Alessandro Del Ponte, Reuben Kline, and John Ryan
Behavioral economics is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that incorporates insights from psychology to enrich standard economic models which assume perfectly rational individuals. Empirical research in behavioral economics typically employs incentivized experiments that use economic games with real money on the line. In these experiments, subjects are awarded financial payoffs based on the decisions they make (either individually or as part of a group) in an institutional context designed by the researcher. Behavioral economics is well suited for political science because behavioral economics is interdisciplinary by nature and political science is not bound by any particular research paradigm. At the same time, the method is still novel to many political scientists despite many years of its use to study political topics in a variety of research areas. What unites the application of the method to these areas is the explicit consideration of conflict. For instance, scholars have uncovered social conflict between groups (e.g., voter polarization in the United States) using behavioral games as measures, or they have designed experiments around elections to test theories of candidate and voter behavior. Because of the clear financial incentives, economic experiments are especially useful for studying people’s actual preferences in areas such as redistribution as opposed to their stated preferences. Finally, the method can be used to design institutions that will help overcome conflict over scarce resources. In sum, the strengths of behavioral economics include: (a) the ability to vary institutional contexts; (b) clear incentives that ensure valid measures of preferences; (c) direct measures of behaviors instead of stated intentions which could be confounded by outside pressures such as social desirability.
Timothy Hellwig and Dani M. Marinova
Connections between the economy and vote are commonly invoked to evaluate political accountability in representative democracies. A principal motivation for studying economic voting lies in its value as a gauge of whether democracy works or not. In recent years, however, researchers have cast doubt on the assertion that economic conditions influence voters’ evaluations of political incumbents.
Criticisms hail from several directions. Some, adopting a cross-national perspective, cite the instability problem as evidence against economic voting’s existence. That is, variance in the economy-vote relationship across different national contexts is sufficiently large so as to undermine claims that the economy registers a systematic effect. Other critics charge that the electorate lacks sufficient knowledge to incorporate economic conditions in their decisions at the polls. Still others remind us not to mistake correlation for causation. They charge that the voters’ perceptions of how well the economy is performing are viewed through a pre-existing partisan lens. All told, these and other reservations cast doubt on the use of economic voting as a means to evaluate accountability and, in turn, democratic performance.
These charges against the fidelity of economic voting require further examination. Rather than join a growing chorus of observers concluding that the economic vote is a chimera, this piece posits that recent critiques should push us to reconceive rather than discredit economic voting. Recent work in psychology and behavioral economics provides a basis for constructive and meaningful reinterpretations of the economy’s influence on voter decisions. These new directions include an emphasis on framing effects—be it on the part of strategic elites or from the media, an emphasis on what voters know about the economy, and a wider consideration of just which “economy” matters to which set of voters. While many in number, each of these new directions advance understanding by embodying deeper conceptions of voters and elected officials.
Mary Stegmaier, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, and Lincoln Brown
In democracies, we elect our political leaders by choosing among a rival set of candidates or parties. What makes us pick one over all the others? Do we carefully weigh the platforms of all the candidates and then select the one closest to our personal desires? Or, do we select the candidate our friends and neighbors recommend? Perhaps, even, to save time, do we just vote for the same party we did last time? All of these are choice strategies, and there are many more. Here we focus on a well-known explanation of how voters decide, commonly called the Michigan Model, so named for the university where it was developed, in a path-breaking scholarly volume—The American Voter. The authors systematically gathered data, via scientific survey research, on individual voters in American presidential elections, measuring different traits, perceptions, and attitudes that they hypothesized might influence vote choice.
They arranged these different factors, or variables, into long-term forces and short-term forces that acted on the voter, and could be arrayed as if they were spread along a funnel of causality: from more remote, fixed variables, such as social class or party identification, to more proximate, fluid variables, such as issue preferences and candidate attributes. All these variables generally mattered, but those that concern us here deal with issues, in particular economic issues. How do voter evaluations of the economy help the voter decide what party to favor? Is it the national economy or the pocketbook that counts? How important are economic issues compared to other issues? What conditions make economic considerations more (or less) impactful? Does economic voting operate differently in different countries? These and other questions are addressed herein, with special attention to three leading democracies where economic voting has been heavily studied—the United States, Britain, and Germany. As demonstrated, economic considerations are pervasive and powerful elements in the democratic voter’s calculus.
