Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action

The forthcoming article “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” by Avshalom M. Schwartz is summarized by the author below.

In recent years, growing levels of polarization and political tensions have raised concerns about the future of liberal democracies around the world and our capacity to act together as democratic citizens. In my paper, I turn to Aristotle in asking how, despite these challenges and the constant threat of conflict, we might be able to sustain a political partnership (what the ancient Greeks called koinonia) that would allow us to act together as fellow citizens of a democratic society.  

I argue that we can find important resources for answering this question by exploring Aristotle’s theory of imagination, phantasia, and its political implications. In Aristotle’s psychological work, phantasia appears crucial not only for our capacity to process various sensual inputs and produce “mental representations” but also for generating animal movement and action. Among other things, phantasia can make things appear to us as pleasant, painful, and above all as good or bad, and is thus essential for motivating and generating individual movements and action. 

Aristotle’s theory of phantasia is traditionally read and interpreted at the level of individual psychology. Yet, I show that phantasia is crucial for our understanding not only of individual movement but also of collective action more generally. In fact, I argue that it provides the psychological micro-foundations of collective action and thus helps explain how we can move from individual psychology to collective agency and action. To demonstrate this argument, I offer a reexamination of the famous Wisdom of the Multitude passage (Politics 3.11), showing that the capacity of many individuals to act together is tied to their ability to share in a single, collective phantasma: a mental representation of the practical end or goal of their collective effort as good and thus worthy of pursuit.   

My analysis of the Wisdom of the Multitude passage not only provides an analogy for the conditions under which collective action is possible but also reveals some of its challenges and limitations. Given the subjectivity of individual phantasiai, generating the kind of imaginative unity required for collective action might be hard. I show how certain instances of failure of collective action in Aristotle (stasis and radical democracy) are connected to the lack of a shared phantasma. I argue that since our phantasia is shaped by our character, a community may overcome these challenges by means of habituation and education.  

I conclude by generalizing these Aristotelian insights and applying them to our contemporary moment. While an attempt to control the imagination from above is incompatible with basic liberal values, I suggest that we view the Aristotelian collective phantasma as a product of collective effort, shaped by multiple individuals in their daily activities as citizens and in their relation to and interaction with one another. Thus, such Aristotelian collective phantasma may offer us the potential of a shared imagination that will guide our collective endeavors while maintaining a strong commitment to pluralism, multiple identities and communities, and the creativity of the individual imagination.   

About the Author: Avshalom M. Schwartz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Political Phantasies: Aristotle on Imagination and Collective Action” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior

The forthcoming article “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior” by Simon Weschle is summarized by the author below. 

The influence of money on politics is a hotly debated topic. Most research so far has focused on the effect of campaign contributions. However, a more direct way to gain access to politicians has been hiding in plain sight: In the vast majority of democracies, corporations can legally employ legislators at the same time as they hold public office. However, we know little about the consequences that these “moonlighting” jobs have. In my article “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior”, I show that they have systematic effects on how MPs behave. 
I assembled the most comprehensive and detailed data on politicians’ outside income to date, covering all members of parliament (MPs) of the UK House of Commons from 2010 to 2016. Between 20% and 30% of legislators hold private sector jobs in a given year, and this number is higher for MPs of the governing center-right Conservative party (30-40%). Second jobs are not only common, but also lucrative: In 2016, Conservative MPs with outside jobs earned, on average, more than £50,000 from them, on top of their parliamentary salary of about £75,000.  
Perhaps the most common concern about money in politics is that it influences how MPs vote on the floor of parliament. To find out if this is true, I look at whether MPs’ voting behavior changes when they take up or leave a moonlighting position, compared to their colleagues whose employment status does not change. Private sector jobs have little effect on MPs’ parliamentary votes. There is no change among Labour MPs, and Conservative MPs are only about 0.2 percentage points more likely to rebel against the vote recommendation of their party leadership when earning outside income. This translates to one additional rebellious vote every two years. 
Another common concern is that MPs spend less time focusing on their parliamentary work when they have a private sector job. However, I actually find that moonlighting increases participation in parliamentary votes among Conservative MPs. The reason for this counter-intuitive finding is that MPs’ employers are mostly located in London, and when legislators from constituencies that are far away from the capital take up a job, they spend more time there. This makes it easier for them to be present in parliament. 
Finally, I find a 60 percent increase in written parliamentary questions when Conservative MPs hold a private sector job. These questions are a way for legislators to request information from specific government ministries. I demonstrate that the increase in questions is largest among MPs in leading company positions, and among those working in knowledge-intensive industries like law and finance. Further, moonlighting Conservative MPs target more questions at ministries that are larger and oversee more procurement spending, and submit more questions that ask about department-internal policy information. This suggests that the additional questions that Conservative MPs ask are related to their private sector employment. 
Taken together, these findings are both reassuring and worrying. On the one hand, second jobs do not change which bills become law and do not reduce parliamentary effort. On the other hand, the targeted increase in questions among some legislators is clearly problematic, and raises the possibility that moonlighting MPs change their behavior in other ways too. My article thus shows that one of the most common, and yet least studied, forms of money in politics has important consequences for what politicians’ do. 

