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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”

Why this matters:  Accountability to all citizens through regular elections is what distinguishes representative democracy from dictatorship and one-party states. If our leaders were accountable only to a few powerful people, we would be living in an autocracy led by a dictator and his cronies.  If our leaders were accountable only to one political party, we would be living in a one-party state like Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, or North Korea. If our leaders were accountable to only one group, we might be led by the propertied class or members of just one race or religion.  History shows these outcomes are associated with tyranny, misery, and, often, civil war.

Our ability to monitor our elected officials is much strengthened when we have a wide variety of independent media keeping watch between and during elections. Our system’s additional distinguishing features include horizontal accountability between the federal and state governments and between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches within each (see also Republic and Separation of Powers).

Some complications:

Attribution: Few people are so powerful that they alone are responsible for any specific event in your life.  Sometimes people are not to blame at all. Some things are simply acts of nature and God.  Often, outcomes result from decisions made by many people within a single political party or from more than one party.  Sometimes there is a problem with the incentives within one or more of our institutions.  In our Republic, most policy outcomes result from interactions between citizens and their lobbyists, multiple layers of government, and multiple actors within each layer.

Factionalism: Alexander Hamilton and James Madison feared the possibility of a government that felt accountable to only one faction. Madison defined faction in Federalist 10 as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  (CFFAD’s italics.) Madison argued the solution was to inhibit the domination of factions by avoiding direct democracy and relying instead on large-scale representative democracy. The large scale, he expected, would promote the interests of many small factions while diluting the formation of any majority faction. For others, that solution is unworkable without the extension of voting rights to all adult Americans.  Both solutions are in play today, but both face challenges. Modern communications and media make factionalism (polarization) easier than ever, while some citizens are uncomfortable allowing all adult citizens to vote.

Federalism: Accountability can be easier in state and local governments. Local office-holders and candidates know our problems better, and we know our local officials better. Federalism can also make accountability more difficult when citizens are confused about whom to hold accountable for policy failures.  This difficulty happens when citizens do not know which government is responsible for specific services and whether other government arenas are involved.  Many citizens incorrectly think that the federal government does it all, or at least directs it all.  That sort of outcome is more likely under cooperative and coercive models of federalism than dual federalism.  (See our short course on federalism.)

Election cycles:  Few leaders would want to participate in a representative democracy if elections were held just once and never repeated. They want to be assured they can compete again and again, even if they lose sometimes.  Thus, elections need to be held fairly frequently and, ideally, on a regular schedule. In Federalist 53, however, Madison points out there is a tension between frequent elections and the time legislators need to learn the issues.

Term limits: On the one hand, term limits were invented as one way to prohibit elected officials from using their power to entrench themselves in office.  On the other hand, barring officials from running again denies voters access to the experience gained from working in the system. It can also free officials to behave as badly as they wish since the voters no longer matter.

Want to learn more?  See these sources:

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