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Pierce Ekstrom




Accounts and Accountability in American Politics

Pierce Ekstrom, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Political Science

When people call us out for our misbehavior—accidental or intentional—we tend to provide some explanation (i.e., an “account”). Whether those people forgive us depends, in part, on the explanation we employ. When politicians misbehave, they also tend to try to explain themselves, and their explanations also matter. But some of our forthcoming work suggests that politicians’ accounts may not matter as much as we’d hope, leaving those politicians less accountable for their actions.

When people do wrong in their everyday lives, accounts that acknowledge wrongdoing and express regret (like apologies) are usually the best way to get out of trouble and repair relationships. However, wrongdoers often prefer to defend their reputation or their identity, and provide accounts that deny wrongdoing, reframe the behavior as good, necessary, or not so bad (like denials or justifications). In practice, accounts mix these characteristics with impressive variety, but they range from maximally other-focused and conciliatory to maximally self-focused and defensive.

When politicians do wrong, though, at least two things might incline them toward defensive rather than conciliatory accounts. First, acknowledging (rather than denying) wrongdoing might embarrass the party and partisan voters. Second, seeking reconciliation might make politicians appear less committed to winning—which they must do to enact partisan voters’ desired policies. The pressure to protect the collective esteem of the party and to pursue its material and symbolic interests may incentivize politicians to deny rather than acknowledge wrongdoing.

We conducted three experiments to test this idea. In 2013, 2014, and 2019, we presented MTurkers with “news” stories about fictitious political scandals, all cases of criminal wrongdoing. We manipulated the politician’s party, misconduct, and the explanation he (always he) provided for his misconduct. We found some good news. Participants consistently evaluated the politician negatively, and they never punished him for apologizing. However, participants also evaluated politicians from their own party more positively when they strenuously denied wrongdoing, compared to the no-account control condition. Although partisans did not quite incentivize defensive accounts, they did enable them. This tendency was stronger when the politician was high-status and when his re-election (or his misconduct) helped the party achieve its goals. In sum, partisans allowed their leaders to “get away with” accounts that people would rarely accept in everyday life—especially when those leaders were 1) central to their party’s public image or 2) situated in a high-stakes partisan conflict.

It’s hard to describe these findings now without thinking of Donald Trump—a high-status, conflict-central figure who has relied extensively (though not exclusively) on defensive rhetoric to parry variegated allegations of wrongdoing. But although there are many longstanding precedents that Trump has broken, and the allegations that he resists are uniquely numerous and serious, he is certainly not the only politician in American history to exploit partisan motives to insist on his innocence and his continued right to office.

What to do, though, about these motives to protect the party’s image and to ensure it wins? Trying to reduce these motives directly is probably a losing battle. But prominent figures within the parties could attempt to redirect them. They could build or advertise an image of the party that excludes the errant politician or opposes their behavior. They could emphasize plausible paths to electoral victory (or at least continued influence) without the errant politician. States could even structure primaries to maximize inter-candidate competition (e.g., by awarding delegates in proportion to primary votes rather than winner-take-all). Of course, this is exactly what some of Trump’s primary opponents attempted to do, but it may take more than a small handful of potentially self-interested elites to shift the public’s view of who really leads their party and whether any of its leaders are irreplaceable.


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