A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy

The forthcoming article “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” by Luca Bellodi, Massimo Morelli, and Matia Vannoni is summarized by the authors below.

Much has been written on the causes of populism, and much on its most frequent features, but little has been documented about its consequences. The literature on the causes of populism emphasizes the role of globalization and immigration in triggering voters’ demands for economic and identity protection and support for populist parties. As a result of these economic and cultural shocks, voters’ trust in traditional tools of representative democracy plummeted. The political response to this erosion of trust has been the systematic use of simple protection commitments that could give voters tighter control over policy. “I will build a wall”, “deliver Brexit”, “citizenship income”, and “economic protectionism” became key messages of candidates’ electoral campaigns, as well as a strong anti-elite and pro-people sentiment. When politicians resort to simple commitments to win the support of disillusioned voters, they also fuel distrust towards the corrupt politicians protecting the corrupt elites who are profiting from the economic and cultural order to the detriment of “the people”. Simple commitments and anti-elite rhetoric hence become the electoral tool kit of populist politicians. When in power, populists try to implement their policy commitments regardless of financial constraints and expert assessment, worsening government economic performance and dismantling the bureaucracy. 

We bring these predictions to the data in the context of local government in Italy. With novel data on more than 8,000 municipalities over more than 20 years, we estimate the effect of electing a populist mayor with a close-election regression discontinuity design. We find that the election of a populist mayor leads to smaller repayments of debts, a larger share of procurement contracts with cost overruns, higher turnover among top bureaucrats – driven by forced rather than voluntary departures – and a sharp decrease in the percentage of highly skilled bureaucrats. The long-term consequences of these dynamics are hard to predict, although they are likely to be persistent and significant. 

About the Authors: Luca Bellodi is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Bocconi University, Massimo Morelli is a Professor of Political Science and Economics at Bocconi Universityand Matia Vannoni is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at King’s College LondonTheir research “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Globalization and Promissory Representation

The forthcoming article “Globalization and Promissory Representationby Christina J. Schneider and Robert Thomson is summarized by the authors below.

This article reports that globalization has a significant and negative effect on governing parties’ ability to fulfill the promises they made to voters in previous election campaigns. We argue that this is a key aspect of the debate on the impact of globalization on national democratic representation. Opinion is divided on the question of whether countries’ integration into the international economic system has negative consequences for the quality of national representation. Some scholars contend that exposure to globalization poses a grave threat to meaningful national democracy, while others argue that national democracy can still thrive in a globalized world. This debate has become all the more pertinent in the context of recent developments that have been described as deglobalization. Our focus on the fulfilment of election pledges sheds light on this debate in relation to promissory representation, which holds that parties should make promises to voters during election campaigns and follow through on those promises if the election results give them sufficient governing authority to do so. If governing parties are habitual promise breakers, then at least one common justification for elections is called into question. 

We argue that countries’ exposure to economic globalization is associated with increased economic uncertainty, international legal constraints, and the empowerment of internationally oriented market actors. These constrain governing parties in their attempts to follow through on their campaign promises. Our empirical strategy consists of quantitative and qualitative analyses. The quantitative analyses draw on work by the Comparative Pledges Project (CPP), which has assembled detailed evidence on thousands of campaign promises made by parties in twelve countries. Previous studies by CPP researchers, including a previous article in the AJPS, focused mainly on the domestic power-sharing arrangements that constrain governing parties in fulfilling their election pledges, and has not yet considered the possible impact of countries’ exposure to globalization. A series of statistical models show that the negative effect of globalization on promise keeping is robust to a range of different plausible specifications.  

The qualitative part of the study consists of a detailed case study of the UK Conservative Party’s infamous campaign promise from 2010 to cut net migration to the UK to under 100,000. This is a typical case study in that it is a broken promise made in a country that is highly exposed to economic globalization. Notwithstanding the government’s serious attempts to reduce migration to the UK, factors relating to economic uncertainty, international legal constraints and powerful market-oriented actors prevented the government from fulfilling the pledge. 

