In This Review

Do Elections (Still) Matter?: Mandates, Institutions, and Policy in Western Europe
Do Elections (Still) Matter?: Mandates, Institutions, and Policy in Western Europe
By Emiliano Grossman and Isabelle Guinaudeau
Oxford University Press, 2022, 224 pp.

Many citizens of European countries, notably those on the far right and left, believe that elections are meaningless. Politicians make promises, but no matter who wins, shadowy elites and self-serving politicians collude or produce gridlock. This rigorous and data-rich study of five European countries draws a less cynical conclusion. Although the leaders of victorious political parties cannot simply impose their preferred policies, their electoral promises do shape political priorities during their time in government. In multiparty proportional representation systems, such as those in Denmark, France, Germany, and Italy that accord some political representation on the basis of votes cast (and not simply seats won), important issues command focused attention from small groups of voters, who demand action. Ironically, opposition parties often play a critical role in this process of translating election promises into action, because they gain advantage by mobilizing those small groups to punish the government for its failure to deliver on its promises. The United Kingdom, however, emerges as an exception: British parties do not keep their promises. The first-past-the-post electoral system suppresses the distinct ideological identities of the major parties as politicians must try to win a broad electorate; they can afford to ignore the niche inclinations of small groups, whose particular interests have little hope of finding political representation. In such a system, opposition parties cannot score points by appealing to small groups and are therefore less able to hold their rivals to account. This dynamic helps explain not just the widespread perception of some recent British governments as arbitrary and unpredictable but perhaps also the increasingly disillusioned attitude of voters in the world’s other prominent majoritarian political system: the United States.