Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Political Science


English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-25-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Guillermo Rosas


Why do citizens fail to hold their elected officials democratically accountable for corruption? In this dissertation, I argue that poverty and inequality undermine democratic accountability for corruption by creating opportunities for elected officials to mobilize political support through targeted, personal exchange. I focus on two such types of exchange, clientelism and crony capitalism, and explain how corruption reinforces these two strategies of political mobilization.

I argue that the costs of corruption are very high for the poor, who often lose access to government resources they rely on to meet their basic needs. Because the cost of failing to meet their basic needs is so high, poor citizens are likely to rely on political patrons for access to resources in corrupt countries, making them especially susceptible to clientelism; the exchange of material benefits for political support. Clientelism thereby undermines democratic accountability for corruption, especially in countries with poor populations.

In contrast, corruption imposes economic costs upon wealthy citizens by increasing the costs and erecting barriers to market entry. These costs cannot be compensated by a political patron, so wealthy citizens are likely to hold elected officials democratically accountable for corruption. However, a small group of wealthy citizens may benefit from high barriers to entry, because they can collect economic rents in limited markets. These wealthy citizens may therefore tolerate corruption and continue to support the government as long as they are guaranteed access to limited markets, a relationship commonly referred to as crony capitalism. While those who benefit from limited market entry are likely to continue to support the government, those who are excluded from these markets are likely to punish the government for widespread corruption.

The impact of such an arrangement on support for the government depends on the distribution of income. In very unequal countries, only a few citizens are wealthy enough to enter markets, and therefore few people will be excluded by high barriers to entry. In these countries, wealthy citizens are likely to tolerate corruption. However, in countries where wealth is distributed more equally, a larger number of potential entrants will be excluded from markets by high barriers. Therefore, in more equal countries, wealthy citizens are likely to withdraw support from a government that fails to curb corruption.

I test the empirical implication of my theory using public opinion data from fifty-eight surveys collected in eighteen Latin American countries from 2004 to 2010 by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). I analyze this data in conjunction with survey-level indicators of corruption, economic development, and income inequality to provide evidence that the impact of corruption on individuals' support for the government varies with their socioeconomic status and the economic conditions within their country using multilevel models to account for variation across both individuals and countries. I conclude that economic development that raises people out of poverty and leads to a more equal distribution of income is necessary for democratic institutions to effectively curb corruption.


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