Mission Statement

Linkages Between Citizens and Politicians

Investigating Varieties of Political Accountability in Electoral Democracies

This project studies leadership accountability in polities with multi-party elections around the world.  Its core ideas and empirical approach can be summarized in a few propositions.


  1. Electoral democracies, unlike other political regimes, institutionalize political accountability of rulers to citizens. But accountability is a precarious achievement. Read More
    Electoral democracies, unlike other political regimes, institutionalize political accountability of rulers to citizens. But accountability is a precarious achievement.Democracies involve the periodic (re)election of political leaders under conditions of universal suffrage with civil and political freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. Where polities approximate these conditions, the rules of the game provide powerful incentives for office-seeking incumbents and challengers alike to compete for voters’ approval in the electoral contest.Citizens hold voters accountable, if they cast their vote in favor of candidates and parties contingent upon their past political actions in elected office and their credible commitments to future actions after (re)election. Not all citizens vote in light of accountability considerations, but even if only minorities in the electorate do so, they can still make or break politicians’ careers and parties’ fortunes, if elections are at least moderately competitive. Anticipating accountability considerations among voters and competition for office, politicians will try to act with “responsiveness” to critical mass audiences: They deliver benefits and position their appeals so as to advance their chances for (re)election. Depending on the electoral system, they must attract the support of broader or narrower electoral constituencies and need to tailor their appeals accordingly.Even when politicians cannot or will not seek reelection, the institutional accountability mechanism is likely to remain in place, provided organized political parties govern individual politicians’ careers to elected office. Parties are teams of politicians who pool resources in order to assist each other’s efforts to win office by supplying benefits that attract voters and building reputations to produce such benefits reliably over time. Since only individual politicians retire, but not entire parties, the parties themselves, as corporate entities run by a leadership structure, may enforce the electoral responsiveness and accountability of their representatives as an ongoing process extending over an indefinite time period.The accountability linkage breaks down when politicians cannot deliver what voters demand or when politicians cannot convince voters that they should demand what politicians are prepared to deliver to them. The collapse of citizen-politician linkages of political accountability is an ever present danger in democracies with potentially grave consequences for politicians, parties, and the entire democratic regime itself. A weak party structure and the resulting opportunism of individual politicians is one only source internal to the system of electoral competition that makes failure of accountability more likely. But there are many other mechanisms that may undercut democratic accountability, such as (1) lack of effective competition among teams of politicians, (2) great heterogeneity of voter demands and interests that makes it difficult for politicians to bundle benefits and services a sufficiently large electoral base will reward, and (3) the inability of citizens to monitor what, if anything, politicians deliver to improve their lot.Even if some politicians and their parties manage to establish circuits of accountability with blocs of voters sufficiently strong to (re)elect them, there is no singular formula of what sorts of actifities of accountability keep politicians in power. The nature of the actions politicians choose to build and maintain democratic accountability or “linkage” between politicians and electoral constituencies varies across time and place. This variance in ways politicians and voters enact accountability relations makes the subject interesting for research.]
  2. Where political accountability succeeds, it involves an exchange relationship between citizens and politicians. Voters temporarily grant politicians the right to rule and enjoy the spoils of office in exchange for benefits and services that accrue to their constituencies.How, however, politicians identify and tailor the critical voter constituencies that enter accountability relations with them and what benefits and services they deliver to consummate that relationship, varies profoundly across democracies and historical eras. Read More
    There is no one singular template according to which politicians act responsibly and establish accountability in all democracies. Even within the same democracy, accountability relations may vary by party, region and time period. Once established and sunk costs of mutual expectation building between voters and politicians incurred, diverse accountability relations may endure over long periods of time. Three broad classes of relations of accountability stand out:(1) Parties may offer broad “policies” to voters. Policies are binding and authoritative decisions that award benefits and impose costs on electoral constituencies (with both beneficiaries and cost bearers sometimes being identical). Each citizen belonging to a broad category experiences the consequences of authoritative policy, regardless of whether she individually had voted for the governing party (or parties) or approve of the policies it issues. Costs and benefits accrue only to categories of citizens. Think of macro-economic fiscal and monetary policies resulting in good or bad economic performance (low/high inflation, unemployment or economic growth) and greater or lesser inequality (through redistributive taxation and government spending) or the extension of encompassing, universal social insurance schemes as exemplary policies. Policies cover the provision of collective goods valued by all or club goods primarily favored by the winning parties’ constituencies, but unwanted by the opposition, as long as there is no “targeting” of a party’s known supporters.