The Selectorate Theory is based upon one simple, perhaps even commonplace assumption: Once in office, leaders want to remain in office. They have a variety of tools to enhance their longevity in office, but the theory hypothesizes the leader’s allocation of two types of goods will be paramount in their efforts. One good is private, meaning that it is enjoyed by those to whom it is allocated and not to others. Such goods would include money, jobs, opportunities for corruption, but their hallmark is that they are not shared. These goods may be given to one individual or to a group, but they are not shared outside those to whom they are given. The second type of good is public and is shared by all those in the state. These goods would include potable water, clean air, education, and, importantly, national defense. There is little unique about the Selectorate Theory’s understanding of these goods, as they approximate ideas from economics.
The importance and values of these two goods depend critically on the political institutions of the state. The Selectorate Theory identifies two political institutions of dominant importance: The Selectorate, from which it takes its name; and the Winning Coalition. The former consists of all those people who have a role in selecting the state’s leader. This group may be large, as in the electorate in democratic states, or small, as in the case of an extended family or a junta. In unusual circumstances it can even be a group outside the state, as when a foreign government either imposes or influences choices made inside the state. The winning coalition may be large, but not larger than the selectorate, or it may be as small as an extended family or a junta, groups that essentially constitute the selectorate.
Variations in these two institutions can have important consequences for how the state conducts its foreign policy. For example, leaders in states with small winning coalitions should be able to take greater risks in their policies because if these fail, they will be able to mobilize and distribute private goods to reinforce their position. If these goods are not readily available, it is possible to purge non-critical supporters and redistribute their goods to others.
These institutions are also important in identifying the kinds of issues over which states are more or less likely to enter into conflict. States with small winning coalitions are more likely to enter into disputes over things that can be redistributed to supporters, such as land or resources. Large winning coalitions will have little use for such goods, since the ratio of coalition size and goods to be distributed is likely to be exiguous.
The Selectorate Theory also provides a firm analysis of the foundations for the idea of the Democratic Peace, which has been generally either lacking or imprecise.
Despite its clarity, some interpretations of the Selectorate Theory have led to mistaken inferences about what it says. We discuss several of these and close with a consideration of the need for improvement in the measurement of key variables.