Elections: Engines of government power

If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary…A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.  James Madison, Federalist No. 51. 

Perhaps the most important virtue of elections is their capacity to check government power.  By voting, citizens can limit or even stop undesirable government initiatives, defend their economic and social interests, and influence the direction public policy.

This is what Madison had in mind when referring to people as the primary control on government.     

However, Madison – and others at the Constitutional Convention, also envisioned elections as important institutions for government growth and authority.  Electoral institutions are one of the most important mechanisms of social control available to governments.  They are in fact designed to influence people’s attitudes and behaviors. 

For example, elections encourage public involvement in political affairs and advance the belief that citizens have an important voice in government.  This softens citizens’ suspicion of government, erodes the adversarial relationship with leaders, instils a cooperative disposition, and inspires people to think they can use government for their own benefit.   Consequently, expansions of government power are not typically met by widespread resistance.  Rather, expansions are viewed as merely an increase in the capacity of government to serve the people.  

Rulers thus champion elections based primarily on the expediency that they increase government power and legitimacy.     

Specifically, here are three ways governments benefit from elections. 

  1. Elections discourage violent and threatening forms of political participation 

In the absence of elections, groups outside the ruling circle may use violence to seize power.  Likewise, without elections, groups competing for scarce economic resources and elevated status may wage intense and extended battles against one another.  In both instances, order is threatened, and hostilities foreshadow the demise of government.  

However, the introduction of a formal, democratic channel to political office means that power can be obtained without violence and without rejecting or replacing government.  Elections promise aspiring leaders a chance to lead government without having to first weaken or destroy it.  They offer adversarial groups a process to achieve power peacefully and compete regularly.   

Outsiders and rival groups must consider the vast resources that leaders and established groups typically control.  In other words, efforts to seize power could be very costly.   

Elections lower those costs.  They invite contenders to challenge even the most powerful opponents without threat of violent retribution, which characterizes political competition outside formal government channels.          

Elections therefore transform potentially harmful conflict to managed, orderly activities controlled by governments.  By introducing elections, and habituating citizens to their use and efficacy, governments reduce the prospects of disruptive citizen participation – mass resistance, armed protest, insurgency, rebellion, for example.  Elections enable the peaceful transfer of power from one ruling group to another.  They provide a formal, systematic, government administered, process in which outsiders may displace established authorities and competing groups can challenge one another for political power. 

In his classic book, The Consequences of Consent (1982), Benjamin Ginsberg observed that elections facilitate participation much like floodgates facilitate the flow of water:

Elections direct mass involvement into formal channels, thus removing many potential impediments to participation, but at the same time diverting it from courses that may be hazardous to the established political order. (1982 p.52).  

 2. Elections limit the influence of extreme groups

Without elections, only a small segment of the public would pressure government.  And that segment would not be representative.  Those having sufficient motivation to engage possess comparatively strong beliefs and attitudes.  They could assemble and demand action at any time, using aggressive tactics and combining with others that feel similarly.  Deeply involved citizens may so strongly believe in a course of action that they would be willing to support activities that violate established rules and back groups that challenge the existing order.     

This presents a real problem for government.     

To avoid this possibility, governments introduce voting and other benign forms of democratic expression.  It’s worth pointing out that voting is not a spontaneous act.  It occurs at predetermined locations, dates, and times.  It’s a passive expression and an anonymous one.  It’s simple to complete and does not require much thought nor behavioral commitment. It’s not designed to intimidate or force structural changes.  

The government organizes elections, setting the rules and procedures about when, where, how, and which people can participate.  An order is established, and social expectations are carefully developed to reinforce government processes.  Violators are punished by governments. 

With proper government management, elections attract a large, relatively indifferent, and uninvolved majority.  Those possessing extreme preferences are now outnumbered and overwhelmed by this much larger majority group.   

In the classic, Voting, celebrated scholars Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld and William McPhee noted that a democratic system could not survive if “the decision were left only to the deeply concerned, well-integrated, consistently-principled ideal citizens” (316).  Such voters are too rigid and anchored by strong ideological positions.  Consequently, they cannot adapt easily to changing circumstances.    

Rather, a large apathetic, uncertain, and indifferent population is required.  This population not only moderates the impact of extreme groups but also functions much like a shock absorber, helping to “hold the system together and cushion the shock of disagreement, adjustment, and change” (322). 

