Julia Cagé and Vincent Pons, a professor in France at Sciences Po – and also president of the Society of Readers of World – and the other professor in the United States at Harvard, are both passionate about the functioning of democracy and participation in elections. They talk about their work.
How did you come, as economists, to take an interest in the functioning of political institutions?
Julia Cage: For me, political economy has always been the basis of the discipline. It is only in its worst periods that it became excessively mathematized and theorized and distanced itself from empirical ground, from historical data. It is the methods of financing public debate that interest me, and therefore the financing of electoral campaigns, parties, the media, ultimately very economic questions!
Vincent Pons: Economists have always been interested in politics. Douglass North (Nobel in Economics 1993) showed how institutions structure the economic behavior of individuals.
I became interested in questions of democracy and the electoral process after two key elections. The 2002 French presidential election, the first in which I took part, which saw the socialist Lionel Jospin eliminated in the first round because of low turnout and the scattering of votes on the left. I then conducted research to understand how to increase participation. The second is the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I had just arrived in the United States, where I was starting my thesis. I was impressed by its strategy based on door-to-door and very fine individual data.
What are the forms and causes of the political crisis that we see in France but also in all the major democracies?
PV: The symptoms of the weakening of democracy are the decline in participation and the rise in distrust of elected officials, which has been steadily increasing for fifty years.
I worked on four key moments in democratic life: the motivations for participating in elections, party preferences, the representativeness of elected officials, the effects of elections on the economic policies carried out. For example, I studied the obstacles to participation, such as, in France, the obligation to register on the electoral lists – whereas this is automatic in other countries. I have also followed voters who move from one state to another in the United States to measure the effect of context on their political behavior.
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