Can Democratic Principles Protect High Courts from Partisan Backlash? Public Reactions to the Kenyan Supreme Court’s Role in the 2017 Election Crisis

The forthcoming article “Can Democratic Principles Protect High Courts from Partisan Backlash? Public Reactions to the Kenyan Supreme Court’s Role in the 2017 Election Crisis” by Brandon L. Bartels, Jeremy Horowitz and Eric Kramon is summarized by the author(s) below. 

In September 2017, Kenya’s Supreme Court invalidated the country’s presidential election on procedural grounds, ruling that the electoral commission had failed to conduct the race in accordance with constitutional requirements. Elsewhere in Africa, judiciaries are also playing more assertive roles. In a similar case, Malawi’s high court annulled the county’s 2019 election, calling for a re-run in which the incumbent subsequently lost to the opposition candidate. South Africa’s high court ruled in 2017 that the president was not immune from prosecution on corruption charges while in office. And in Kenya, the Supreme Court recently blocked the government’s plans to close two large refugee camps. These rulings reflect the growing independence of African judiciaries on a continent where high courts have traditionally been subservient to powerful executives and provide important precedents for courts struggling to assert their powers throughout the region. 

This paper examines the popular foundations of judicial authority by investigating public reactions to the Kenyan Supreme Court’s 2017 rulings. High courts play an indispensable role in buttressing the rule of law and consolidating democracy, particularly in newer democracies and electoral authoritarian regimes. Yet, rulings on contentious issues risk backlash, which can undermine the public support upon which their power ultimately depends. We leverage data from a multi-wave panel survey conducted in the midst of Kenya’s election crisis to test competing views of public support. Conventional wisdom holds that citizen commitment to democracy and the rule of law sustains public support for high courts, even among those whose partisan or policy interests are harmed by major rulings. This view, however, remains largely untested and has been challenged by those emphasizing the partisan foundations of judicial support.  

The Kenyan Supreme Court’s historic 2017 elections rulings provide an unusual opportunity to test alternative expectations. After annulling the incumbent president’s victory, the Court upheld his controversial repeat-election win. With data from a national panel survey—conducted before and after the repeat election—we find important partisan-based withdrawals/increases in judicial-power support. We find no evidence that democratic principles attenuated partisan backlash; some were associated with its amplification. 

Our results show that partisan reactions can influence diffuse forms of court support, which is significant given the literature’s emphasis on apolitical drivers of diffuse support. The findings complement research showing that citizens often privilege partisan interests over the protection of democratic and rule-of-law institutions. While these results are discouraging in normative terms, we show also that partisan losers maintain moderately high support despite backlash in this case. Finally, the article extends scholarship on public support for judiciaries to Africa by examining one of the most important judicial decisions in Africa’s recent history. Given courts’ increasing role in adjudicating election disputes and these cases’ centrality in battles surrounding democratization, such an analysis is critical to understanding the development of judicial power and democratic consolidation in such contexts. 

About the Author(s): Brandon L. Bartels is Professor, Department of Political Science at George Washington University, Jeremy Horowitz is Assistant Professor, Department of Government at Dartmouth College and Eric Kramon is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Their research “Can Democratic Principles Protect High Courts from Partisan Backlash? Public Reactions to the Kenyan Supreme Court’s Role in the 2017 Election Crisis” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Can Descriptive Representation Help the Right Win Votes from the Poor? Evidence from Brazil

The forthcoming article “Can Descriptive Representation Help the Right Win Votes from the Poor? Evidence from Brazil” by Zuheir Desai and Anderson Frey is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Right-wing parties represent the interests of the wealthy and yet often win elections in many developing democracies that have a preponderance of poor voters. Not surprisingly, existing research discounts the use of descriptive representation, i.e. nominating a representative that mirrors the characteristics of the poor, as a potential explanation for this pattern. If voters value class-based descriptive representation, it is implicitly assumed to be the mainstay of the Left. In this article, we present a novel theory that defies this conventional wisdom, supported by empirical evidence from Brazil. 

Our model combines four elements. First, poor voters prefer the ideology of the Left-wing party, while wealthy voters are aligned with the Right. Second, when parties care about policy, any deviation from their ideological brand is not believable in the eyes of the voters. Third, any policy deviation from the party brand may be believable if the party nominates a candidate that is descriptively similar to the opposing class. Fourth, candidates that are descriptively closer to the poor, and thus less educated, are more costly to nominate.  

