British Journal of Political Science

Research Article

The Vulnerable American Politician

a1 Department of Government, University of Essex


Although most incumbent members of Congress succeed in being re-elected, American politicians are in fact more subject to the vicissitudes of electoral politics than are the politicians of any other major democracy. They face re-election more often. They face the possibility of having to contest primaries. They have to raise most of their own money. They are not given a large measure of protective cover by strong political parties. The consequences for American government and politics are profound. They include such familiar and well-documented phenomena as particularism, ‘pork’ and the power of special interests; but they also include the high incidence in America of purely symbolic politics, the drastic foreshortening of American politicians' time horizons and the difficulty that the American system often has in taking tough decisions.

fn1 This article is a summary of part of a forthcoming book, Running Scared: Why American Politicians Campaign Too Much and Govern Too Little (New York: The Free Press, 1997). An earlier version of the article was presented to the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, 1995. More detailed evidence to support the propositions set out in the article – and also fuller references – are contained in the book. For research assistance in connection with the project, the writer is grateful to Giles Alston. For their helpful and constructive comments on the manuscript in its various guises, the writer is grateful to Giles Alston, Seth H. Dubin, Morris P. Fiorina, Gary C. Jacobson, Jan King, David McKay, David R. Mayhew, Richard E. Neustadt, Bruce K. Nichols and two anonymous referees for this Journal.