Working Paper #5, Helmke, Kroeger, and Paine

Democracy by Deterrence: Strategic Self-Entrenchment in U.S. Elections

Gretchen Helmke

Mary Kroeger

Jack Paine

If politicians and their political parties generally want to stay in power, why would they ever forgo using anti-democratic tactics to win elections? We analyze a game-theoretic model to explain democracy by deterrence, specifically, explaining how fear of retaliation by the opposition party can keep the incumbent party in check, and when this condition breaks down. In the dynamic model, party leaders can strategically tilt electoral rules to their advantage. Threats of future punishment do not necessarily deter antidemocratic behavior even if party leaders highly value the future. Given asymmetric legal opportunities to target certain groups of voters, high partisan sorting will activate a party’s incentives for self-entrenchment. We apply this framework to illuminate a range of electoral strategies employed by parties in the contemporary United States, including gerrymandering, voting rights and voter suppression, and accepting election results.

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