08.09.2012 2

Are voters really upset when politicians act slimy?

By Adam Bitely — Politicians accusing their counterparts of engaging in unethical behavior is a game as old as time. Most times, the accusations of politicians acting in an unethical manor go unchecked. Many accusations appear to be theater for campaign season rather than actions that will result in a politician being investigated to the full extent of the government’s power. Perhaps there is a reason why politicians act the way that they do.

A recent study from Dan Ariely and Heather Mann seeks to answer the question about a partisan standard of ethics. Simply put, do partisan voters look the other way when their own party engages in unethical behavior to win political victories? And, do these same voters hold the other side to a higher ethical standard?

The results from the Ariely/Mann study indicate that ethically gray activities (which they defined as providing favors to campaign donors, not fully disclosing information to the public, scheduling votes when politicians are away, etc.) were 3 times more acceptable when committed by the candidate they supported.

The below graph shows the results of the study: Participants that supported Obama believed Romney should be held to a higher ethical standard while Obama should not and supporters of Romney believed that Obama should be held to a higher ethical standard while Romney should not exposing the partisan standards of ethics:

Because of this double standard, politicians have an incentive to engage in questionable behavior. After all, voters acknowledge that they approve of the questionable activity and reward the politicians that they support with a vote at the ballot box.

The results of this study expose the reason why there is so much back-and-forth between the parties and candidates regarding unethical activities. Politicians want to point out to their supporters that their opponent is up to no good. All the while, they are held to a lower ethical standard by their own supporters while they are accusing their opponent of engaging in slimy behavior.

No wonder so many people tune out political news.

After all, politicians are most likely very aware that the incentive to act questionably exists on both sides of the aisle. And perhaps because of that incentive being prevalent, politicians lack an incentive to open ethics investigations against each other and instead look the other way when it comes to enforcing ethics in politics and government in many cases.

Dan Ariely asked a few questions in regards to his finding that need repeating here: “If politicians do get a bit ‘slimy,’ are they the only ones to blame?  Who are politicians accountable to, if not their voters?  Finally, if the ethical bar is steadily lowered in the service of advancing party agendas, then who is responsible for raising it?”

The problem with politicians engaging in unethical behavior is that they have the incentive from the voters to engage in it. Both the voters and the politicians they support are to blame. Unless voters and politicians have an incentive to not act slimy or support someone that does, this problem will exist.

Adam Bitely is the Editor-in-Chief of NetRightDaily.com. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamBitely.

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