Managing Democracy: A Conversation with ISPS Resident Faculty Fellow Ian Turner

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
July 11, 2023

Ian Turner stands on the ISPS building's patio

Maybe money in politics is not such a huge problem? What drives the U.S. federal bureaucracy? Is it really so bad for democracy if highly partisan voters stick with their candidates regardless of performance in office?

Ian Turner wants to know.

An assistant professor of political science and resident faculty fellow with the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Turner’s research focuses primarily on American political institutions and democratic accountability. We spoke with him recently to gain some insight into what his work can tell us about the state of politics in the country.

ISPS: A lot of your research focuses on holding democratically elected leaders accountable for their actions, applying tools such as game theory, experiments, and public data. How can we really know what voters are thinking?

Ian Turner: So, of course, voters are complicated, complex human beings. And even the best game theory model cannot capture that perfectly. What I try to do in my research is establish a good approximation of voter behavior and its motivations. My research tends to abstract away from specific, complicated policy preferences. I’m trying to determine something a little different than exactly what voters want politicians to do about any particular issue.

ISPS: How can that help us understand what is happening in the real world?

Turner: One foundational aspect of this work is thinking about puzzling patterns of data that we see in the world and assessing arguments people make with that data. Using mathematical models allows me to probe, in a relatively simple way, how the relationship between elected politicians and voters is affected by different aspects of the electoral environment. By institutions or campaign finance laws, for example. A lot of my research is studying the way political incentives change as a function of the information voters possess or their effectiveness in processing that information.

ISPS: What does a study of this type look like?

Turner: A huge portion of political science literature examines how people vote as a function of self-reported interests captured through surveys. Political scientists also conduct experiments designed to see if people change their votes when given certain types of information or if their choices seem to be primarily driven by party affiliation, for example.

ISPS: Right. The news media certainly seems to portray our country as deeply divided into monolithic blue and red states or even neighborhoods. How do you try to get at the underlying, more purple truth of the matter? Or determine what effects this apparent division might have on governance?

Turner: It’s not easy! A recent paper of mine explores motivated reasoning and democratic accountability, the idea that people might process information in a biased manner based on their personal identity or commitments to a group, often a political party. In doing so, voters can fail to hold politicians of their own party accountable for actions they would otherwise not support. And what my paper argues is that it’s not very clear how partisan-motivated reasoning operates in totality. Most studies focus on the voters and how they process information. But you can’t actually make statements about the quality of democratic accountability by looking at voters or politicians in isolation from one another.

ISPS: Why not?

Turner: Because accountability is about a relationship. And this relationship does not exist in a vacuum. Politicians can see how voters react to their actions or anticipate a reaction and adjust their behavior accordingly. This type of dynamic is what game theory can help us dissect.

ISPS: So, what are you learning?

Turner: What we find in our research is that the type of polarization that occurs through partisan-motivated reasoning can be fairly innocuous when it comes to incentives for elected officials. This is because politicians are responding most acutely to what they perceive to be the most pivotal part of their constituencies. Even if the electorate is comprised of many partisan-motivated reasoners, some people are in fact responding strongly to scandal or poor performance. And that pivotal constituency dictates the incentives that drive politicians’ behavior.

ISPS: Why is that?

Turner: Let us assume that most politicians want to be reelected. Based on partisan loyalty and motivated reasoning, incumbents generally don’t need to worry about losing loyal votes, and they know they aren’t going to win the hyper-partisan opponents. But there are these other people who might vote against them if they don’t do a good job. So, there is still a strong accountability relationship. They need to make sure this third group of people don’t flip their votes to their opponent.

ISPS: But surely there is a downside to partisan-motivated reasoning overall?

Turner: Yes. Something we find that is uniformly bad for democratic accountability involves a de-coupling of real information about incumbent performance and the way people update their beliefs about their approval of that incumbent. The effect involves how much weight voters place on this information. We have found that partisan-motivated reasoning weakens the connection between the information someone receives about an incumbent’s performance and how much it matters in their assessment of the incumbent. In this way, a politician’s incentives to do well in the eyes of all types of voters decreases. That is, the politician may work less hard on behalf of constituents precisely because their effort doesn’t affect the likelihood of being reelected as strongly. The overall impact of performance on accountability grows weak.

