How Partisan Representation Shapes Citizens’ Views of Accountability and Efficiency during COVID-19

The first cases of what would become a global pandemic emerged in November of 2019, and would within months spread rapidly on an international scale. The nature of the virus put unprecedented pressure on governments both abroad and in the United. In response, local, state, and national governments instituted protective measures in an effort to efficiently contain the coronavirus, including contact tracing,  travel bans, restrictions on gatherings, testing requirements, lockdowns, and mask mandates, to name a few. In many cases, these measures were taken under states of emergency and to the objection of many citizens, with opponents arguing that more accountability and oversight of executive action was warranted. While it is crucial that governments take decisive action to address pressing issues, government efficiency may come at the expense of abstract democratic principles, such as transparency, participation, and accountability. “Fundamental safeguards of government accountability can be challenged or disregarded by institutional responses to an emergency,” such as ruling by decree without legislative oversight. The tradeoff between efficiency and accountability is especially pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic, where swift government action was decisive in addressing the healthcare crisis. We explore here whether people are more willing to grant authority to co-partisan governments, but more apt to impose accountability when their preferred party is not in power. 

We analyzed a sample of 1,237 German adults who were interviewed as part of the Covid-19, Crisis & the Rule of Law project. Our outcome variable is support for governmental accountability over efficiency. Respondents were asked to choose which of the following two statements they agreed with more:

  1. It is more important for citizens to be able to hold the government accountable.
  2. It is more important to have a government that can get things done.

Figure 1 demonstrates the distribution of answers. Approximately 65% of respondents said that an accountable government was more important (outcome=0), while 35% of respondents prioritized an efficient government instead (outcome=1).

Our core explantory variable is party representation in state government coalition. The variable indicates if a respondent had their favorite party represented in the state government coalition; Approximately 35% of respondents had their favorite party in the state coalition, approximately 65% of respondents did not. We hypothesize that:

  1. Party representation in state government will result in a preference for efficiency over accountability, ceteris paribus.

We present the distribution of bivariate relationship in Figure 2. There appears to be a negative relationship between state party representation and one’s preference for accountability. In other words, having your favorite party in your state coalition is associated with a preference for efficiency over accountability. Approximately 70% of respondents who did not have their favorite party in the state coalition preferred accountability over efficiency. Yet, only about 60% of respondents who did have their favorite party in the state coalition preferred accountability to efficiency. This difference is statistically significant at the 99% confidence level.

However, does this relationship stand when we control for other possible explanations? To examine this further, we ran a multivariate OLS regression. The other variables we included as controls were ideology, the state in which a respondent lives, whether they lived in the former communist East Germany, household income, education, age, sex, and region. 

 Figure 3 demonstrates our multivariate regression results. The lines represent the 95% confidence intervals, and the dots represent the mean substantive effect. The dashed line represents the null hypothesis of no effect, if the confidence intervals fall on this line, the variable does not meet the 95% confidence level threshold of statistical significance. As can be seen, state party representation is statistically significant, holding all else equal. This lends additional support for the notion that state party representation makes people more likely to allow for efficient government, and less worried about accountability and governmental oversight.

There have been many examples of democratic governments challenging their own core values, in an effort to efficiently contain the coronavirus. Our research shows that Germans were more likely to be supportive of these expedient measures when their preferred party was part of the governing coalition, likely because they trusted government would advocate on their behalf, on the basis of shared political convictions. Future studies should also examine if or how public commitment to efficiency vs. accountability changes after the crisis dissipates.

Chandler Campbell is a senior studying Political Science and International Affairs. As part of the Research Intensive Bachelor Certificate program at Florida State University, he has learned how to conduct research using theory-building and statistical models. Chandler is also writing an Honors Thesis on education’s mitigating relationship with white racial resentment. After graduating, he plans on attending law school and becoming a practicing attorney.

Gabriella Porter is a senior at Florida State University majoring in international affairs with a concentration in public administration. She is also pursuing minors in economics and chemistry, in addition to completing programs in emergency management and political science research. Her interest in international affairs began during the summer of 2019 when she had the opportunity to study abroad in Spain. Inspired by this international experience, Gabriella decided to conduct research related to comparative politics. As a research intern, she studies the impact of COVID-19 on the rule of law in democracies around the world. Upon the completion of her undergraduate studies, she intends to apply to medical school to serve the broader community.

Dr. Driscoll is an associate professor in the political science department at Florida State University. Dr. Driscoll’s research and teaching interests center of comparative democratic institutions of modern Latin America. Dr. Dirscoll’s published and ongoing work considers the institutional architecture of all modern democracies, including elections, executives, legislatures and courts, and has been published in the American Journal of Political Science, The Journal of Law and Courts, Political Research Quarterly, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Electoral Studies, Judicature, European Political Science Review, American Politics Research, Politics & Gender, Revista de Ciencia Política and Política y Gobierno, and has been funded by the National Science Foundation. You can learn more about Dr. Driscoll here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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