The article is part of a larger project in which we are examining the consequences of globalization for a broad range of indicators of democratic performance in established democracies. This includes the extent to which globalization affects parties’ responsiveness to public opinion, and the possible tradeoffs between responsiveness and responsibility. In doing so we seek to add insights into the polarized debate on the impact of globalization on national democracy. 

About the Authors: Christina J. Schneider is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego and Robert Thomson is a Professor of Political Science at Monash University. Their research Globalization and Promissory Representation is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation

The forthcoming article “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” by William Minozzi, Ryan Kennedy, Kevin M. Esterling, Michael A. Neblo, and Ryan Jewell is summarized by the authors below.

As trust in government and democratic institutions continues to hit new record lows, the push to scale up the most effective forms of civic engagement are intensifying, and governments are becoming more invested partners in such efforts. But robust civic engagement, such as public deliberation, is a heavy and expensive lift not only for planners but also for participants. To reach beyond the affluent and already-engaged, planners have to offer not only all the necessities for a high-quality deliberation, but multiple timeslots, childcare, perhaps incentives if participants have to miss work. 

These requirements make efforts to scale up to the point necessary to impact our democracy quite daunting, leading some democratic theorists and funders to propose individual deliberation as a better vehicle. After all, individual deliberation could be made asynchronous, available on-demand whenever a citizen wants to engage, and perhaps even be less subject to some of the vagaries of group dynamics. It’s easier to sweep a thousand pebbles than move one huge boulder. Maybe this is what it would take to involve enough people to change our institutions—a Candy Crush for deliberation? 

It’s an open question: there has been little empirical evidence so far on the specific value of public deliberation over individual deliberation. We therefore decided to try to test exactly that, to see if individual deliberation could achieve similar results to public deliberation, presumably at much lower cost when taken to scale. 

Our team designed an experiment to test the effects of three different levels of engagement: public deliberation, individual deliberation and an information-only control. Our experiment’s participants were constituents of two participating U.S. Senators. We randomly assigned the constituents to one of the three conditions. In the public deliberation condition constituents participated in online group deliberation using the Common Ground for Action platform with other residents of their state, structured around an issue guide and short videos that discuss policy options and elucidate tradeoffs. The individual deliberation condition walked participants through a questionnaire that simulated the online discussion, encouraging individual deliberation by requiring subjects to watch the same videos from the discussions and confront the same tradeoffs. To independently measure the value of both public and individual deliberation, some participants were assigned to a control group. Members of the control group were provided access to the same information and the same videos but could skip this part of the experiment if they wished. We informed participants in all three groups that the results of the study would be shared with their respective Senators via a report that we submitted to each office. We conducted pre- and post-event surveys with all participants, so that we could compare the results for those who did the individual vs the public deliberation on the following measures: 

  • satisfaction with the experience  
  • change in opinion  
  • gains in knowledge  
  • gains in enthusiasm 
  • increased trust in government and their own sense of civic efficacy

When we compared the pre- and post-data from all three types of engagement, we found that individual deliberation did offer clear benefits over merely providing access to information, but it fell well short of the gains produced by public deliberation. Public deliberation produced an overall effect almost double that of individual deliberation, even though our sessions were online rather than face-to-face. Further, we found no evidence that important limits sometimes observed in face-to-face public deliberation—such as disparities in the experience that arise from conflict avoidance or less education, or social dynamics that can arise based on race and gender—reduced these benefits. Specifically, we found that: 

  • Public deliberation did produce higher levels of satisfaction than individual deliberation: an 11 percentage point rise in participants’ attitudes toward the session vs 4% for those who did the individual deliberation.  
  • Deliberating with others also produced more opinion change than individual deliberation: while the number of participants who reported changing their minds was fairly small, 9%, it was more than double that (4%) of those who changed their minds after individual deliberation. Both forms of deliberation also caused small knowledge gains.  
  • Public deliberation increased enthusiasm on the immigration issue, causing a 9% increase, three times the increase caused by individual deliberation.  
  • Public deliberation also slightly increased participants’ sense of efficacy and trust, although not significantly more than individual deliberation. This may have been due to the horizontal nature of the deliberation, in that there was no direct interaction between the Member of Congress and constituents— our previous research showed notable increases in both when there was such direct interaction.  
  • These increases were made equally across demographic groups, showing that public deliberation does not, as sometimes feared, provide its gains only to the more privileged of its participants.  

