Schaffer. 1998. Democracy in translation. Cornell University Press.

Chapter 4


We often think that, if a country adopts electoral democracy, that electoral competition will require politicians to behave in a better, more transparent manner in order to avoid electoral sanctions. But this argument assumes that voters in ‘every’ society cast votes primarily (1) to hold public officials accountable (2) according to standards of public morality. Schaffer argues that, first, Wolof voters do not necessarily vote in order to hold officials accountable, and second, even if they do, they might use standards other than public morality. “The broader point is that similar institutional arrangements in different cultural contexts are not necessarily imbued with similar meaning” (p 115).

Why Wolof Voters Vote

  1. To advance community solidarity. For the poor Wolof, your survival depends on having a strong community. Use voting to safeguard the community’s internal solidarity (p 96).
  2. Public voting: To protect themselves, the ruling party made secret voting “optional” in 1977 even as opposition parties grew more powerful. They justified this initially in terms of Senegal’s cultural heritage. People opposed it, though: They didn’t their kin to know who they voted for, since that might cause divisions within the community. Similarly, they did not like how public voting gave the ruling party a means to intimidate people. [Criticism: If you really value community solidarity, wouldn’t public voting help to create it by helping us to all show that we really support the same goals? Especially if, as the author shows earlier, some communities hold a council before the election to decide which party the community should support.]
  3. To satisfy religious demands. If the religious leaders (Mourides) issue an order (Ndigal) in favor of one candidate, many people will vote for that candidate even if they oppose him. (But not all will.)

Standards of Accountability

  1. To influence public policy and the allocation of resources. This fits well with standards of public morality.
  2. To advance group interests. i.e. to discuss the vote with your community, then we all vote for the candidate/party that can help our town/religion/ethnicity the most.
  3. To obtain material rewards. Many Wolof voters do not see a vote in exchange for material (clientelistic) rewards as immoral.


Schaffer wishes to show that democracy-building projects in places like Senegal may not have the effects on governmental accountability that we would expect. He proves his point by showing that people do not vote based purely on standards of public morality. But Senegal had had democratic elections for only a decade or so at the time of writing. Schaffer does not consider the possibility that these institutions will change Wolof culture with time. He also examines only the uneducated Wolof voters. Have other voters responded to the new institutions? If so, these changes might eventually trickle down to the uneducated voters Schaffer studies. Finally, Schaffer shows that these Wolof voters differ from the type of voters that Schumpter and Down envisioned–but so do most American voters, especially the uneducated ones. Yet these uneducated American voters can still behave democratically (see Popkin 1991, Lupia and McCubbins 1998, etc.), despite earlier concerns (i.e. the American Voter studies). Should we similarly not be concerned about Schaffer’s wolf cry?