Political Legacies

Political Legacies

By Christian Fong, Neil Malhotra, Yotam M. Margalit
August 29,2017Working Paper No. 3589

Politicians are widely perceived to lose significance upon leaving office. Yet media accounts often highlight politicians’ legacies as a source of influence that endures even after they retire. This article assesses these contrasting views by investigating the substance, endurance, and significance of political legacies. We develop a theoretical account of legacies and their relevance to contemporary politics, emphasizing that in addition to “hard legacies” — concrete and enduring policy achievements — politicians often establish “soft” legacies — memories enshrined in the public’s consciousness. Soft legacies can be, but are not necessarily, tied to the substance of one’s hard legacy. We ground our theoretical account empirically by testing a series of observable implications using data from online discussion forums, original surveys of both citizens and political elites, thousands of former politicians’ Wikipedia pages, and a randomized experiment. We find that establishing a lasting legacy is a key motivation of public officials. More generally, our findings provide substantial evidence that legacies influence contemporary policy debates long after a leader steps down.