Monday, May 16, 2011

How Can There Be Any Sin in Sincere?

Ezra Klein asked about flip-flops for his weekend question:
Do you consider flip-flops cynical or sincere? Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, for instance, recently considered global warming to be a significant threat and cap-and-trade an appealing response. Now, both of them flirt with climate denialism and both oppose cap-and-trade. Is this cynical? Did they decide that winning the Republican presidential primary was more important than saying what they know to be true? Or have they convinced themselves that this change, which just happens to be a necessary precondition for winning the Republican nomination, is an authentic response to new evidence? Similarly, does Mitt Romney really believe...
Klein's answer, which is probably mostly correct, is based on motivated reasoning. But while I think this is an important topic, I think I'm going to somewhat dissent from the question. That is, when it comes to politics, I think it's important to stay as far away from attributing motivation as possible. I'm going to talk about that first, and then down at the bottom (starting with "But there's a bit more") I'm going to discuss how this relates to choosing candidates.

Let me clarify...obviously, much of what analysts do revolves around figuring out the motivations of political actors, and then deducing their logical next steps from that. So, pick a classic of political science -- David Mayhew's Congress: The Electoral Connection is all based on spinning out the likely consequences of a hypothetic interest in reelection among Members of Congress. With my empirical political scientist hat on, I'm all for figuring that stuff out.

But in terms of making democracy function properly, it turns out to be important for political actors to accept the stated preferences of other political actors, regardless of why they may have arrived at those preferences. That's presumably why, by the way, that "impugning the motives" of another Member of Congress is considered offensive, and not allowed on the House and Senate floors (also: googling around, I found this).

So why is it important to leave motives out of it? Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution that motives, unlike words and actions, are inherently internal:
However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight; when the light of the public falls upon it, it appears and even shines, but, unlike deeds and words which are meant to appear, whose very existence hinges on appearance, the motives behind such deeds and words are destroyed in their essence through appearance; when they appear they become 'mere appearances' behind which again other, ulterior motives may lurk, such as hypocrisy and deceit (96).
For Arendt, the problem is that
[T]he search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it actually demands the impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human is, unfortunately, in the essence of these things that every effort to make goodness manifest in public ends with the appearance of crime and criminality on the political scene. In politics, more than anywhere else, we have no possibility of distinguishing between being and appearance. In the realm of human affairs, being and appearance are indeed one and the same  (98).
I won't try to recreate her argument here -- go and read the whole book! -- but I'll just say that I do believe she's correct, and that's one of the reasons you won't see me overly concerned about, say, corruption among public officials. If Senator Jones says that she supports a particular weapons system, it's reasonable for us as outside observers seeking to understand her behavior to note whether or not she's received campaign contributions from contractors, or whether the factory that produces the system is found in her district, or even whether she's received flat-out bribes. For political actors, the proposal should be debated on the merits, not on motives. End of story. And not only do "bad" motives not disqualify an argument, but the search for motives is highly destructive to the political system.

In other words, one answer to Klein's question is that it really doesn't matter.

But there's a bit more to it, isn't there? For ACA supporters, it really doesn't matter -- and really shouldn't matter -- whether Mitt Romney supports repeal because he's become convinced it's a bad approach to health care or whether he supports repeal because he's trying to win the Republican nomination for president and will say whatever he needs to say to do that.

If, however, you're a Republican trying to decide which candidate to support, it certainly does matter what their true motivations are -- if, that is, those motivations predict different future actions.

So which one do you want?

For me, as a citizen, the answer is clear: I'd rather support a politician who shifts positions for electoral reasons than one who puzzles things out for himself -- as long as those politicians show a record for staying bought (the famous quote is that "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought" -- attributed by Wikipedia to Simon Cameron. I did not remember that). If I, as a constituent, "buy" that kind of honest politician by having her take my side on an issue in order to win my vote, and she is subsequently elected, I can probably expect her to vote that way once in office. If, on the other hand, a politician has reached my position through her own reasoning, then I'm always going to be afraid that she'll be susceptible to being swayed by the next information that she receives. Granted, there are limits to this logic; since I myself may be open to changing my mind on an issue should I receive new information, I don't want my representatives to be entirely closed off to the possibility of change. For the most part, however, for issues on which I have clear and strong views, I'd rather have a pol who is in it for himself, and shifts his views to accommodate his ambition, as long as he has a clear record of sticking to those views (or even better the views of those who elected him, which might of course change over time). When it comes right down to it, I don't trust most politicians to think for themselves. As I've said before, that's not what they're trained to do; what they're really trained to do, what they're really experts in, is representation. And when it comes down to it, I'd rather have a pol who is a first-rate representative, broadly understood, than a pol who thinks for himself about public policy.


  1. But that assumes that your faction will always have the same control over the politician that it does as the current moment. In a system where politicians run first in a primary and then a general, and where incumbents are almost always renominated, it's not at all crazy to worry about a politician drifting away from views he espoused when he was running in a hot primary. You'd rather have someone who holds those views prior to running.

  2. I agree with the argument, but disagree on the choice of MC.
    I'd rather have the thoughtful MC who agrees with me than the sycophant, because there's nothing magical about my positions vis-a-vis the public. If I have been catered to at time 1 because my position is popular, there's nothing saying that my position will be popular at time 2. Yes, opinions aren't likely to change, but seeing as they are really top-of-the-head opinions, and they appear to be easily swayed, then there's not much assurance there. Plus, this line of logic feeds into the idea of mandates, and that just makes my skin crawl. How is a politician to KNOW the reasons for my vote? As you've noted, words are different than motives. The REASON why Republicans got more votes in 2010 is the economy sucked and people punished the incumbent. The reason they SAY is because they liked GOP ideas.

