There's a (somewhat vague) theory that once the electorate starts to believe the political system is corrupt, it is more likely to vote for an outsider (someone who hasn't had a long political career) in a major position of power (e.g. presidency).

It has been offered for example to explain Trump's election (including him winning the Republican party nomination), but surely it can be applied elsewhere, for example to Zelensky's election as Ukraine's president, or to the more recent election of Saied in Tunisia.

The problem I see however is that on quite a good number of [objective] measures, Ukraine is a lot more corrupt than the US. Therefore, if the theory that an image of systemic political corruption makes the election of an outsider more likely, it would probably have to rely on a fairly subjective (i.e. perceived) measure of corruption. So, the question is then: what would be the [subjective] measure of corruption that best predicts the election of an outsider? Are there any empirical studies on this matter?

(As an interesting related fact, there's a 2005 paper on US politics that found that the word "corruption" evokes two different things in the mind of different US voters [depending on their socioeconomic background]: lawbreaking vs. favoritism, with the less well off being more inclined to ascribe corruption to the latter phenomenon as well, whereas it was "just politics" for those better off.)

  • 2
    The reasoning is a bit flimsy: it's possible that corruption is a factor in people electing an outsider, but there are probably other factors as well. Therefore it's perfectly possible that Trump would have been elected mostly because of these other factors, i.e. that the level of corruption is not significant in this particular case.
    – Erwan
    Jan 19, 2020 at 2:25
  • Does this theory you mention in the question's opening have a name/prior art?
    – bobsburner
    Feb 17, 2020 at 15:09
  • What do you mean by objective and subjective measures of corruption?
    – Relaxed
    Feb 17, 2020 at 22:26

1 Answer 1


I seem to be wrong in my assumption that a more objective measure of corruption would not capture the effect adequately. In a study on Latin America's elections between 1980 and 2010, the "bog standard" index of corruption by Transparency International was a significant predictor of an outsider being elected president, in three [slightly] different models.

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