The theory implies the following: when ideological brands are recognized by voters, the Right chooses to reduce policy differentiation with the Left where the electorate is extremely poor. Since voters recognize party brands, the Right cannot simply commit to pro-poor policies. In order to demonstrate such commitment, they nominate candidates that descriptively represent the poor. As the electorate becomes wealthier, the policies offered by the parties diverge, in line with their ideological positions, and candidate profiles converge. It is necessary that both parties and voters know and care about programmatic brands for these results to hold. When programmatic labels have little meaning, both policies and candidate profiles converge everywhere. 

We test these predictions using data from Brazilian municipalities. Brazil offers a suitable environment to test our theory given the unequal distribution of income across municipalities, and a consensual Left-Right divide between the main parties. Our measure of pro-poor policy at the municipal level is the share of the municipal budget devoted to health, sanitation, education, and housing, while our measure of descriptive representation of the poor is the education level of the mayoral candidates. 

Our results support the theoretical claims. In low-poverty municipalities, Right-wing mayors spend significantly less on pro-poor categories than the Left, as one would expect, and both parties field highly educated mayoral candidates. In high-poverty areas, policy differences disappear, as both Right and Left-wing mayors increase their pro-poor spending to similar levels. However, Right-wing candidates are significantly less educated than their Leftist competitors. Furthermore, these patterns of policy differentiation and candidate selection are stronger in races where local party coalitions are highly aligned with national party brands, and all but disappear in ideologically diffuse races. 

Overall, these findings have significant implications for the study of electoral politics in developing democracies. First, we show that descriptive representation of the poor is an important electoral tactic in this context. Furthermore, given the relative paucity of descriptive representation of the poor around the world, we find that it is surprisingly the Right that capitalizes on this shortage. Second, we show that there is more to descriptive representation than its effect on substantive representation, i.e. its effect on policy advocacy by representatives. In particular, we find that parties could also use it as a tool to convey their commitment to off-brand policy shifts. 

About the Author(s): Zuheir Desai, Assistant Professor, School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University and Anderson Frey, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Rochester. Their research “Can Descriptive Representation Help the Right Win Votes from the Poor? Evidence from Brazil” is now available in Early View and Will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity

The forthcoming article “Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity” by Nathan Pippenger is summarized by the author below. 

Does democracy need solidarity? Increasingly, political theorists are skeptical. Encouraging citizens to think of themselves as a “We” may threaten both a polity’s internal diversity and its peaceful relations with outsiders—hardly an abstract concern with far-right populism in worldwide ascent. And even if solidarity isn’t dangerous, it might be arbitrary: Why should we show special concern for someone simply because they happen to be a fellow citizen? Accordingly, some theorists conclude that democracies should drop the aspiration of cultivating solidarity on the scale of the state—which, they argue, is both too vast to serve as a meaningful site of identification and too parochial to include outsiders with compelling claims on our concern. 

In response, solidarity’s defenders make two main arguments. One is egalitarian: it claims that the welfare state needs the support of solidarity. The other is republican: it maintains that solidarity among citizens advances the ideal of nondomination. Yet I argue that strictly speaking, neither the welfare state nor nondomination require solidarity, and so these defenses leave solidarity vulnerable to the charge that democracies would comfortably survive its disappearance.  

Yet this by no means indicates that democratic states can forgo solidarity. For as my article argues, solidarity is a necessary epistemic condition for democratic self-determination, understood as collective self-rule on terms of equality.  

What does it mean to say that solidarity is epistemically necessary for democracy? For a demos to collectively rule itself, its members must together define the group’s problems and design corresponding solutions. This means that political problems are not already out there in the world, awaiting discovery; rather, they emerge from the citizenry’s collective perspective, which can be generated only when citizens demonstrate mutual concern by gathering each other’s views and assigning them special weight. No institutional mechanism of democracy can force this process to occur; it requires a form of solidarity, one that establishes the epistemic conditions of democracy. 

Therefore, I argue that solidarity is valuable not for the contingent reason that it might support some particular goal (such as the welfare state or nondomination) which could be achieved in its absence. Rather, solidarity is necessary in order to sustain those processes of democratic self-rule through which a citizenry defines problems and pursues goals in the first place. This interpretation suggests that it is mistaken to search for solidarity in a shared culture, rather than in the disposition of citizens to listen and deliberate. It further indicates that solidarity’s enhancement is linked to the improvement of a given society’s deliberative practices—the way its citizens acquire information, discuss public affairs, and weigh each other’s concerns. 

