Home > Applying Political Science, Political Science > Institutionalism (and the Limits Thereof)

Institutionalism (and the Limits Thereof)

One of main theoretical perspectives in political science is new institutionalism. Although this concept can take a number of forms (see here), the basic idea is that rules governing a particular kind of political behavior affect the final outcomes we see. So, for example, the fact that would-be presidential candidates have to campaign in a large number of state primaries early in the year (a phenomenon called frontloading) means that they spend a significant amount of time the year before working to gain the support of party elites.

One of the key insights of the new institutionalism is that the rules matter. The implication is that if you want to get a different result, perhaps you should try changing the rules. More than many state, California has long taken this insight to heart. In the last election we say two significant, institutional changes implemented in an effort to change the political culture in Sacramento.

The first change was the creation of the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC). The CRC was created by Prop. 11 (2008) to draw all state-level legislative districts, and its authority was expanded by Prop. 20 (2010) to include congressional districts. The hope was that by taking control over redistricting away from the state legislature, California would get better, more competitive districts, which would force candidates to moderate their partisanship.

The second change was the adoption of the top-two or majority runoff system of elections (Prop. 14). Instead of a series of partisan nominating contests–wherein registered partisans vote for a set of party nominees–followed by a general election contest among all the party nominees, California now has a a two-stage electoral process. In the first stage, all the candidates who filed for office compete for votes. Any registered voter can caste her ballot for any candidate, just as in the November election. The top two vote getters (and only the top two) in this first stage election then face each other in a run-off election in November. Here again, the goal was to reduce the influence of partisanship. In this case, the assumption was that by opening up the electorate, candidates would have to moderate their stances in order to be one of the top two.

One of the primary criticisms of the new institutionalism is that it focuses attention on the wrong place. Here, the hope is that by changing the way districts are drawn and who gets to vote for what candidates, candidates will change their behavior. But what if neither really makes a difference? What if the source of partisanship behavior–and the perceived disfunction in Sacramento–doesn’t stem from the rules but other actors? Most of the research on the effects of redistricting (see here, here, and here) and electoral systems (see here, here, and here) on partisanship indicate that it comes from (a) party actors who screen candidates, (b) the kinds of candidates who seek office, and (c) the preferences of voters (though, importantly, not the difference between primary and general election voters). The electoral rules don’t affect these factors.

So does this mean the new institutionalism is wrong to focus on the importance of the rules? No. It just means you have to target the reform at the right source. So far

The California State Capitol building in Sacra...

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

, Californians haven’t done that.

  1. john yonke
    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

    “But what if neither really makes a difference? What if the source of partisanship behavior–and the perceived disfunction in Sacramento–doesn’t stem from the rules but other actors?”

    This is almost certainly true. While it is nice for California to attempt to inflict change by actually changing the rules, it most likely will not amount to much change at all. But hey, I guess it’s worth the try.

    • bklunk
      September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm


      What do you mean by partisan behavior stems from other actors? And how do you know that “[t]his is almost certainly true”?

  2. Hilary Kane
    September 14, 2012 at 11:36 am

    The best way to get a different outcome is by changing the rules, but this only works if the rules are completely followed in order to let them make the changes that they were created for. But none of this will matter if the research conducted to test the effectivness is directed towards factors that aren’t affected by the change in electoral rules.

  3. Monique
    November 7, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Majority of the time you can never be a hundred percent sure on the outcome of something. If institutionalism can potentially better the way we do things, it is definitely worth a shot. If it makes no difference at all, then so be it. To know that California is trying to do things to bring change and good to us is an awesome feeling. We can at any time change our focus if we feel it is in the wrong place, but to know it is in the wrong place we must first give it a try.

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