If we had found little evidence of differences in the effects of public and individual deliberation, that would have called into question the large investments that institutions and governments have made in the practice. But instead, our findings suggest that public deliberation may well be worth that cost. Actors in this space who wish to scale up this form of civic engagement should absolutely rigorously examine ways to bring down the costs of public deliberation— by moving online, by finding more cost-effective methods of constituent recruitment, etc.— but it appears to be significantly more effective than individual deliberation on many of the measures crucial to helping repair our democracy. 

About the AuthorsWilliam Minozzi is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, Ryan Kennedy is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, Kevin M. Esterling is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, Michael A. Neblo is a Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, and Ryan Jewell is a Senior Applied Data Scientist at Civis Analytics. Their research “Testing the Benefits of Public Deliberation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The Dynamics of a Policy Outcome: Market Response and Bureaucratic Enforcement of a Policy Change

The forthcoming article “The Dynamics of a Policy Outcome: Market Response and Bureaucratic Enforcement of a Policy Change” by Steven Callander, Dana Foarta, and Takuo Sugaya is summarized by the authors below.

Policy outcomes are determined not by the words in a statute but by the actions of private citizens. A policy’s success or failure depends on how it shapes behavior and how that behavior shapes the future course of policy. To understand this process, we develop a model that combines the political and non-political domains, focusing on competition policy and the regulation of markets.  

The interaction of politics and markets is as relevant today as it has ever been. Calls to more tightly regulate markets have reached a crescendo. From calls to regulate “Big Tech”, and even break them up, to protests that antitrust policy is too lax and regulators are captured, politicians and activists are calling for policy to change to shape market outcomes toward a different goal. 

But that goal is not so easy to obtain. How politicians can achieve their desired outcome – and even if they can – is determined not by their own resolve, but by how markets respond to a policy change. 

Our model captures the dynamic interaction of markets and politics. We focus on a particular policy change that opens a market to competition. Our main result is to identify a threshold in the fundamental structure of a market – outside of politics – that determines whether a policy change will succeed or fail. 

If competition can reach a level beyond that threshold, it will persist and the policy change will succeed in opening the market to competition. If, however, competition does not reach the threshold, it will backslide, so that competition contracts and the market reverts to monopoly. In this case, the policy change leaves no lasting mark on society. Surprisingly, we show that when a policy change is doomed to fail, it actually leads to more competition initially, so that what seems like a successful policy change is actually an indication of inevitable failure. 

Our results provide an intriguing supplement to Paul Pierson’s distinction between path dependence in politics and the mean-reverting properties of markets. In combining both forces into a single model, we identify when politics dominates markets and when markets win out. This opens a new dimension to understanding policy change and the design of political institutions. It makes clear that an institution’s impact rests not on the policy it produces, but on how that policy changes society. Our research shows that incorporating the dynamic interaction of markets with politics is essential to understanding policy change. 

About the Authors: Steven Callander is a Professor of Political Economy at Stanford University, Dana Foarta is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Stanford University, and Takuo Sugaya is an Associate Professor of Economics at Stanford University. Their research “The Dynamics of a Policy Outcome: Market Response and Bureaucratic Enforcement of a Policy Change” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Agenda Control under Policy Uncertainty

The forthcoming article “Agenda Control under Policy Uncertainty” by Steven Callander and Nolan McCarty is summarized by the authors below.