This democratic interpretation of solidarity clarifies what it is for and how it might be encouraged. Without solidarity, citizens may ignore or disregard each other’s views, obstructing the processes which, by generating a collective perspective, give public actions a democratic character they would otherwise lack. For that reason, I contend, we cannot dismiss bounded solidarity without also jettisoning a prominent and appealing understanding of democracy. 

About the Author: Nathan Pippenger is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at United States Naval Academy. His research “Listening to Strangers, or: Three Arguments for Bounded Solidarity” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Observational Equivalence in Explaining Attitude Change: Have White Racial Attitudes Genuinely Changed?

The forthcoming article “Observational Equivalence in Explaining Attitude Change: Have White Racial Attitudes Genuinely Changed?” by Andrew M. Engelhardt is summarized by the author below. 

Recent empirical work highlights White Americans’ shifting views of racial and ethnic minorities, and especially Black Americans. Further, White Democrats appear unique in the degree to which their attitudes have changed. That these attitudes contribute in important ways to Whites’ political thinking makes understanding these changes critical. 

In this article I call attention to how these observed trends face an important interpretational hurdle: observational equivalence. The same survey toplines that some scholars, myself included, have interpreted as evidence of genuine attitude change are consistent with three additional processes: social desirability, partisan expressive responding, and changing survey measures. This observational equivalence exists even in careful investigations of panel data. Understanding which of these four possibilities best explains observed trends matters because they differ in their substantive and methodological implications for studying White Americans’ racial attitudes. 

To overcome this observational equivalence I take advantage of a framework used to establish the validity of attitude measure comparisons across groups: measurement equivalence. Instead of exploring a specific racial attitude, the framework focuses on the link between the questions comprising a survey measure and the unobserved attitude they capture. Fortunately, the four attitude change explanations offer different testable implications regarding these links between survey item and latent attitude, allowing me to assess which explanation appears best able to account for observed trends. 

I use this framework and a validated approach for testing it to investigate the measurement equivalence of the racial resentment measure using American National Elections Studies data between 2000 and 2016. Racial resentment captures explanations for Black Americans’ social and economic status and features prominently in studies of the political import of White racial attitudes. Consequently, my analyses not only have immediate payoffs for understanding changing White racial attitudes, they also speak to the status of an important measure in public opinion research.  

Across several different tests I find little evidence that social desirability, expressive responding, or measurement change fully explain observed trends in White racial attitudes. While evidence manifests for these explanations, suggesting they may contribute some to observed trends, it is inconsistent and not substantively large enough to change these trends’ interpretations in meaningful ways.
These results have important substantive and methodological implications. Substantively, scholars should interpret changing racial attitudes as genuine. Methodologically, scholars can continue to validly gauge attitudes with explicit measures. Likewise, despite its formulation in a different context, the racial resentment measure still faithfully characterizes White partisans’ opinions. That’s not to say the measure cannot be improved; rather, its status as an important opinion measure need not necessarily change. 

About the Author: Andrew M. Engelhardt is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research “Observational Equivalence in Explaining Attitude Change: Have White Racial Attitudes Genuinely Changed?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Mobilizing the Underrepresented: Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political Participation

The forthcoming article “Mobilizing the Underrepresented: Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political Participation” by Øyvind Søraas Skorge is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

How can we design political institutions that bring marginalized citizens into politics?  An electoral system with proportional representation (PR)—instead of a winner-takes-all plurality system—has long been thought to be a key part of the answer. Using a quasi-experiment, I show that although PR does indeed help, its effect on the inclusion of marginalized citizens hinges more on the political and social environment than often thought. For women’s inclusion in voting, which is the focus of this study, the introduction of PR works best when elections were previously uncompetitive and women already possess strong social networks. 

Citizens have long been marginalized on the basis of their gender. Gender inegalitarian norms and opportunities meant that women were severely outnumbered by men at the voting booth in the early 20th century. Gender inequality in voting lasted well into the 1970s in most advanced democracies, and disparities in other forms of political participation, such as campaigning and representing political parties, continue to persist across the globe. 

