by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels. Reading for week of October 18, 2004.
Students of democratic politics have long believed that voters punish incumbents for hard times. Governments bear the responsibility for the economy in the modern era, so that replacing incompetent managers with capable alternatives appears to be a well-informed, rational act. However, this vision of a sophisticated retrospective electorate does not bear close examination. We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. Neither conventional understandings of democratic responsiveness nor rational choice interpretations of retrospective voting survive under this interpretation of voting behavior.
Published: Monday, October 11, 2004
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