Agenda control is a central concept in the study of policymaking. As scholars have long pointed out, the ability to define the set of alternatives is an important source of power and influence. In their canonical work, Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal formalize key implications of agenda control. They model agenda control, is its barest form: a single agenda setter (or proposer) may offer a take-it-o-leave offer to a single voter to change the existing status quo policy. The model makes three predictions that have become conventional wisdom about agenda setting. First, policy change occurs if and only if it begins outside the classic gridlock interval bounded by the legislators’ ideal points. Second, the proposer is able to generate better policy outcomes for herself when the status quo is extreme. Third, the voter is worse off when the status quo is bad but that her downside utility is bounded.

While these predictions have been central to theoretical and empirical work on legislatures, courts, and voter referenda, the underlying model is based on strong assumptions about the proposer’s and voter’s information about the consequences of different policy alternatives. In our paper we relax those assumptions to analyze agenda setting in the context of policy uncertainty. When there is policy uncertainty, the players no longer know for sure which outcomes will be obtained from a given policy.

We show that all three of Romer and Rosenthal’s lessons are fundamentally altered with policy uncertainty. Policy uncertainty alters agenda setting power because it adds risk to the outcome. In trying to change an outcome for the better, a policy change may undershoot, overshoot, or even move in the opposite to the intended direction. This risk tempers the willingness to change. Thus, an outcome that both legislators prefer is not sufficient to induce policy change and the famous gridlock interval of legislative politics is widened. The risk also tempers the proposer’s power, meaning she has less leverage in a world of certainty and that the benefit of change is lower. We show that, in contrast to Romer and Rosenthal, that the Proposer’s power is maximized at an intermediate level of leverage. Bounding the proposer’s power does not benefit the voter as policy uncertainty afflicts all legislators, and his utility is no longer bounded below as it is in Romer and Rosenthal.

These predictions alter the classic intuition of Romer and Rosenthal, yet they match more closely Clinton’s (2012) finding on Congressional voting over changes to minimum wage laws – an area where there is substantial debate and disagreement over the consequences of policy changes.

We extend our model to two periods of policymaking. In a world of policy certainty, future periods are uninteresting as once a policy is in the gridlock interval, it cannot leave. With policy uncertainty, however, attempts to move policy into the gridlock interval may fail, leading to subsequent applications of agenda power. We show that this leads to rich policy dynamics as legislators bargain, reevaluate, and strike new deals. Strikingly, however, we find that the proposer’s ability to reapply her agenda control each period means that policy bargains with a long horizon converge on those in a one-shot environment.

About the Authors: Steven Callander is a Professor of Political Economy at Stanford University and Nolan McCarty is a Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Their research “Agenda Control under Policy Uncertainty” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress

The forthcoming article The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress  by Christian Fong is summarized by the author below.

Most ordinary people help those who have helped them, even if they won’t get anything in return.  However, elected politicians might not behave like ordinary people.  Perhaps only the most cunning and ruthless people candidates can win elections, or perhaps the intense pressure and high stakes of their work numbs politicians to the feeling of gratitude that is so important to ordinary people.  Maybe politicians return past favors, but out of a cold, calculated desire to get others to help them in the future rather than any feeling of obligation or gratitude. 

This article shows that legislators, like ordinary people, like to help those who have helped them for its own sake, even if they don’t have anything to gain.  A survey presented state legislators with a hypothetical situation in which a legislator must vote on an amendment to increase government spending.  The state legislators reported that, even if the hypothetical legislator was about to leave office, he would still care more about whether the sponsor of the amendment had voted for his recent bill than whether the state was facing a budget deficit.   The results from this survey were reinforced by a study of how members of the US Congress who had just lost their campaigns for reelection voted in the two-month lame duck session between their defeat and when they had to leave office.  The legislators who received more campaign money from their party leader voted with the party more often, even though they were about to leave politics.  Finally, members of the US House of Representatives vote with their party at a higher rate after their party leader gives them an assignment to a prestigious committee, but only for as long as that leader stays in office.  As soon as that leader leaves office, they stop voting with their party so often. 

