Donald Trump is now officially the 45th President of the United States of America. Throughout his tumultuous political campaign, Trump’s supporters and opponents alike repeatedly claimed that, if elected, the weight and accountability of the office of the President would likely cause Trump to have a change of heart and ‘pivot’ – moderating both his rhetoric and policy agenda. However, results from my recently published research in the Journal of Conflict Resolution suggest that the opposite is likely to happen – accountability can trigger significantly more polarized political attitudes, rather than more moderate ones.
And indeed, five days into his Presidency, Trump has signaled that, not only does he plan to stick to his policy guns, but if anything, these proposals have simply grown more central to his policy agenda. He has thus far followed through on several of his most polarizing campaign promises: reinstating the global gag rule on abortion, ending US consideration of the TPP, freezing grant-making at the EPA, restricting immigration and refugees from at least seven countries, and issuing an executive order to start construction on the southern border wall.
The long-awaited ‘pivot’ has not arrived. Indeed, accountability does not appear to have moderated his ideological policy preferences in any way. In fact, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Why is this? My research offers some answers.
Often, political scientists view accountability as inherently tied to political office—accountability to voters implies that representatives can be voted out of office if they do not satisfy their audience. However, accountability can also be conceptualized at a more basic psychological level—as a primarily social phenomenon in which individuals seek to maintain prestige and avoid losing face to any potential observers of their actions. This is the premise underlying the contingency model of accountability – that accountability works to the extent that individuals seek the approval and respect of those to whom they are accountable.
Thus, the effects of accountability are critically dependent on both the social goals of the individual and the audience to whom the individual perceives they are responsible. If, as is likely the case with our new President, the social goals include a need for adulation and praise from a small base of supporters, accountability can serve as a powerful motivating factor to amplify ideological decisions and attitudes rather than moderate them.
This is indeed exactly what I find in a series of studies, conducted in a completely different political context: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Using a well-established accountability manipulation in which respondents are told their responses are either anonymous (the control) or identifiable and subject to a post-survey meeting with an interviewer, I find that Israeli Jews made accountable for their political views become much more polarized in their policy preferences. After receiving the treatment (or control), subjects were asked a series of questions that asked them to privilege militancy versus compromise in Israel’s political interactions with the Palestinians. Self-described leftists become significantly more supportive of compromise with the Palestinians, particularly when presented with a negotiations scenario (the Palestinians have introduced a new peace treaty), while self-described rightists become significantly more supportive of militancy, particularly when presented with a military scenario (the Palestinians have increased rocket attacks against Israel).
This demonstrates not only that accountability polarizes, but that the polarizing impact of accountability is dependent on the relative issue ownership each ideological groups feels toward the scenario at hand. Leftists are moved more by a negotiations scenario than they are by a security one; the opposite is true for rightists. This suggests that, indeed, accountability is functioning in a social context – leftists and rightists feel more pressure to conform to their ideological viewpoints when presented with an issue over that they consider central to their ideological beliefs.
This study suggests some important practical implications for the role of accountability in shaping political preferences. To begin, the results of this study suggest that practitioners should use caution in advocating accountability as a universal factor for encouraging moderation and cooperation in political processes. Accountability may work to hinder self-critical decision making and moderate policy choices, instead encouraging individuals to rely on familiar, more readily defensible ideological arguments when formulating their political attitudes.
In the case of President Trump, this likely means that the accountability of the Presidency is unlikely to moderate some of his more radical policy goals, unless he believes that his core constituencies’ views on these issues have changed. Otherwise, the social pressures of accountability will likely drive him to maintain consistency between his ideological campaign pledges and his ongoing policy agenda.
Carly Wayne is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan researching foreign policy decision-making, the psychology of political violence and strategies of modern war.