Thursday, May 30, 2013

Representation Works (Weirdly Enough)

Jordan Ragusa has a very nice post today using the business about PolitiFact ratings to write about research showing that, yes, Members of Congress keep their policy promises.

As I've discussed at length, but not recently, there's more to representation than just policy promises. That's on of the main findings of Richard Fenno's work: promises also include all sorts of things, including style of representation. Among other things, that to me, is the "solution" to the question of whether representatives "should" be delegates or trustees; the answer is that they should do whatever they said they would do when they were campaigning. But that's just one of the many things that can go into representative style and the representative relationship that politicians develop with their constituents.

At any rate, one of the things I find most interesting is why any of this happens. Ragusa is good on this:
Finally, if citizens are (a) unaware of who their elected lawmaker is and (b) as a result woefully ignorant of their representatives’ position on key votes, the question is: what keeps lawmakers honest?  The answer is that while private citizens may not know how their representative or senator voted, general election opponents and interest groups sure do.  Thus, while the electorate is generally inattentive to lawmakers voting record, the reelection incentive—and the threat of attack ads from one’s rival—keep lawmakers honest.

Indeed, in the underlying paper, Tracy Sulkin argues that risk-averse politicians will likely attempt to keep their promises as if they would get in trouble from abandoning them. That sounds right to me, as is her argument that politicians are probably likely to make promises in the first place that they have an interest in keeping.

What fascinates me about this, however, is that I really don't buy the idea that politicians, no matter how risk-averse, are really keeping promises because of electoral incentives. It just doesn't wash that it's a significant enough constraint. Especially when it comes to promises about representative style. What we know about the ignorance of voters is just very hard to square with the idea that they will punish their representatives' misbehavior.

Sulkin's suggestion that politicians may choose to emphasize particular issues (and presumably style) for personal reasons, rather than for electoral reasons, is promising.

But overall, I think it's one of the more puzzling problems in representation, and therefore in democracy. I have an old paper in which I try to get to it (it involves political parties, Arendt, and the "touch of Harry in the night" scene, and yes, I suppose I should try to do something with that paper). I do think that representation is real, and really "works," and that the fact it works is central to how democracy actually does what we want it to do...but the whole topic is filled with difficulty.


  1. Thanks for weighing in on this Jonathan; I certainly appreciate your perspective.

    The first thing that came to mind in reading your post is the distinction between "easy" and "hard" issues (Carmines and Stimson are credited with this distinction, I think). In short, I think the issues of "how representation works" and "to what extent do politicians keep their promises" hinge on what kinds of issues we're talking about. On so-called "easy" issues I do think politicians are keeping promises because of the reelection incentive. What comes to my mind right away is Grover Norquist's "no tax pledge." That's easy for (conservative) voters to understand, so reelection minded lawmakers are wise to keep their promises and avoid shirking. On "hard" issues, however, I think you're right that lawmakers have greater leeway to either (a) follow their personal style or (b) behave as trustees. An example might be foreign policy, where Americans are woefully uninformed. So yes, I, like you, generally think that representation works (even though that's an unpopular position) but it most certainly depends on what, exactly, we're talking about.

  2. A kid I went to school with is running for Congress. She hasn't a prayer; beyond the barriers of lack of name recognition and money, she's also the wrong party for her district. In addition, I suppose you could add that she's terribly inexperienced and nothing about her suggests she'd be particularly good at national politics.

    As we learn repeatedly here, that last one (poor qualification) isn't nearly the problem that the first three are (party, name recognition, money). If she could somehow solve those first three, she surely could win and possibly even be a well-regarded congressperson, though you'd never believe it.

    Ultimately, the thing separating a successful career politician and my former classmate is pretty much a name on a ballot, a pretty thin line indeed. Maybe this is why politicians try hard to keep promises or cultivate a style; it isn't much, but it helps build a brand, which in turn helps keep people like my old classmate safely in the rear-view mirror.

  3. R. Douglas Arnold in his 1970 book The Logic of Congressional Action makes Ragusa's point about potential use of a vote or position by an opponent to generate actual opposition. The wikisummary description is here:

    Key quote from summary:
    Informed citizens have preferences, while uninformed citizens have only potential preferences. The probability that preferences will matter depends on four factors:

    Magnitude. Relative effects are especially noted by citizens, which explains why the seemingly modest 10-cent per gallon gasoline tax proposal was so fiercely shouted down.
    Timing. Citizens notice early-order effects, but don't understand later effects.
    Proximity. The geographic concentration of effects is a central aspect. People first become conscious of an economic recession when one of their neighbors loses his job.
    An instigator. The availability of an articulate complainer (such as Ralph Nader) is vital to raise the public's consciousness.

    Opponents represent potential instigators.


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