Political capital

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Political capital is a metaphor used in political theory to conceptualize the accumulation of resources and power built through relationships, trust, goodwill, and influence between politicians or parties and other stakeholders, such as constituents. Political capital can be understood as a type of currency used to mobilize voters, achieve policy reform, or accomplish other political goals. Although not a literal form of capital, political capital is often described as a type of credit, or a resource that can be banked, spent or misspent, invested, lost, and saved. [1] [2]

In economics, capital consists of an asset that can enhance one's power to perform economically useful work. For example, in a fundamental sense a stone or an arrow is capital for a caveman who can use it as a hunting instrument, while roads are capital for inhabitants of a city.


Some thinkers distinguish between reputational and representative political capital. Reputational capital refers to a politician’s credibility and reliability. This form of capital is accumulated by maintaining consistent policy positions and ideological views. Representative capital refers to a politician’s influence in policy-setting. This form of capital is accumulated through experience, seniority, and serving in leadership positions. [3] Thus, political capital—reputational and representative—is the product of relationships between opinion (public impressions), policy (legislative rewards/penalties), and political judgement (prudent decision-making). [4]

Credibility comprises the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message.


Pierre Bourdieu is often credited with developing the most popular theories of political capital (as well as social capital) in his 1991 book Language and Symbolic Power. However, the concept of political capital was introduced to political theory in 1961 by American political scientist Edward C. Banfield in his book Political Influence. Banfield described political capital as a "stock of influence" which might be built "by 'buying' a bit here and there from the many small 'owners' who were endowed with it by the constitution-makers"—that is, political capital can be used for types of exchange between politicians or between politicians and voters. [5] Like money, Banfield says, political capital must be spent and saved wisely or a politician would be "out of business" before long. [5]

Pierre Bourdieu French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and public intellectual.

Social capital Concept

Social capital broadly refers to those factors of effectively functioning social groups that include such things as interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. However, the many views of this complex subject make a single definition difficult.

Edward C. Banfield American political scientist

Edward Christie Banfield was an American political scientist, best known as the author of The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), and The Unheavenly City (1970). One of the leading scholars of his generation, Banfield was an adviser to three Republican presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Banfield began his academic career at the University of Chicago, where he was a friend and colleague of Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman.

Bourdieu's theory of political capital further elaborates on the metaphor of money and the concept of capital itself. In "The Forms of Capital", Bourdieu defines capital as "accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its 'incorporated,' embodied form) which, when appropriated...by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor." [6] Political capital, then, is how symbolically understood capital functions within a political system: it is a form of credit accumulated by politicians, which can be used to accomplish other goals, such as the work required to pass legislation or achieve reelection.


There are a variety of approaches within political theory to measuring political capital as a way of analyzing its influence on local, regional, state, national, and international politics. Political capital is sometimes theorized about in terms of objectification, or applying concrete forms to the otherwise abstract concept. Some theorists consider things like the number of votes, people present at a meeting, protesters present at a march, money donated to a political campaign, public opinion survey results, and other factors to be objectified or material and measurable elements of political capital. [7] [8]

Theorists also consider political capital within a framework of instrumental and structural elements; instrumental political capital is made up of available resources, such as funding, while structural political capital shapes decision-making processes. [9]


A politician gains political capital by winning elections, pursuing policies that have public support, achieving success with initiatives, and performing favors for other politicians.

Political capital must be spent to be useful and will generally expire by the end of a politician's term in office.[ citation needed ] In addition, it can be wasted, typically by failed attempts to promote unpopular policies that are not central to a politician's agenda. American President George W. Bush claimed to have earned "political capital" after his 2004 re-election. [10]

Political capital is highest in the "honeymoon period" of a presidency as in the United States, where the president is newly elected and the people still support the person they voted for.[ citation needed ] Along with the president's popularity are those who ride on the "coattails", congressional representatives of the president's party that are elected alongside the president. This support in congress enables the president to better use the honeymoon period and political capital to pass ideal legislation.[ citation needed ]

See also

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  1. Kjaer, Ulrik (2013). "Local Political Leadership: The Art of Circulating Political Capital". Local Government Studies. 39 (2): 253–272. doi:10.1080/03003930.2012.751022.
  2. Schugurensky, Daniel (2000-06-02). "Citizenship learning and democratic engagement: Political capital revisited". Conference Proceedings. 41st Annual Adult Education Research Conference. Vancouver, Canada. pp. 417–422.
  3. Lopez, Edward (2002). "The legislator as political entrepreneur: Investment in political capital". The Review of Austrian Economics . 15 (2): 211–228. doi:10.1023/A:1015770705872.
  4. French, Richard (2011). "Political capital". Representation. 47 (2): 215–230. doi:10.1080/00344893.2011.581086.
  5. 1 2 Banfield, Edward (1961). Political Influence. The Free Press. pp. 241–242.
  6. Bourdieu, Pierre (1986). "The Forms of Capital". Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. p. 81.
  7. Bénit-Gbaffou, Claire; Katsaura, Obvious (September 2014). "Community Leadership and the Construction of Political Legitimacy: Unpacking Bourdieu's 'Political Capital' in Post-Apartheid Johannesburg". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 38 (5): 1807–1832. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12166.
  8. Casey, Kimberly L. (Spring 2008). "Defining Political Capital: A Reconsideration of Pierre Bourdieu's Interconvertibility Theory". Critique: A Worldwide Student Journal of Politics.
  9. McDonald, Chris; Kirk-Brown, Andrea; Frost, Lionel; Van Dijk, Pieter; Rainnie, Al (2013). "Partnerships and Integrated Responses to Rural Decline: The Role of Collective Efficacy and Political Capital in Northwest Tasmania, Australia". Journal of Rural Studies. 32: 346–356. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2013.08.003.
  10. Watson, Rob (2005-01-20). "Ambition marks Bush's second term". BBC News . Retrieved 2009-06-23.