Electoral systems are crucial for the inclusion of marginalized groups due to their effect on elites’ mobilization incentives. When one candidate is all but certain to win a district under plurality rule, there is no need to try to mobilize voters. Women thus remain marginalized and less likely to vote than men. In close plurality races, however, the fierce competition for votes means that party elites attempt to tap into the female pool of unmobilized voters. Thus, as elites have an incentive to mobilize across all districts under a PR system, replacing plurality with PR is likely to improve gender equality in voting in previously uncompetitive districts. 

Despite such incentives, however, party elites may struggle to access female voters if women are marginalized from the public sphere. PR may therefore particularly reduce gender disparities in voting where elites can gain access to pools of potential female voters through pre-existing women’s networks, formed for instance during petitioning activities or schooling. Electoral competition and pre-existing networks thus work in tandem.  

Our ability to examine the effects of electoral systems on underrepresented groups has been hampered both by PR’s close correlation with other socio-economic factors and the lack of voting records split by sex.  Studying the case of Norway addresses both of these challenges. Between the 1916 and 1919 elections, the Norwegian Parliament required 296 of the 688 municipalities to change their electoral system from plurality to PR. Using a difference-in-differences design, I find that replacing plurality with PR improved gender equality in voting: before the reform, every fifth voter was female; after the reform, every third voter was female. The effect is especially pronounced in previously uncompetitive districts and where women’s networks are present.   

Is this a peculiar historical case or a finding with more general applicability to other countries and time periods? I identify comparable associations between PR and gender equality in voting in three other settings: in the switch to PR at the national elections in Norway in 1919, in a sample of Western countries in the early 20th century (which have turnout split by sex), and in a sample of 55 countries globally in the 21st century.  The evidence therefore suggests the results travel far beyond the Norwegian case. 

PR’s mobilization effects may also apply to other underrepresented groups beyond gender. That said, women make up half of eligible voters, whereas that is clearly not the case for minority groups. The electoral impetus for their mobilization is thus weaker. The PR effect on gender equality is therefore likely to form an upper bound of the effect for minority groups. 

Gender inequality in political participation is often portrayed as “sticky”, and subject to change mainly through intergenerational replacement. The results of this study give cause for a more optimistic appraisal, suggesting that institutional change can, quite rapidly, increase gender equality in electoral participation. 

About the Author: Øyvind Søraas Skorge is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bjørknes University College. His research Mobilizing the Underrepresented: Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political Participation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Restoring Anáhuac: Indigenous Genealogies and Hemispheric Republicanism in Postcolonial Mexico

The forthcoming article “Restoring Anáhuac: Indigenous Genealogies and Hemispheric Republicanism in Postcolonial Mexico” by Arturo Chang is summarized by the author below. 

Political theorists have started looking toward the “non-western” world to reassess studies in political language, international law, nation-building, revolution, and citizenship, among other areas. While this “comparative” turn has proven useful for expanding the scope, lenses, and contexts studied, marginalized groups remain largely in the background of these efforts. It is more common to study elite actors, texts, and contexts as representative of the “non-west,” an approach that risks reinforcing the interpretive biases that political theorists seek to problematize. Working from the example of Indigenous insurgency in post-colonial Mexico, this article shows that scholars could better study the political innovations of marginalized peoples by drawing on popular discursive objects such as poetry, songs, and visual objects as well as collective practices specific to the group’s sites of theorization. This approach centers plural invocations and in turn problematize the interpretive priorities that currently undergird the archive of political theory.  

More specifically, this article underscores the formative role that Indigenous groups and Indigenous genealogies played in the development of republican revolutionary thinking during Mexico’s independence movement. I argue that, by drawing from Nahuatl genealogies, Indigenous insurgents instantiated a restorative revolution—a novel understanding of revolutionary change that prioritized collective memorialization over absolute foundation. This restorative frame emerged through appeals to the return of the “Anáhuac Empire,” a narrative that connected legacies of Indigenous self-rule among the Nahuatlaca peoples with the rise of popular insurgency against the Spanish colonial state. Further, I show that the Anáhuac movement transformed the principles of republicanism in at least three ways. First by organizing around Catholic identities and thus defining republican fraternity as characteristically religious. This is especially apparent via Indigenous coalitions that formed around mestizo-religious symbols like the Lady of Guadalupe. Second, by centering plebeian demands for the redistribution of property, abolition of racial inequalities, and the protection of Indigenous rights of belonging to the land. And third, by defining citizenship in hemispheric terms—as a project by and for all Americanos born in the New World. These commitments to hemispheric republicanism appeared formally in the 1814 Constitution of Apatzingán, the first document to declare Mexican independence and which offered equal citizenship to all people born in the Americas. Thus, the Anáhuac project problematizes dominant interpretations of foundation as a secular, national, and elite-oriented enterprise. Tracing Indigenous insurgency in post-colonial Mexico offers an important example of the ways popular thinking and marginalized actors in the Americas transformed the politics of republican revolution usually attributed to Europe and the “western tradition.”   

