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PE/PI Workshop: Adriane Fresh

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Wednesday, March 08, 2023
12:00 pm - 1:15 pm

Adriane Fresh will present her paper "The Early Modern Origins of Political Contestation."

The study of the selection of political representatives often assumes the institution of an election involving a contest---i.e., a situation in which more than one candidate competes for a seat in a representative institution and at least one candidate loses. Despite the importance of electoral contestation to our conceptualization of democracy, its historical origin is not well understood. In this paper, I consider the origin of contests in electoral institutions in early modern England. I provide the first systematic evidence of the growth of contests from only a handful per decade in the 16th century, to more than half of parliamentary returns by the beginning of the 18th century. I then collect new data on the universe of candidate selections over two centuries, including their location and the characteristics of both returned Members of Parliament (MPs) and their so-called challengers. I then systematically evaluate competing theoretical accounts of their emergence---including those predicated on economic cleavages resulting from expanding overseas trade, as well as those centered on the social value of parliamentary service and norms of consensuality. Early findings suggest the important role of growing franchises in producing contestation. Rather than elite candidates on either side of an economic cleavage linked to trade, contests were dominated by agricultural elites and conflicts between powerful parliamentary patrons. The eventual decline in contests with the 18th century Whig supremacy suggests that these early contests were insufficient to fully institutionalize contestation as the regularity of electoral behavior---instead, contestation was responsive to the dynamics of societal conflict. These results help us to understand the nature of early modern political cleavages, and contribute to our understanding of the long-run process of democratic development, broadly, by evaluating one of its most important constituent institutions.

Contact: Cameron Tilley