Workshop: “High Risk Politics”

Why do political actors take risky decisions? This very basic question was at the heart of a 5-year research project headed by Prof Barbara Vis (VU Amsterdam, now: Utrecht University). This research project was theoretically based on ideas of prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky 1979) and very much inspired by Barbara Vis’ great work on the question of why governments adopt electorally risky welfare state cutbacks (Vis 2009a, b; Vis and Van Kersbergen 2007).

I had the honor to participate at the concluding workshop of this fascinating research project and contributed a presentation about the role of risk assessments in the context of law and order policies. My basic point was that the perceived risk of future events in the realm of crime and terror actually pushes political actors to present themselves as tough on crime or at least not soft on crime. Because crime and security are valence issues (Stokes 1963), it is suicidal for political actors to propose more crime and less security as policies to their voters which leads to a certain asymmetry in party competition. However, we also see a huge variance in terms of how strongly governments advocate tough law and order policies. My take is that we can explain this variance mainly with party competition dynamics (two party systems vs. multiparty systems) as well as the presence of right wing populist parties.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam / University of Amsterdam

The workshop was a nice opportunity to think in a much more general way about political decision-making processes and the questions how political actors assess risk, losses and gains in complex decision-making situations. Although we know a bit more about how political actors make up their minds about such questions, we are still far from knowing how risk calculations actually work. This is partly due to the fact that we don’t really know much about how political actors establish the reference point from which they assess whether they are in a losses domain (in which risky decisions are more likely to happen) or in a gains domain (where we would assume that change is unlikely). Moreover, it is also unclear how we can estimate the uncertainty whether a certain event happens or not (e.g. electoral punishment). Hence, after two days of great discussions, more new questions arose than old questions were solved. More food for thought and future research!

Georg Wenzelburger

[Photo by Georg Wenzelburger]


  • Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky. 1979. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.” Econometrica 47(2):263-292.
  • Stokes, Donald E. 1963. “Spatial Models of Party Competition.” American Political Science Review 57(2):368-377.
  • Vis, Barbara. 2009a. “Governments and unpopular social policy reform: Biting the bullet or steering clear?” European Journal of Political Research 48(1):31-57.
  • Vis, Barbara. 2009b. “The importance of socio-economic and political losses and gains in welfare state reform.” Journal of European Social Policy 19(5):395-407.
  • Vis, Barbara and Kees Van Kersbergen. 2007. “Why and how do political actors pursue risky reforms.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 19(2):153-172.