The survey and the study of the lame duck session both show that legislators repay past favors, even when they are about to leave politics and therefore have nothing to gain by repaying those favors.  The study of committee assignments shows that they feel gratitude toward the particular person who performed the favor.  Together, these three studies show that whatever character traits it might take to win elections, however much pressure holding elected office might place on politicians, legislators feel the same obligation to repay past kindness that most of us do. 

About the Author: Christian Fong is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Their research “The Preference for Reciprocity in Congress” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science

Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion

The forthcoming article “Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion” by Lawrence Ezrow, Michele Fenzl, and Timothy Hellwig is summarized by the authors below.

In The Federalist Papers (No. 62), James Madison asserted that introducing a second legislative chamber was an effective tool to diffuse power and prevent the tyranny of the majority.  Our study, however, suggests that the presence of a strong second chamber reduces a key source of government legitimacy: policy responsiveness to public opinion.  

We show that the organization of the legislature, into one or two chambers, affects whether governments deliver policy that reflects the changing preferences of the public. This question has gained prominence in recent political debates in Europe. For example, in 2014, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tried to pass a constitutional reform that would have weakened the Senate. The rationale that was put forward for weakening the upper house and thus the “perfect” bicameralism of the Italian Parliament was precisely to grant the government more leeway to respond to socio-economic challenges and public demands.  

Our findings support this reasoning. Our theory emphasizes the distribution of power between chambers and how equal power distributions can reduce the ability of governments to respond to shifts in public opinion. Drawing on data on public opinion and policy outputs, we analyze the role of citizens’ preferences for the design of welfare and immigration policies across fourteen established democracies.  We find that governments are more responsive to shifts in public opinion in systems with a single dominant chamber than under strong bicameralism. Furthermore, evidence from the case of Belgium, wherein the fourth State Reform shifted power away from the Senate, confirms that policy became more responsive to public opinion after the Senate was weakened.  

These findings are important for theoretical and policy reasons. With respect to theory, we evaluate an often overlooked prediction for how institutions affect democracies. To some, bicameral institutions matter because the presence of an upper chamber reduces prospects for policy outcomes to diverge from the status quo. For others, the influence of such institutional arrangements over policy outcomes stems from the specific distribution of authorized control between chambers over decision-making. We build on both perspectives and show that the number of chambers matters—and so too does the power distribution between them. In terms of policy implications, our study shows that reforms, such as that completed in Belgium in the 1990s and the one proposed in Italy in the 2010s, can strongly affect policy-making processes in democracies. The findings should therefore inform discussions also in other contexts, such as the United Kingdom, where reform of the House of Lords has been a point of discussion for well over a century by members of parliament and constitutional scholars seeking to modernize Britain’s democracy.  

About the Authors: Lawrence Ezrow is a Professor of Government at the University of Essex, Michele Fenzl is a Post-doc in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich, and Timothy Hellwig is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. Their research “Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political Liberalism and the Assurance Problem

The forthcoming article “Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political Liberalism and the Assurance Problem” by Baldwin Wong and Man-Kong Li is summarized by the authors below.

Partisan polarization has recently become a pressing problem in contemporary democracies. However, according to John Rawls, political disagreement does not necessarily threaten democracy. Rawls proposed a theory of political liberalism and tried to show that, despite political disagreements, reasonable citizens can still live together in a mutually respectful way. For reasonable citizens share some basic political values, such as freedom, equality, and fairness. They trust each other and are willing to comply with the unfavorable laws made by other reasonable citizens, for they know that others are willing to make similar sacrifices.    

Nevertheless, apart from reasonable citizens, a democratic society also has some unreasonable citizens who merely want to use state power to pursue their sectarian goals. Reasonable citizens are willing to cooperate with each other, but they want to avoid being exploited by unreasonable citizens. Hence, before trusting others, reasonable citizens want to ensure that others are trustworthy. We call this the assurance problem. This problem is more serious among democratic officials who control coercive political power. In other words, in political disagreements, how can a reasonable democratic official ensure that other officials are reasonable as well? In our article, we try to show how the assurance problem can be resolved in Rawls’s political liberalism. 

