Sources of Authoritarian Responsiveness: A Field Experiment in China

The following is part of a series of posts written by MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences and in the American Journal of Political Science. The following AJPS Author Summary was first published on the AJPS website and is shared here with permission.


MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchA growing body of research shows that authoritarian regimes can be responsive to ordinary citizens, but why is this the case? Why do those in power in authoritarian regimes expend any effort in dealing with citizens’ everyday complaints and demands when they face no pressure from electoral competition?

Do officials in these regimes respond because they fear collective action of ordinary citizens, because they are worried about sanctions from their superiors, or because responsiveness to citizens is a measure of co-option with particular attention to a core of supporters?

To answer these questions and explore the internal mechanisms of authoritarian responsiveness, we conduct an online experiment among 2,103 Chinese counties. We test whether responsiveness among local officials comes from bottom-up citizen engagement, from top-down oversight of government superiors, or from preferential treatment toward loyal supporters.

In our experiment, we made four types of requests asking for assistance in obtaining social welfare benefits on local government web forums and examined how differences in these requests affected government responses. One request simply described economic hardship (the baseline), while the other three contained the same description but also included additional information: 1) an intention to take some undefined action with other people who face similar hardship if the government cannot help (collective action requests), 2) an intention to complain to upper levels of government if the government cannot help (tattling to superiors requests), and 3) identification as loyal, long-standing Party member (Party loyalist request).

There are three main findings of our experiment. First, we find that the collective action requests and tattling to superiors requests generate higher levels of responsiveness from Chinese local governments than the simple description of economic hardship; the identification as a Party loyalist, however, does not increase responsiveness substantially. With the baseline request, we received responses from approximately one third of counties. To put this number in context, one third is higher than responsiveness of U.S. state legislators to constituents (~20%) but lower than the responsiveness among members the U.S. congress (~40%) on certain issues. [1] Adding the intention of collective action and tattling to superiors both increase response rates by 8-10 percentage points.

The second finding is that the collective action requests, compared with other types of requests, made the local government respond in a more public manner. This could be because local official are really concerned about social instability or because they believe responding publicly is a low-cost strategy to resolve similar problems among many citizens. Finally, we also find that local officials are more likely to provide pertinent and concrete information to citizens when receiving the collective action requests.

Together, these results show that top-down mechanisms of oversight as well as some forms of bottom-up pressure exerted by citizens can increase government responsiveness in this particular authoritarian context. Regardless of whether responsiveness derives from top-down mechanisms or bottom up pressures, citizen engagement seems to be consequential.

[1] Butler, Daniel M, Christopher F Karpowitz and Jeremy C Pope. 2012. “A Field Experiment on Legislators Home Styles: Service versus Policy.” The Journal of Politics 74(02):474–486.


About the Authors:  Jidong Chen of Beijing Normal University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, and Yiqing Xu of University of California, San Diego have authored the article, “Sources of Authoritarian Responsiveness: A Field Experiment in China”, published in the April 2016 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, which was awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2017 MPSA Conference. (MPSA members: Log in at to access.)


Judicial Review, Federalism, and Representation

MPSA blog - Kastellec - Judicial Review US Supreme Court, Washington DC

Two years ago, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage, thereby striking down laws in several states banning same-sex marriage. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the majority had acted undemocratically:

“Until the courts put a stop to it, public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best. Individuals on both sides of the issue passionately, but respectfully, attempted to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views. Americans considered the arguments and put the question to a vote. The electorates of 11 States, either directly or through their representatives, chose to expand the traditional definition of marriage. Many more decided not to. Win or lose, advocates for both sides continued pressing their cases, secure in the knowledge that an electoral loss can be negated by a later electoral win. That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.”

Scalia’s critique fits squarely within a long tradition of judicial and scholarly concern over the counter-majoritarian difficulty: the potential problem that arises from giving unelected and life-tenured federal judges the power to invalidate legislation passed by elected (and thus accountable) politicians. His criticism also implicates the role of judges in a system of federalism, where federal courts have the power to evaluate and strike down both federal and state legislation. How, then, should we evaluate the exercise of judicial review given the realities of judicial power in a system of federalism?

In my paper “Judicial Federalism and Representation,” presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the MPSA, I answer this question by examining the role of federal floors in shaping policy representation at the state level. What is a federal floor? Via their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, federal judges can establish a minimum level of constitutional protection that states must provide to their residents, below which no state can lawfully set policy. The combination of federalism and judicial review of state statutes means that the actions of federal judges and state legislatures are inherently tied together. As a result, with the introduction of federal floors, federal courts can mediate the relationship between state policy and state-level public opinion.

To help understand this process, in the paper I develop a framework that is based on models of the effect of federal mandates on policy choices, when policy is a function of choices made at both the state and federal levels. In my framework, a federal court can unilaterally establish a federal floor in a given policy area—for example, how much protection does the Constitution provide for women to obtain an abortion without interference from states?  This floor thus establishes a minimum level of protection that states must provide.

I use the framework to recast the counter-majoritarian difficulty as an issue of federalism, as it allows for precise decisions of when a decision is in fact counter-majoritarian. Specifically, I develop versions both with and without scenarios in which the status quo at the state level may lag behind changes in public opinion, and with and without the presence of cross-state moral externalities, in which voters care about policies not just in their states but in all states. I then show that the existence of lagging status quos or cross-state externalities is a necessary condition for a decision to be classified as pro-majoritarian. In the presence of externalities, the implementation of a federal floor benefits voters who prefer higher levels of constitutional protection, due to the positive externalities of states in “low protection” states being forced to shift their policies. Conversely, a floor harms voters who prefer lower levels of protection, since they suffer both immediate policy losses and negative externalities from other states shifting their policies to accommodate a federal court’s mandate. Comparing net beneficiaries to net losers from the mandate allows for a classification of whether a given decision is pro- or counter-majoritarian.

