Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 October 2009
What are the key features of delegation and accountability that structure the relationship between voters and their elected representatives? Can we construct a general theory that can account for variation in patterns of linkage and levels of accountability across democracies? In this chapter I take a step toward such a general theory by considering how the collective nature of electoral accountability confronts voters with a critical collective action problem, what I call “the voter's dilemma.” A close examination of the delegation relationship between voters and their elected representative reveals that voters face a collective action problem akin to a prisoner's dilemma in delegating to politicians to provide collective goods. I argue that this voter's dilemma is the central causal factor driving voters' choice for either clientelistic or programmatic goods. The voter's dilemma highlights how the strategic context created by collective accountability can compel voters of all income levels to relinquish their statutory authority to pass judgment on overall policy in return for a quid pro quo. The theory thus provides a parsimonious general explanation for the widely varying efficacy of the electoral connection across democracies.
In the second half of the chapter, I integrate the voter's dilemma with the new institutionalism. The voter's dilemma explains whether direct, clientelistic linkages, or indirect linkages based on the delivery of some package of national and local collective goods will predominate in a given polity.