Usually, Rawlsians suggested that speaking in terms of public reason can provide mutual assurance. By explaining their political decisions in terms of shared political values, officials show each other that they are reasonable citizens committed to these values. This solution, however, has recently been criticized as exaggerating the power of words. The cost of presenting one’s views in terms of public reason is too low. The meanings of political values are usually vague, and thus public reason can be used to defend vastly different policies. Even some unreasonable officials can offer public reasons to fool other reasonable officials. In brief, public reason is merely a kind of “cheap talk.” It is unable to provide any assurance among democratic officials.  

We argue that this “cheap talk critique” wrongly assumes that the discourse of public reason alone is the source of mutual assurance. Rather, mutual assurance is created by the discourse of public reason together with civic deeds. For civic deeds, It means actions that are public-spirited and answerable to others. For example, officials are frequently willing to listen to the arguments of their political opponents respectfully. Or, during the discussion, officials are eager to contribute to public discussions by improving the opponents’ arguments, even if this may strengthen their position. We further use the relationship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia to show that, despite political disagreement, civic deeds can enable officials to ensure that each other is reasonable.  

Furthermore, the cost of performing civic deeds is high enough for reasonable officials to differentiate their fellows from unreasonable officials. It may be simple to present one’s view in terms of public reason, but it is never easy to perform civic deeds over time continuously. It takes enormous time and effort to always behave in a public-spirited and answerable way in open discussions. Sometimes people also have to give up possible gains for the sake of the common good. Hence, by observing the civic deeds of each other, reasonable officials can ensure that others will act reasonably when they do the same, and thus the assurance problem can be resolved. Talk may be cheap, but deeds seldom cheat. 

About the Authors: Baldwin Wong is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the Hong Kong Baptist University and Man-Kong Li is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Their research “Talk May Be Cheap, but Deeds Seldom Cheat: On Political  Liberalism and the Assurance Problem” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil

The forthcoming article “How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil” by Guillermo Toral is summarized by the author below.

Governments all around the world use political appointments to fill at least some bureaucratic posts. This practice is especially important in developing contexts, where civil service systems are less consolidated. How do political appointments impact public service delivery, governance, and development more broadly? 

The established answer to that question, at least when it comes to developing contexts, is that political appointments jeopardize governance, through two mechanisms – the selection of worse types (e.g., less qualified candidates) and the depression of bureaucrats’ level of effort (because of their connections to those in power).  

In this article, I advance an alternative view of political appointments as an institution that changes not just who enters the bureaucracy or how much they work but also, and critically, how they work. I argue that political appointments facilitate the monitoring of bureaucrats by politicians, enable the application of sanctions and rewards, provide access to material and non-material resources, align priorities and incentives, and increase mutual trust. In so doing, political appointments can facilitate bureaucratic accountability and effectiveness. 

I test this theory using a variety of data and methods (including quasi-experiments, surveys, and in-depth interviews). I focus on municipal governments in Brazil, a context where political appointments coexist with other modes of bureaucratic selection.  

Using a difference-in-discontinuities, I show that politically appointed school directors (or principals) become less effective at boosting student learning when they lose their political connections. This suggests that political connections can be mobilized to increase bureaucratic effectiveness.  

In a regression discontinuity design, I demonstrate that politically appointed school directors who meet a student learning target are less likely to be replaced. This suggests that politicians take bureaucratic effectiveness into consideration when selecting appointees, and use performance metrics to hold them accountable.   

I then use original surveys of bureaucrats and politicians to explore the mechanisms through which political appointments can enhance bureaucratic effectiveness and accountability. I find that appointed bureaucrats have more frequent contact with, higher levels of trust in, and better alignment with politicians than unappointed bureaucrats do. In conjoint experiments with bureaucrats and politicians, I find that political appointees are seen as better at communicating with the government and more responsive to its demands. 

