Democracy’s Myopia Problem

I did a post yesterday on Larry Bartels’ observation that in Depression-afflicted countries “the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased [in the mid-30s] dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter” even though in different countries this meant all kinds of different political parties. A good example of this phenomenon at play is by comparing the United States, where the bursting of a housing bubble and a growing recession is crippling the incumbent Republicans and boosting the Democrats, with the United Kingdom, where the bursting of a housing bubble and a growing recession is crippling the incumbent Labour Party and boosting the Tories.

On its own terms, though this can sometimes produce unfair outcomes (like Jimmy Carter getting booted for problems that were far beyond his capacity to control) I think swing voters’ habit of punishing incumbents for poor performance is an okay satisficing strategy. It’s part of the reason why democracy manages to work despite massive voter ignorance. The electorate may be composed of people who don’t understand the issues or where the candidates stand on them, but the people running the government have an incentive to try to implement policies that work out okay in order to avoid “throw the bums out” sentiment. The trouble is that Bartels’ study of American elections, at least, suggests massive myopia on the part of voters. Economic performance in an election year has a big impact on election outcomes, but economic performance in other years doesn’t get you anywhere. If that carries over to the UK (and, indeed, it seems to) that means that Labour won’t get any credit from voters for the fact that current problems were preceded by a long and impressive string of growth. And by the same token, voters don’t understand comparative issues — the fact that your country is doing better than most other countries amidst a global downturn won’t get you any credit.