Executive Power in Crisis

Executive Power in Crisis

By Kenneth Lowande, University of Michigan and Jon C. Rogowski, University of Chicago

Major crises can threaten political regimes by empowering demagogues and promoting authoritarian rule. While existing research argues that national emergencies weaken formal checks on executive authority and increase public appetites for strong leadership, no research evaluates whether crises increase mass support for the president’s institutional authority. We study this question in the context of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic with an experiment embedded in a national survey of more than 8,000 U.S. adults. We find no evidence that the public evaluated policies differently if they were implemented via unilateral power rather than through the legislative process, nor did the severity of the pandemic at either the state, local, or individual levels moderate evaluations of executive power. Instead, individuals’ partisan and ideological views were consistently strong predictors of policy attitudes. Perhaps paradoxically, our results suggest that elite and mass polarization limit the opportunity for crises to promote public acceptance of strengthened executive authority.

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