Skip to content
A hand in a medical glove holds an ampoule close-up, against the background of a blurred face in a mask (Anastasia Nelen via Unsplash)

Deep Dive: Schooling Politics

Politicians often pursue unpopular policies, but voters can be persuaded if parties add actual occupational experts to their rank and file.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Anastasia Nelen

Mia Costa and Miguel M. Pereira argue in a new pre-print that research suggests that politicians with professional experience are seen as more credible in their relevant areas of expertise, and thus better positioned to persuade voters. They explore this argument in three Western democracies: Germany, the United States, and Sweden. “Parties that foster occupational diversity,” they write, are therefore “better equipped to build support for their policy agendas.”

Why? “Parties and legislators often pursue unpopular policies,” they write. And doing so comes with electoral risks. But voters can be persuaded if parties add actual occupational experts to the rank and file. 

This is also true across areas. Costa and Pereira considered the case of education in Germany, but that of healthcare in the United States, where “7.5% of US respondents supported a proposal to restrict telehealth services put forward by an average legislator (without reference to their professional background), 33.8% did so when told the proposal came from a legislator who also works as a general physician.”

The authors stress that their research builds on other studies suggesting that “diversity within legislatures influence policy outcomes.”

The authors stress that their research builds on other studies suggesting that “diversity within legislatures influence policy outcomes. For instance, women legislators prioritize different issues than their male counterparts, and redistribute resources according to these priorities.” 

This is true with social background, too. But “the same effects can be observed even absent differences in legislators’ preferences or priorities. For example, there is evidence that legislators’ social and individual backgrounds shape their perceptions of the electorate,  which can lead them to prioritize different policies even if they are not intentionally trying to represent a particular subconstituency.” And so the authors proposed their “alternative mechanism,” which is their theory of occupational diversity and efficiency. 

The authors also had to consider the strength of argument: if too much detail in an argument could turn voters off, or if an argument built up through, for example, committee experience could substitute for occupational expertise.

The authors designed a study in which subjects were presented with a vignette and then “responded to three outcome questions designed to measure their perceptions of the legislator’s knowledge, their support for the policy proposal, and their opinion of the legislator’s approach to political compromise.” They did this considering the cases of grade retention in Germany and telehealth in both the United States and Sweden.

They found that their respondents “perceived legislators who have a background in education or healthcare as better informed about the issues of grade retention in Germany and telemedicine in the United States. Voters were also more likely to support broadly unpopular policies if a legislator with relevant professional experience proposed them compared to one without such experience. Hence, occupational cues persuaded voters to support a policy that they would otherwise be more likely to oppose.”

The authors concede three unanswered questions: whether this extends beyond education and healthcare; the extent to which partisanship moderates occupational cues; and the extent to which this is driven by “aversion to career politicians” — as opposed to respect for occupational expertise. 

Emily Tamkin

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.