Since last year’s conference, I have split the original paper into two separate papers that examine different empirical implications of the judicial review and federalism framework. In one paper, I present a quantitative analysis of the path to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, which was in large part caused by federal courts finding a constitutional right to gay marriage (state legislatures and courts also shifted policy in many states). I show that in a majority of states, federal courts actually brought policy in line with opinion majorities, due to the fact the legal status quo lagged behind the change in public support for gay marriage. Thus, these decisions were pro-majoritarian. Combined with the existence of cross-state moral externalities, in which pro-same-sex marriage citizens in benefitted from laws in other states being changed, these results strongly mitigate the force of Scalia’s counter-majoritarian critique in Obergefell.

At the same time, the invalidation of state laws will not always result in furthering the connection between state-level public opinion and policy. In the second paper, I examine abortion policy in the decades after the Supreme Court established the right to an abortion in 1973 in Roe v. Wade. Examining public opinion, judicial rulings, and state policy related to seven types of abortion restrictions (such as parental consent and waiting periods), I show that these restrictions have been broadly popular.  Because the Supreme Court has shifted its doctrine over time to allow states to implement more abortion restrictions, these levels of opinion mean that there has been less congruence between state-level policy and state-level opinion in periods where the Court deemed these restrictions to be unconstitutional.

Taken together, these papers show that effect of judicial review and judicial decision on state-level representation is ambiguous. The power of courts in the United States is such that the actions of judges can have both representation-enhancing and representation-reducing effects. As judicial review is a mainstay in American democracy, evaluating this question requires careful analysis of the contexts in which courts are acting.


About the Author: Jonathan Kastellec is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His research “Judicial Federalism and Representation” was awarded the Pi Sigma Alpha Award for the best paper presented at the 2016 MPSA conference.



Why White Americans Love Their Guns

MPSA Blog - Why White Americans Love Their Guns

Before we get to why many Americans are so attached to firearms, there are some facts to know about guns in America. First, there are 250-350 million firearms in private hands (Cook and Goss, 2014). Since we don’t allow gun registration, the numbers are fuzzy; but that is a lot of guns. Second, according to NORC at the University of Chicago, the proportion of gun-owning households has declined from 47% in 1973 to 31% in 2014. The Census says there are about 125 million households, so about 39 million own guns. The math suggests that gun-owning households own an average of 6 to 9 firearms. Gun hoarding is a thing in America. Third, studies indicate that about 75% of all gun-owners are white (ANES 2012 Time Series Study), so white representation among gun-owners is much higher than among the general population. Finally, with the exception of Switzerland which also has universal military service requirements, no other developed country has such a heavily armed civilian population: this is clearly an American phenomenon, a facet of American exceptionalism. So, why do so many people, especially white Americans have such an attachment to guns?

Fear of crime is a tempting answer. Surveys say that 48% of gun-owners cite “protection” as the key reason for owning guns, up from 26% in 1999. However, crime today is down compared to the 1990s. According to the Department of Justice, in 1991 the homicide rate was 9.8; in 2010 it had dropped to 4.8. Not only has violent crime declined, but whites are the group with the lowest victimization rate. From 1980 to 2008, on average, there were 4.5 white but 27.8 Black victims of violence per 100,000 Americans. Add to that the fact that white neighborhoods typically have better policing than Black neighborhoods and fear of crime loses its explanatory appeal. African-Americans who have good reason to fear gun violence are far less likely to own guns.

Former slave, Fredrick Douglass offers a different answer: there is “something ennobling in the possession of arms,” he said in 1863 (Emberton, 2013). For a great many white people, guns are important not for their practical utility but for the image they convey and the feelings they generate in their owners. In short, guns are not about duck hunting, or even crime protection; guns are about respect.

The cultural importance of the firearm goes back to the Revolution and the myth of the citizen-soldier. Despite General Washington’s contrary opinion, the rhetoric of the era endowed the Patriots with three virtues: independence, armed masculinity, and moral righteousness. Since the new Republic explicitly rejected religion, heredity, or ethnicity as the bases for citizenship, these values became the markers of the “true” American. The righteous man who was ready to fight for liberty deserved the title of citizen.

Heroic as this myth was, American history shows that it served to justify racial hierarchies. The armed protector of liberty was a white man. As historian Francois Furstenberg has argued, liberty and resistance went together only for whites. It is not that Blacks haven’t fought in every war including the Revolution. They have. But the double standard of American culture, present to this day in modified form, suggested that an armed Black man was a criminal. In his horrified response to the slave rebellion in San Domingue, Thomas Jefferson makes it clear that slaves fighting to rid themselves of masters are not patriots, but murderous savages.

Douglass hoped service in the Union Army would elevate Blacks to the status of citizenship. He was only partially right. Armed self-defense never meant the same thing for Blacks and whites as the resistance to Black militia attests. Only white gun ownership reflected virtue; Black gun ownership spoke of violence. More recent case in point: the horrified white reactions to claims of armed self-defense by the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

Since the 1960s, reactionary movements have interpreted minority groups’ efforts to ensure equality as an assault on the status of whites. Conservative intellectuals argued that race-conscious programs disadvantage whites, and many whites agree: 37% of all whites, but in a 2015 UIC Survey on Gun Control, 47% of white gun-owners say that the government “does too much” for Blacks. Experimental evidence strengthen the correlational results by showing that exposure to pictures of Blacks depresses support for gun control among whites (Filindra and Kaplan, 2015).

