Democratic accountability, part 1

“Democratic accountability” seems to be an invention of the last 50 years.


It is one more ideological maneuver in the centuries old intellectual effort of aligning an ideology propounding political equality with support for the oligarchical practice of elections.

In “What democracy is… and is not” Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl put things this way:

Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.

Absence of specific meaning

In 1956 Robert Dahl wrote in his book A Preface to Democratic Theory:

The absence of specific meaning for terms like “majority tyranny” and “faction” coupled with the central importance of these concepts in the Madisonian style of thinking has led to a rather tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically. [...] At the formation of the Constitution, the Madisonian style of argument provided a satisfying, persuasive, and protecting ideology for the minorities of wealth, status and power who distrusted and feared their bitter enemies – the artisans and farmers of inferior wealth, status, and power, who they thought constituted the “popular majority”. [... W]hatever its defects of logic, definition, and scientific utility, the Madisonian ideology is likely to remain the most prevalent and deeply rooted of all the styles of thought that might properly be labeled “American”. [...] Ideologies serve a variety of needs – psychological, socio-economic, political, propagandistic – that transcend the need of pedants for scientific cogency. [Chapter 1, section XIV]

The extent to which analogous statements can be made regarding the theory of democratic accountability is remarkable. An important component of accountability theory is keeping the term “accountability” vaguely defined. This is well demonstrated by Schmitter and Karl who, despite the centrality of accountability to what they highlight as their definition of democracy, never explicitly say what it means and in fact only use the term a handful of times throughout the article1.

Instead, the article uses a diffuse argumentation methodology that is typical to the “accountability” literature. Schmitter and Karl manage to incorporate into their discussion not only the accountability definition above, a general approval of Schumpeterian theory, and Robert Dahl’s list of conditions of democracy, but also significant elements of what Schumpeter called the “classical” theory – for which his own theory was offered as a direct substitute. For example, it is asserted in the article that

[d]uring the intervals between elections, citizens can seek to influence public policy through a wide variety of other intermediaries: interest associations, social movements, locality groupings, clientelistic arrangement, and so forth,

[t]he most common and effective way of protecting minorities [...] lies in the everyday operation of interest associations and social movements. These reflect [...] the different intensities of preference that exist in the population and bring them to bear on democratically elected decision makers,


there are many channels of representation in modern democracy. The electoral one [...] is the most visible and public. [...] Yet the sheer growth of government [...] has increased the number, variety and power of agencies charged with making public decisions and not subject to elections. Around these agencies there has developed a vast apparatus of specialized representation based largely on functional interests[.] These interest associations, and not political parties, have become the primary expression of civil society in most stable democracies, supplemented by the more sporadic interventions of social movements.

The authors seem unconcerned with aligning the existence of those supposed mechanisms of “democratic influence” and “representation” with their earlier assertion that democracy is defined in terms of “accountability”.


From the little that can be learned about accountability from the paper, it seems that if it can be taken to have any meaning at all then it is a rebranding of the old rewards-based theory of electoralism (unpopular officials will be punished by being voted out of office). “Accountability” is a respectable label for a model describing elections as a transaction based on distrust, exploitation, manipulation and (mostly empty) threats. However, democratic accountability theory does introduce the novelty of turning what was classically considered to be a tool (the threat of losing an upcoming election was supposed to spur officials into producing better policy) into an end in itself (“holding government accountable”). Thus, democratic accountability theory dispenses with the substantive criteria of the quality of policy in favor of the formality of replacing officials with other officials.

In the section “what democracy is not”, Schmitter and Karl warn their readers that

[d]emocratization will not necessarily bring in its wake economic growth, social peace, administrative efficiency, political harmony, free markets or “the end of ideology.”

In fact, no substantive policy outcomes are expected. The promise of democracy is purely procedural (again, with some notional implications attached):

[W]hat we should be hoping for is the emergence of political institutions that can peacefully compete to form governments and influence public policy, that can channel social and economic conflicts through regular procedures, and that have sufficient linkages to civil society to represent their constituencies and commit them to collective courses of action.

Other than being considerably less coherently presented, then, the accountability theory of democracy differs from Schumpeter in metaphysics rather than substance. Like him, Schmitter and Karl define “democracy” as being essentially a system based on electoral competition (they do refer to “other mechanisms of competition” but their discussion is so diffuse that it is difficult to know what they actually refer to or why it is a democratic feature). Unlike Schumpeter, however, they attribute some mystical force of “accountability” to that system. In this way, Schumpeter’s positive theory is turned into a normative theory. If “accountability” is Good, and elections are a mechanism (possibly the only mechanism) for accountability, then the electoral system is Good (possibly the only good government system).

[1] “Accountability” is used again in the footnote to the definition above, where it is counted as one of two features of the definition distinguishing it from the Schumpeterian definition:

The definition most commonly used by American social scientists is that of Joseph Schumpeter: “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. We accept certain aspects of the classical procedural approach to modern democracy, but differ primarily in our emphasis on the accountability of rulers to citizens and the relevance of mechanisms of competition other than elections.

Later mentions again do not attempt an explication of the term and the expressions used seem to be no more than thinly veiled references to elections:

Like all regimes, democracies depend upon the presence of rulers, persons who occupy specialized authority roles and can give legitimate commands to others. What distinguishes democratic rulers from nondemocratic ones are the norms that condition how the former come to power and the practices that hold them accountable for their actions.

Representatives – whether directly or indirectly elected – do most of the real work in modern democracies. Most are professional politicians who orient their careers around the desire to fill key offices. [...] The central question [is] how these representative are chosen and then held accountable for their actions.

