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ECPR Journals Virtual Special Issue

The Principal-Agent Model in Post-Truth Politics: The Moral Hazard of the Contemporary Leader-Citizen Relationship

Political Leadership
András Szántó
Corvinus University of Budapest
András Szántó
Corvinus University of Budapest

The paper aims to understand the nature of post-truth politics from a novel perspective. Post-truth politics means the ‘obfuscation of facts, abandonment of evidential standards in reasoning, and outright lying’ (McIntyre, 2018: 1). My definition of post-truth politics is the devaluation of evidential standards while engaging in egotistic political rent-seeking at the detriment of citizens’ acquisition of reliable political information and the democratic harms caused thereof. The paper introduces the principal-agent theory from economics as a framework to conceive the voter-leader relationship (as it has been established in political science) and relates its premises to post-truth politics. The argument of the paper is that post-truth politics fundamentally reshapes the originally more or less balanced relationship between leaders and citizens and by doing so, it severely exacerbates the moral hazard inherent of this relationship. Post-truth politics has gained substantial scholarly attention since political instances like the victory of Donald Trump or Brexit, in which the will of highly educated people deviated from that of the unsophisticated. The current trend in leadership can be characterised by neglect of deep-seated scientific evidence, the widening of leaders’ latitude and the consequent deterioration of liberal democracy. The paper differentiates the features of moral hazard in normal and post-truth politics. Firstly, the adverse selection problem of normal politics occurs when voters are unaware of politicians’ personal characteristics and the contractual variables (Macho-Stadler – Pérez-Castrillo, 2001) which may occur as citizens are not able to evaluate leaders’ personalities and predict the consequences of the proffered political programme. However, in post-truth politics, misinformation and the concealment of contractual variables tendentiously prevail, like in the case of Brexit when the people’s decision was based on misinformation campaigns. The current Brexit conundrum has a pernicious effect on domestic politics as the negotiating process excludes other issues of potentially high priority. Secondly, signalling is an activity or decision which demonstrates that the agent has a certain quality or is representative of a societal subgroup (Macho-Stadler – Pérez-Castrillo, 2001: 188). In normal politics, this occurs when leaders signal their value commitments, like the support of black voters in the US by frequently visiting black communities (Popkin, 1991: 160). However, in post-truth, signalling also serves as concealment of politician’s self-seeking behaviour and drives discourse into an irrational course. For instance, the overrepresentation of affect-laden issues (like migration) distracts attention from other issues relevant to voter preferences, and thus leads to the aggravation of adverse selection. Similarly, Donald Trump’s and Brasilia’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s claims on anthropogenic global warming counter-argue the findings of the overwhelming majority of climate researchers. In this regard, the paper contributes to the understanding of the current relationship between science and political leadership.

The sources referenced in the abstract

Macho-Stadler, Inés–Pérez-Castrillo, J. David (2001): An introduction to the economics of information – Incentives and contracts. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
McIntyre, Lee (2018): Post-Truth. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Popkin, Samuel L. (1994): The Reasoning Voter – Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
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