Given that firearms carry such a strong association with notions of virtuous white citizenship, it is not a surprise that white Americans who feel socially devalued and who attribute the change in their status to unfair gains by Blacks would see in firearms a symbolic way to regain respect: to be seen as noble and virtuous citizens. In this sense, gun rights are arguably the most persistent vestige of white privilege.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Alexandra Filindra, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Filindra and co-author Noah Kaplan were awarded the Lucius Barker Award at the 2016 MPSA Conference for the best paper on a topic investigating race or ethnicity and politics and honoring the spirit and work of Professor Barker for their work on “Racial Resentment and Whites’ Gun Policy Preferences in Contemporary America”.

(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil
Photos from Cooperman’s fieldwork in Ceará, Brazil. Top left: A fleet of water trucks owned by a wealthy local family are parked outside their home. Bottom left: Local water sources, including this former pond, and even state reservoirs are dry after five years of drought. Right: A donkey carries water jugs from the neighborhood well to nearby homes.

Most international attention on Brazilian politics focuses on the president’s recent impeachment and high-level corruption scandals. However, my fieldwork has shown me that “all politics is local” is more apt. Many Brazilian citizens are especially concerned about the politics of two issues salient for their day-to-day lives: Water and drought.

I argue that natural disasters, especially those that are cyclical and occur over longer periods – such as droughts – can provide electoral and economic opportunities for local politicians. Since disasters are seen as ‘exogenous’ and ‘natural,’ it is much easier for politicians to justify emergency and targeted funding to certain populations over others.

Campaigns for the upcoming municipal elections (to be held October 2, 2016) have begun, and in Northeast Brazil, the country’s poorest region suffers through its fifth year of devastating drought. The phenomena of “water for votes” and “the drought industry” are likely to be in full swing this election season. The overlap of electoral budget cycles and natural disasters can have drastic consequences for the distribution of critical and scarce public resources.

My research evaluates the politicization of disaster relief, focusing on drought and access to water resources. Even within the drought-prone region of Northeast Brazil, I find puzzling variation in the distribution of drought relief across states and municipalities. Some appear to follow programmatic policy based on need, while others receive drought relief even during high rainfall periods. Interviews that I conducted with rural farmers in Northeast Brazil highlight the incredible dependence that poor, subsistence farmers have on local leaders and politicians for sending water trucks and distributing drought-related cash transfers.

This study asks: where and when is politically-targeted (vs. need-based) distribution of basic services most likely, and how do politicians benefit from providing targeted relief?

Research Design

I utilize two sources of exogeneity to isolate the effect of non-climatic factors on declarations of drought: the exogenous timing of rainfall and the fixed electoral cycle. Since rainfall shocks are orthogonal to election year timing or other political factors, I am able to identify the relationship between political drivers and drought relief. By controlling for climate and local agricultural conditions, I test political hypotheses using the remaining variation.

I use a generalized difference-in-difference model with municipal and year fixed effects to tease apart political and temporal factors through administrative data, which provide the opportunity to explore systematic patterns and variation across 991 municipalities from 1999-2012. I explore the mechanisms through interviews of rural farmers, community leaders, and local politicians in the drought-prone Brazilian state of Ceará.

Main Findings and Discussion

I find that relief is more likely during mayoral election years, in both drought and high rainfall conditions. Incumbent mayors who provide drought relief in an election year are more likely to be re-elected, and mayors from the PT party are more likely to receive drought relief. These results are robust to the inclusion of controls for precipitation, agriculture and cattle, and municipal and year fixed effects.

Interviews that I conducted during fieldwork in Northeast Brazil in 2014 and 2016 suggest that drought relief is a political tool, especially water trucks and crop insurance cash transfers that can be targeted by neighborhood and household. Farmers sometimes even “pray for drought,” since the drought relief funds actually increase household stability for the vulnerable population relative to non-drought years.

Many local citizens and researchers also describe the pervasive “drought industry” (indústria da seca). Local elites, who sell water from private sources on their land and also own the water trucks contracted by the government, can profit immensely during periods of drought.

Local politicians have perverse incentives to provide drought relief – with its electoral and economic rewards – instead of maintaining existing water resources and reducing local vulnerability to chronic climate shocks.

Further Research

My broader dissertation further explores the local political economy of water resources and drought.

I study the sub-municipal relationships that affect who gets water access, drought relief, and other essential services:

  • What explains variation in access to water and other public services?
  • What are the electoral and economic incentives to receive and distribute disaster relief vs. to create sustainable, resilient water systems?
  • What is the role of local collective action and community associations in improving citizens’ access to basic services?

I am currently conducting a pre-election household survey in rural Northeast Brazil of 500+ households across 9 municipalities to study micro-relationships between water access, drought relief, participation in civil society and community associations, and electoral politics. I will continue my fieldwork throughout 2017.

About the Author: Alicia Cooperman is a 4th year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Her paper “(Un)Natural Disasters: Distributive Politics in Northeast Brazil” was awarded the Westview Press Award at the 2016 MPSA Conference for best paper delivered by a graduate student.