ISPS: So, which is it? Does partisan-motivated reasoning harm democratic functioning or not?

Turner: I would say that there are more circumstances where it’s harmful than not. But we can’t rule out that it’s not harmful, because democracy still seems to be functioning.

ISPS: Today, maybe.

Turner: Everything is relative! What my co-authors and I are doing is providing a logical framework in which it is not sufficient to say that democracy is not working well just because there are partisan-motivated reasoners in the electorate. For a long time, the canonical democratic accountability literature argued that voters need to be competent and form unbiased opinions for democracy to work well. On the one hand, we show that’s not true. Voters can suffer from everyday biases in processing information about the political work, and the system can still work well. At the same time, there are political environments in which the difficulty for voters to process information effectively can still damage democratic accountability, channels through which politicians react poorly. I’m just saying that it might not be as bad as people make it out to be all the time.

ISPS: Let’s move on. You’ve written about how increasing bureaucratic oversight can reduce bureaucratic accountability, focusing on how government agencies can obfuscate the need for policy changes to protect their perceived interests in maintaining current policies. That seems problematic, no?

Turner: Well, I think there needs to be a balance between congressional oversight and agency discretion. I’m sensitive to the idea that Congress should be more specific about how to carry out its intent at times. But agencies are charged with carrying out huge missions in a large, diverse, and dynamic country. And there is theoretical and empirical research arguing persuasively that there is no way to eliminate agency discretion completely. While we might want Congress to take more responsibility in shaping laws, it seems like too much to ask that Congress should consider every possible future contingency.

ISPS: Because Congress doesn’t have the same level of subject matter expertise as career agency employees?

Turner: Right. The whole point of having agencies that house policy experts — because of their training and experience — their entire function is to figure out what to do in specific circumstances. They have better information than elected politicians do. In my research I’m interested in thinking about how career civil servants care about how their effort is going to transfer into policy outcomes they think are aligned with the mission of the agency or the values of their profession. These are people who opt into working in the public sector for a reason, and it’s usually not money. Politicians have their own incentives. They usually make decisions based on some mix of good policy and politics. There is a tension there that’s interesting.

ISPS: How can we assess democratic accountability when there are so many issues in play during campaigns and between elections? How can we tell what is really swinging an election?

Turner: As a game theorist I think about the limits of what we can learn from the data we have. A lot of the studies in political science are giving us results about the on-average voter. But really there is a distribution of voters, not some average individual who stands for the rest. Studies can be very good at picking out systematic patterns in the electorate, but connecting them is very difficult. It’s hard to draw inferences about specific individual voters. Or even blocks of voters.

ISPS: But it’s not like you and your colleagues have thrown in the towel. ISPS is a busy place.

Turner: As social scientists, we are always trying to distill this complex, complicated world into something manageable. Something that we can study systematically. When it comes down to the political environment, the nature of the American political landscape does simplify things a bit.

ISPS: How so?

Turner: Generally, there will be two viable candidates from two parties. There will be clear data. We can look at people’s revealed behavior through vote choice, for example. We can show correlations between groups of people with certain demographics voting for one candidate. The bad part is that there are usually only two choices, and people have all these views across different dimensions in the political world. There’s a huge bundle of things that would lead someone to vote for Trump over Biden or Biden over Trump, for example. And it’s seldom immediately clear what they are.

ISPS: Voters are often misinformed. Or simply not paying attention. What can political science do to help understand the dynamics at play? Is there a role for science in helping to educate the electorate?

