Swiss politics through the lens of Anthony Downs’ analysis of an “An economic theory of political action in a democracy“

A report submitted to CeDEP, SOAS, University of London in July 2014 as part of a written assignment for the course “Political Economy of Public Policy”.

In his work “An economic theory of political action in a democracy” Downs (1957) finds that since members of the government are part of the labour force as any other member of society they have both a social function and private motives while in office. When carrying out their social function they primarily focus on meeting private goals because similar to any other citizen, they are only concerned with achieving best outcomes for themselves and not for society as a whole. Consequently, their actions as governors are led by selfish motives, which are attaining income, power and prestige associated with being in office. The result is that governments formulate policies that help them gaining enough votes to stay in office, not such that maximize social welfare.

Citizens or voters in turn vote for the government or party that maximises their individual utility income. In order to decide which government best serves that goal, they must be well-informed about parties’ programs. However, information is costly and hence, perfect knowledge not always possible. In fact, according to Downs lack of perfect knowledge is a condition apparent in almost every social institution. In terms of political action this means that governments do not always know what citizens want and citizens, in turn, lack knowledge over parties’ action in the past or in the future. They are thus not able to assess the individual utility outcomes of different parties’ programs. This obvious lack of perfect knowledge has different effects.

Firstly, lobbying and the submission of the government to lobbyists are inevitable. Citizens, who have little or no knowledge about policy outcomes, can be influenced by the opinion of fellow citizens who claim to be well informed. The government, not perfectly informed either, wants to make sure to satisfy voters. In order to doing so it sends out agents with the mission to understand what the electorate desires and to convince voters that re-electing the current government will maximise their benefits. The consequence of both is the emergence of specialists (i.e. lobbyists) which become politically more important than other citizens. Specialized in persuasion they can influence government and voters alike. Namely, by convincing the government that the policies they stand for represent the desires of the citizenry and by telling other citizens that the proposed policies are better for them than any other alternative. The government has no choice but to value those insights and as a rational response to lack of perfect knowledge, becomes dependent on the influence of lobbyists.

Second, the lack of information creates demand for ideologies. Interested in finding differences between parties without having to make costly efforts, voters compare general directions of political agendas rather than critically analysing every single detail of parties’ programs. Parties in turn create ideologies to help voters find an easy orientation when making their choices. Given that they help parties to differentiate themselves from other parties, ideologies result in attracting a very specific group of voters that is different from that of competitors. This allows new parties to emerge in answer to gaps in the political landscape by simply choosing the right ideology.

Finally, citizens become ignorant. Knowing that they have little influence on the election outcome and assuming that their vote will not decide whether one or the other party will govern in the future, voters do not invest too much effort in information gathering. Utility income being the difference between costs and benefits and benefits of political policies being equally shared among the electorate in a democracy, individuals can best maximize their utility income by minimising the costs of producing those benefits. That is, to minimise the costs of information. Consequently, they base their decisions in the information that is readily available, for example through media such as TV and newspaper or from personal conversations with other citizens. In that way individuals can minimize their efforts of gathering political knowledge.

The political landscape in Switzerland

It has been argued that as a consequence of a political system which gives citizens a high degree of participation Swiss voters are likely better informed than those in other countries. Comparing voters’ information with participation rights across countries in Europe and between different cantons within Switzerland, Benz and Stutzer (2002) have empirically proved what other authors have suggested before, namely that political information supplied in more direct democracies will be quantitatively larger and qualitatively different compared to other political systems. Yet, the authors confirm that this is “not to say that voters are always perfectly informed” (Benz and Stutzer 2002, p. 6). Therefore and regardless of a likely higher degree of voters’ information compared to other countries, we can still find evidence of Downs’ predictions when looking at the political landscape in Switzerland through the lens of his model.