Informed Preferences: the Impact of Unions on Worker’s Policy Views

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

What is the impact of labor unions in shaping the political preferences of workers? More specifically, to what extent can we trace the anti-trade sentiment we are now seeing among many U.S. workers to the influence of their unions? Due to their shrinking memberships, unions are often dismissed as a spent force in contemporary politics. Yet such a view overlooks an important point: Even after years of membership decline, unions still represent a sizable share of many electorates: a quarter of all workers in Britain, a third in Italy, and over half the workforce in countries such as Norway or Belgium. Even in the U.S., union members still account for about 11 percent of the workforce—a conservative figure that excludes non-members working under union agreements and family members whose livelihoods often depend on a unionized wage earner. A key question is whether and how unions’ access to a large swath of the electorate translates into political influence.

To understand the role that unions play in shaping the political views of their members is, however, a challenging empirical task.  Even in instances where union members are found to hold systematically distinct views from non-members, the cause is not an obvious one: Is it the result of a union’s direct influence on workers’ policy views, or is it that workers who choose to join a union differ from non-members to begin with?

Our article seeks to provide answers to these questions by utilizing an original survey of more than 4,000 American workers that was administered across 12 industries selected to provide the full range of exposure to various aspects of globalization. The dataset provides sizable samples of both union members and non-members within each industry, allowing for comparisons with a meaningful control group. Another key advantage is the availability of detailed information on pertinent aspects that are often missing from standard surveys: the exact union to which the worker belongs, the intensity of communication initiated by their unions on a range of policy issues, and the degree to which a worker is aware of her union’s policy positions. To assess how accurately workers know their union’s position, we devise a new measure of a union’s position on trade policy (what we call the “protectionism score”). This measure is based on a union’s ‘revealed preference’, namely through their lobbying activity and official statements given on a wide range of trade bills.

Using this data, we begin to explore whether unions indeed serve as information providers for their members. The evidence decidedly shows that they are. (See Figure 1;  unions are sorted along the vertical axis by their protectionism score.) As the left-panel indicates, unions indeed discuss the issue of trade with their members, and, not surprisingly, the more protectionist the union, the more likely it is to impart such information to their members. We can also see that the intensity of the communication is associated with how familiar members are with their union’s position (center panel). Members of protectionist unions not only tend to express greater familiarity with their union’s stance on trade, but also to correctly describe their union as protectionist (right panel).


Figure 1


In short, unions clearly operate as information providers. Moreover, workers also seem to ‘get’ their union’s message. Yet to what extent do members tend to be influenced by this message and adopt their union’s position? As an initial step, we examine the association between members’ own attitudes on trade and the protectionism score of their unions. We find a clear alignment between the two. Notably, such positive association is not found among non-unionized workers who are employed in the same industry (see Figure 2). Still, the key empirical task here is to assess the possibility of a self-selection process: If workers decide to join a union because of the union’s policy position, the findings could simply be an outcome of a reverse causal process. We address this possibility by exploiting two sources of variation, as detailed below.

Figure 2


First, we leverage the fact that there are state-level differences in laws with respect to union membership, or so-called the “Right-to-Work” (RTW) laws. In states that adopt the RTW provision, labor unions cannot legally require workers to pay union dues as a condition for employment. Union membership in RTW states therefore depends much more on individual workers’ own discretion, and is less a function of an institutional requirement to become members. This difference allows us to test the self-selection question: If self-selection accounts for members’ preferences, we should expect to see unions have much more of an influence on members in states in which membership is entirely voluntary.

Our analysis provides very little support for the self-selection account. We find that union membership itself is associated with a clear effect on the trade policy views of workers, and that this effect is conditional on how strong the union’s position is with respect to trade. Significantly, we find no systematic difference between members in RTW and non-RTW states. This is clearly inconsistent with the selection mechanism being the prominent factor.

Second, we wanted to assess what happens to the views of members when their union takes a different stance on a given policy: do workers follow suit? If so, that would be a strong indication of the unions’ influence. To do so, we exploit the case of a sudden and dramatic shift in the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) position toward a major trade liberalization deal. For many years, the UAW had been strongly opposed to the signing of a trade agreement with Korea, which, according to its statement, would be “worsening our lopsided auto trade deficit and threatening jobs of tens of thousands of American workers.” Yet after a set of changes had been incorporated into the agreement, the UAW announced a reversal of its position. “We believe an agreement was achieved that will protect current American auto jobs, [and] that will grow more American auto jobs,” its statement now read.

How did this shift in the UAW’s position influence the views of the autoworkers on trade? Figure 3 below provides a striking answer: While union members working in the auto industry had been significantly more protectionist than non-members before the shift, the level of support for trade restrictions significantly decreased after the UAW endorsed the free trade agreement. Notably, this change in attitudes toward trade liberalization had not been observed among non-members working in the same auto industry. This finding remains intact even when we control for potential confounding factors.


Figure 3

Taken together, our findings provide compelling evidence that unions exert influence on their members in a clear and systematic manner. The analysis points to the important role of unions as information providers. While previous studies have highlighted the role of unions as the “voice of workers,” via campaign contributions or lobbying, we have demonstrated an underexplored yet important source of union influence: communication with, and dissemination of information to members. This influence can be significant, given unions’ breadth and reach. In other words, unions should be thought of not only as institutions that channel the political preferences of their members. Instead, they should also be understood as institutions that shape and influence the views of many workers.


MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Sung Eun Kim is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.  Prof. Yotam Margalit is an Associate Professor at the Political Science Department in Tel-Aviv University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Their paper “Informed Preferences: the Impact of Unions on Worker’s Policy Views” was awarded the Best Paper by an Emerging Scholar at the 2016 MPSA Conference.


Controlling Agency Choke Points: Presidents and Regulatory Personnel Turnover

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

Presidents desire to see their priority policy goals implemented. To see these policies put into place presidents need control over career executives that occupy critical decision-making positions (i.e., agency choke points) in agencies. This paper considers the extent to which federal executives occupying one type of “choke point” position—i.e., lead regulatory positions—depart with new presidential administrations, either because new presidents purposefully marginalize them or because they depart voluntarily in anticipation of a new administration.

To evaluate presidential control over key regulatory positions we use creative new data on the careers of 866 persons managing major rulemakings. Existing regulations require agencies to provide information regarding all rules with more than a $100 million impact to the Office of Management and Budget. This information is published in the Unified Agenda every six months. Agency submissions must include contact information for individuals “knowledgeable about the rulemaking action.” By tracking all rules listed from 1995 to 2013 we are able to observe key regulatory personnel exiting rules prior to their completion.

Using hazard models we find evidence of both presidential influence and careerist anticipation on decisions to depart major rulemakings. Career executives are estimated to have higher probabilities of departure after a party change in the White House and during an election year if the incumbent president’s party is likely to lose. While we find no evidence that the partisanship of the regulator influences departures, we do find that regulators that donated to the out-party are more likely to depart a major rulemaking. Career executives are also more likely to depart when outside wages increase.

The evidence in the paper suggests that while new presidents do not overwhelmingly remove senior career executives from positions of authority, they still exert considerable authority over the individuals in key positions. The scope of control increases as presidents’ time in office progresses. For example, in the year before President Obama assumed office 10% of the career executives serving as the primary contact on a major rule departed before the rule was complete and another 7% departed during the first year of his administration. Throughout the tenure of a president, presidents or their appointees are able to promote career executives of their choice to a substantial number of the positions on rulemaking teams as bureaucrats either exit their positions voluntarily or are sufficiently marginalized within the agency.

Overall, the results provide important evidence that new presidents may influence the composition of the career service and its policymakers, particularly those in positions central to agency policymaking. To effectively control the machinery of public policy, presidents need to control the rulemaking process inside agencies. For presidents, one of the most direct means of securing control is embedding personnel in key positions who are sympathetic to their agenda. This happens at the top levels when presidents name new appointees to agency positions. This also happens at lower levels when appointees make decisions about which civil servants they can work with and who might be better suited for another position. Presidents can reassign career executives from key positions in order to marginalize them. In addition, career executives may exit their position in anticipation of a new administration that may be hostile to them. Thus, presidential control over key rulemaking positions is the product of both the decisions of presidents to marginalize career executives and the decisions of career executives.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Kathleen Doherty is an Assistant Professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.  David E. Lewis is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Scott Limbocker is a Graduate Student in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Their paper “Politics or Performance in Regulatory Personnel Turnover” was recognized at the 2016 MPSA Conference with the inaugural Kenneth J. Meier Award for the best paper in bureaucratic politics, public administration, or public policy.


Clerics and Scriptures: Experimentally Disentangling the Influence of Religious Authority in Afghanistan

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

What power do religious authorities exert over people? While the traditional role of churches and clergy as nurturers of social capital has declined with the secularization of the West, the importance of religious actors in large-scale social and political mobilization in the non-Western world has been steadily increasing for many years. Both government policy campaigns and anti-government protests find themselves sinking or swimming depending on their ability to “connect with the society… [and] maximize the use of traditional and religious leaders.” Muslim clerics serve as the backbone of social service and militant fundraising for organizations such as Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army in Iraq, and conversely, the ‘de-radicalization’ of terrorists. Clearly, religious authorities wield unusual influence over people; but what this influence is and how it works is a mystery.

One possible explanation for the effectiveness of religious authorities as mobilizers may be that especially charismatic and persuasive individuals are overrepresented in this profession. Ruhollah Khomeini may have personality traits that would have made him a powerful a leader, whether as Grand Ayatollah or as a secular authority figure. However, personal characteristics aside, being perceived as a religious authority may imbue an individual with unique psychological powers. The most obvious one may be that religious authorities are implicitly associated with God, and hence automatically remind people of higher ideals, being perfectly observed by God’s omnipresence, and after-life rewards and punishments. This is far more powerful than an alternative channel, which is that religious authorities influence people by virtue of their position as community leaders and enforcers of norms.

Investigating these competing hypotheses is difficult with existing data. Personal characteristics that distinguish religious authorities and civilian authorities are difficult to categorize, let alone measure. In situations like this, where counterfactuals are often impossible to establish with real-world data, experimentation plays a central role. A few studies manipulate the identity of the deliverer of a message to be from a religious authority in writing, through video, or in the form of a picture. However, “the most subtle dynamics ..[on].. how relative status is signaled and established depend on the resources made available by face to face interaction and a shared physical setting.”

We present the first experiment we know of to do just this. In our experiment, a Muslim cleric in Kabul, Afghanistan appears in person to solicit contributions for a public good (a hospital) from low income day laborers under two experimental conditions: while dressed as a civilian (Civilian) and while dressed as a cleric (Cleric). By having an actual cleric interact face-to-face with the subjects, we isolate the additional impact of his positional authority after preserving the multidimensional characteristics (speech, gesture, etc.) of an individual that would self-select into this high-status position. Indeed, the cleric’s distinction is apparent even in his civilian clothing: 80% of subjects who guessed his profession stated professions of secular authority.

