For lack of better words, throwing the bums out can be good.
A trio of French economists, Sciences Po and MIT have found that electing new leaders and getting rid of the incumbents correlates with better economic growth. After reviewing more than 2,493 national elections since 1945, they found that electoral turnovers—situations in which a ruling party was defeated at the polls—stimulate new policy ideas that translate into more dynamic conditions both within political structures and in the economies subject to regulation by them.
While other studies focused on benefits of democracy which allows citizens to replace incumbents in office, this paper by Vincent Pons, Benjamin Marx and Vincent Rollet from the National Bureau of Economic Research focuses on an entirely different question. Overall, voting for change is important. Electoral turnovers lead to improvements in performance across many dimensions.
This finding, they say, is quite surprising. Common criticisms of democracy include the possibility that people’s will can swing from one election to the next, which could potentially undermine the stability authoritarian regimes or more static democracies claim can provide.
Marx, Pons, Rollet all agree that the benefits from having a market within politics are greater than their costs. It is particularly true in the case of corruption which is easily controlled by electoral turnovers. They write that turnovers “have a strikingly strong negative effect on different measures of perceived corruption,” because incumbent politicians “learn over the course of time how to extract rents.”
Researchers “hypothesize” that turnovers are the primary driver of positive outcomes. They play a role in renewing political leadership and allowing for new leaders to be elected with greater reputation.
Fittingly, the world’s attention is turned toward Russia this week—and there might not be a better example of how a lack of political competition breeds corruption and stifles economic dynamism. This phenomenon is not only understood by Vladimir Putin, but also many other examples close to home.
In American politics, there are many mechanisms to help voters throw out incumbent politicians. These include ballot access laws and partisan redistricting. These tools can be used to prevent political competition, not just for partisan advantage but also because they are often more effective than the others.
Take, for instance, the new Illinois congressional map. Democrats, who drew the new districts, prioritized the protection of some heavily Republican districts—effectively abandoning any attempt at winning them—in order to eliminate swingier districts and consolidate their own majority in the state’s congressional delegation. This means that future elections are less likely to see contested districts, which makes it unlikely for electoral turnovers.
This is not the only place where legislators engage in such a cynical game. Nationally, the number of congressional districts that are contested is declining. This could have serious consequences for Team Red and Team Blue. The Team Blue debate at Washington, D.C. and cable news shows that it has had a serious effect on entrenchment incumbency.
This is also happening at the state-level, with 20 states having been completely integrated. controlled by one party for at least the past 10 years. Five of them are under the unified Republican administration since 2000.
It doesn’t matter if you are looking at Russia or Texas. The decreased political competition suggests that antiproductive policies will be more easily ignored. Meanwhile, factions within major parties seem to become more influential than the overall consensus of the electorate.
Despite attempts of ruling parties to enshrine incumbent control, democratic societies all over the globe are becoming more dynamic. Marx, Pons, & Rollet found that turnovers at national levels have increased dramatically since 1990 and has averaged 40 percent over recent years.
If democracy is permitted to work, democracy generally works. However, the problem is that if someone throws some dumb people out it often means they have to give others charge.