In a study published in 2011, Burson-Marsteller (2011) pointed out that although lobbying hasn’t been as widely accepted as in countries of Anglo-Saxon heritage, it was a common practise in politics on mainland Europe as well as in Switzerland, where it had gained increased influence over the past years despite being widely understood as in direct contradiction to the idea of direct democracy. Interviewing lobbyists and a big number of representatives from enterprises, politics and unions, the authors concluded that the majority of decision makers welcomed lobbying.

The importance of lobbying in Switzerland is also confirmed by several newspaper articles dedicated to the topic (Kohli 2014, Nicolussi 2014, NZZ 2014,). According to these articles, lobbyists in Switzerland are granted access to parliament in exchange for accordant prove of identity and there are around four-hundred individuals that make use of this opportunity. Nicolussi (2014) also reports that in order to create more awareness for themselves and their profession, lobbyists have formed a union with the aim to getting better organized and to eventually establish an accreditation system that shall bring more regulation and better appreciation for lobbying in national politics.

In regards to the claim that voters are looking for ideologies in order to differentiate between parties, the situation in Switzerland might at first sight look less promising. Ladner (2014) explains that Switzerland didn’t have a landscape shaped by parties, according to the author a finding with broad-ranging confirmation. Reasons for parties’ lack of strength are a multi-linguistic, federalist pluralism that led to heterogeneity and rather small political parties which are more influential on state[1] than on national-level. This has resulted in a situation in which other lobby-groups apart from political parties are more powerful than latter.

Nevertheless we can find evidence of Downs’ claim that voters are considering parties’ ideologies when looking at general trends in Swiss politics. Distinguishing six periods between WWII and today, Ladner (2014) found that the balance among parties was sometimes fairly dynamic. As an example the period from 1960 to 1970 was a time in which the traditional, conservative parties shifted more towards the centre, causing smaller parties on the far left and the far right to gain some votes. The traditional balance was challenged. Fuelled by the 1968 movement and a demand for social change, parties responded by looking for new ideologies. Various new parties emerged on the far left.

In the mid-70s until the mid-80s the situation was quieter, mainly due to a challenging economic situation. What then followed was again a period that led to the emergence of new parties. Increasing concerns over a degrading environment led to the formation of The Green Party in 1986. At the same time and in reaction to the The Green Party, the Automobile Party[2] established itself at the far right of the political spectrum.

At the beginning of the 1990s, dwindling voter shares among the big centrist parties (for the first time in Swiss history they made up less than 70% of votes) combined with losses for left-wing parties led to new ideologies and a right-shift within the established parties. As an example, The Social Democratic Party of Switzerland started to be “more pragmatic” in their ideals.

A particularly good example in terms of the assumptions made by Downs make however developments that happened since 2005. In 2007, a new The Green Liberal Party was created in reaction to an ever stronger “green-movement”. The party’s aim was to address those voters for whom The Green Party was too “leftish” in its social claims and too much worried with conservation issues rather than with economic growth but who nevertheless felt that politics needed an answer to ever growing public demand for a green image. Only one year later, another new party, The Conservative Democratic Party of Switzerland emerged when internal conflicts within the The Swiss People’s Party led to a split of latter. Both parties were the biggest winners in the 2011 national elections (Ladner 2014). Annex 1 provides three charts comparing the composition of the federal parliament in the period 2007 to 2013. The charts illustrate how the new parties changed the national landscape since their emergence in 2007. Noteworthy in terms of ideologies is the fact that members of The Green Liberal Party are much more centrist politicians than members of The Green Party, despite both being perceived as “Greens”, a claim reflected in their party names.

All in all, those shifts in party ideologies as a reaction to emerging social movements can clearly be understood as a confirmation of Downs’ claim that voters look for parties’ ideologies, although we can’t really say if it was the general idea or the detailed agenda that accounted for the voters’ change. A thorough analysis would definitely go beyond the scope of this paper. However, we can assume that voters couldn’t really estimate a priori how a new party would design its future agenda and answer to individual policies. Further, confirmation for the importance of parties’ ideologies among Swiss voters can also be found in Heiniger (2001, p. 8) who observed that in Switzerland ideologies have “decisive character” in elections.

