Political gatekeepers – BI leads new research project

26 January 2021

Professor Jon H. Fiva and partners from top U.S. universities will investigate how political parties recruit politicians.

Jon H Fiva 2

Professor Jon H. Fiva leads a new research project.

While citizens of representational democracies vote for their leaders in free elections, political parties decide who can stand for election. This gives them enormous power over who to recruit into politics, and what it takes to move up the ladder.

- We want to find out whether all citizens have equal opportunities to rise in political hierarchies, or if people with links to political elites have an advantage, and if it is harder for example for women or minorities, says the Project Leader Professor Jon H. Fiva.

The project, called 'The Dynamics of Political Selection', has been awarded NOK 12 million from the Research Council of Norway. It will start in the fall of 2021, and end in 2026. In addition to Jon H. Fiva, the main participants are Rune J. Sørensen from BI, Alexandra Cirone from Cornell University, Gary W. Cox from Stanford University, Daniel M. Smith from Harvard University and Dawn Teele from the University of Pennsylvania.

- We will focus on countries with list-based election systems, where representatives are allocated according to the share of votes in an electoral district. This includes countries like Norway, Portugal and Italy, but not countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where a single representative is allocated from each district based on a simple majority, says Fiva.

How do career systems impact the effort and quality of politicians?

- It is common for politicians to remain at the top of electoral lists year after year. They are therefore relatively safe in their positions of power. Likewise, nominations for open positions are often allocated according to specific rules that privilege senior party members over newcomers, says Fiva.

The result can be that lower positions are allocated by ability, while higher positions are allocated by seniority. The researchers want to find out whether these systems give ‘new’ political groups such as women, immigrants and other minorities equal opportunities compared with more traditional groups.

- We also want to look at how career systems incentivize the effort of politicians. For example, whether candidates in safe seats campaign less intensively than those who work to enter parliament, says Fiva.

Finally, the project will investigate the quality of politicians.

-  In Norway and many other West-European countries party membership has declined over time. This has led to reduced competition for positions in local politics. We want to see whether this has enabled weaker candidates to rise in party hierarchies, says Fiva.

The project will investigate whether this combined with downsizing of media organizations has caused an increase in dishonest politicians who use their positions for personal gain.

- Advertising revenue has decreased significantly in previous years and forced many media organizations to cut costs. Well funded news media are needed to hold politicians accountable, says Fiva.

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