Learning to Love Democracy: Electoral Accountability and the Success of Democracy


  • I would like to thank Larry Bartels, Lisa Blaydes, Carles Boix, Damarys Canache, José Cheibub, Jeff Cohen, Alex Debs, Larry Diamond, Tiberiu Dragu, Georgy Egorov, Jon Eguia, Scott Gehlbach, Navid Hassanpour, Jude Hays, Phil Keefer, Carrie Konold, Beth Leech, Beatriz Magaloni, Nikolay Marinov, Mathew McCubbins, James Melton, Monika Nalepa, Mattias Polborn, Robert Powell, Rainer Schwabe, Francesco Sobbrio, Bonnie Weir, Matt Winters, and participants at seminars at the University of Illinois, IMT Lucca, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, University of São Paulo, Yale, and the APSA and MPSA conferences for helpful comments and Dan Koev and Michael Martin for research assistance. The data and simulation code from this article can be found at the author's website, http://publish.illinois.edu/msvolik/.


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.