Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hey, Pols: It's OK To Want Re-election

I'm talking about William Saletan's column this week in Slate in which he tells Democrats to do what they think is right regardless of the electoral consequences (I think he and I agree that those consequences are a lot harder to predict than Republicans seem to think, but I'm interested here in the theoretical points).  He makes two points, the first of which I tackled in a previous post.

OK, on to the second point.  Saletan, again, to Members of Congress:
From the standpoint of a campaign strategist, everything you do in Congress should aim at re-election. That's one reason why our government has become dysfunctional: Lawmakers spend less time completing the work they were assigned in the last election and more time preparing for the next one. They inflame or placate the public when they should be serving it. Elections were supposed to be a means to good legislation. Instead, legislation has become a means to election. The polling mentality has turned democracy upside down.
Saletan and plenty of others would say that politicians should do whatever is right, regardless of the consequences. He complains about what he calls "politicization of the legislative process," and that "this is too big a vote to cast on the basis of politics."  I'm sure this sounds correct to many people, but it really isn't.  The political scientist Richard Fenno writes about a representation as a process.  Politicians make promises when campaigning, then interpret those promises after the election, then govern, then explain to their constituents what they've done, and then go back and campaign again, and the cycle repeats.  When they govern, however, they do it with two things in mind: what they've promised (as they've interpreted it), and how they will explain what they're doing (in the context of those previous promises).  What Fenno describes is a smooth, continuous flow from one election, to governing, to the next election, as politicians try to build strong representative relationships with their constituents.  That doesn't mean polling the district on everything, but it does mean taking promises seriously, and trying to keep them -- whether they are substantive promises or style promises.  Democracy works, from this point of view, because politicians try hard to build those relationships -- they try hard, that is, to get re-elected.

To put it bluntly: Saletan and others would have politicians do what's right.  What I'm saying is that politicians have no way of knowing what's right.  They aren't trained for it.  They aren't selected for it.  And that's true whether one thinks of it in terms of policy that works, or in terms of what's ethically correct.  If you want the former, get rid of democracy and hire some technocratic experts; if you want the latter, go find yourself a philosopher-king, I suppose.

What we have is a democracy, which means we have politicians.  And what they know, or at least what they're trained and selected for, is representation.  The good ones know how to keep their promises to their constituents, how to act in Washington with an eye to what they said in the last election and what they'll need to say in the next one.  They work hard at figuring out what they're constituents want, learning to balance the kinds of things that show up in polls and the kinds of things that you only learn by really knowing your district, and studying important legislation with your district's needs and preferences in mind. 

Now, in my view, a Democratic Member of Congress who is trying to get re-elected will want the health care bill to pass, because that's going to help her win re-election.  More Fenno: he talks about different constituencies within one district, and Members of Congress are more responsive, for example, to those who voted from them than to those who opposed them, and to their strongest supporters more than to those who just vote for them.  And of course, for almost every Democrat in Congress, their strongest supporters want this bill to pass.  But a Member unconcerned about re-election wouldn't care about that.  He would be open-minded, and seek out neutral information, and follow that information wherever it took him.  But, since he's not actually an expert, the results would be fairly random -- despite what Saletan thinks, people are capable of sincerely believing that the health care bill is a bad idea.  For a Democratic Members of Congress to come to that conclusion and act on it, however, would be ruinous to them electorally, so they don't do that; what they do, instead, is try to represent their districts well so that they can be re-elected.

And that's what makes the system work.   The democratic system work.


  1. It seems to me that most, if not all, politicians define their constituency as whoever shows up with the most money.

  2. It seems that way to a lot of people (mostly because reporters often believe it and report about pols in that context), but those who have studied it don't seem to find that it really does work that way.

  3. I've got nothing but contempt for politicians who say they don't at least look at polls to make their decisions -- what could be more dismissive of their constituencies? But to say politicians "aren't selected" for their willingness to do what's right seems to disrespect the motivations of voters. Of course voters expect their representative to do "what's right." You can't get near high office without at least faking pious personal morality; it probably outweighs any particular issue stance.
    That said, the record of the GW Bush presidency could not have been worse had every foreign and domestic policy issue actually been decided by referendum. But Bush's first term, while plausibly legal, was certainly not the choice of the majority of Americans; for all we know, President Gore would have shrugged at polls and turn out to be a fine president.

  4. It's Slate - this doesn't mean that it's wrong, but that's the safe bet. And with Saletan, that's even more so.


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