About the Author: Arturo Chang is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the University of Toronto. His research “Restoring Anáhuac: Indigenous Genealogies and Hemispheric Republicanism in Postcolonial Mexico” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent

The forthcoming article “Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent” by Grigore Pop–Eleches and Lucan A. Way is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Authoritarian repression can suppress dissent. But it can also backfire and lead to greater opposition. Studies of repression and opposition have yielded contradictory results. On the one hand, some research suggests that coercive measures reduce popular resistance.  Violence may even enhance incumbent popularity when opposition is viewed as a threat. At the same time, other research indicates that repression creates backlash and more opposition. Attacks on opposition often violate community norms and create additional grievances and outrage against the government.     

This article provides one explanation for these divergent findings. We argue that the impact of repression hinges on the degree of censorship. Where alternative media is present, violence is more likely to increase support for opposition; where it is absent, repression has a greater probability of quashing dissent. The availability of alternative sources of information increases the population’s exposure to information that portrays government actions in a bad light. In such cases, violence is more likely to generate backlash. By contrast, effective censorship limits the spread of information about violence and makes it easier for governments to stigmatize opposition.  In such cases, repression will be less likely to backfire against and may even enhance support for the incumbent. 

We test and confirm these expectations with an original dataset that combines the results of a panel survey that spanned the authoritarian repression of electoral protests in Moldova in 2009 and geo-coded data on the subnational variation in repression and alternative information availability. Citizens with access to independent television responded to the repression of protesters by disproportionately rejecting the government interpretation of events, supporting opposition candidates, and expressing a slightly higher willingness to engage in electoral protest. By contrast, in parts of the country lacking access to independent TV, attacks on opposition failed to generate backlash, and in fact enhanced support for the government. In such areas, repression was associated with greater adherence to the government framing of the crisis, greater electoral support for the ruling party, and lower willingness to engage in protests.  The hypothesized interaction between repression and censorship is corroborated in cross-national analysis of repression, censorship and government support. Survey evidence from 134 countries over more than a decade (2004-2016) to suggests that the impact of repression on popular support for the incumbents is moderated by the degree of alternative information availability.  

Our findings suggest that repression is particularly risky for autocrats in more open media environments (as in Ukraine in 2013-14). In such cases, violence is likely to rebound to the advantage of the opposition, rather than keep the incumbent in power. By contrast repression has a greater chance of suppressing protest in countries with greater information control (such as China in 1989, Belarus in 2006; Iran in 2009; and Russia in 2011).  

 About the Author(s): Grigore Pop–Eleches is Professor, Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Lucan A. Way is Professor, Political Science at University of Toronto. Their research “Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Strategic Authoritarianism: The Political Cycles and Selectivity of China’s Tax-Break Policy

The forthcoming article “Strategic Authoritarianism: The Political Cycles and Selectivity of China’s Tax-Break Policy” by Ling Chen and Hao Zhang is summarized by the author(s) below. 

The study of political business cycles has in the past mostly focused on democracies. In these countries, politicians and parties manipulate economic policies in order to cater to their voters when they compete in elections. Hence, policies benefiting voters such as the expansion of budgetary spending or reduction of taxes often fluctuate according to their electoral cycles. Such strategic behavior is typically not expected for autocracies due to the lack of real elections and the arbitrary grants of beneficial policies to their cronies.  

We find, however, that in autocracies like China, where there are strong, systematic bureaucratic institutions, the pressure from evaluation and promotion has also generated political cycles of tax break policies. Chinese bureaucrats are governed by the cadre evaluation system that consists of performance indicators, among which economic indicators occupied the top position. Mayors who are evaluated have no more than five years to build their record before moving to the next position. They tend to push departments to build up indicators, and we show that offering tax breaks is effective for doing so. 