About the Author: Simon Weschle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. Their research “Politicians’ Private Sector Jobs and Parliamentary Behavior” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Centripetal Representation

The forthcoming article “Centripetal Representation” by Daniel Hutton Ferris is summarized by the author below. 

The complexity of systems of representation across much of the (post-)industrial world has exploded in recent decades: organizations and policy-making processes have stretched across borders, especially in the European Union; relatively stable patterns of post-war party competition have broken down; and rhizomatic governance networks have sprung up alongside older bureaucratic hierarchies. Technological developments including the growth of social media have compounded these changes, propelling us into an era of unprecedented communicative plenty characterized by a superabundance of new and diverse representative claims refracted across a broad spectrum of channels and sometimes directed at minutely segmented audiences. 

Leading theorists of representation tend to agree – despite substantial disagreement elsewhere – that this emulsification of representative practices is likely to bolster democratic legitimacy. Constructivists want to open electoral politics to a much more diverse range of competitors or surround it with a more vibrant ecosystem of representative claims made by the unelected. Deliberative democrats recommend randomly selecting legislators to make public political discourse more pluralistic, as well as lacing policy processes with deliberative assemblies containing “citizen representatives” of diverse publics and perspectives. 

Yet the fragmentation of the representative system poses a serious threat to democratic legitimacy and democratic simplifications can help ordinary people engage with, understand, and influence their representatives, pushing back against gridlock, collusion, and capture by the powerful. Multiplying veto-points and “voice points” makes it harder for ordinary people to monitor and sanction representatives, who thereby become liable to shirk their duty to represent constituents and vulnerable to capture by well-resourced minorities. Powerful representatives in fragmented institutional environments often also face a dilemma: should they collude with opponents to get things done or risk gridlock by providing principled opposition? Furthermore, discursive fragmentation can distract, deceive, and disengage people by making it harder for them to contextualize and interpret claims by and about representatives and less sure of how or whether those claims relate to each other and to outcomes. Ordinary people may be dangerously alienated from powerful representative institutions if high-profile public justifications look like window-dressing for policies cobbled together in labyrinthine processes of networked bargaining and highly personalized political communications can threaten their understanding of what political disagreement is really about and why it might be reasonable.  

This article develops a general theory about how representative systems might best promote democratic legitimacy – one that recognizes the potential benefits of networked responsiveness between diverse kinds of representative but is alert to the threat of fragmentation and the value of democratic simplicity. It argues that systems of representation are most likely to capture the benefits of pluralism and heterogeneity whilst avoiding fragmentation when their structure is “centripetal”: with power and influence moving inwards, via processes of networked responsiveness, from broadly inclusive peripheries to democratically simple cores. 

About the Author: Daniel Hutton Ferris is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Their research “Centripetal Representation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India

The forthcoming article “Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India” by Ananish Chaudhuri, Vegard Iversen, Francesca R. Jensenius, and Pushkar Maitra is summarized by the authors below. 

