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The dominant school of thought in political science in the late 20th century was rational choice theory. For rational choice theorists, history and culture are irrelevant to understanding political behaviour; instead, it is sufficient to know the actors’ interests and to assume that they pursue them rationally. Whereas the earlier decision-making approach sought to explain the decisions of elite groups (mostly in matters of foreign policy), rational choice theorists attempted to apply their far more formal theory (which sometimes involved the use of mathematical notation) to all facets of political life. Many believed they had found the key that would at last make political science truly scientific. In An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), an early work in rational choice theory, Anthony Downs claimed that significant elements of political life could be explained in terms of voter self-interest. Downs showed that in democracies the aggregate distribution of political opinion forms a bell-shaped curve, with most voters possessing moderate opinions; he argued that this fact forces political parties in democracies to adopt centrist positions. The founder of rational choice theory was William Riker, who applied economic and game-theoretic approaches to develop increasingly complex mathematical models of politics. In The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962), Riker demonstrated by mathematical reasoning why and how politicians form alliances. Riker and his followers applied this version of rational choice theory—which they variously called rational choice, public choice, social choice, formal modeling, or positive political theory—to explain almost everything, including voting, legislation, wars, and bureaucracy. Some researchers used games to reproduce key decisions in small-group experiments.

Rational choice theory identified—or rediscovered—at least two major explanatory factors that some political scientists had neglected: (1) that politicians are endlessly opportunistic and (2) that all decisions take place in some type of institutional setting. Rational choice theorists argued that political institutions structure the opportunities available to politicians and thus help to explain their actions…



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