Rulers may not always follow the course of action preferred by the citizenry. But when they [don't,] they must ultimately be held accountable for their actions through regular and fair processes.

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12 Responses

  1. Not much point commenting Yoram, as you only appear to want to reply to those who share your own perspective.

  2. >Thus, democratic accountability theory dispenses with the substantive criteria of the quality of policy in favor of the formality of replacing officials with other officials.

    For the benefit of other readers of this blog, this is Schumpeterianism. Regular accountability theory claims that electors do register policy preferences when they vote and the theory is confirmed by quantitative polsci research. Note that even sceptics like Gilens and Page don’t deny substantive accountability, they merely claim that the preferences of some voters are more influential than others.

  3. *** Accountability has a clear meaning if you speak of the management of a system: the “lord”/“proprietary”/“sovereign” of the system sets objectives and rules and selects the manager; afterwards he checks if the manager succeeded to comply with both objectives and rules, ousting the unsuccessful manager and rewarding the successful one. But that implies full responsibility and power for the manager. It cannot work in our polyarchies where the official power is divided. If the economic state of the USA does not better quickly, who is responsible? The President? The Federal Bank? The Congress? The Judiciary? Different bodies which can have different political propensities. The jobless citizen who wants to take the President as accountable will get the response “If only the House had not blocked my policy!” The “accountability” theme, “realistic” substitute to the naive “electoral representation” theme, is intrinsically contradictory with the theme of division of the powers.
    *** And we know that in our polyarchies power is not only divided along the official lines: there are many unofficial powers through the media, the administrative de facto oligarchies, the pressure of the “big money” etc
    *** Well, we could imagine accountability in a model where all power is concentrated in one representative body – if the body is one man, we would have a “cesarian” or “bonapartist” representative democracy; if it is an all-powerful Assembly, it would be a “Jacobin” representative democracy. But if this governing body is really all-powerful, it would be easy for it to control all the medias and deliberation forums, and, with only the government voice, accountability would be a sham.
    *** In our polyarchies, the discontent of the common citizens can be expressed by ousting some elected “representatives” – who may be not really responsible of the bad state of things. This is far from the “accountability” of the theorists.
    *** Note that “accountability” was a key concept of the ancient dêmokratia. But the idea was not to judge “representatives”, it was to check if the people in charge of executive functions comply with the rules and do their jobs without corruption or political betrayal. In a modern dêmokratia, with administrative networks, the adequate concept would be audits including audits by citizen juries.

  4. Yoram, I believe the point you make here was made by an American lawyer turned sociologist named Thurman Arnold in his 1937 book “The Folklore of Capitalism.” He says, when democracy ceased to be an idea, and became a “fact,” the substance of policy became less important than its “acceptance” by the masses–supposedly through elections

  5. On openDemocracy today, I give a short argument AGAINST campaign finance reform and for empowering people. I mention Ober and McCormick, non-electoral mechanisms and the use of lot:
    Imho, Campaign Finance Reform a Wasted Effort:

  6. Andre,

    Clearly polyarchy complicates the issue, but the argument between Schumpeterians and accountability theorists is whether or not elections involve the registration of policy preferences or whether they are just a way of throwing the rascals out. The empirical polsci literature supports the former, albeit in an approximate manner. Modern Schumpeterians are hard to find — Jeffrey Green? Ian Shapiro? . . . hard to think of anyone else.

  7. André,

    The division of authority and labor is one aspect of the fact that the voters cannot really figure out how well the government serves them at any level of detail.

    However, there are quite a few other problems with the rewards-based theory of elections. I will write about some of those in part 2 of this post. One issue is that ousting the “unsuccessful” manager may very well be closing the barn after the horse has bolted. What if the manager has simply transferred to his own possession much of what used to be the owner’s assets? How would ousting the manager make any difference at this late point?

  8. Ahmed,

    > the substance of policy became less important than its “acceptance” by the masses

    Something quite similar was written by Walter Lippmann in 1922 in his book “Public Opinion”, where the phrase “manufacturing consent” was used (later popularized by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in a book by that name).

  9. > Campaign Finance Reform a Wasted Effort

    I wholeheartedly agree. It is a unfortunate that intelligent and well meaning people like Lessig do not realize that. Another effort along these lines is McChesney’s “media vouchers”.

  10. Another problem with the rewards-based theory of elections: the issues with essentially different dimensions. Let’s suppose a citizen who approves the economic policy of a government but disapproves strongly its “family” policy; he (she) is deeply upset by a law allowing surrogacy in gestation in order to give children to gay couples (this idea gets strong opposition in France, including from feminist sides who consider surrogacy as a kind of female slavery used by rich males). If he (she) ousts indignantly the government for this last reason, he (she) will give power to a party the economic policy of which he (she) may abhor! Even without the division of power, the rewards theory could be fine only if the political debate is about one issue.

  11. Andre,

    >Even without the division of power, the rewards theory could be fine only if the political debate is about one issue.

    Yes that’s true (and universally accepted). But this only means that ex post accountability is approximate — political parties used to aggregate their policies into coherent packages that were intended to appeal to particular demographics, but this is much more difficult in post-ideological multicultural societies. (That’s why I think we all agree that policies should be judged by allotted juries one issue at a time.) But this doesn’t confirm Schumpeterianism, only that policy-based accountability is, at best, approximate.

  12. […] Part 1 describes what “democratic accountability theory” is. […]

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