Theme Panel: Dynastic Politics and Democratic Discontent

Dynastic Politics and Democratic Discontent

Across democracies, there is an increased awareness of extreme inequalities in both wealth and political power. Inequality of power––at its worst––may result in politicians routinely enacting policies that are opposed by the majority of citizens, which may encourage anti-establishment populism or dampen participation and turnout, both of which pose a threat to the stability and legitimacy of democracies around the world. One manifestation of inequality in power is the continued persistence of political family dynasties, often spanning several generations or serving concurrently across levels of government. At the highest levels of power, voters have reacted to dynastic politics in different ways. In recent leadership changes, establishment dynastic politicians have been rejected in favor of populists or reformists (depending on one’s point of view), in countries as diverse as the United States, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In other countries, such as Canada and Japan, dynastic leaders have enjoyed greater public support.

This panel brings together four new papers on the forefront of comparative research on the causes and consequences of political dynasties. In keeping with this year’s theme of “Democracy and its Discontents,” each paper speaks in important ways to how dynastic politics affect the functioning of democracy or how voters respond (positively or negatively) to dynastic politicians. First, Cirone investigates the patterns in dynastic networks within the European Union. Most of the existing literature on dynasties only considers family relations within a single level of government (local or national). Cirone takes the analysis a step further, considering family ties within the European Parliament (EP) that span across national and supranational politics, and often under alternative electoral rules. Does serving in the EP serve as either a “stepping stone” or a “safety net” for would-be dynastic politicians? In the next paper, Batto and Chou use new survey data from Taiwan to unpack one of the possible mechanisms behind dynastic politics: voter preferences.

Do voters actually prefer representation by dynastic politicians? If so, why? If not, why do dynastic politicians succeed nonetheless? In the third paper, George and Ponattu consider the effects of dynastic politics in India on economic development, using new data on the family connections of Indian legislators since 2004 and satellite data on night-time luminosity. They find that dynastic rule reduces local economic activity and worsens public goods provision, and that voters also believe dynastic MPs to govern worse. Finally, Labonne, Parsa, and Querubin consider the effect of term limits on gender representation and how this relates to dynastic politics. Although they find no differences in policy outcomes between municipalities governed by a male or female dynastic mayor, their analysis raises new and important questions: does the channel of descriptive representation for women––dynastic or non-dynastic––have any relationship to the type of substantive representation provided to voters?


Daniel M. Smith, Harvard University (Chair)