Lanny Martin, a Scholar with a Cause: Making Democracy Work

Lanny Martin, a Scholar with a Cause: Making Democracy Work


Making democracy work. This is how you could summarize the ultimate goal of Lanny Martin’s research agenda. He is interested in policy responsiveness, that is the idea that political actors should implement policies that respond to the preferences of the citizens they represent. “I am passionate about figuring out what changes we can make in the institutions to align the incentives of politicians with the incentives of voters”, he says. From 1 September Professor Martin will join the Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management as Full Professor, coming from Rice University in Houston, Texas. “One thing that distinguishes Bocconi from most universities is the mission to improve our society. Researchers at Bocconi aren’t just interested in understanding social problems, they are interested in solving them”.
Professor Martin wanted to be a diplomat. When he was a student, he spent a semester in Rome, where he had the chance to see firsthand how European countries collaborated with one another and, sometimes, how they did not. The experience made him interested in pursuing a diplomatic career. “But once I enrolled in Political Science”, he says, “I found it much more interesting to investigate the factors that make collaboration between political actors easier”. After he graduated in Rochester, New York, he got a PhD at the same university with a thesis on Coalition Politics and Parliamentary Government. Since then, he has had teaching appointments at Florida State University, University of Copenhagen, Rice University.
Lanny Martin was awarded a $624,802 prize by the National Science Foundation for his line of research on policy responsiveness. “All politicians claim they represent the will of their constituency, of course, but there are a lot of factors that interfere with this process. Politicians might engage in corruption, they can sell out on their policy goals to stay in office, they may have incentives to pay attention to the policy goals of their constituency only when their actions or inactions are highly visible to the public”. Even really good politicians have to operate in an environment that may prevent them to connect citizen preferences and government policies. It happens because of the presence of coalition partners, bureaucracy or other actors with different preferences.
Most of Martin’s research is comparative, being focused on several European democracies at a time. In an ongoing project co-authored with Georg Vanberg of the Duke University, he is looking at the process of coalition bargaining between partners in government. They argue that coalition parties in a government are concerned to appear very good bargainers to their core voters. “They realize that voters have very limited information about the political outcome. So, they are most concerned about looking like good bargainers in the topics voters pay most attention to. In Coalition Bargaining Before an Audience, we show that when it comes to allocate the government portfolios, parties make sure they get the fair share of number of ministers and the offices that are salient to their voters. When it comes to less visible outcomes, they trade off with their partners in order to stay in office longer”.
In another strand of research, Martin asks himself whose preferences are most reflected in a coalition policy choices. Does the party that controls the ministry dealing with that policy act as a dictator? Or is it the coalition as a whole that counts? “In Electoral Responsiveness, Legislative Institutions, and Government Policy in Parliamentary Democracies, we argue that the answer depends on whether there are institutions that allow credible enforcement of policy bargains. In this case, coalition policy reflects a compromise rather than the preference of the party that dominates the ministry. In countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, where legislative institutions are very strong, coalition members can monitor and correct ministerial proposals and thus policies reflect a compromise position among all partners. In countries where the institutions are weak such as France and Ireland, the preferences of the ministries drive the policies. Italy is somewhere in the middle”.

by Claudio Todesco


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