These often-overlooked benefits of patronage suggest that politics in the developing world can be a source not only of corruption and misallocations, but also of governance resources that can help overcome development challenges. The advantages of political appointments may be particularly important in contexts where other, more impartial sources of bureaucratic effectiveness (e.g., high levels of human capital or strong bureaucratic norms) are not yet developed.  

The article also helps explain why political appointments are so important to rent-seeking politicians. By changing how bureaucrats work –for example, by making them more aligned and more easily monitored and sanctioned– political appointments make it easier for corrupt politicians to use the bureaucracy to their advantage. This ambivalence of political appointments helps explain why they have proven to be so resilient throughout history. 

About the Author: Guillermo Toral is an Assistant Professor at IE University, and a Faculty Affiliate at MIT GOV/LAB. Their research “How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan

The forthcoming article “Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan” by Katrina Kosec and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo is summarized by the authors below.

Income inequality within countries is on the rise—a trend currently being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend is notable given the growing body of research demonstrating that citizens’ support for and confidence in government is influenced by real and perceived levels of inequality. One of the key ways governments address poverty and inequality is through redistributive social protection programs, including cash transfers. By reallocating wealth, these programs, too, may affect citizen attitudes towards government. Yet, little is known about how perceptions of inequality moderate the relationship between social protection and political support. 

Classic economic voting theory focuses on absolute rather than relative welfare, holding that citizens reward the government for good economic outcomes and punish it for bad ones. However, an emerging literature in political science suggests that relative well-being considerations are important in shaping citizens’ assessments of their political leaders and institutions. Building on this research, we examine whether such comparisons impact the relationship between social protection and political attitudes. 

The empirical literature on how social protection influences political satisfaction and support is mixed. A number of studies demonstrate that receipt of targeted social protection programs increases support for policymakers delivering the program. However, other studies find that targeted government welfare programs do not always translate into political support. We posit that citizens’ perceptions of their relative economic standing can partially explain these mixed empirical findings. 

To test this hypothesis, we evaluate whether the effects of Pakistan’s national unconditional cash transfer program, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), on citizen support for and confidence in political leaders and state institutions are moderated by feelings of relative deprivation. That is, does receipt or non-receipt of the BISP differently affect political attitudes according to how well-off citizens feel compared to others? We do so by lveveraging a regression discontinuity design (RDD) overlaid with a survey experiment in Pakistan. In 2010, the Pakistani government used a proxy means test to identify BISP beneficiaries; this generated a cutoff wealth score which we exploit to assess the effects of transfers on political support. To evaluate how perceptions of relative economic position impact these effects, we conducted an original survey priming experiment, which subtly manipulated respondents’ perceptions of their relative economic position, modeled on several recent studies. 

We demonstrate that when feelings of relative poverty are not salient, cash transfers have little effect on citizens’ political support one to four years after transfers were first initiated. But, when feelings of relative poverty are salient, beneficiaries have higher political support than do non-beneficiaries. A natural question is: among those for whom relative poverty is salient, who is driving our effects? Is it that beneficiaries are more positive about their political system and leaders, or is that non-beneficiaries are more politically disgruntled? The short answer is, a little bit of both. However, the magnitude of the reduction in political support among non-beneficiaries is larger than the magnitude of the increase in political support among beneficiaries. 

The fact that we observe an effect among non-beneficiaries highlights that it can be problematic to view non-recipients of an intervention as a “control” group when assessing program effects; even if programs are randomly assigned, as we observed, non-recipients can be affected by the non-receipt of an intervention. 

In sum, we see clear evidence that individuals’ perceptions of their relative deprivation are an important moderator of program effects on political support – and there is a big risk for erosion of government trust due to not getting social protection when one feels deprived and thus deserving. Overall, our research illustrates both the power of beliefs to change political perceptions, as well as the power and limitations of government to mold and shape those beliefs. 

About the Authors: Katrina Kosec is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Their research “Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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