Partisan scandals harm parties more than politicians

January 8, 2021

Allegations of scandal hurt the parties and seem to help the politicians accused. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Allegations from one of America’s two major political parties against the other may in fact backfire against both amid increased polarization, according to a recent paper, while benefiting politicians who stand accused.

Polarization, or the widening ideological distance between parties, raises the political stakes of a scandal, giving one party more incentive to “go public” with an accusation while the other vehemently denies it, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Political Science in November.

Its authors outline a new model for so-called partisan scandals in which incomplete information about the supposed scandal leaves voters to infer whether it actually took place, most often resulting in a “downgraded” perception of both parties while elevating their view of the accused politician.

“In general, you’d have the intuition that when the politician is implicated in a scandal, his reputation suffers the most. And that’s not what we find,” Wioletta Dziuda, lead author and associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, told The Academic Times. “While it’s the politician who suffers very little, it’s the party that’s aligned with him that suffers more” in terms of voter perceptions of trustworthiness, she added.

This in part helps explain why the approval rating for outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump remained steady while the Republican Party’s rating plummeted amid increased attacks against him from Democrats, Dziuda said.

The nature of political scandals has been the subject of growing scholarship over the last two decades, according to Dziuda and co-author William Howell, the Sydney Stein professor in American politics at the Harris School.

But much of the existing research tends to focus on other aspects of how scandals are produced, such as the prevalence of actual corruption relative to scandals, they wrote. Only two other papers, to their knowledge, have previously delved into the “political calculations that undergird the propagation of scandal.”

To this end, the authors developed a new model that is “intentionally austere” in its design, honing in on a number of factors such as a party’s willingness to maintain a working relationship with the potential target of a scandal. They posed questions such as “What are the actors involved in scandal production?” and “What are their incentives?”

“We tried to build a model that just captures the things that we think are of  the first order of concerns when you think about scandal production,” Dziuda said. “So we abstract away from many, many complicated issues … basically, our starting point was that most of the time, you have two opposing parties that have opposite preferences when it comes to scandal production.”

The model illustrates a “one-time game” in which electoral payoffs or backlash resulting from accusing a politician are determined by ways in which the parties’ actions and reactions interact with how trustworthy they are in the eyes of the public. A voter, assumed to be a rational actor, then observes the exchange and updates his or her views about the accused politician and the parties involved in the exchange.

Through these conditions, the authors found that the production of new political scandals is accelerated by heightened stakes — marked by growing polarization, which is defined by increasing gaps in policy priorities between the two parties on subjects such as immigration and taxes.

“There seems to be consensus in political science that lawmakers in the U.S. have been voting in a more polarized way over time,” Dziuda explained in an email, citing the 2006 book “Polarized America,” which was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

She further clarified that political scientists essentially examine how often Democrats and Republicans “vote together on bills,” remarking that fewer bipartisan bills have originated over time on both sides of the aisle.

Dziuda and Howell’s model measures the stakes of a scandal through “parameter z,” which encompasses factors such as polarization between the parties, the importance of the position held by the accused politician and political entrenchment of the aligned party.

“Z measures the true benefit from having a politician from your own party in power,” Dziuda said. “So when we say that perhaps the increase in scandals is driven by the increase in z, what we mean is that the stakes of having a politician from your own party in power increased.”

The model fits a number of recent political scandals, Dziuda said, including a 2018 example in which U.S. President Donald Trump allegedly admonished immigrants from “shithole countries” during a closed-door bipartisan meeting with lawmakers.

In its aftermath, Democrats in attendance made public statements condemning Trump for his alleged comments, while Republicans at the meeting vigorously denied that Trump ever made such remarks to them.

The resulting scandal is partisan in nature, Dziuda said, meaning that both sides present conflicting views on the alleged activity, leaving voters to guess and draw their own conclusions as to whether the misbehavior actually happened. 

“We show that with increased polarization, you’re going to have deadlocked parties that are more likely to just deny that anything went wrong, and the opposing party accuses more frequently,” she said. “So you’re going to see fewer bipartisan scandals where both parties say something happened ... But you are going to have more scandals overall, because this is going to be driven by partisan scandals.”

The reputational blow to Trump, for instance, may be mitigated since he is defended by prominent members of his party, but this also has the effect of making the party as a whole look more dishonest and corrupt.

“But the same applies to a congressman or a senator, because each lawmaker is aligned with a group of people and misaligned with another group of people that has opposite preferences,” Dziuda explained.

However, the paper did not consider other factors that could drive scandals, such as party preferences of voters, which Dziuda suggested could be an avenue for future research on this topic.

She added that while the study focused on the U.S. to draw on its many examples of both bipartisan and partisan scandals, its findings would apply to any democratic system in which two major parties jockey for power with an increasing disparity in policy aims.

The paper, titled “Political Scandal: A Theory,” was first published Nov. 9 in the American Journal of Political Science. It was written by Wioletta Dziuda, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the Harris School. Dziuda was lead author of the paper.

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