Figure 1 – Note: Capped lines represent the 95% confidence interval.


We find that people are far less likely to contribute nothing (0 AFN) to the hospital when the solicitor is dressed in his clerical garments (17%) compared to when he is dressed as a civilian (50%) (see Figure 1). However, average contributions are equal across the conditions because while more people give when asked by the cleric, (a) they give minimally (10 AFN) and (b) the decrease in conditional amount is especially pronounced among those with formal education. While civilians do not wield verbatim quotations of scripture as a motivating and legitimating tool, clerics do. We therefore add a third treatment, the Cleric+Scripture treatment, which proceeds identically to the Cleric treatment except for an addition of a short reading from the Qur’an at the end of the solicitation script reminding subjects that “Allah loves good-doers”. The use of religious text is among several known ways to explicitly prime religion in the experimental and behavioral literature, and consistent with this literature we find that conditional amount increases while the probability of giving remains high. As a result, average contributions in Cleric+Scripture are twice of that in the Civilian and Cleric conditions.

How should we explain this behavior? First and foremost, our evidence suggests that religious priming comes from the Qur’an, not the cleric. The increase in the intensive and extensive margins of giving that is observed in previous experiments with religious priming only occurs in our experiment with the addition of the scripture. Second, the increase in the propensity to contribute, coupled with the decrease in conditional contribution to the smallest possible denomination of 10 AFN, suggest that the day workers in our experiment were complying with the Islamic norm of sadaqah (charitable giving) in a way consistent with legalism, that is, an adherence to the letter but not the spirit of the norm. In other words, religious positional authority appears to place the cleric as a legitimate leader of the Muslim community, but without the rhetorical tools of scripture, not one that is implicitly associated with an omnipresent God (otherwise, this would suggest that while God can observe whether you give, he apparently cannot count). Third, those who are formally educated appears to be less receptive to religious positional authority. Overall, our experiment illustrates the limits to the positional power of religious authorities and shows just how important holy scriptures can be as justification for the cleric’s exhortation or as a direct reminder that God is watching and rewarding the behavior that the cleric is encouraging.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Blog post submitted by Luke N. Condra, Mohammad Isaqzadeh, and Sera Linardi. Their research, “Clerics and Scriptures: Experimentally Disentangling the Influence of Religious Authority in Afghanistan” was named as a co-winner of the Kellogg/Notre Dame Award for best paper in comparative politics at the 2016 MPSA Conference.

Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

Our article – Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information (Now PAR 2015) – is one of a series of three related pieces of research focused on the structural politics of independent agencies. This line of research is part of the Shrinking the State project and set in the context of a reform agenda of the recent UK coalition government (2010-2015). The public policy and public administration questions we address are broadly applicable: in any democratic setting, there is some kind of link between voters and their policy demands, politicians seeking to win elections, and government agencies tasked with producing policy outputs. The elected politicians can, in circumstances dependent on the specific national institutional arrangements, modify the structure of the administrative state. The study of structural politics is all about the consequences of those decisions.

Why “Mass Reorganization”?
Our work fits broadly into the literature on agency termination. This literature is largely American-centric and reflects the question Kaufman (1976) famously asked: “are government organizations immortal”? Recent scholarship (see: Lewis 2002) suggests that they are not, even in the US; rather, agencies are thought to face a hazard of termination over some period of time. Nevertheless, agency termination remains something of a rare event in an American separation-of-powers context relative to what can happen in a high accountability system like the UK.

The British coalition government in 2011 put together a reform proposal comprehensively examining about 400 independent agencies, ultimately removing independence (absorbing into a government department or terminating the function entirely) for 32 percent of them. Making decisions about this many agencies all at once (a “bonfire of the Quangos”) involves termination decisions of a different magnitude than what we have seen in an American context. Thinking through what might be different about these cases can provide useful insights into structural politics across different types of political systems.

Why “Media Attention”?
A decision about agency independence is fundamentally tied to the politics of accountability. A decision to remove independence increases the identification of the government with the outcomes in that policy area. Even if an agency is terminated entirely (removing not just the agency’s independence but also ending functional performance), the government remains responsible for outcomes in that policy domain. Media attention is one way voters can know that an agency exists and get some sense of what it might do. We should expect politicians to think about the media salience, and salience with some particular audiences, of any particular agency when making these kinds of decisions.

Why a “Paradox”?
As media salience increases, we argue that the termination decisions should be less systematic. An agency’s salience with partisan audiences – core or opposition supporters, and those willing to swing either way – should directly impact the political decision, as one might expect. Nevertheless, a high media profile, rather than making outcomes more predictable as information becomes readily available, can actually disrupt the normal way governments learn about agencies; it is one thing if the minister hears about the agency from the professional civil servants, and another if the minister has been reading about the agency in the morning in the newspaper (as any devotee of Yes, Minister well knows).

What can we learn?
Particularly for practitioners, and scholars working in other areas, there may be a tendency to assume that governments simply kill off agencies that do things they do not like. The view we present is more complicated. Given the considerable freedom of choice of governments in high accountability systems like the UK, we see that the predictability of the outcomes changes with total media salience. This suggests that the government is considering carefully, although less systematically, the consequences of their choices with the most commonly mentioned agencies.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Anthony M. Bertelli is a Professor of the Politics of Public Policy and J. Andrew Sinclair is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Public Service at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. Their paper “Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information” was recognized at the 2016 MPSA Conference with the Best Paper in Comparative Policy Award sponsored by the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice (JCPA) and International Comparative Policy Analysis Forum.