(2) Parties may also offer highly customized selective benefits and services accruing to specific individuals and small groups of voters, contingent upon their willingness and effort to support their benefactors in the run-up to elections and eventually in the voting booth. Campaign work, financial donations and ultimately the vote count as contributions that make winning parties dispense special favors to their supporters. Such favors may include, but are not limited to, direct material gifts, public sector jobs, preferential access to social goods and services (such as housing) or financial transfers (such as unemployment and disability benefits), as well as special treatment in obtaining business permits or licenses to operate businesses, regulatory decisions, or public procurement contracts.(3) Parties may also attempt to establish democratic accountability based on citizens’ more affective, emotional involvement with a party and its leaders. Politicians may cultivate a unique charisma of personal leadership, offer followers the communitarian bonds to a valued collective (the party) over a long historical record (“party identification”), or guarantee that leaders and followers share culturally significant attributes and traits that matter for electoral constituencies (descriptive representation, based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, language or region of residence).]
  1. Political science needs to understand why politicians and voters build relations of accountability around different types of goods and services…. or none at all. Read More
    Information about prevailing accountability relations in democratic polities gives rise to a variety of interesting causal questions about their origins:• How do politicians choose to promise and to deliver different mixes of accountability relations?• Is there a mutually reinforcing relationship or a trade-off between democratic accountability based on broad policy, targeted benefits, personal qualities of the politicians and communitarian party appeals?• What social, economic, and political endowments or processes shape the types of linkages between voters and politicians that enact democratic accountability in a particular political order? Is it more social and cultural background conditions outside the sphere of politics, or is it political institutions or the specific conditions of electoral competition within the political realm itself that govern politicians’ and voters’ choice of accountability mechanisms?• Under what conditions do efforts to build accountability relations within electoral democracies fail? What are the mechanisms that generate a breakdown of accountability?
  2. Accountability relations between voters and politicians matter. The terms of electoral exchanges may have consequences for citizens’ economic well-being, social inequality, life satisfaction and support for a democratic order built on electoral competition. Read More
    The mix of benefits and burdens politicians produce for their constituencies in their quest to establish accountability relations may have multiple consequences for a polity that need to be investigated in detail.• Accountability relations may affect economic performance of a polity, net of many other causal mechanisms. Where targeted benefits, delivered contingent upon citizens’ support for the winning party, prominently figure in politicians’ accountability relations, will such practices affect consumption, investment and ultimately economic growth in ways that set them apart from other polities where elected governments deliver primarily to broad categories of constituencies? Does the effect of different accountability relations itself vary contingent upon political and economic background commissions?• Is inequality of wealth and income influenced by prevailing accountability practices? Both more universalistic, non-contingent policies as well as targeted exchanges benefiting supporters of the ruling party involve redistributive acts. But which accountability relations are more likely to generate progressive or regressive outcomes, and, if so, why?• Does the enactment of accountability relations affect people’s satisfaction with democracy? Are they more or less willing to consider alternatives to democracy, if a specific mix of accountability relations prevails?]
  3. Yet political scientists have not systematically studied and compared mechanisms of electoral accountability around the world. This project contributes to pushing the research frontier by collecting data about different kinds of democratic accountability. It includes countries and entire regions not covered in previous research. Read More
