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date: 23 March 2017

The Selectorate Theory and Foreign Policy Choices

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The selectorate theory is driven by one simple assumption—once in office, leaders want to remain in office. They have a variety of tools to enhance their longevity in office, but the theory hypothesizes the leader’s allocation of two types of goods that will be paramount in their efforts. One good is private, meaning that it is enjoyed by those to whom it is allocated and not by others. Such goods include money, jobs, opportunities for corruption, but their hallmark is that they are not shared outside those to whom they are given. The second type of good is public and is shared by all those in the state. These goods include, for instance, potable water, clean air, education, and importantly, national defense. There is little unique about the selectorate theory’s understanding of these goods, as they approximate ideas from economics.

The importance and values of these two goods depends critically on the political institutions of the state. The selectorate theory identifies two political institutions of dominant importance: The Selectorate, from which it takes it name, and the Winning Coalition. The former consists of all those people who have a role in selecting the state’s leader. This group may be large, as in the electorate in democratic states, or small, as in the case of an extended family or a junta. In unusual circumstances, it can even be a group outside the state, as when a foreign government either imposes or influences choices made inside the state. The Winning Coalition may be large, but generally not larger than half the Selectorate, or it may be as small as a tiny fragment of those who constitute the Selectorate.

Variations in in these two institutions have important consequences for how the state conducts its foreign policy. For example, leaders in states with small winning coalitions should be able to take greater risks in their policies because, if these fail, they will be able to mobilize and distribute private goods to reinforce their position. If these goods are not readily available, it may be possible to purge non-critical supporters and redistribute their goods to others, although it is also possible that the leader will face a coup or even a revolutionary threat.

The size of the selectorate and winning coalition are also important in identifying the kinds of issues over which states tend to enter into conflict. States with small winning coalitions are more likely to enter disputes over things that can be redistributed to supporters, such as land or resources. Large winning coalitions will have little use for such goods, since the ratio of coalition size and goods to be distributed is likely to be exiguous.

The selectorate theory also provides a firm analysis of the foundations for the idea of the democratic peace, which generally has been either lacking or imprecise, as well as for foreign aid decisions and numerous other policy areas.

Despite its clarity, some interpretations of the selectorate theory have led to mistaken inferences about what it says.