Monday, January 18, 2010

Love For Tender

I'm not exactly a big fan of Frank Rich, but he had a good column yesterday, about how Sarah Palin and Michael Steele are looking to cash in at the expense of Tea Party types.  What's important, however, is not whether people profit from their political careers, but whether a particular kind of profiteering is a problem.  Matt Yglesias, responding to an article about Roger Ailes and Fox News, puts it this way:
It’s worth considering the different incentives of a television executive trying to maximize ratings, a political operative trying to win elections, and an ideologue trying to push public policy in a specific direction. These are not the same thing.
Exactly right.   The thing is that in traditional democratic politics, the reason that parties "work" is that their incentives are strongly aligned with winning elections -- which, in turn, means that in order for people to make a living from politics they have strong incentives for keeping mass electorates happy.  That's true for political operatives, but it's also true for candidates, for the sorts of people who become professional staff for politicians, and even for rank-and-file party workers.  Now, there are always cracks...there are stories about consultants who try to entice candidates into entering races in which they have no hope of winning (but that the consultant can collect fat fees).  Sometimes, the incentives to win primary elections and general elections can be at cross-purposes.  But, overall, in the aggregate, we can expect everyone in the political process to try to control government, and when in control to try to please constituents.  Many traditional critiques of democracy, indeed, are focused on the problems of immediate gratification for constituents, taking for granted that political professionals in a democracy will try to do exactly that, regardless of long-term costs.

The sorts of things that Rich and Yglesias are talking about, however, are different -- and that's just the tip of it.  As I've linked to before, my brother the award-winning journalist has been documenting what he calls the "conservative marketplace" for some time now.  This isn't just about media consultants trying to squeeze a few more adds, and a few more dollars, out of a campaign here and there; it's a very lucrative subculture that may have developed some seriously perverse incentives for conservative campaign operatives, policy analysts, and even politicians.  They may (and at this point I think it's best to use "may" and not something stronger) stand to make a lot more money with the Democrats in office than with Republicans in office. 

Matt frames it the right way.  This isn't about corruption compared to sincerity (as Conor Friedersdorf has it in this otherwise interesting piece).  It's about the fundamental incentives of the political system, and the possibility that something has gone seriously out of kilter.  If it's better for conservative leaders if Republicans are out of power, then it's going to have some pretty odd and unexpected consequences for governing, most of them likely not at all good.  It's a development that definitely deserves further study.

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