Polarization creates fertile ground for partisan scandal, Harris research shows.

It was late September last year when a whistleblower complaint revealed that President Trump had tried to force the Ukrainian government to investigate Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Within moments the scandal captured headlines. What followed was months of back and forth as Republicans supported the president while the Democrats used their political capital to get him impeached.

President Trump

But this was not the first time  – or the last time – the president was caught in the middle of a scandal. Since the impeachment trial that followed the Ukraine incident, episodes from The New York Times uncovering unsavory details from President Trump’s tax returns, to his questionable dismissal of multiple Inspectors General, to his refusal to clearly condemn white supremacists have all sparked widespread media attention and partisan fighting in 2020. 

Although with his polls dropping, some Republicans may finally be distancing themselves from the President, the question has been regularly asked the past four years: why do the Republicans continue to support the President despite these troubling charges being leveled at him? And, what is it that the Democrats stand to gain from repeated allegations?

A possible answer can be that in times of heightened polarization, both parties become desperate to keep the politicians that are in the same political party in power – and remove opposition politicians. To do so, one party casts accusations while the other denies them, creating confusion among voters. As a result, voters become disillusioned with the honesty of the parties, but scandals leave the implicated politicians relatively unscathed.

This was evident during the final debate of the presidential election, when President Trump used headlines from conservative media – related to a laptop that purportedly belonged to Biden’s son, now in the possession of Rudy Giuliani – to argue that Biden is a “corrupt politician.” Biden simply said it was untrue. 

Associate Professor Wioletta Dziuda

In their paper, “Political Scandal: A TheoryAssociate Professor Wioletta Dziuda and William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at Harris, investigate the incentives of parties to create political scandals and their political consequences. They find that “Polarization breeds dishonesty among parties, [leading to scandals which clear] uncertainty among voters, and misconduct among politicians.”

 In addition to demonstrating how polarization accelerates scandals, the paper also found that: 

  • “Discovery goes hand in hand with deception.” The opposition party falsely accuses if the politician is perceived to be scandalous and the chances of discovering a politician’s misbehavior are high. Usually in such scenarios, the aligned party also has little to gain from suppressing the truth, creating a bipartisan scandals, case in point being the condemnation of Access Hollywood tapes by prominent Republican.
  • “Partisan scandals damage both parties’ reputation but not of the politician.” Voters recognize the incentives of the ruling party to suppress the truth. This drives the opposition party to fabricate more scandals and tarnish their reputation too. But in either case, the politician’s image benefits as voters doubt the parties and not the politician. For instance, scandals against Trump and Clinton affected the reputation of Republican and Democratic parties while their public approval ratings remained resilient.
  • Political scandals may not reflect accurately the actual level of misbehavior. The opposition party will cast more frequent accusations in times of heightened polarization even if the underlying misconduct remains unchanged. Moreover, when the incidence of misconduct increases, the opposition party casts fewer false accusation, leading to a lower overall incidence of scandals. 
  • It’s important to note, the authors write, the “Equivalent behaviors can evoke very different reactions from the same party.” A party may react to an accusation of its rank-and-file politician with calls for her dismissal, while defend a high profile politician who faces the same accusations.

 The first formal theory of scandal revelation, “Political Scandal: A Theory,” underscores how scandals are a sign of political piety and might not reveal the truth most of the time. With the conclusion of the impeachment, these learnings provide a good lens to be skeptical of scandals both, publicized and suppressed.