    Now, what's better about the the politician who has come to this opinion? Every additional piece of information has a smaller chance of affecting their opinion. If they've done research, then they've accumulated info. Every additional piece of info is a smaller proportion of the info they have. Moreover, if flip-flopping is seen as a sin, then they'll need overwhelming evidence to flip, say a 55% or 60% likelihood that the new position is better than the old. If we add stickiness to opinions (well documented in psychology, and with many incentives for it that we political scientists can think of), then I'd prefer them to be voting on their own opinions.

    Another great benefit is that doing research should, over time, produce better policies. Wrong-headed ideas can be disproven. This is much more likely the case in doing research on issues with intelligent & able people assisting you than in the public, where rumors quickly become truths. Yes, an insular group might produce a closed-information loop problem (see: conservatives over the last 10 years), but I would still expect that equilibrium to tend towards valid ideas more than an uninformed and unruly public.

    Finally, there's Madison's classic defense: the cream rises to the top. One of his defenses of elections was: don't worry, the rabble won't win elections.

    But, we've already established that I'm a Burkean.....

  3. I made an argument similar (I think) to the one here once while debating a colleague who was going on and on about "integrity" in public officials. I asked, which would you prefer to see elected to Congress: (a) a sleazeball liberal Democrat who supported women's rights [the colleague I was speaking to happened to be female] merely as a cynical play for support from NARAL or NOW or other such special interests; or (b) a bow-tied, conservative gentleman of the old school, a man of impeccable integrity, whose very integrity required that he stick to his deeply principled view that women should never have been given the right to vote?

    If I remember right, my interlocutor in that debate -- who, to her credit, said she took the point -- had launched her "integrity" rap as a way of bashing Clinton. This was in 2000. I've lost touch with her since, but I wonder how she would now rate Slick Willie by contrast with the steadfast (and mostly sincere) pro-war neocons and antigovernment Randians who made the first decade of this century such a delightful one for all concerned.

  4. Great explanation, explains why Republicans who ran on Mediscare platforms now face political difficulties and want to end 'Medicare' discussions in politics,

  5. Jonathan,

    Stupendous post! We need so much more political science / institutional perspectives in such discussions. And I'm with you and not with commenter Matt on what we should wish for in our legislators. However it's hard for me to see how this is politically sustainable -- particularly in this day and age of Internet megaphones and transparency. Matt will crush the other approach politically, no?

    The part you didn't completely address was the gap between one position and another and how one might feel, as a fellow human, about some leaps (whatever the motivations). It just feels strange to see these former supporters, for example, of what was the market solution to global warming, "cap and trade," and see them preen before an electorate that considers such support bordering on left Wong socialism. However, I didn't like Klein's phrasing of "flip-flops" which stacks the argument in the opposite direction from his explanation.

    Thanks again for a marvelous post.

  6. I agree with Arendt here, and our founders would as well. As usual, she holds up a mirror to our modern society and finds something very at odds with her classical republican ideal. In today’s culture we expect Presidential candidates to be faithful to their own “true selves” (whatever that is) as much as we expect them to be faithful to the Constitution. Read some self-help books or watch some sermons and you get the sense that the average American is truly tortured by internal struggle and doubt -- it’s absurd that people subject their President to a similar evaluation, but they do.

  7. Do you distinguish between instrumental and noninstrumental preferences here, Jonathan?

    Let's say every voter in Ohio really cares about exactly one thing: more jobs. Fox News convinces every voter that the way to get more jobs is to cut spending, even though that's totally wrong. The voters don't want spending cuts for their own sake -- they're just confused and think it creates jobs.

    Their two Senators both ran on a pro-jobs, low-spending agenda, but they're the only Ohioans who understand Keynesian economics and know that spending cuts will actually destroy jobs. Senator Cutter follows the instrumental preferences of Ohio and votes for spending cuts, even though he knows it'll destroy the jobs that Ohioans really care about. Senator Jobs follows the noninstrumental preferences of Ohio and votes against spending cuts, knowing he'll face the wrath of Ohio's voters at the polls for casting a vote they disapprove of.

    Who's the better representative?

  8. Hey, who let the philospher in?

    OK, Neil, here's how I'd go about thinking about that. I'd go to Richard Fenno's (observed) cycle of promises->interpretation->action->explanation. A good pol would be careful about what her promises were; would interpret those promises honestly; would act with that interpretation in mind; and then would go back to the district and explain her actions based on all of that. In doing so, presumably she would find some way to distinguish between the "cuts spending" and the "jobs" portions of the promise.

    Remember too that policy promises are only one type of promises; it may be that your Senator also promised to be a Republican, or to vote with or against the president, or some other such identity-based promise, and that too may give her some guidance in how to proceed.

    So while I can't prove anything, I'm going to say that my strong intuition is that in real life, good reputation makes that dilemma resolve itself.

  9. It just seems like you assume more electoral efficiency here than what actually exists in the real world. Policy commitments made during an election for a two-year House term seem more valid than those made for a six-year Senate term. And, even for two-year terms, it seems that the perks of incumbency would matter.

    Given the stickiness of our political system, I think that I would prefer an intellectually-honest pol.

  10. I wish I had time to respond to more of these -- great comments, all (including the ones I disagree with; they're all interesting and worth reading).

  11. Thanks, Jonathan, and as you note, I'm totally being the philosopher.


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