Expected utility theory is widely used to formally model decisions in situations where outcomes are uncertain. As uncertainty is arguably commonplace in political decisions, being able to take that uncertainty into account is of great importance when building useful models and interpreting empirical results. Expected utility theory has provided possible explanations for a host of phenomena, from the failure of the median voter theorem to the making of vague campaign promises and the delegation of policymaking.
A good expected utility model may provide alternative explanations for empirical phenomena and can structure reasoning about the effect of political actors’ goals, circumstances, and beliefs on their behavior. For example, expected utility theory shows that whether the median voter theorem can be expected to hold or not depends on candidates’ goals (office, policy, or vote seeking), and the nature of their uncertainty about voters. In this way expected utility theory can help empirical researchers derive hypotheses and guide them towards the data required to exclude alternative explanations.
Expected utility has been especially successful in spatial voting models, but the range of topics to which it can be applied is far broader. Applications to pivotal voting or politicians’ redistribution decisions show this wider value. However, there is also a range of promising topics that have received ample attention from empirical researchers, but that have so far been largely ignored by theorists applying expected utility theory.
Although expected utility theory has its limitations, more modern theories that build on the expected utility framework, such as prospect theory, can help overcome these limitations. Notably these extensions rely on the same modeling techniques as expected utility theory and can similarly elucidate the mechanisms that may explain empirical phenomena. This structured way of thinking about behavior under uncertainty is the main benefit provided by both expected utility theory and its extensions.
Interest representation plays a systemic role in European Union (EU) policymaking and integration, recognized as such in the Treaty on European Union. Interest organizations supply technical and political information to the EU institutions, and EU institutions use interest organizations as agents of political communication. Interest organizations act as a proxy for an otherwise largely absent civil society, with a teeming population of groups advocating for every imaginable cause. Where groups are absent, so EU institutions have stimulated their formation. The result is a pluralist system of checks and balances, although the literature includes findings of “islands” resembling corporatist practice.
EU institutions have designed a range of procedures in support of “an open and structured dialogue between the Commission and special interest groups,” now largely packaged as a “Better Regulation” program. Measures include funding for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), consultation procedures accompanied by impact assessments, a Transparency Register to provide lobbying transparency, and measures for access to documents that enable civil society organizations to keep EU institutions accountable. A multilevel governance system further strengthens pluralist design, making it impossible for any one type of interest to routinely capture the diversity of EU decision-making. A key controversy in the literature is how to assess influence and whether lobbying success varies across interest group type. EU public policymaking is regulatory, making for competitive interest group politics, often between different branches of business whose interests are affected differently by regulatory proposals. There are striking findings from the literature, including that NGOs are more successful than business organizations in getting what they want from EU public policymaking, particularly where issues reach the status of high salience where they attract the attention of the European Parliament. A key innovation of the Lisbon Treaty involves a European Citizens’ Initiative, which takes dialogue between civil society and EU institutions outside the ecosystem inhabited by civil society organizations and EU institutions known as the “Brussels bubble” and into the member states.
Santiago Anria and Christopher Chambers-Ju
Since the dual transition to democracy and the market in Latin America, associational linkages or the exchanges between parties and interest associations representing different groups in society gained prominence for their crucial role in structuring political representation and framing policy processes. In the early 21st century, how do the relationships between political parties and interest associations vary across and within countries? The literature on party–voter linkages has begun to examine the distinct relations that emerge when political parties interact with interest associations that represent societal groups in order to incorporate those groups into party organizations or coalitions. Although associational linkages can be constructed when party leaders reach out to interest associations, they can also be constructed when interest associations negotiate the terms of their political support. One approach to analyzing associational linkages involves focusing on the diverse relationships that emerging societal actors established with political parties. Social movements have constructed movement-based parties. These parties are a particularly puzzling phenomenon because they incorporate social movements into their organizations without necessarily demobilizing them. Emerging sectors of organized labor have also established an array of relationships to parties, with unions engaging in contentious or electoral mobilization, with different degrees of support for political parties. There are major opportunities to advance a broad agenda for research on associational linkages that highlights cross-regional contrasts and changes in the political economy.