Stated differently, the apathetic and indifferent hold the middle ground between the principled, ideological, unmoving extremes.  They are comparatively flexible.  They blunt the salvos from the flanks and can be the crucial constituent for compromise and a reservoir of popular support for government. 

The electoral system can therefore flex to accommodate change.  A system that cannot flex will of course break.   And that exposes government. 

The irony is that governments depend on the less involved, apathetic, indifferent majority to preserve the democratic system – which, in the first instance, is established to enhance government power and authority. 

In sum, by greatly expanding mass political involvement, encouraging even the apathetic, uninvolved, and indifferent to participate, governments increase the odds of moderate outcomes, pliant constituencies, and sustained popular support.       

3. Election’s nurture supportive and efficacious citizens

The ballot represents a formal opportunity for citizens to choose the candidates and parties they believe to be most compatible with their own views.  This helps convince them that the government is open and sensitive to their needs.   

Participants come to believe they have a “say” about what government does.  This leads to more positive dispositions toward government.  After all, popular elections welcome the input of ordinary people, on regular occasions, to influence the course of political affairs.  By taking part, people perceive the government as more legitimate, grow more supportive of government programs, and are more likely to participate in future elections.  Participants are also less likely to support attempts to undermine or overthrow government.   

The table below reports the patterns of change and stability among respondents asked both before and after elections whether people like themselves have “any say” about what government does – the only two elections this type of data is available. 

First, it’s apparent that for the largest segment of the population, elections are largely reaffirming.  About 50% of people were efficacious before the 1972 election and remained so thereafter.   A much smaller percentage remained in-efficacious across the pre-and-post election period – 26%.  A similar pattern of reinforcement occurred in 1996, though the public was more in-efficacious before the election. 

Election change and stability in political efficacy – % of total respondents

% post-election efficacy19721996
increased efficacy15%17
remain efficacious5033
remain in-efficacious2639
decreased efficacy99
source: ANES. Question: “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does?” Agree/Disagree

Second, a significant percentage of the public in both elections that indicated people like themselves don’t have any say in government had come to believe they did have a lot of influence.  A positive attitudinal outcome for both elections – 15% increased efficacy in 1972 and 17% in 1996.  A much smaller percentage of those who thought initially they did have influence over government switched their views after the election – 9% experienced decreased efficacy. 

Additional analyses shows that positive efficacy changes were primarily concentrated among people that voted.  Among those that did not vote, the proportion that shifted to negative views surpassed the proportion that shifted to positive.  Clearly, voting helps to produce efficacious citizens.    

Bottom Line

Political elites regularly celebrate the public’s role in selecting leaders.  Elections are declared accountability devices, the time when people can rebuke those in power and replace them with someone else.  Political leaders must stand for elections and ultimately the people decide their fate.    

While accurate, this understanding conceals important facts about government and democratic systems.  Governments initiate elections; and they do so to marshal popular support and foster conditions favorable to their growth.  Electoral participation develops democratic values, begets future participation, and strengthens citizens’ attachments to the political system.  After elections, citizens are efficacious, demonstrate greater confidence in political institutions, and express support for political leaders. 

Participation in democratic processes help persuade citizens that they can influence government.  And, if ordinary Americans can influence political affairs, why should they wish to limit government’s capacity to serve them?  After all, how can a government that is controlled by the people be a threat to them?  In this way, elections expand government; and elections enhance government legitimacy.        

These are the chief reasons elections exist. 

To be sure, there are no guarantees.  Governments can be destructive.  After intense, concentrated conflict and widespread unrest, governments collapse.  Revolutions do happen.    

Nevertheless, governments are skillful at preempting the causes of their own demise.  Frequent and fair elections effectively remove system-threatening actions – the kind of group and citizen behaviors that could dismantle a government, by instilling system-justifying ones.  Election outcomes may favor one party while discrediting the other. Outcomes may produce a new party that can challenge a dominant faction.  That’s political competition.  And on occasion, competition can result in notable post-election bitterness and even conflict.  But, regardless of party disputes, the system of government typically thrives.

One thought on “Elections: Engines of government power

  1. Excellent review of issues around voting. Since we have a government that is many faceted with counter interests n sponsorships it is hard to visualize these government controls n manipulated maneuvers. Perhaps it functions as a socially unconscious dynamic to maintain the system.
    It would be interesting to explore the term “ will of the people”. If we investigate revolutions would we find majority support. Probably not so controlling the extremes seem to be a priority issue foe voting


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