Complex Interactions: How Electoral Institutions affect Voter Support for Female and Minority Candidates

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

Women and racial and ethnic minorities hold far fewer political offices than one might expect given their presence in the American population. Even at the local level, where the barriers of entry to political careers are smaller, women hold only a quarter of city council seats, Blacks hold 6%, Latinos 3%, and Asian-Americans less than 1% of seats. And, plenty of research demonstrates that this underrepresentation matters for the kinds of policies that are created and implemented at the local level and thus for the quality of representation offered to all Americans.

Why are members of these groups so unlikely to hold political office? One explanation some have offered is that the structure of elections shapes the chances of success for women and minorities. But, the research offering this suggestion is quite inconsistent in its recommendations. District elections might be the solution for racial and ethnic minority representation – except in cases where they have limited or no effects. And at-large, multimember district elections are the recommended mechanism to increase women’s representation – except in cases where they don’t matter or actually decrease the number of female candidates and elected officials. Despite an enormous amount of research on the connection between electoral systems and the representation of underrepresented groups, we still do not have a clear understanding of what structures positively or negatively affect representation for women and racial and ethnic minorities.

Why does this lack of clarity persist? In short, because existing scholarship has been unable to determine exactly how institutions and representation are linked. In this paper, we test a mechanism that has been ignored in existing research: voter use of stereotypes when choosing officials. We argue that the difficulty of the voting decision itself can make voters more or less likely to rely on stereotypes in the voting booth. Specifically, we propose that district elections, which frequently feature just two major candidates, present a cognitively simpler task than at-large elections in which voters are asked to make multiple selections among a large field of contenders. When the cognitive task is simplified, voters are more likely to be able to suppress negative stereotypes that are inconsistent with their personal beliefs or desire to respond in a socially appropriate way. In other words, district elections may yield more support for candidates from underrepresented groups for reasons that have nothing to do with common explanations in the literature like geographic segregation or polarized voting.

We test this theory using a set of experiments in which people vote in either “district” elections (selecting 1 of 2 candidates) or “at-large” elections (selecting 3 of 6 candidates) for a variety of local offices. We modeled our elections after typical local elections, where voters know very little about the candidates on the ballot. In the experiments, voters choose between candidate images. These images suggest a candidate’s race, ethnicity, and gender, but have been selected not to differ in other ways that might influence votes. This is similar to contexts where voters identify candidates only by their images on a direct mail piece or campaign sign. We conducted our experiments among two very different populations and found consistent results.

As the below figure demonstrates, we found that female and Black candidates are advantaged in district over at-large elections. In other words, when voters are selecting only one of two candidates, they’re more likely to pick a Black candidate or a female candidate than when they’re faced with the more difficult decision of selecting three candidates out of six offered to them. Thus, we find an effect of election structure on the likelihood of success for female and Black candidates that cannot be due to the explanations proposed in previous studies.


The Benefit Candidates Receive in District vs. At-Large Elections
The Benefit Candidates Receive in District vs. At-Large Elections (Note: This figure shows the estimated benefit of district elections for each candidate attribute (race/gender). Estimates are based on OLS regressions in which candidate attributes are interacted with election type (district vs. at-large) and standard errors are clustered on respondent. Bars represent 95% confidence intervals.)


Is this positive effect of district elections for Black and female candidates because of our proposed mechanism – that voters can work to overcome their negative stereotypes about these less-traditional candidates when faced with an easier voting decision, but when they’re exhausted by the more difficult at-large ballot they are more likely to rely on negative stereotypes to make a voting decision? Two additional findings suggest support for this theory:

First, we find that our results – the district benefit for women and Blacks – are being driven by respondents who are not themselves female or Black. Women vote for female candidates and minorities vote for minority candidates at similar rates in at-large and district elections. The gap between district and at-large election success appears for female candidates among male voters, and for Black candidates among white voters, suggesting that the voters who have a harder time voting for less-traditional candidates when faced with more difficult (at-large) elections are those who are more likely to hold negative views about those groups – because they are not members of their ingroup.

Second, we find that people who willingly express lower support for gender equality and higher levels of racial resentment vote for women and Blacks at similar rates in both district and at-large elections. The effect of district elections on success for female and Black candidates instead shows up among people who explicitly indicate beliefs in gender equality and less racial resentment. In other words, the people who we’d expect to want to overcome negative stereotypes they may hold about candidates from non-traditional groups are the ones who do so in district elections.

In sum, we find that electoral structure matters for who is elected because of how it influences voters. Even those voters motivated to support diverse candidates appear to be less able to realize those preferences in at-large contests compared to districts. This suggests that other electoral contexts that impose greater cognitive difficulty on voters may also diminish support for candidates from groups about which there are broadly held negative attitudes. For example, elections with particularly long ballots, or that involve referendum decisions that tax a voter’s cognitive resources may diminish the chances of success for female and minority candidates on those ballots.


MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors:  Melody Crowder-Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at University of the South, Shana Kushner Gadarian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, Jessica Trounstine is an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Merced, and Kau Vue is a Graduate Student at University of California-Merced. Their research “Complex Interactions: Candidate Race, Sex, Electoral Institutions, and Voter Choice” was awarded the Sophonisba Breckinridge Award for the best paper on the topic of women and politics at the 2016 MPSA Conference.