M. Anne Pitcher
On a continent where the majority of people are poor, do political parties represent class cleavages? Do parties have strong linkages to ordinary voters? Do economic policies address their needs? In the initial years following democratic transitions across the African continent in the 1990s, the answers to such questions were negative. Clientelism and patronage were the principal means by which parties interacted with their constituencies; elites and elite interests determined the objectives of political parties; voters in many African countries shifted parties frequently; and neoliberal economic policies largely reflected the preferences of foreign donors and international financial institutions. As parties and voters have adjusted to the institutional arrangements and political demands associated with democracy, a more heterogeneous political landscape has materialized since 2010. Party systems demonstrate distinct patterns of variation, from the more stable, institutionalized systems in Ghana and Botswana to fluid, inchoate configurations in Benin and Malawi. These variations in the degree to which party systems have institutionalized affect economic policy choices by parties and those who benefit from them. Furthermore, democratic politics has intensified pressures on ruling parties to provide goods such as electricity and education. Here too, patterns of goods provision show substantial variation over time and across countries, calling attention to the differences in the incentives and capacities of parties to respond to distributive demands by the electorate.
To explore the political and economic heterogeneity of contemporary Africa, scholars have combined well-established qualitative and comparative approaches with new analytical tools. The use of cross-national public opinion surveys, field and survey experiments, satellite imagery, and geo-coded data have enabled more systematic, fine-grained study of the economic determinants of party system competition, economic voting, the distribution of goods, and the management of private sector development by ruling parties in recent years. These empirical approaches enrich understanding of the relationship between parties and political economy in Africa and facilitate more fruitful comparisons with other regions of the world.
Although widely used in reference to the Americas and Europe, the concept of populism has been less frequently applied to political dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Populism is variously viewed as a political strategy aimed at fostering direct links between a leader and the masses, an ideational concept that relies on discourses that conjure a corrupt elite and the pure people, and a set of socio-cultural performances characterized by a leader’s charisma, theatrics, and transgression of accepted norms. A cumulative approach that combines all three perspectives allows for identifying episodes of populism in Africa. These include historical cases of populist regimes in the 1980s as well as more contemporary examples of party leaders in the region’s democracies who use populism in their electoral campaigns to mobilize subaltern groups, especially those living in urban areas. As found in other regions of the world, those African leaders who have ascended to the presidency on the back of populism typically exert anti-democratic practices once in office. This reaffirms that populism can allow for greater representation of the poor and marginalized in the electoral process, but that populists’ celebration of popular will and supposedly unmediated ties to the people become convenient justifications for bypassing established institutions and undermining the rule of law.
Damien Bol and Tom Verthé
People do not always vote for the party that they like the most. Sometimes, they choose to vote for another one because they want to maximize their influence on the outcome of the election. This behavior driven by strategic considerations is often labeled as “strategic voting.” It is opposed to “sincere voting,” which refers to the act of voting for one’s favorite party.
Strategic voting can take different forms. It can consist in deserting a small party for a bigger one that has more chances of forming the government, or to the contrary, deserting a big party for a smaller one in order to send a signal to the political class. More importantly the strategies employed by voters differ across electoral systems. The presence of frequent government coalitions in proportional representation systems gives different opportunities, or ways, for people to influence the electoral outcome with their vote. In total, the literature identifies four main forms of strategic voting. Some of them are specific to some electoral systems; others apply to all.
Charles A. Miller
The “sunk costs fallacy” is a popular import into political science from organizational psychology and behavioral economics. The fallacy is classically defined as a situation in which decision-makers escalate commitment to an apparently failing project in order to “recoup” the costs they have already sunk into it. The phenomenon is often framed as a good example of how real decision-making departs from the assumption of forward-looking rationality which underpins traditional approaches to understanding politics. Researchers have proposed a number of different psychological drivers for the fallacy, such as cognitive dissonance reduction, and there is experimental and observational evidence that it accurately characterizes decision-making in certain contexts. However, there is significant skepticism about the fallacy in many social sciences, with critics arguing that there are better forward-looking rational explanations for decisions apparently driven by a desire to recoup sunk costs – among them reputational concerns, option values and agency problems. Critics have also noted that in practical situations sunk costs are informative both about decision makers’ intrinsic valuation for the issue and the prospects for success, making it hard to discern a separate role for sunk costs empirically. To address these concerns, empirical researchers have employed a number of strategies, especially leveraging natural experiments in certain non-political decision making contexts such as sports or business, in order to isolate the effects of sunk costs per se from other considerations. In doing so, they have found mixed support for the fallacy. Research has also shown that the prevalence of the sunk costs fallacy may be moderated by a number of factors, including the locus of decision-making, framing, and national context. These provide the basis for suggestions for future research.