representational inequality across countries. We find that countries with districted PR tend to resemble majoritarian ones in their level of representational inequality more than commonly assumed. We also find that irrespective of the magnitude of the average (or median district) the greater the share of parliament elected via small districts, the larger the level of representational inequality in that country.

Our study challenges the ‘on average’ approach to the study of representation and puts forth new considerations at the doorstep of institutional designers.

Experiential Learning and Presidential Management of the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy: Logic and Evidence from Agency Leadership Appointments

Author: George A. Krause, Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh

Agency leaders, defined as upper-echelon PAS confirmed political executives, are vital to shaping both the content and character of democratic governance in the United States.  Agency leaders play a prominent role in shaping policy agenda setting and formulation, programmatic planning, and guidelines for administering public policies.  In addition, agency leaders functionally serve as ‘intermediaries’ between political institutions and a bureaucratic organization with a concretely defined policy mission anchored by civil servants.  Unsurprisingly, presidents place considerable thought and effort in selecting individuals to serve in these agency leadership positions.

In our forthcoming AJPS article “Experiential Learning and Presidential Management of the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy: Logic and Evidence from Agency Leadership Appointments”, Anne Joseph O’Connell and I seek to better understand how presidential appointment choices are made for these critical positions in two ways that depart from existing research on this topic.

First, we assert that presidents make these agency leadership appointment choices based on the expected capabilities of these individuals’ regarding (1) loyalty to the administration’s objectives, (2) managerial skills, and (3) policy expertise.  Presidents base these characteristic assessments on a given individual’s ‘dossier’ containing objective biographical data known prior to the nomination decision.

Second, rooted in organizational theories from various cognate social science disciplines, we maintain that individual presidential administration learn as the accrue experience in office.  In turn, we posit that presidents should become better at managing to serve their own policy interests, and hence, this will influence how they select agency leaders in response to changing administrative and political conditions.

Latent trait estimate measures of an agency leader’s loyalty to the appointing president, managerial competence, and policy competence come from our original biographical database containing objective publicly available information on 1372 agency leader appointee observations for 39 U.S. federal agencies (56, including executive offices and bureaus) covering the entirety of five presidential administrations (Jimmy Carter through George W. Bush).

The empirical evidence reveals that with greater experience in office, presidents become:

  • More effective at compensating for uncertainty regarding an appointee’s expected capabilities (Agent Selection Learning);
  • Rely less on mechanism design strategies that mitigate information and policy biases by engaging in counterbalancing appointees’ expected capabilities within the upper-echelons of U.S. federal agencies (Agent Monitoring Learning);
  • Placing a premium on reducing expected capabilities pertaining to competence (managerial and policy) compared to increasing loyalty as a rational response to legislative policy conflict (Common Agency Learning).

Our study offers considerable promise for understanding the prospects and limits of executive authority in the U.S. federal government.  Not only are presidents able to effectively assuage the effects of formal institutional constraints that they encounter by adapting how they wish to select agency leaders, but they also become more skilled at managing loyalty-competence tradeoffs.  This is especially encouraging news for those viewing both enhanced executive branch coordination and the robust exercise of executive authority as means to offset the diminution of power and influence (in the form of declining political capital and reputation loss) that presidents generally experience the longer that they serve in office.

Ideology, Learning, and Policy Diffusion: Experimental Evidence

The forthcoming article “Ideology, Learning, and Policy Diffusion: Experimental Evidence” by Daniel M. Butler, Craig Volden, Adam M. Dynes, and Boris Shor is summarized here:

One of the benefits of American federalism is the ability for states and localities to try out new policies, keeping the successes, abandoning the failures, and learning from one another.  However, in ideologically polarized times, this system of learning and policy diffusion may be under serious strain.

To explore this possibility, we embedded experiments in surveys of local policymakers across the U.S.  We offered vignettes of the policies tried in other communities and asked the local officials whether they wanted to learn more, perhaps to try similar policies at home.  The policies were left-leaning government interventions in the areas of commercial zoning and home foreclosures.  And, as may be expected, liberal-leaning officials were more interested in learning than were conservative officials.

However, our study showed that interventions can overcome the observed conservative bias against learning about these policies.  For the experimental component of our studies, we varied how the policies of others were described – as successes or failures, and as adopted by Republicans or Democrats.  When described either as a success or as a policy previously tried by Republicans, conservatives became as interested in learning more as were liberals in the control condition.  In the end, about two-thirds of them wanted to learn more about others’ experiences with the policies.

On the whole, this study establishes that ideological biases do exist in the willingness of officials to consider new policies across American cities and towns.  But those biases can be overcome under the right circumstances.  Policymakers want to learn about what works, and will pay close attention to the experiences of co-partisans, even if they are initially ideologically predisposed against the policy in question.


The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.