Unlimited Executive Authority? Polarized Voters Won’t Budge, Even During COVID-19

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dara Gaines, covers the new article by Kenneth Lowande, University of Michigan, and Jon C. Rogowski, University of Chicago,Executive Power in Crisis”.

While unprecedented in scope, the Coronavirus pandemic is not the first major crisis the United States has experienced. In crises, research finds that the American public desires strong leaders and efficient action. Some might argue that the Framers agreed with this sentiment and therefore crafted the Presidency so that during such critical times, the Executive would be able to act swiftly and authoritatively. Whereas in peacetime, institutional obstacles prevent unilateral action such as the system of checks and balances and negative public reaction from executive overreach, when the country is in crisis, history shows that some individuals will trade democracy for security. In some cases, the rally-around-the-flag effect has the potential to increase the public’s capacity for executive agency.

In their new article, “Executive Power in Crisis,” Kenneth Lowande and Jon C. Rogowski explore this phenomenon as they examine the effects of crises on public tolerance for executive power. Using an experiment as part of a survey of over 8,000 Americans in March 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers tested the effect of crises on American support for a president’s institutional authority. Interestingly, they did not find that perceptions about the severity of the pandemic shaped tolerance for executive power. Instead, they found that partisan identification overpowers the patriotic cooperation effect. Another way, partisan polarization makes cross-party support unlikely, even in a pandemic.

In their experiment, Lowande and Rogowski randomly assigned respondents to share their support for 11 policy proposals drafted by Congress and supported by the president or signed into law by President Trump himself by executive order. They took steps to make sure that partisans would not select based only on party affiliation by limiting the options to Trump and Republicans in Congress. The writers also considered the varied spread of the virus when considering the public perceptions of executive privilege and utilized multiple measures of severity, including county-level confirmed case numbers, deaths, personal health risk assessment, and unemployment numbers. The survey experiment considered the mitigating effect of partisanship, ideology, effects of different state characteristics, and the role of media exposure.

“How is it the case that the most devastating crisis of the century does not produce a crisis effect? Lowande and Rogowski suggest that firm partisan beliefs prevented the bandwagon effect that occurred during past crisis experiences.” After creating multiple models of the survey data, Lowande and Rogowski concluded that there was little to no evidence that the process of implementation had any effect on the public perception of the policy. In other words, people did not have strong feelings one way or the other regarding the way that policies were enacted. Personal health risks, county-level case counts, or deaths did little to determine individual preference for presidential or Congress-led action. Of the measures of crisis severity, health concerns were the strongest predictor of support for any government intervention. If individuals were concerned for their personal health, they were more likely to support a policy action of any kind without concern for how that policy was implemented. None of the measures of severity affected individual support for increases in presidential power.

How is it the case that the most devastating crisis of the century does not produce a crisis effect? Lowande and Rogowski suggest that firm partisan beliefs prevented the bandwagon effect that occurred during past crisis experiences. Over time, Americans have become more polarized and entrenched in their partisan beliefs. Bipartisan support was more likely in the past than it is today. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the non-effect of crisis severity on the support of policy by partisans. Republicans were about two times as likely to support policy interventions as Democrats. The authors conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic did not create enough bipartisan support to give the president the option to expand his authority.

This experiment by Lowande and Rogowski demonstrates a uniquely modern response to crises by the American public. Refusing to cross the aisle, even as millions of people died around the world, and hundreds of thousands on American soil, political elites reinforced citizens’ partisan and ideological preferences, making full support of the president unlikely. The authors suggest that this could be an additional check on executive power. Presidents are constrained by non-partisan preference and are unable to act without fear of retribution. This limits the capacity for authoritarian leadership. However, what happens when a responsible president has to take decisive action? When a candidate is unqualified, it could be a good thing that they don’t have the public’s support for expanding executive authority. However, when the president is qualified or suggesting positive actions like getting vaccinated, they need total support. This experiment shows that they will be hard-pressed to receive it.

  • Dara Gaines is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. She conducts research in the areas of Black Politics, public opinion, voter behavior and place identity. Her dissertation research explores how rural African Americans experience political incorporation in the South. Professionally, she works as a consultant to various political campaigns and agencies.
  • Article details: LOWANDE, KENNETH, and JON C. ROGOWSKI. “Executive Power in Crisis.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–18
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.