Monday, December 08, 2008

Dynasty: Heirloom Candidates as a Function of Party Discipline

This is a follow-up to a dialogue between Janne and me on this post. I thought it merited a posting on its own because it puts forth an idea about the reasons for the heirloom politicians and their relative prevalence that I think makes sense. Such thoughts are always followed in my case by an uh-oh, did I just reinvent the wheel again moment. Let me know if you know any work along my line of reasoning.
In democracies, where the power of the political parties over the electoral process (choice of candidates, campaign funding, etc.) is strong, politicians will be chosen on the basis of merit rather than heritage. Where the political parties are weak and individual start-up politicians are expected to act as political venture business, that is, do his own financing, marketing, sales, after-service, etc., then this places newly-minted challengers at a substantial disadvantage against established incumbents. That is not all. Many of the assets that a lifelong politician has amassed over the years such as contacts and fundraising networks and even a measure of personal loyalty (if the successor has worked closely with the incumbent over the years) can be passed on in the form of political goodwill to an anointed successor. This is particularly effective in the case of a close relative who shares the surname, since that individual can inherit the family brand intact as an heirloom candidate. (I prefer the word heirloom over alternatives such as heritage because it conjures the image of heirloom turkeys, providing me with a most pleasurable sensation when I think of politics.)

This could explain the difference between, say the U.K. and Germany on the one hand and the United States on the other, The much greater prevalence of heirloom politicians in Japan is likely to be attributable to reinforcement by the much stronger social pressure to keep up the family “business” in contrast to the American, sell-out-and-move-to-the-Keys mentality.

To be sure, you must do a far more comprehensive, country-by-country study. But I do think it’s a potentially powerful hypothesis. I’m sure, in fact, that scholars must have done this kind of comparative study already.


Janne Morén said...

That makes sense, I think. In a loyaltycracy like Sweden you need to "pay your dues" and advance from the mother parties' youth organization to local politics, to regional posts until you are finally rewarded by an electable place on the national ticket. The party can pick you or not depending on how reliable and committed you are, and "heirloom" assets are if anything a drawback as it gives you troublesome independence.

But I think another factor could well be the electoral district system. In Japan, as in the US, people represent a single district - and they really, strongly represent it, as much as they represent their party. Candidates have a personal connection to the district, and the district specifically chooses the politician to represent them.

In a place like Sweden on the other hand, the connection is much weaker. Candidates do stand in a specific district but you vote primarily on a party; the representative's identity is secondary at best. And I have never heard of a parliamentary member in Sweden suggest they'd vote a certain way because of how the question affects their district. As a lot of the heirloom bonus points accrue from that personal name recognition and loyalty, this would no longer give a heirloom candidate much of a leg up anymore.

Anonymous said...

There is a developed literature in political science on the difference between weak and strong parties, and between the personal and party vote. The argument is essentially as you describe it; when parties are weak---as in the US and Japan---you are more likely to get low turnover, etc. Weak parties, ones that cannot control the candidate selection process and funding, for example, tend to breed lawmakers who are able to cultivate relationships with special interests capable of funding elections in exchange for policy outcomes. The same is true for votes and pork. You are voting your _your_ man in Nagatacho or DC. Party platforms play a much smaller role in voter decisions.

Relatedly, this may also explain why there are so few female politicians in the US and Japan relative to countries with strong parties. Not that I personally subscribe to the argument, but some scholars suggest that because the personal vote/weak parties rely on long-term commitments by politicians to court relationships and positions that can deliver selective benefits to constituencies, and because women may take time out to have children and therefore have a career interruptions, voters will favor male candidates, or else women select out of the pool.

Perhaps not surprisingly, two Japan scholars have been busy developing these sorts of arguments: Margarita Estevez-Abe and Frances Rosenbluth. Some of their work is available for free on their websites.


Jun Okumura said...

Janne: In order for individual members of parliament to be empowered against their respective political parties, the electorate must be allowed to vote for the individual MPs of their choice. This is holds true whether it’s a single-seat, first-past-the-stile system or a nationwide, proportionate representation system. The constituencies and consequences will, of course, be different. (The multi-seat system is an interesting variant, about which Ross gave me useful guidance earlier, outside this blog.) Take the case of roads; a single-seat MPs is the representative of local communities benefiting directly and indirectly from the roads being built in its neighborhood. A proportionate seat-holder MP represents the nationwide interests of civil engineering and construction firms and other businesses that benefit from the construction of roads. I suspect that the single-seat MP has an easier time of cultivating his constituency and consequently having an easier time of creating a dynasty. However, the single-seat system does not assure such results; if I’m not mistaken, the U.K. political parties have stronger control over their MPs. This could be an example of path dependency.

Did I get that right, nc?

And thank you for your comment, nc. It’s not only useful, it’s also a big boost to the ego to have a real expert not only look at my blog but also to take it seriously enough to help me to understand and put my thoughts in the proper perspective. I trust other visitors also like it too.

Roy Berman said...

One thing I've rarely seen discussed is the fundamental difference in the nature of political parties in the US and many other countries, such as Japan. In the US, there isn't really such a thing as party membership. In most states you mark, if you choose, a party affiliation when you register to vote, but unlike many (most? all?) other countries, there is no application, no dues, and most importantly no central or even local command center with the capability to eject someone from the party roster. This creates a situation in which political support is far more localized, and there is inherently less of a need for local politicians to pander to the party organization as a whole. Of course, the party leaders do their best to create such a need through fundraising and other forms of support, but it is still inherently less institutionalized than in a system where politicians must curry favor to run on a party list, or can be ejected from a party entirely for insubordination.

I'm sure there is some good polysci writing on this topic, but I must admit I have never looked.

I guess NC is an expert of your acquaintance? The initials are ringing no bells for me at the moment.

Jun Okumura said...

I think that we’re all making more or less the same point, Deviant Dendrobatidae. And no, I have no idea who NC is. That is one of the wonders of the Internet.