Learning to love democracy: Electoral accountability and the success of democracy

Milan W. Svolik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explains why dissatisfaction with the performance of individual politicians in new democracies often turns into disillusionment with democracy as a political system. The demands on elections as an instrument of political accountability are much greater in new than established democracies: politicians have yet to form reputations, a condition that facilitates the entry into politics of undesirable candidates who view this period as their "one-time opportunity to get rich." After a repeatedly disappointing government performance, voters may rationally conclude that "all politicians are crooks" and stop discriminating among them, to which all politicians rationally respond by "acting like crooks," even if most may be willing to perform well in office if given appropriate incentives. Such an expectation-driven failure of accountability, which I call the "trap of pessimistic expectations," may precipitate the breakdown of democracy. Once politicians establish reputations for good performance, however, these act as barriers to the entry into politics of low-quality politicians. The resulting improvement in government performance reinforces voters' belief that democracy can deliver accountability, a process that I associate with democratic consolidation. These arguments provide theoretical microfoundations for several prominent empirical associations between the economic performance of new democracies, public attitudes toward democracy, and democratic stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)685-702
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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