In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Roles and Activities of Former Presidents and Prime Ministers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Democrats Out of Power: American Models
  • Democrats Out of Power: Personal Affairs and Retirement
  • Public Lives: Reputation, Celebrity, and History’s Judgement
  • Public Lives: Political Impact and Global Influence
  • Public Lives: Global Networks
  • Public Lives: Academic Centers, Libraries, and Research

Political Science Political Roles and Activities of Former Presidents and Prime Ministers
Lisa Anderson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0317


Over the last century, thanks to the greater number of independent countries and longer human life spans, there is a larger pool of former presidents and prime ministers than at any time in history. The existence of this unusual collection of political figures—at once publicly renowned and potentially influential yet technically powerless—has triggered several lines of academic research. Scholars have asked whether the prospect of life-after-office shapes policy choices of leaders while they are in office, and if so how. This line of inquiry includes studies of both dictators and democratically elected presidents and prime ministers. In addition, scholars have examined what political leaders who retire, are term-limited, or are defeated in running for reelection—that is, democratic politicians—actually do after they are out of office. Three issues are thought to be uppermost in their minds: the mundane personal question of how to support themselves and their families; the somewhat loftier reputational issue of how to secure their standing and place in history; and the delicate political matter of how to deploy their accumulated skill and experience usefully and tactfully, without causing trouble to themselves or their political allies and enterprises. Finally, an emerging line of research examines how the increasingly large number of ex-presidents and former prime ministers in the world contribute to shaping global policy debates and institutions. In fact, however, all of this together does not constitute a large body of research and the student in this field is obliged to resort very quickly to primary sources, from self-serving memoirs and fawning mission statements to hostile investigative reporting and unfriendly partisan journalism; the compensatory reward is much livelier prose than the conventional academic treatise.

General Overviews

The readings in this section examine both democrats and dictators, focusing on how the prospects of departure from office may shape their incentives and their decisions while they are still in power. Since Downs 1957 first made the “simplifying assumption” that leaders choose policies in order to stay in office, most scholars examining political decision-making and political careers simply stipulate that assumption. In fact, however, the prospect of being out of office, by law or by force, weighs heavily on such office holders. Herrick and Nixon 1996 provides a useful corrective at the level of the US Congress; many still youthful and ambitious political leaders cannot stay in office—they are bound by term limits, have been defeated at the ballot box, or even face the prospect of violent ouster—and they know this well before they are actually required to leave office. Thus the question arises of how this prospect influences their decision-making and behavior, and the study of the “microincentives” of political leaders has seen modest growth in recent years. Brule, et al. 2014 offers a useful catalogue of the prevailing approaches to political decision-making (although it does not focus on the incumbent’s career management). Parker 2004 examines individual incentives at the legislative level. Kendall-Taylor, et al. 2017 suggests that the distinction between dictators and democrats may be less useful than it once was, although dictators continue to face death, exile, and imprisonment when leaving office more often than their democratic counterparts. Goemans 2008 and Debs and Goemans 2010 show that the prospect of losing office under physical duress shapes leaders’ decision-making while in office, specifically decisions about initiating and ending war, and Escribà-Folch 2013 argues that fear of such fates as imprisonment, exile, or death motivates leaders to rely more on domestic repression than their secure counterparts. O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986 argues that “exit guarantees” were essential in peaceful transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Anderson 2010 provides the most comprehensive catalogue of post-office career trajectories for democratic office-leavers available.

  • Anderson, Lisa. “The Ex-Presidents.” Journal of Democracy 21.2 (2010): 65–78.

    Although based on somewhat dated source material, this is the most comprehensive analysis of the activities of ex-presidents and prime ministers.

  • Brule, David, Alex Mintz, and Karl DeRouen. “Political Leadership and Decision Analysis.” Oxford Handbooks Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199653881.013.029

    A useful review of models of decision-making by political leaders.

  • Debs, A., and H. E. Goemans. “Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War.” American Political Science Review 104.3 (2010): 430–445.

    The survival of dictators is more sensitive to the outcome of war; hence dictators facing serious opposition will initiate and prolong wars.

  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper, 1957.

    This influential work provided the theoretical foundations of work in rational choice theory, including assumptions about how people make decisions.

  • Escribà-Folch, Abel. “Accountable for What? Regime Types, Performance, and the Fate of Outgoing Dictators, 1946–2004.” Democratization 20.1 (2013): 160–185.

    Personalistic regimes are more likely to punish their former leaders; knowing that, they are therefore less likely to accept removal peacefully.

  • Goemans, H. E. “Which Way Out? The Manner and Consequences of Losing Office.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52.6 (2008): 771–794.

    Deploys a useful dataset of leadership transitions to find correlations between post-office prospects and political decisions: only those likely to face death, exile, or imprisonment chose to start diversionary wars.

  • Herrick, Rebekah, and David L. Nixon. “Is There Life after Congress? Patterns and Determinants of Post-Congressional Careers.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 21.4 (1996): 489–499.

    A modest contribution to the empirical literature on post-Congressional careers, it includes a useful bibliography on how members of Congress make the decision to leave office.

  • Kendall-Taylor, Andrea, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright. “The Global Rise of Personalized Politics: It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore.” The Washington Quarterly 40.1 (2017): 7–19.

    A useful corrective to the assumption that democrats and dictators are always easy to distinguish.

  • O’Donnell, Guillermo, and Philippe Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

    A classic treatment of regime transitions, emphasizing the agency of individual leaders and political actors.

  • Parker, Glenn. Self-Policing in Politics: The Political Economy of Reputation Controls on Politicians. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    An examination of the importance of reputation while in office to the post-employment prospects of members of the US Congress.

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