David Szakonyi — 2018 Gabriel A. Almond Award Recipient

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will present the Gabriel A. Almond Award to Dr. David Szakonyi at the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the world’s largest gathering of political scientists and source for emerging scholarship in the discipline. The $750 award recognizes the best dissertation on comparative politics.

David Szakonyi is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the George Washington University, an Academy Scholar at Harvard University, and a Research Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. His research is devoted to understanding how elites translate economic power into political influence and how policies can best be designed to curb corruption. Projects underway look at business people who run for elected office; the value of nepotism in government hiring; the effectiveness of anti-corruption campaigns; and factors affecting the survival of autocratic regimes. His work has been published in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, Journal of Politics, among other journals. He received his PhD in political science from Columbia University and his BA from the University of Virginia.

The committee for the Gabriel A. Almond Award for Best Dissertation in Comparative Politics had the chance to review some truly excellent submissions that examined important questions in the subfield of Comparative Politics with creativity and rigor. The one dissertation that truly stood out, and was a unanimous first choice for all committee members is David Szakonyi’s work entitled “Renting Elected Office: Why Businesspeople Become Politicians in Russia.”

This is extraordinary work that tackles an important question of why, when and how big business may choose to participate in politics directly through running for office, rather than through lobbying and surrogates. David provides well-substantiated evidence that accounts for the decision to run for office, the decision to compete through particular types of electoral rules, as well as the returns from office to both the candidate and the industry. The nuanced story he tells suggests that business people run for office when they have the requisite resources to contest elections and cannot trust that the politicians they lobby will represent their interests. He finds that both greater oligopolistic competition and weaker political parties incentivize businessmen to run and that firms with directors holding elected office greatly benefit from such political connections, with a connection to a winning politician increasing revenue by roughly 60% and profit margins by 15% over their time in office. When exploring the underlying mechanisms for such an effect, David finds that connected firms improve their performance by gaining access to bureaucrats and reducing information costs, and not by signaling legitimacy to financiers.

David’s dissertation is not only well motivated and convincingly theorized, but also exhibits great creativity and sensitivity to measurement as well as to causal identification. For his dissertation he compiled an original data set of 41,471 candidates across 83 regional legislatures from 2004-2012; 8,829 firms affiliated with some of these candidates; and two million Russian firms and their financial information. Though this work draws its inferences from the case of regional legislatures in Russia, it has a very clear sense on how to address generality and external validity both in a more micro-way within Russia through looking at politics at the city level, and in a more macro-way outside Russia, by looking at the case of Brazil, India and the US. Beyond its impressive research design and innovative data collection, this is also work that sets a rich research agenda for future scholars. It is bound to make a lasting contribution to the field and is well on its way to becoming a great book.