The tax breaks granted to industrial firms 1995-2007 fluctuated according to mayor tenures, based on our analysis of 1.5 million micro-level data points. The majority of firms experienced significantly fewer tax cuts in the first and last year of the mayor tenure, while tax cuts peaked in the middle years. The first year was the “busy year” when mayors had to set up and learn the ropes in the city, whereas the last year was the “dust settled” year when they already know whether the promotion would take place. For mayors beyond 55 years old who are nearing retirement and no longer eligible for promotion, the drops are even more significant.  

Our analysis also reveals heterogeneous cycles across different types of firms. We found that large firms and especially large foreign firms are not subject to a cyclical drop in the first year of a mayor’s tenure. In fact, they have a significant rise in tax cuts. This shows that the mayor prioritized these firms that carry more weight in their evaluation system, due to their contribution to GDP, foreign investment, and brand name multinationals. It is mostly smaller, private firms that are bearing the cost of the cycles. When it comes to the last year, however, even these large firms cannot attract mayors’ attention.  

The implications of our study go beyond China and contribute to the understanding of state-business relations in authoritarian countries. We highlight the role of institutions govering bureaucratic incentives. Where these institutions are strong (such as Vietnam and Singapore) as opposed to countries ruled by individual dictators, political considerations can influence economic policies in a systematic pattern. But instead of using tax breaks to earn business support for political campaigns, like in democracies, these bureaucrats are incentivized to grant tax breaks in a strategic and selective manner. When the embedded incentive structure for bureaucrats change, such as in the current Xi era, the political cycles also start to weaken.  

About the Author(s): Ling Chen is Assistant Professor, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and Hao Zhang is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research “Strategic Authoritarianism: The Political Cycles and Selectivity of China’s Tax-Break Policy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Congressional Representation: Accountability from the Constituent’s Perspective

The forthcoming article Congressional Representation: Accountability from the Constituent’s Perspectiveby Stephen Ansolabehere and Shiro Kuriwaki is summarized by the author(s) below.  

Does voting against your constituents on a bill jeopardize a representative’s re-election prospects? Recent party polarization seems to cast some doubt. Perhaps party attachments have become so entrenched that a co-partisan voter will support their member’s re-election regardless of how the representative votes on the issues. And how much do voters know about member’s specific issue stances in the first place? 

Our AJPS article is a novel 14-year study conducted as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). We use a mix of observational analysis and two survey experiments.   The innovation in this study was to ask citizens their preferences about issues that Congress voted on and how they thought their members voted on those issues. 

Three findings stand out: 

  1. At the individual level, constituents hold legislators accountable for their roll call votes.  A representative’s roll call vote in agreement with a constituent’s preference leads to an increase in that constituent’s approval for the representative by 11 percentage points.  This number accounts for the fact that 4 out of 10 constituents know how their representative voted on an average roll call (the other 4 out of 10 are not sure; only 2 out of 10 are incorrect). Among respondents who correctly update their perceptions due to a rollcall vote, the effect is about three times larger.
  2. This association is substantively meaningful. An effect of 11 percentage points on approval is comparable to the effect of having a copartisan representative. When it comes to vote choice rather than an approval of an incumbent, partisanship weighs larger than specific votes (17 points) but agreement on issues is still important (10 points).
  3. But at the congressional district level rather than an individual constituent’s level, a more muted picture of accountability arises.  Districts are mixed in issue preferences and party identification. On any vote, there are many people in a typical district who support one side and many who support the other. In the average congressional district, the two parties split their support 60 – 40, rather than clump into entirely Democratic and entirely Republican districts. As a result, most individual accountability cancels out and the shift of vote share on elections is about 2 percentage points. 

This last finding is consistent with studies of the responsiveness of election results to shifts in legislators’ roll call voting patterns.  Those studies, using aggregate data, might imply that individual voters are not strongly moved by issues. Our study, thus, resolves a puzzle – how is it that individual citizens care deeply about issues but aggregate correlations between election results and legislative voting are modest?  Voters are attentive and issue-oriented, as well as partisan, in their behavior.  The modest effect of issues (and partisanship) at the district-level reflects the diversity of opinion in the typical congressional district in the United States.  If legislators were to change their votes on key pieces of legislation, they will lose support among some constituents but gain among others.  Aggregate representation reflects the share of people who support the legislators’ decisions net those who oppose those decisions.  Our study, then, provides the micro-foundations of aggregate representation.    

