Why Do People (Re)-Elect Bad Leaders?

7 Dec

‘Why do people (re)-elect bad leaders?’ used to be a question that people only asked of third-world countries. No more. The recent election of unfit people to prominent positions in the U.S. and elsewhere has finally woken some American political scientists from their mildly racist reverie—the dream that they are somehow different.

So why do people (re)-elect bad leaders? One explanation that is often given is that people prefer leaders that share their ethnicity. The conventional explanation for preferring co-ethnics is that people expect co-ethnics (everyone) to do better under a co-ethnic leader. But often enough, the expectation seems more like wishful thinking than anything else. After all, the unsuitability of some leaders is pretty clear.

If it is wishful thinking, then how do we expose it? More importantly, how do we fix it? Let’s for the moment assume that people care about everyone. And if they were to learn that the co-ethnic leader is much worse than someone else, they may switch votes. But what if people care about the welfare of co-ethnics more than others? The ‘good’ thing about bad leaders is that they are generally bad for everyone. So, if they knew better, they would still switch their vote.

You can verify these points using a behavioral trust game where people observe allocators of different ethnicities and different competence, and also observe welfare of both co-ethnics and others. You can also use the game to study some of the deepest concerns about ‘negative party ID’—that people will harm themselves to spite others.