Daniel Smith. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Speaking at the UCLA Terasaki Center on October 15, Daniel Smith argued that persistent democratic “dynasties” in democracies such as Japan affect candidate selection, elections and even cabinet promotion.

by Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, October 31, 2018 — Daniel Smith (UCLA 2005), spoke at the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies  on October 15th about his new book, “Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan” (Stanford, 2018). The event was cosponsored by the UCLA political science department.

Smith is an associate professor of comparative politics at Harvard University, where he is also a faculty associate of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.

What is a democratic “dynasty”?

Smith sought to answer the following questions: Do institutional factors contribute to the emergence and continuance of Japanese democratic dynasties? Do legacy candidates enjoy an advantage in politics in such systems? If so, how large is the advantage?

He defined a democratic dynasty as, “any relation in which two or more members have held an elected national office,” excluding locally elected office holders and members of the military. By “relation,” he clarified that he meant people related “by blood or marriage of less than 30 years.” Smith then examined why “dynasties” form in democracies and why members of these dynasties inherit an incumbency advantage, citing both supply- and demand-side factors.

Children and other relatives of long-serving politicians, noted the political scientist, are more likely to seek national office — especially if a family has a long history in politics. For this supply-side group, Smith hypothesized, incumbents become part of an elitist group dynasty. Asked if other factors, such as the type of executive system, had any effect on who inherited an incumbency advantage, Smith said that the advantage related more closely to political parties than to the character of the executive system (parliamentary or presidential). 

On the demand side, he hypothesized, party actors involved in candidate selection are more likely to seek out legacy candidates when inherited incumbency has value. Asked which party exhibited the highest rates of legacy candidates in Japan, Smith said, “Conservative parties dominate elections when they have legacy candidates. However, there have been a few leftist parties who have succeeded in winning elections without these candidates. 

“A well-known democratic dynasty that has persisted in the United States is [that of] the Kennedy family,” said the speaker. “At least one Kennedy family member [has] held federal elective office in every year since 1947, a span of time comprising more than a quarter of the United States’ existence.” Nevertheless, he pointed out that democratic dynasties in Japan overshadow those in the U.S. or any other country.

Percentage of political dynasties decreases after 1994 reform

According to Smith, Japan has an unusually high percentage of political dynasties in both its parliament and cabinet, a reality of  Japanese politics that has been controversial since the late 2000s.

“Japan started out with five percent of members in the House of Representatives [being] related to previous members and it steadily climbed...  In the 1990s, 30 percent of MPs [members of parliament] were related to former ones,” he remarked. The Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese Socialist Party were the principal sources of legacy MPs.

Institutional factors, noted the speaker, can increase the relative value of an inherited incumbency advantage. Candidate-centered elections also increase its value because the incumbency advantage becomes a personal, vote-earning attribute. Until 1994, the electoral system in Japan was based on single, nontransferable votes (SNTV) in multi-member districts. These systems produced high levels of intra-party competition, said the speaker, leading to the selection of candidates with the highest chance of winning — which meant candidates who had an incumbency advantage.

But in 1994, explained Smith, Japan underwent an electoral reform and changed its SNTV system to closed-list proportional representation. The change eliminated intra-party competition, mitigated the winner-take-all method of the previous system and helped reduced the number of political dynasties.

“Other countries do not use legacies [i.e., individuals who belong to a political dynasty] as a coordinating device because coordination tended to fail or was not needed for a party to win an election," said Smith. "Legacy status is used for maintaining a pipeline to national politics," he added, "but not everyone sees it as a beneficial tool.”

Comparative perspective

“Understanding dynasties in developed countries, like [those of]  Japan and other advanced industrialized democracies, may help us provide solutions or better understand the process of democratic evolution that might occur in developing contexts like India, Thailand and countries in Latin America,” concluded the speaker. 

He noted, however, that political dynasties provoke concern about the quality of representation in democracies, raising doubts about the principle that "all men are created equal."

“If it looks like only certain men are selected for office, then maybe there’s a disconnect from the people,” he said.