Increasing female representation in public office has been widely promoted as a way of reducing corruption. Research suggests that women are more trustworthy, more risk averse, more honest, and lack the political networks necessary for engaging in malfeasance. Cross-sectional evidence shows that a higher share of women in parliament or in the state bureaucracy is associated with lower corruption. There is less corruption in municipalities with female mayors both in industrial (France) and developing countries (Brazil). In India, the annual rate of asset accumulation among female members of state legislative assemblies is significantly lower than among men.  

Much of this work treats women’s greater pro-sociality and risk aversion as static. Recent literature demonstrates how time in office and experience change the behavior of politicians, including their propensity towards corruption. This points to the need to consider the gender gap in corruption as dynamic rather than static.   

Researching political corruption is challenging. Survey responses often suffer from self-reporting biases, and elected politicians represent a hard-to-recruit subject pool. We address this knowledge gap using comprehensive survey and experimental data for a sample of 400 male and female local politicians in West Bengal, India. We compare incoming politicians with no prior political experience (“inexperienced”) with outgoing and re-elected politicians who had entered office without prior experience (“experienced”).   

In addition to answering survey questions, politicians participated in a series of incentivized experimental tasks. Of particular interest here is a die-tossing task, which is a standard behavioral measure of dishonesty that captures willingness to cheat for personal gain. Behavior in this game has been found to be strongly correlated with the propensity to act in a dishonest or corrupt way outside of the lab too, as well as with country-levels indicators of corruption. 

In the task, participants are asked to throw an unbiased die 30 times in private, with payment received according to the number of sixes they report. As there is no monitoring, one cannot know for sure whether individuals report truthfully. We use the deviation of the reported number of sixes from the expected number in 30 throws of the die as a group-level measure of (dis)honesty.   

Figure 1 shows the distribution of reported sixes for inexperienced and experienced politicians.  Among inexperienced politicians, women report significantly fewer sixes than men; among experienced politicians, the gender gap disappears – indicating that women become more inclined towards corrupt behavior with time in office. These patterns are robust to the inclusion of a host of individual-level control variables. 

Our analysis of possible mechanisms suggests that the greater dishonesty among experienced female politicians is driven primarily by reduced risk aversion and a strengthening of political networks. We do not find that the gap is associated with changes in pro-sociality or time-horizons in office.  

Our findings indicate that that women, like men, are socialized into local political cultures  and that effects on corruption levels by increasing the share of women in politics may be short-lived unless those local political cultures are also changed.  

About the Authors: Ananish Chaudhuri is a Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland, Vegard Iversen is a Professor of Development Economics at the University of Greenwich, Francesca R. Jensenius is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo, and Pushkar Maitra is a Professor of Economics at Monash University. Their research “Time in Office and the Changing Gender Gap in Dishonesty: Evidence from Local Politics in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes

The forthcoming article “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” by Lisa Mueller is summarized by the author below. 

When do protesting crowds win concessions as opposed to coming up empty handed? This is a question that activists have asked themselves throughout history, and one that has long perplexed academics. Although researchers have identified several ingredients of effective protest—nonviolence, high turnout, international support, etc.—they have largely ignored the composition of the crowd itself. Typically, scholars and journalists assume that everyone who attends a protest wants more or less the same thing. We tend to describe a demonstration as “pro-democracy,” “anti-austerity,” or “environmentalist,” as if a single broad theme could capture the goals of everyone present. However, existing research shows that activists often have mixed reasons for attending the same event. My new article confirms this, and explores whether such diversity affects the chances of protesters getting what they nominally want. 

I hypothesize that cohesive crowds, in which most protesters express similar demands, are more likely to win concessions than crowds in which protesters voice a hodgepodge of demands. That’s because cohesive messages are cognitively easier for decision-makers to understand, and are hence more persuasive. 

Consider two twenty-first century examples from the UK. “Take Back Parliament” was a protest where Britons insisted that the government replace winner-take-all electoral rules with a more proportional system of representation. Activists’ message was clear and united, resulting in a landmark referendum (even though activists did not ultimately win proportional representation). In contrast, the “Occupy London” protests around the same time conveyed a jumble of demands for income redistribution, clean energy, health services, and a host of other concessions. Occupy London prompted no major response from decision-makers. Some members of Parliament remarked that they could not even comprehend what “Occupiers” wanted, let alone how to redress such a long wish list. 

