Good news for anybody concerned with the state of modern democracy: New article on the voter’s reaction to social policy changes

Are voters unable to respond to policy changes or do they respond by rewarding or punishing the government?

In a recent paper, published in Governance, Georg Wenzelburger and his Co-authors Christoph Arndt and Carsten Jensen test the policy-vote link under circumstances where policymakers are clearly responsible for the events to happen, in this case changes to welfare legislation. The welfare state is an ideal area for testing this claim, as social policy issues affect life chances of many citizens. Thus, the article relates to a core aspect of the “blind retrospection perspective” that has not been put to test before.

Empirically, the study integrates existing survey data from the German Politbarometer with a unique, new dataset on legislative policy decisions regulating the generosity of old age pensions and unemployment protection (from the WSCEP project). This setup allows tracking the policy-vote link for 329,167 respondents from 1977 to 2013.

The results clearly indicate that voters react to policy changes in a meaningful way, but also that they can be distracted by high-profile, extreme events. On average, expanding generosity of old age pensions and unemployment protection leads to higher government popularity, while cutbacks have the opposite effect. Moreover, the study shows that most voters respond to policy changes within the first month or two (see Figure below).

In sum, the paper does not find support for the rather blunt notion of blind retrospection according to which voters are unable to react meaningfully to policy decisions as they lack information. Instead, voters do respond to very visible policy changes that affect their lives, but extreme events can overshadow these reactions at times. This is good news for anybody concerned with the state of modern democracy!

Louisa Prien