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How should politicians act in times of disaster? A TDO Explainer

Richard Gordon and Noynoy Aquino at work during relief efforts. Sources: Philippine Red Cross and Department of Social Welfare and Development

Users of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have raised the question of President Aquino’s whereabouts during the height of the monsoon rains that have paralyzed most of Luzon in the last week. For some, the President’s apparent disinclination to visit disaster-stricken areas reflected a perceived timidity and lack of empathy in a time of crisis.

This perception was further spotlighted when photos of former Senator and Philippine Red Cross Chairman Dick Gordon began circulating, supposedly at work in the pouring rain. While Gordon was actually shown to be out of the country – the pictures were from last year – that didn’t stop people from comparing the two and finding Aquino wanting.

This begs the question: how should government officials act in times of disaster?

In any political setting (and not just in crises), political actors often face the choice between behaving according to two different institutional logics: the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness.

On one hand, the logic of consequences “denotes behavior directed at an individual goal” (Hague and Harrop, 2007). Examples of such goals include winning reelection, passing important legislation, or in this case, efficiently overseeing the disaster relief effort. Such a logic would suggest that, for President Aquino, staying indoors to monitor the disaster, away from the cameras, would make a greater contribution to the ongoing relief effort than would making public appearances. A statement from Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda suggests this logic is at work with the president: “As in the past, at the height of rescue and relief operations, the President does not want resources and personnel diverted to him visiting a site.”

The logic of appropriateness, on the other hand, denotes “actions which members of an institution take to conform to its norms.” (Hague and Harrop, 2007) Actions are taken not because they forward some goal but because norms – informal rules – expect politicians to act. This is best encapsulated in a quote by the US President Ronald Reagan, who as an actor recognized politics’ need for theater: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

In this example, the logic of appropriateness suggests that the President be highly visible in the relief efforts, even if he and/or his staff sees the effort expended in being visible as inefficient and distracting. When any politician makes public appearances, they often do not seek to accomplish any “real” work, but to simply conform to norms that associate visible politicians with certain qualities – such as, but not limited to empathy and decisiveness.

The assumption of course is that achieving this visibility does not in itself constitute a “real” contribution to the task at hand; social science does hold that ideas and symbols are powerful. But the political science literature is curiously pessimistic about the usefulness of such displays. One prominent line of inquiry on that topic concerns US presidential speeches, which are often talked about by the media but have been shown by quantitative studies to have no significant lasting positive or negative effect on support for the President or particular policies.

This doesn’t rule out the notion that these displays may still have positive effects. The quantitative methods used are notable for their parsimonious methods that may leave out key variables, and for their neglect of microprocesses – small social interactions – that may ultimately add up. The effects may be there, just difficult to spot.

But for the most part it’s institutional norms, and not goal-oriented benefits, that form the rationale behind public displays. Is this a desirable thing to have in our politics? You decide.

About the author

Michael V. Manangu (@michaelmanangu) is a politics and policy researcher and Head Content Editor for The Daily Opium. When he’s not trawling bookstores and the Web for awesome reads, you can find him walking the planes (otherwise known as playing Magic: the Gathering) and plotting the downfall of kings in historical strategy games.

References:

Hague, R., & Harrop, M. (2010). Comparative government and politics, an introduction. (6th ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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