To see whether my theory generalizes beyond these two cases, I conduct two additional analyses. 

First, I use computerized natural language processing to measure the cohesion of protesters’ self-reported motivations at 97 protests in Europe and Latin America. After controlling for other variables, I find that higher crowd cohesion corresponds with a higher probability that protesters win concessions within three years. 

Second, I conduct an experiment where I randomize the cohesion of messages depicted on signs at a hypothetical protest in South Africa. The more cohesive the messages in an image, the likelier survey respondents are to say they would vote for a tax increase to give the demonstrators what they want, such as access to education. 

Taken together, my results imply that protesters can enhance their odds of success by coordinating around a unified message. This strategy may clash with some activists’ preferences for “intersectional” messages that address the interests of multiple constituencies all at once. For example, Black Lives Matter spokespersons have sometimes argued that it is wrong to seek justice for Black Americans without simultaneously pursuing justice for women, trans people, and other marginalized communities. A compromise would be to voice specific demands sequentially, so that each protest event has a cohesive theme (and a decent shot at success) but every issue eventually has it moment in the spotlight. 

About the Author: Lisa Mueller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Macalester College. Their research “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea

The forthcoming article “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Koreaby Ji Yeon Hong, Sunkyoung Park, and Hyunjoo Yang is summarized by the authors below. 

A common perception of democratization is that it is a fresh start for a country’s politics. Nonetheless, an increasing volume of scholarly work has shown that democratization is not as fresh a start as is often assumed. Authoritarian legacies prevail and persist in many places, sometimes long after democratic consolidation. So, why do citizens support authoritarian successor parties or politicians with a direct connection to a country’s authoritarian past? In this paper, we show that large-scale distributive policies implemented under dictatorships may have persistent effects that linger long after democratization.  

We draw evidence from the New Village Movement (Saemaul Undong in Korean) that took place in South Korea in the 1970s. It was a nationwide rural development program that was initiated and implemented by then-dictator Park Chung-hee. We analyze government subsidies to villages under this program and regional voting patterns in recent elections, finding that the program has had a long-term effect on election outcomes. In a highly polarized election in 2012, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, was democratically elected president. Villagers who benefitted from greater government subsidies in the 1970s were more likely to vote for Park Geun-hye in the election. 

Our further analysis of the mechanisms behind this effect reveal that the beneficiary voters did not support the dictator’s daughter because the program benefited them in the long run, either economically or non-economically. Using night-time satellite imagery as a proxy for economic activity, we find that villages that received greater subsidies actually have less economic activity today. In addition, the level of social capital in these villages does not differ from that of other rural villages. Instead, our analysis shows that the beneficiary villagers have a strong psychological affinity for the former dictator. Their support for him has not wavered despite several decades having passed since his regime. 

Our study sheds new light on the potential long-term effects of distributive policies under authoritarianism. Authoritarian leaders have considerable discretion in the distribution of economic resources. Often, their distributive programs target groups that are less privileged in terms of region, ethnicity, or class in the hopes of gaining their political support. Although democratization grants political rights to all citizens, these marginalized groups may experience economic and social disadvantages in a new democracy, and this has been the case for most rural residents of South Korea. These voters may thus show strong support for a former dictator who implemented a distributive policy that favored them, and in turn for a political party or politician that inherits the dictator’s legacy. 

About the Authors: Ji Yeon Hong is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Sunkyoung Park is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Incheon National University, and Hyunjoo Yang is an Associate Professor of Economics at Sogang University. Their research “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

“A Sacred Effort”: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice

The forthcoming article “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice”  by Richard S. Ruderman is summarized by the author below. 

