Saturday, November 12, 2011

A not-so-plain blog (post) about politics

Hmm. In a fit of absent-mindedness, Jonathan Bernstein may have just amended his theory of what makes democracy work, or what makes an elected democratic official a "good" one in a sense that goes beyond managing to stay in office a long time. Or perhaps he's just clarified a point that I don't believe was clarified before. Or just opened up a can of worms.

Let's start with the theory-qualifying snippet:
Where politicians and parties go wrong is when they adjust the policies they favor in order to be able to use the words that test well, and then mistakenly believe that the underlying policies are actually popular.
Most of us would not have any problem with that statement. But under Bernstein's theory of representation, it's not entirely clear that it matters whether "underlying policies" are popular, if the "words that test well" get the speaker elected or reelected. So, for a second time, let me pick a bone with the joyous cynicism animating Bernstein's celebration of a purely contractual relationship between elected official and voters.

Bernstein is a kind of Milton Friedman of political science: -- a political "rational market" advocate. To the fullest extent of their ability, politicians respond with Darwinian reliability to incentives placed in their path by voters and by the party with which they've cast their lot. And that's good! -- because a kind of invisible hand guides competing interests, or the majority interest, aligning both with the actual welfare of the community.  Politicians are not completely passive in this process: they can create 'demand' for their own brand of constituent service, as Steve Jobs did for the iPod. Senator Alphonse D'Amato may respond to an eternal demand for a "Senator Pothole" who will take care of constituent interests -- while Senator Moynihan may create a demand for a statesman who will "weigh in on the important issues of the day."  But whatever niche an elected official carves for herself, she'd better continue to serve it. That is the only standard by which to judge her: long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative.  That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned. For Edmund Burke to be a good representative, he must do as he promised the electors of Bristol, and act as he thinks best.  For a representative who promises to slavishly follow the whims of her constituents, well, she must do exactly that to be a good representative.*  And I suppose what I'm saying is that for politicians, from their point of view, there is no "what's right" beyond good representation.  Excepting, of course, the cases in which a representative has promised only to do what she thinks is right, and is elected to do so (in which case...ready?...doing "what's right" is right not because it's right but because she's fulfilling her promises by so doing)...yes, sometimes good representatives will lose elections, because of course there's more to elections than how much constituents have come to trust their Members of Congress.  But to the extent that voters do reward their politicians for fulfilling (all kinds of) promises, doing the right thing means doing just that.  And in the long run, that should tend to be good politics (my emphasis). 
In addition to serving his electorate, the pol must serve the interests and demands of his party, and respond to its incentives. By that measure, Mitt Romney might be the most exquisite political instrument ever molded: can anyone know what Romney will actually do it elected?  I think the answer is, basically, the same way you can know that about anyone.  He'll follow party incentives, and institutional incentives, and other such things that have little or nothing to do with what he "really" thinks.  And that's mostly a good thing!  As I've said many times, our presidents are experts on practically none of the issues about which they must make decisions.  If they fool themselves into thinking that they know more than anyone else about arms control, or the effects of economic stimulus, or farming, or 5th amendment jurisprudence, or what North Korea is up to, then there's a good chance they'll fail.  Even worse, if they convince themselves (as Woodrow Wilson, and probably George W. Bush, did) that as a result of being elected they share some mystical bond with the American people that allows them, and only them, to understand what the American people "really" want...well, that's a recipe for disaster. 

Now, might still oppose Romney for all sorts of other reasons.  But to me, flexibility of beliefs in pursuit of office is generally a good thing in a presidential candidate.
That's Bernstein the theoretician. Bernstein the partisan, however, is troubled by the extremism into which political responsiveness seems to have pushed the Republican Party. And that's what led him this week to imagine circumstances in which response to incentives -- perhaps the wrong ones? -- might lead a politician into a bad or even bogus contract with constituents. 

Let's return to that original snippet about confusing politically popular buzz words with popular policies.  It appeared in a post applauding a Kevin Drum deconstruction of Republican attacks on government regulations. Bernstein agrees that regulations become complex -- and so a target for Republican ire -- because elected officials (especially Republicans) respond to the demands of lobbyists.He then invites us to

remember is that a lot of the specific words you hear during elections, or spin in general, are very much the results of polling and focus group testing. On both sides, of course. So odds are that "regulations" just doesn't test well (or, to put it the other way, railing against regulations probably tests very well). That's fine; there's not much harm from all players describing their policies in the best possible language. Nor is there anything wrong, for that matter, with adjusting the policies that you support to account for what's popular.

Where politicians and parties go wrong is when they adjust the policies they favor in order to be able to use the words that test well, and then mistakenly believe that the underlying policies are actually popular.
Wait a minute. Suppose a pol's "contract" with her voters consists of 'promising' always to push their hot buttons  -- pandering to their prejudices, regardless of policy outcomes? Suppose voters repeatedly reward such rhetoric irrespective of policy, so that a Rick Perry can reach the national stage by savaging a "culture in Washington, D.C., where these corporate lobbyists have these cozy relationships with the people that they are regulating" while he's made a career of selling every regulatory position in Texas to the highest bidder?  Or so that a Mitt Romney can demonize the Affordable Care Act as government-controlled while lauding Romneycare as a free-market solution, when in fact the role of government in both is broadly similar?

In other words, suppose poll-tested terminology works, either by asserting a distinction between the attacker's policies and his opponents where none exists, or by effectively lying about the opponent's policies? In some cases, it may not matter whether the underlying policies are popular. Is Bernstein suggesting that such manipulation of language -- say, excoriating "regulations" to create a space for gutting regulations that voters would support if they knew their content -- will not work in the long run, that voters will sniff out the truth? Or that poll-tested language deployed to mislead will work in the sense of helping to get the smearer elected, but not work in the sense of serving voters' interests?

If the former, then I guess Republicans have had little substantive success gutting financial regulation and blocking greenhouse gas regulation this many a year -- or they're about to pay a generational price for doing so, as the political worm turns decisively in a "long run" in which I suspect we may all be dead.  If the latter, then perhaps the election of "good" representatives according to Bernstein's lights hasn't exactly promoted the common good.

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