    Research Instrument to Investigate Citizen-Politician LinkagesThe research instrument employed in this study is an expert survey that covers the extent to which democratic accountability proceeds through exchanges based on broad collective goods and large club goods and on goods targeted to individuals and small groups in detail, while only touching upon the issues raised by affective grounds of democratic accountability. Experts who complete the survey are individuals who know about their country’s parties, campaigns, and elections because they learned about these subject matters in their university training. They teach, or actually observe and research these subjects in their professional life. Most of them are located in university political science departments, but they may also be affiliated with law faculties, sociology, history or public policy departments or work in independent research institutes or non-profit agencies and interest associations. Moreover, a small panel of 3-5 journalists who cover campaigns and elections will be included. They come from independent national newspapers or weekly journals with different political orientations.The survey covers five subject areas:• Basic organizational capacities parties may possess to build and maintain relations of democratic accountability;
    • the nature of material benefits and services individual voters and small groups of voters may expect and receive in exchange for their partisan support;
    • ways for parties to know whether the exchange is consummated and voters stick to the bargain;
    • parties’ positions on a broad set of public policy issues with some salience in a polity;
    • concluding roundabout assessments of different accountability relations, as practiced in each democracy.Countries Covered in the InvestigationData collection will include all democratic polities of at least two million inhabitants with a minimum recent experience of two rounds of national electoral competition under at least semi-democratic conditions. The latter are identified in terms of average civil and political rights scores of at least 4.0, as awarded by the annual Freedom House survey. Beyond this set of countries, a few prominent countries with multi-party electoral politics that does not quite meet this civil and political rights standard will be included (Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan,Russia). Altogether, the survey plans to cover 22 countries in the Americas, 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, 18 countries in post-communist Eastern and Central Europe, 16 countries in Western Europe, and 15 countries in Africa and the Middle East for a total of 85 countries, and possibly a few more, resources permitting. Thus this project will not only generate data about new types of democratic linkage between citizens and politicians or accountability, but also dramatically expand knowledge about parties’ organizational structures and policies in countries that have never been included in a cross-national data collection effort.
  4. The project has been designed and is implemented by a group of doctoral students in Duke University’s political science program under the direction of Herbert Kitschelt, George V. Allen Professor of International Relations. For the Latin American countries, the project proceeds in collaboration with the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile, Santiago de Chile, as module of a more encompassing investigation into party competition in the region, entitled “Cristalización Programática de los Sistemas de Partidos Latinoamericanos: Congruencias, Desafecciones y Calidad de la Democracia,” designed and implemented by Professors David Altman and Juan Pablo Luna.  Duke Team Profiles
  5. Collection of the data on citizen-politician linkages and accountability relations has been funded by three sources. The data gathered by this project will be made publicly available to the entire social science research community. Read More
    Upon completion the data set will be made publicly available to all researchers through the Database on Political Institutions (DPI), developed by Philipp Keefer, Lead Economist, Development Research Group, The World Bank, who is a collaborator with this project. This database can be found at their website by clicking here.First, Duke University supports the design of the project, the data collection and the data analysis through Herbert Kitschelt’s research funds. A substantial group of graduate students in comparative politics at Duke University has contributed to the design of the project and will be paid to assist in the data collection phase (support since summer of 2005). All operational tasks in the process of data collection outside Latin America will be handled through Duke University. Duke University assumes the responsibility for implementing this project. Information about the project can be found at [website access].Second, since Fall 2006, under grant No 1060749, the Chilean FONDO NACIONAL DE DESARROLLO CIENTIFICO Y TECNOLOGICO (FONDECYT) has supported the Latin American project directed by Professors David Altman and Juan Pablo Luna of the Political Science Institute at the Catholic University of Chile to implement an expert survey, a module of which is that fielded in other regions of the world by the Duke research group.Third, the World Bank, through a grant extended to its Development Research Group, led by Phillip Keefer, has recently joined this effort in fall of 2007 and supports the implementation of the expert survey with a data collection grant. Beginning a number of years ago, Phillip Keefer has built and administered the Database in Political Institutions (DPI), an inventory of quantitative data for cross-national research in comparative politics and political economy that is fully accessible to the public. The data collected in this project on Democratic Accountability will be incorporated in this database and made accessible for analysis by all political scientists.


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