At a time when growing numbers of Americans are concerned that we are headed toward a new civil war, it is well worth re-examining Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to bring the original to a close in such a way as to avoid the recidivism so often associated with civil wars. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has both impressed and perplexed audiences since its initial delivery. While most have been deeply moved by his call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” they have often been equally puzzled and even put off by the stern religiosity on display in the paragraph prior to his peroration. He was even accused, at the time, of “substituting religion for statesmanship.” In this article, I argue that it is his statesmanlike use of religion—indeed, of a new hybrid (still unnamed) religion, Judeo-Christianity—that provided the moral and psychological ground for overcoming the “malice” that so often attends the end of wars. Unlike the essentially post-religious (and uncharitable) statesmanship of the Allies in World War One that contributed in no small measure to the outbreak of World War Two, Lincoln’s statesmanship in the Second Inaugural provides a model for how to keep the “settling of scores”—the desire for punitive justice—from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Above all, we can learn from Lincoln that the punitive aspect of justice constitutes a moral and even philosophical “problem.” By this, I mean that Lincoln moved beyond our understanding of “the problem of justice”—namely that an action, law or policy may not live up to a (or “our”) standard of justice—to the deeper question of whether and how responsibility for an injustice can be assigned. Discerning Lincoln’s answer requires us to resolve the puzzle he inserts at the start of the speech, whereby he makes, in quick succession, the arguments that both sides are responsible for the war and that neither side is responsible. Finally, Lincoln offers the unusual argument that punishment must chiefly serve the purpose, not of punishing past injustice, but of laying the necessary ground for future “charity for all.”

About the Author: Richard S. Ruderman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas. Their research “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics

The forthcoming article “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publicsby Eric GroenendykErik O. Kimbrough, and Mark Pickup is summarized by the authors below. 

Since the publication of Converse’s classic chapter on the nature of belief systems in mass publics, scholars have expressed concern about Americans’ apparent lack of ideological consistency. The concern is that, if voters’ belief systems are unconstrained by an ideology, they may be unable to develop coherent preferences over candidates and platforms and thus will struggle to ensure that democracy holds elites accountable.  We point out that the normative implications of the large literature confirming Converse’s findings depend crucially on how we think about the nature of ideology.  The validity of these concerns depends crucially on the extent to which ideological constraint arises from principled reasoning, as it is often assumed, or from pressure to conform to identity-based norms established by ideological elites, as we theorize.  

If ideological constraint is the product of norm conformity pressure, the normative implications of Americans’ famous lack of ideology are completely changed. Lack of constraint may not be the product of ignorance (or “innocence” as it is often termed in the literature). It may instead reflect pragmatism—knowingly preferring some policies despite their inconsistency with doctrine. Furthermore, to the extent norms are shaped by political elites, voters who show ideological constraint may actually be more susceptible to elite influence than pragmatists who are happy to “agree to disagree.” 

To test our norm conformity theory of ideology, we combine widely used survey questions measuring individuals’ own policy preferences with an incentivized coordination game that separately measures their knowledge of what other ideological group members expect them to believe.  This allows us to distinguish knowledge of ideological norms—what liberals and conservative believe ought to go with what–from adherence to those norms when expressing personal preferences.  We then assess whether conformity pressure causes ideological conformity using a question order experiment that varies whether ideological norms are primed prior to eliciting preferences.  

Our results confirm that a significant portion of what has been defined as ignorance (or “innocence”) can be attributed to pragmatism. And when ideological group norms are primed prior to measuring personal policy preferences, ideological conformity rises.  This suggests that ideological constraint is at least partially attributable to norm conformity pressure.  Together these findings raise doubts about whether ideology is actually desirable or if it instead allows elites to reverse the direction of democratic accountability by shaping the very norms that define what it means to be a “good liberal” or “good conservative”. 

About the Authors: Eric Groenendyk is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Memphis, Erik O. Kimbrough is a Professor of Economics at Chapman University, and Mark Pickup is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. Their research “How Norms Shape the Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

How Threats of Exclusion Mobilize Palestinian Political Participation

The forthcoming article “How Threats of Exclusion Mobilize Palestinian Political Participation by Chagai M. Weiss, Alexandra Siegel, and David Romney is summarized by the authors below. 

