Why don’t the best people win elections?


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We study the recruitment of individuals in the political sector. We propose an equilibrium model of political recruitment by two political parties competing in an election. We show that political parties may deliberately choose to recruit only mediocre politicians, in spite of the fact that they could select better individuals. Furthermore, we show that this phenomenon is more likely to occur in proportional than in majoritarian electoral systems.

Source: “Mediocracy” from Penn Institute for Economic Research Working Paper 11-002

More explanation from the paper:

While the success of political parties ultimately depends on their electoral success, the very existence and survival of party organizations hinge on the willingness of their members to exert their best effort on the party’s behalf and perform a variety of services including gathering and disseminating information, organizing and mobilizing supporters, and raising funds. Given the limited availability of direct monetary compensation, the main incentive a party has to offer to reward such effort is the party electoral nomination. We show that these considerations entail a fundamental trade-off which may play an important role in a party’s recruiting decisions. On the one hand, recruiting the best possible individuals may enhance the party’s electoral prospects in a competitive electoral environment (competition effect). On the other hand, recruiting a relatively “mediocre” but homogeneous group of individuals may maximize their collective effort on behalf of the party since the presence of “superstars” may discourage other party members and induce them to shirk (discouragement effect). In equilibrium, there will either be “mediocracy” if parties choose not to recruit the best politicians, or “aristocracy” if they do.

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