Lastly, there is broad agreement that compared to other nations Switzerland has a very low participation at elections (Rose 2004, SRF 2011, Weiss 2012). According to Rose (2004, p. 73) “one of the lowest in the world”, participation has decreased from 72% in 1947 to only 42% in 1995 before increasing slightly for the first time ever in 1998. Although, motives could be manifold (e.g. political-institutional and political-cultural reasons), Weiss (2012) suggests that one explanation for low participation is an overwhelming voters’ trust in parties and their programs. Prove can be found in an impressive gain in votes of The Swiss People’s Party during the 2007 elections. Having cashed in on an election budget that was between three to twenty times bigger than that of their rival parties and campaigning with large posters, newspaper ads, and direct mail to voters, they won substantial support from voters that usually abstain from elections (Weiss 2012). Such an outcome would be in line with the claim that voters become ignorant in reaction to the cost of achieving detailed information, since it proves that heavy media presence has enough weight to influence the otherwise ignorant voter.

In conclusion, there is evidence that the claims made by Anthony Downs (1957) in “An economic theory of political action in a democracy” hold when compared against the political context in Switzerland.



Benz, M. and Stutzer, A. (2002). Are Voters Better Informed When They Have a Lager Say in Politics. Evidence for the European Union and Switzerland. [Online] Available from: [accessed 13 April 2014]

Burson-Marsteller (2011). Lobbying Survey Switzerland 2011. [Online] Available from: [accessed 17 March 2014]

Downs, A. (1957). “An economic theory of political action in a democracy”. In: Journal of Political Economy, 65, (Sections I to III), 135-150.

Heiniger, R. (2001). „Der ideologische Wandel der Schweizer Parteien. Paper zum Referat vom 10.5.2001.“ [Online] Available from:,%20SS%20und%20WS/ss01.html [accessed 21 March 2014]

Kohli, A. (2014). „Lobbying durch die Hintertür“. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 4. März 2014. [Online] Available from: [accessed 17 May 2014]

Ladner, A. (2014). „Politische Parteien“. In: Knoepfel, P. et al. (eds). Handbuch der Schweizer Politik. NZZ libro 2014.

Nicolussi, R. (2014). „Lobbyisten wollen selber Transparenz schaffen“. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 11. März 2014. [Online] Available from: [accessed 17 May 2014]

NZZ (2013). „Der Nationalrat zwischen links und rechts“. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. [Online] Available from: [accessed 24 March 2014]

NZZ (2014). „Lobbying im Bundeshaus“. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. [Online] Available from: [accessed 17 May 2014]

Rose, R. (2004). „Voter Turnout in the European Union Member Countries“. In: Pintor, R.L. and Gratschew, M. (eds). Voter Turnout in Western Europe since 1945. Stockholm: International IDEA.

SRF (2011). „Kein Interesse an Politik“ (10 vor 10, 19.09.2011). [Online] Available from:
[accessed 21 March 2014]

Weiss, P. (2012). „Die müden Multi-Partizipierer?“. In: Sociology in Switzerland: Politik und Parteien im Wandel. [Online] Available from: [accessed 21 March 2014]

[1] I use the term state because I believe that it is easier understandable within a global context. Switzerland has 26 so called cantons (similar to states in other countries). Their degree of autonomy is high and many decisions are even further delegated to councils, resulting in an extremely decentralized and locally influenced political landscape.

[2] Later renamed to The Freedom Party Switzerland


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Swiss politics through the lens of Anthony Downs’ analysis of an “An economic theory of political action in a democracy“

  1. Pingback: Kunst und Politik. Oder: vom Fressen der Dicken. | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  2. Pingback: Switzerland in the 21st century: democracy and equal access or patriotism and isolation? | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s