A theory from two Harvard professors explains why American voters prefer incompetence

Give the people what they want.
Give the people what they want.
Image: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
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Do voters want competence from their elected officials?

In an intriguing new paper (pdf), a pair of Harvard business professors argue that a certain segment of voters—primarily lower educated and rural—will choose incompetent candidates over competent ones, in order to protect themselves from being betrayed. The greater the ability of the candidate, the greater the fear that they will use their skills to benefit themselves and their friends at the expense of voters. When corruption—a form of betrayal—is raised as a concern, those voters will choose the candidate who offers the least risk, even if it means choosing one they know to have less ability.

In their paper, Rafael Di Tella and Julio Rotemberg, both Argentines trained in economics, note that in the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly accused Hillary Clinton of corruption. One week before the presidential election, Di Tella and Rotemberg surveyed 3,532 potential voters online. They theorized that once voters were prompted to think about competence, some would choose the less competent candidate, so they asked half the survey respondents a series of questions about the importance of technical ability. They then asked all the potential voters about their preferred candidate.

Two-thirds of the voters in the survey’s control group agreed that Clinton was more competent than Trump. But rural voters who were primed by the researchers to consider competence preferred Trump 5% more than those in a control group who didn’t get the competence questions. Similarly, lower-educated whites in urban and suburban areas who received the competence questions chose Trump 7% more than the same voters in a control group.

Their research was published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which means it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

While skepticism about the value of expertise may be on the rise—author Tom Nichols connects it to the dissemination of information on the Internet, making everyone think they’re an authority—mistrust of elites is nothing new. There’s a long history of populist political rhetoric that preys on the fear of elite betrayal, including the “stab in the back” language of Weimer Germany which helped fuel the rise of Nazism, and the “paranoid” style of American politics (pdf), famously described by Richard Hofstadter, and deployed by George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy. Di Tella and Rotemberg argue their model helps explain why these strategies are persuasive, and that voters who respond to them are making rational, not emotional, decisions.

Di Tella and Rotemberg connect their findings to previous work in behavioral economics that show people react more strongly to loss when it’s due to someone else’s actions, versus simple misfortune. Rural and poorly educated voters who fear the betrayal of corruption will choose politicians who offer the least risk, even if it means they may not gain as much. For these voters, the only option “is to elect an incompetent politician who, at some material cost, will deliver fewer scenarios where a bad material outcome is the result of elite betrayal.”

Of course, their theory assumes all else is equal, and that voters consider only the questions of competence and corruption. As later reporting revealed, Trump voters were also motivated by concerns over trade, job growth, and the future of the Supreme Court, and believed Trump was the stronger candidate.

Ultimately, the authors are challenging the idea that competence is universally valued by voters. Candidates who make the traditional arguments of touting their skill and ability may be doing themselves more harm than good.