This paper argues cynicism toward elected officials colors how individuals in the mass public interpret information about political scandals. Specifically, citizens rely on prior levels of cynicism toward elected officials when assessing new information about potential political malfeasance. Drawing on panel data surrounding two prominent political scandals, this paper demonstrates prior levels of cynicism shape individuals’ interpretations of information about scandals, but cynicism does not affect the amount of attention individuals pay to scandals. Ultimately, the results shed light on individual-level variation in response to scandals, and suggest expressed cynicism toward politicians is a politically consequential individual-level attitude that affects whether or not political leaders can survive ethical transgressions.
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Cynicism is distinct from the related concept skepticism. Cynics are predisposed to find fault and assume human action is motivated by self interest while skeptics possess a more uncertain and questioning world view (Capella and Jamieson 1997; Eisinger 2000; Cook and Gronke 2005). Cynicism is thus a more pessimistic and definitive belief about the integrity of others than is skepticism.
Blais et al. (2005) acknowledge this point on p. 29.
Given my reliance on survey data to test these expectations, I remain agnostic about the exact mechanisms at play. Survey data are ill-equipped to test the processes through which prior beliefs affect future attitudes and behavior. Although the processes through which individuals arrive at their decisions are important venues for study, it is ultimately the decisions citizens reach about a scandal that prove politically consequential. This study assesses differences in the latter, and leaves detailed discussion of the former for future research.
I chose to dichotomize the measure because there does not appear to be much conceptual distinction between saying “not very many” people running government are crooked and “hardly any” people running government are crooked. Re-running the analyses with the non-dichotomized measure produces similar results.
One question asks, “Do you think that people in government waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don’t waste very much of it?” Respondents’ evaluations of whether people in government waste money would seem to more closely align with Barber’s (1983) competence dimension, instead of the integrity dimension.
A second question asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with the statement: “Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.” This question appears to more closely reflect citizens’ beliefs about the responsiveness of elected officials, or the quality of representational procedures (Weatherford 1992, p. 156), which could be evaluated independent of evaluations of elected officials’ integrity.
Answers to the two questions, which include “don’t know” responses coded as a middle category, correlate at 0.14. The rather modest correlation is perhaps due to the reverse ordering of the questions, where agreeing with the first question is the cynical answer while disagreeing with the second question is the cynical answer. The questions show a stronger correlation at higher levels of education (0.30 for college-educated respondents). Re-running the analyses below without the least-educated respondents shows no notable differences in the results.
The “don’t know” answers were coded as a middle category due to the small sample size. I replicated the results that follow dropping “don’t know” respondents and found no notable differences in the statistical or substantive significance of the main coefficients of interest.
The predicted probability changes are calculated using Long and Freese's (2006) prchange command for Stata.
Individuals were only asked this question if they reported hearing about the scandal. This could introduce problems of selection bias (Long 1997, Chap. 7). Using a selection model produces similar results.
The different interpretations shaped public opinion about the favored consequences for overdrafters. Roughly 48% of those who said overdrafts did not break the law agreed writing bad checks was not a serious enough offense to disqualify someone from office compared to only 10.4% of those who felt bad check writers did break the law. However, Dimock and Jacobson (1994) find that voters who believed their own representative wrote bad checks tended to favor less severe consequences for overdrafters, thus dampening the electoral repercussions of the scandal.
Future research could examine whether trust has an indirect effect, through cynicism, on reactions to scandals.
Education is measured on a five-point scale ranging from eighth grade or less to college graduate. Interest is measured on a three-point scale with higher values indicating more interest.
The evidence for the interpretation hypothesis is admittedly indirect given the current measures. This again requires me to remain agnostic about the exact mechanisms that produce the observed differences.
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