Our analysis reveals both the power of democratic accountability and its blind spots. Obfuscation can dampen accountability, as we see in our data in the 2014-2015 Congress where Congressional stalemate led to few key votes getting a vote. What this means for Congressional policymaking and how opinions get aggregated into districts is the subject of our ongoing work. There we comprehensively studies how issue preferences are aggregated and acted upon by Congressional representatives, the single member district (FPTP) electoral system, and the Congressional agenda. 

About the Author(s): Stephen Ansolabehere is Frank G. Thomson Professor, Department of Government at Harvard University and Shiro Kuriwaki is Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science at Stanford University. Their research Congressional Representation: Accountability from the Constituent’s Perspectiveis now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Measuring Attitudes towards Public Spending using a Multivariate Tax Summary Experiment

The forthcoming article “Measuring Attitudes towards Public Spending using a Multivariate Tax Summary Experiment” by Lucy Barnes, Jack Blumenau and Benjamin E. Lauderdale is summarized by the author(s) below. 

What do citizens want to spend public money on? How much do they want to spend, if the consequences are increased taxes? Given the size and centrality of public budgets in contemporary western post-industrial democracies, these questions are of crucial importance.  

However, measuring public opinion on these preferences is difficult. There is a tension between the complexity of budgetary realities and the limits of citizens’ engagement with public policy detail. How much information can we extract about public views on taxation and government spending, when few people have ever considered their ideal budget? Existing surveys often ask simple questions which make life easy for respondents, but neglect real and complex budget constraints. This risks eliciting unrealistic demands. Alternatively, we might ask respondents to describe a comprehensive spending allocation while imposing budgeting constraints. However, such a task is likely to be extremely difficult for the average respondent, and diverges from the way real budget proposals are experienced by voters. 

We thus propose a strategy for inferring coherent budget preferences from accessible questions about spending – specifically, a multivariate forced choice task. In our experiment, respondents are asked to choose between the status quo spending allocation and an alternative which maintains budget balance. These alternatives include proposals for re-allocations of spending across different areas (such as health, welfare, criminal justice), and changes to the overall level of spending and taxation. We combine the results of these choices with a model of the respondents’ decisions to infer the distribution of underlying preferences which is consistent with these choices, made under the strict budget constraint.  

We apply this method to data from the UK in 2018. British taxpayers receive annual summaries indicating how their taxes are allocated across a variety of spending categories, which we use to describe the status quo. The results indicate that the British public endorse spending increases in many areas, including some of the most expensive (pensions, education, and health). In only a few, small, spending areas do UK respondents favour cuts (overseas aid, contributions to the EU budget). This snapshot of preferences suggests that British taxpayers would accept tax increases of 7% to support these spending increases.  

Our model also allows us to estimate average preferences as a function of individual-level covariates, with three central results. First, we recover sensible partisan differences on the level and allocation of spending. Second, we confirm the fiscal conservatism of younger voters. In line with recent scholarly work but cutting against popular descriptions of “millennial socialists”, younger people endorse lower spending in all categories except culture, overseas aid, and the EU budget. Finally, we recover a multidimensional structure within spending preferences: support for greater spending on areas except defence, business, pensions and justice describes a dimension oriented from Conservative-Leave to Labour-Remain voters, while support for spending on areas excluding the EU budget, culture, and overseas aid constitutes a second dimension oriented from Conservative-Remain to Labour-Leave. 

We validate our approach by using our results to generate a proposal for the average preferred level of taxation and spending across categories, and to predict levels of support for this proposal versus the status quo. We evaluate this prediction in a validation experiment, asking respondents to directly compare status quo taxation and spending levels to the proposal generated by our model. Our model indicates that 73% of respondents should support the proposal; in fact, 58% of the new survey respondents do. By our pre-registered criteria, we count this as a “moderate success.” We also show that the demographic groups predicted to be more supportive of the proposal are indeed more likely to support it in the validation experiment.  

Beyond our substantive UK results, the approach to measurement should be useful in many other applications. For example, our improvements to the trade-off between real-budget complexity and respondent task difficulty can be implemented across other complex budget-preference measurement tasks. The method also generates data suitable for other important research questions, such as social choice analyses to identify winning proposals, or welfare analyses to assess which groups are best served by particular proposals. 

About the Author(s): Lucy Barnes is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, Department of Political Science at University College London, Jack Blumenau is Lecturer in Political Science and Quantitative Research Methods, Department of Political Science at University College London and Benjamin E. Lauderdale is Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science at University College London. Their research “Measuring Attitudes towards Public Spending using a Multivariate Tax Summary Experiment” 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.