Son’s Draft Risk Motivated Parents to Vote

Photograph No. 127-W-A-185146; “Da Nang, Vietnam…A young Marine private waits on the beach during the Marine landing”, August 3, 1965, 1998 print; Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives; Records of the U. S. Marine Corps; National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

The following is part of a series of posts written by 2016 MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences.

How do citizens respond to government policies that impose a significant burden? Perhaps the most onerous of all public policies are those related to military conscription. Amid waning public support for the Vietnam War and growing distrust around the administration of the Selective Service System, American military conscription came to an end in 1973. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, fewer and fewer men were being drafted. Many sought a more egalitarian way to determine which men were compelled to serve. After a long political and legislative battle, Congress returned authority to the executive branch to determine the order of induction by random lottery. In November of 1969, President Richard Nixon issued the executive order to reinstate the draft lottery system to determine the order of induction priority among American men.

On December 1, 1969, the first of the three consequential lotteries of the Vietnam era was held. The 366 possible birthdays in a leap year were printed on strips of paper and placed in blue capsules. The capsules were drawn from a glass cylinder in an event that was broadcast on national television and radio; the resulting order of priority was printed in every newspaper. Each birthday was assigned a Random Sequence Number based on the order in which it was drawn. In the 1969 lottery, the first birthday drawn was September 14. Men born on that day were assigned a Random Sequence Number of “1”; they were first in line to be drafted for service unless they had deferments or were otherwise unqualified. Men with lower numbers, therefore, were assigned a higher risk of being drafted. Numbers up to a particular “ceiling” – 125 for men in the 1969 lottery – were called in numerical order to appear before their local draft boards.

The Vietnam draft lotteries provide a “natural experiment” that has been used to study causal relationships between conscription, service, or combat on a variety of outcomes across a wide range of disciplines.  I use the draft lottery design to measure the causal effect of government-induced risk of loss on voter turnout. Since risk of military service was randomly assigned by the lottery, the study avoids the endogeneity issues that arise as a consequence of the fact that the attributes that make one likely to serve in the military are correlated with the attributes that make one likely to vote.

The draft lotteries created “winners” and “losers.” Unlike other lotteries, however, “losing” the draft lottery could result in catastrophic loss for men and their families.  How did such exposure to such an extreme policy affect political participation? Specifically, I ask the following questions: First, were the parents of men assigned low numbers that incurred a greater risk of being drafted more likely to vote in the 1972 presidential election than parents of men whose sons permanently escaped the draft with high lottery numbers? Second, did the effects of randomly assigned draft risk vary across local contexts? In particular, was the effect on voter turnout stronger when the risk of loss was made salient by previous local casualties?

For this study, I assembled a dataset of parents of men born in 1950-1952 – the years for which the lottery was the exclusive mechanism for determining induction priority – from births recorded in the annual reports of small towns in New Hampshire. To measure responsive participation, I used voter checklists used at polling places, copies of which are held in the from the New Hampshire State Archives to record individual-level turnout of the men’s parents in the 1972 election.

Results of my analysis imply that parents of men assigned to low numbers turned out, on average, at a rate between 2.5 and 4.5 percentage points higher than parents of men who were safe from the draft. Risk of catastrophic policy-induced loss appears to have motivated responsive political participation among those most likely to be negatively affected. This finding conforms to expectations formed on the basis of prospect theory, which is motivated by the observation that people are more sensitive to potential losses than potential gains.

Were parents from towns with prior “hometown” casualties more strongly affected by their son being assigned a “losing” or risky lottery number? Using casualty data from the National Archives, I created a binary indicator for whether or not a town had experienced a local casualty in the Vietnam War prior to the first lottery drawing on December 1, 1969. Probit estimates reported in the table below imply that the effects of conscription risk on parents’ turnout were heterogeneous across local contexts. Parents from towns with prior casualties whose sons were assigned risky numbers voted at a rate approximately nine percentage points higher than parents of men assigned safe numbers in those towns. The effect of a losing number on voter turnout of parents from towns without prior casualties was two percentage points and was not statistically significant.

Probit Estimates of the Effect of At Least One Son Assigned to a Losing Number on Parents

There are several implications of the study. First, the findings complement recent reconsiderations of the political consequences of the Vietnam draft by contribute behavioral evidence that self-interest manifests itself in responsive political participation. Second, the heterogeneous treatment effects imply that context, in this case local war casualties, moderates the ways in which people experience policies and consequently, the way they respond to them. Third, the analysis offers evidence that voters are more likely to be mobilized by potential loss than potential gains, since the “losing” parents voted at higher rates than the “winning” parents. Local casualties may have intensified perceptions of the risk incurred by a “losing” number. A socially proximate casualty may have functioned as a sort of “availability heuristic,” leading parents of men assigned numbers that exposed their sons to greater risk of conscription to overestimate the probability of casualties among draftees. Finally, the differential rates of turnout between parents who were more and less affected by draft policies constitute evidence of mass policy feedback. Though we cannot know which candidate parents mobilized by exposure to draft risk supported, we know they participated at higher rates in response to draft policy.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Tiffany C. Davenport is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science United States Naval Academy. Davenport’s article, “Policy-Induced Risk and Responsive Participation: The Effect of a Son’s Conscription Risk on the Voting Behavior of His Parents”, published in the January 2015 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, was awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2016 MPSA Conference. (MPSA members: Log in at to access.)