Exclusionary policies target minority citizens around the world. Such policies range widely in severity, from assaults on religious freedom and targeted travel bans to direct threats to citizenship. Past research has explored how such policies affect minorities’ identities as well as their social and economic well-being. But how does the threat of these policies impact minorities’ political behavior and mobilization? In our research, we find that the threat of an exclusionary policy targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel, drove political mobilization on social media, turned out voters, and increased participation in civil society.  

Understanding how the threat of exclusionary policies impacts minorities’ political behavior is important because politicians often declare their policy intentions well before exclusionary policies become law. Minority mobilization might therefore prevent those policies from ever becoming reality. But studying the effect of exclusionary policies on minority mobilization is difficult. Governments might promote exclusionary policies for strategic reasons, responding to the increasing visibility or mobilization of a minority group. It is therefore challenging to determine whether minority political mobilization is the cause or an effect of government exclusionary policies. 

In our research, we develop a theory and design that help us answer this question. We argue that being targeted by an exclusionary policy can create or resurface political grievances that increase the propensity of minority communities to mobilize politically. To test our argument, we focus on Donald Trump’s 2020 announcement of a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A portion of this peace plan proposed transfers of Palestinian residents in specific Israeli towns close to the West Bank (called the “Triangle”) to a future Palestinian state, posing a threat to the citizenship status of the Palestinian Citizens of Israel residing in those towns. We leverage two aspects Trump’s announcement—its timing and its differential potential impact on Palestinian citizens of Israel within and outside of the Triangle area—to identify the effect of this threat on political mobilization. Specifically, we adapt a “difference-in-difference” design, through which we trace patterns of political participation in Triangle and non-Triangle localities before and after Trump’s declaration. 

Analyzing over 170,000 Facebook posts, voting data from three parliamentary elections, and sign-up data from a social movement, we show that Palestinian citizens of Israel who were confronted with a threat to their citizenship status were more likely to discuss political issues on Facebook, vote in national elections, and join the listserv of a growing Jewish-Arab social movement. These results emphasize that government exclusion can increase minority mobilization. Our results also open a door for future research to examine the conditions under which minority mobilization may inhibit the implementation of exclusionary policies. 

About the Authors: Chagai M. Weiss is a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Middle East Initiative predoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Alexandra Siegel is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and David Romney is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. Their research “How Threats of Exclusion Mobilize Palestinian Political Participation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

How Organizational Capacity Can Improve Electoral Accountability

The forthcoming article “How Organizational Capacity Can Improve Electoral Accountability by Dana Foarta is summarized by the author below. 

Bureaucratic institutions are central to policy implementation. They formulate and execute plans for how government programs are put in practice. In many policy areas, several bureaucratic agencies have overlapping jurisdictions, meaning that any one of these agencies may be tasked with implementing a given government policy. Politicians have freedom to make this assignment choice. In this paper, I show how this allocation decision affects not only the bureaucracy itself, but also the formation of policy, the size and duration of government programs, and ultimately the voters’ ability to hold elected politicians accountable. 

The choice of which agency implements policy has tangible implications because of the significant differences between agencies. Some agencies have developed capacity to withstand political pressures, while others are still under close political control of the executive. Politicians may be tempted to assign policy implementation to agencies with less capacity, where they can exert control. Yet, this paper shows how doing so may be electorally dangerous. The political decision of which agency will implement policy feeds back through the political system. This political choice informs voters as to a politician’s true intent. The threat of electoral punishment in turn disciplines the politician’s behavior, reducing excessive reliance on low capacity agencies. 

Another consequence of the link between a politician’s electoral standing and her choice of bureaucratic implementation is that it enables agencies to develop ownership over government programs: the politician will relinquish control over policy implementation to higher capacity agencies to help her reelection chances. As a result, agencies keep control over their assigned government programs, and they keep them running long into the future. Therefore, multiple agencies with overlapping roles persist over time as a rational response to the problem of electoral accountability. Having multiple agencies of different capacity tasked with the same policy’s implementation might at first glance seem inefficient. Yet, this paper shows that such a bureaucratic structure may in fact serve the interests of voters, by facilitating better electoral accountability. 

 About the Author: Dana Foarta is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Stanford University. Their research “How Organizational Capacity Can Improve Electoral Accountability” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 


The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.