PE Research Seminar: Ephraim Shimko

Cheap (Talk) Shots: Political Communication as Accountability Avoidance.
Feb 9, 2023, 12:15 pm1:20 pm
127 Corwin Hall


Event Description

I develop a theory of political communication by an incumbent politician who seeks to enact good policies and wishes to remain in office. The model considers an incumbent politician and a media outlet with divergent preferences on ideological issues, but identical preferences on valence issues in line with a representative voter. The incumbent politician is tasked with a policy decision to address an issue which can be categorized into one of the two cases. The politician and the media outlet understand the nature of the issue while the voter can only be made aware of it's nature through elite cues. In equilibrium, a low quality incumbent may falsely claim that an issue is ideological in nature, or equivalently that the media will be biased in it's reporting, as a tactic to skirt accountability for choosing a potentially bad policy, but do so at the expense of their reputation. Furthermore, the incumbent may even choose an ex ante inferior policy choice in order to make the claim "credible". The voter forms a lower assessment of the incumbent's competence when the incumbent makes this claim, but does not draw any inferences from the media's messages, corresponding to a form of "soft censorship". The presence of a possibly ideological agenda negatively affects voters by distorting policy outcomes on valence issues (moral hazard) and by limiting the voter's ability to distinguish between high and low quality incumbents (adverse selection). Both of these effects are made worse when challengers are weak and when polarization is high, as incumbents have more capacity for dishonesty under these circumstances. In an alternative specification in which the voter is unable to map policy choices into an ideological worldview, policy distortions cease to exist, although adverse selection persists. I interpret the model as illustrative of a broader theory of political communication explicitly tied to accountability avoidance and argue that other types of rhetoric can be represented within the model's framework.