Turner: I think so. But I don’t view that as the primary goal. I think we want to go into studies to answer the question at hand without thinking if it’s valuable publicly. We want to maintain credibility among non-academics and don’t want to be seen as pushing a particular agenda. In fact, I think it’s important to do studies that are perhaps boring to a general audience or incremental and lacking the provocative flavor to get picked up by media outlets. It’s important to push the larger enterprise forward and accurately inform society. And to be clear, that’s because we aren’t pushing an agenda. I, and at least the academics I know, are trying to understand the political world better not reach pre-determined conclusions.

ISPS: But there is also a role to speak directly to people without political science degrees?

Turner: Yes, I think it’s also quite important that we have people who do research that’s more directly able to explain to citizens how government works. In today’s digital landscape, it’s so easy to only get information from sources that you perceive as already having a predisposition the same as yours. It’s just important that, as researchers, I think we don’t want people to be under the misperception we are pushing a particular political agenda. I know I’ve never met anyone who works that way.

ISPS: In a 2020 paper on campaign contributions, you explore how giving money to a candidate or a candidate’s political action committee serves an informational function beyond simply a direct effort to help that candidate win or influence the candidate’s votes while in office. What did you find, and what is the significance of this finding for how we understand money in politics?

Turner: I think when most people think about campaign donations, they think about supporting a particular candidate or party to get like-minded people elected. But from a corporate perspective, the other thing money can do is signal something about what a business knows about its standing in the markets it operates in. There are different ways in which a company or a political action committee allocates money for political ventures can affect the landscape later.

ISPS: How does that work?

Turner: Let’s say I run a pharmaceutical company, and I’m worried about increased regulation that will guard against the sale of unsafe medications but slow down the drug approval process and our ability to profit from a new drug. In the coming election, one candidate is advocating for such increased regulations and the other is against them. If my research says my new product is safe, I’m going to be less worried about which candidate wins office. And I might be more willing to give money to a candidate who is less aligned with my general anti-regulation stance. If I give money to a pro-regulation candidate, that candidate would be more likely to think that my company is more trustworthy. It potentially softens that candidate’s approach toward my company because our donation says something about how we operate. It says something about the company’s ability to withstand regulations and go along with the law.

ISPS: How is this different from a company simply hedging its bets and giving to both major parties?

Turner: This is a classic game theoretic point we apply to campaign finance. The normal idea is that companies are hedging their bets and seeking influence with the eventual winner. But our theory points out that you don’t need to be seeking favors in order to show that there are reasons from a strategic actor’s perspective to give in ways that seem at first blush to be counterintuitive. Money in politics is not necessarily as bad as the public makes it out to be.

ISPS: I think it is safe to say that much of the public has a negative association with lobbyists. You teach a course on the topic and have written about how sincere politicians could campaign on the promise of shunning special interest groups even if some such groups could provide useful insights to help make governing decisions that benefit constituents. One problem you point out is that voters can’t tell the difference between politicians who grant access because they are corrupt and those who are seeking to serve voters’ interest. Do you think there is a way for an honest politician to change this dynamic?  To take the good without the bad?

Turner: I don’t think normal citizens or voters are wrong for being vigilant about this problem. We know governance used to work through smoky backroom deals. It’s possible that at least in certain cases, that banning access to certain groups or certain interests could be good even if it comes at the cost of valuable information.

ISPS: What sort of valuable information?

Turner: Groups can certainly be biased because they have a financial stake in governing decisions. But they might also have information that can help guide politicians in making those decisions. For example, we probably need to understand what banks think will happen if we beef up the financial regulatory environment. We probably need some input from people who work day to day in these industries. Should they be the ones making the decisions? No. But I don’t think the answer is banning them from the table. We just need to make the process transparent and include all stakeholders. When considering financial regulations, we should hear not just from banks but Wall Street traders, interest groups representing consumers, and others with expert insight.

ISPS: Transparency being the key concept, right?

Turner: Right. We need to know who is at the table and whose interests they represent. There are mechanisms for this now, but they are not very well known. For the average person, these are very opaque processes. As with most aspects of democratic accountability, we need to help citizens to see what is happening in government. Either to restore faith in a system they believe is broken or learn how it is broken so we can fix it.