Those Idiots in Washington The Problem With Disparaging Politicians

Smell_of_TammanyFew things seem capable of unifying Americans quite like their collective disdain for politicians. It’s not difficult to see why. For one, disparaging political big-whigs resonates with that healthy inclination to cut people in power down to size. (Not to mention a not altogether unimportant degree of class resentment; I never could listen to the late Arlen Specter without fear that my rent might go up.) Turn on your favorite cable news network and listen to a talking head, preferably one you disagree with: can’t you just feel Elizabeth Warren’s or Lindsey Graham’s self-importance through the television? All the more galling since you know just how wrong they are about whatever it is they might be disagreeing with you today.

Another obvious reason is the high degree of disfunction exhibited by our governing institutions. Don’t get me wrong, Americans have always been suspicious of government and, as a result, have always been distrustful of politicians. There have always been populists to discomfit the wealthy, just as the poor and marginalized have seen behind every machination of government a conspiracy to further dispossess them. These groups have often enough been justified in their concerns; likewise, governments have rarely been paragons of efficiency. Better to keep them small and deny the powerful the tools with which to rattle our cages. But the present inability of politicians to meet the basic requirements of government – like passing a budget or repairing highways and bridges – has lent new potency to an old charge: politicians aren’t just mendacious, they’re stupid.

Such a conclusion receives strong support from the most glaring breakdown in Washington: the inability of the two major parties to agree on significant long-term policies. Time and time again, Americans tell pollsters they want the two parties to compromise and split the baby; yet, despite the occasional overture, politicians of both parties seem unable to move off their ideological positions and get the country going forward. Americans sent them to Washington to get a job done, and all they seem able to do is argue. Your boss wouldn’t stand for that, why should you?

If any of that analysis sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the kind of analysis politicians like to provide about each other – and therein lies the key to realizing that the argument is all smoke and mirrors designed to hide an uncomfortable truth. But to see why and how, I need to first introduce a tiny bit of behavioral science.

A common intuition is that when you want to know what people want or think, you should ask them. We’ve known for a long a time that a problem with that approach is that people often lie. A more recent insight is that the very act of stating a preference is itself important to people and they might, in order to affirm an important self-image, sincerely tell you something about themselves that isn’t so. Maybe it’s because they place a high premium on appearing to be someone they’re not, maybe it’s because they wish they were someone they aren’t, or maybe it’s because they don’t understand the question or don’t actually have an answer.

It could also be because the question is stupid. For example, “Do you approve of the President’s job performance?” isn’t a very insightful query.

I claim to want to eat healthy, but every time my wife makes apple pie I reveal my true preferences.

I claim to want to eat healthy, but every time my wife makes apple pie I reveal my true preferences.

An oftentimes more reliable approach is simply to examine people’s revealed preference; that is, if you want to know what people value then examine how they act. A brief example might help illustrate the point.

A lot of people say they prefer to buy American made goods. But, in truth, consumers are highly price-sensitive and will switch to a foreign-made good if it’s just a little bit more affordable. Their ‘stated preference’ is for American goods, but their ‘revealed preference’ is for cheaper goods.

So what does this have to do with the price of Starbucks coffee in Washington? Everything. The thing to keep in mind is that Americans elect federal officers through three more-or-less completely different systems. The President is elected through the Electoral College, the Senators are elected in statewide elections, and the members of the House of Representatives are elected by Congressional district. There are a couple of wrinkles, including the fact that some elections happen during years that also include a Presidential election and others happen during midterm elections that do not. There are also special elections to fill unexpected vacancies, like today’s election in Massachusetts.

Presidential years bring out a larger electorate than midterm elections, and these electorates are demographically very different from each other. This helps explain some of the seesaw we get from one election to the next. Another wrinkle is the primary process which further limits the electorate to the members of the relevant constituency who are members of a particular party (I’m ignoring open-primaries and caucuses for brevity, but I don’t think they significantly alter my analysis.)

My point is that as you go from the President, to Senators, to Congresspeople, their constituencies become more homogenous and the median voter is less likely to resemble the national median voter. This diversity is how the system was designed: with the House of Representatives as the voice of the major segments of the American people, the Senate as a guarantor of states’ interests and as a deliberating body to counter the House’s more populist tendencies, and with the President (at least after Andrew Jackson) as the elected leader of the nation.

So again, how does this result in a federal government filled with idiots who can’t figure out how to play nice together? The answer is, despite what we tell pollsters, we love partisans. It turns out that when we say we want politicians to compromise, what voters mean (at least what the motivated voters that dominate party primaries mean) is that we’d like the Congressmen and Congresswomen who represent those Americans we disagree with to finally see the light.

Or as 2012 Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, put it: “I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Now, some readers might object that Mourdock is a bad example because Mourdock in fact lost his bid. And that’s true up to a point, but Mourdock’s statement was noteworthy for its candor, not its substance. Even a casual observer of American politics can observe that the sentiment captures nicely how politicians of all stripes seem to treat their opponents. And here’s the point: we elect these politicians because of not in spite of their partisanship. So we might celebrate bipartisanship, but our voter behavior doesn’t seem to indicate we really care.

When we say politicians aren’t doing what we sent them to Washington to do we’re lying to ourselves. Politicians are doing EXACTLY what their voters sent them to Washington to do. By the way, that’s how democracy is supposed to work. It’s a feature, not a bug.

So what’s a country to do? Here are three suggestions:

(1) Vote.

Right now the primary process and the midterm elections are dominated by partisans because more moderate voters don’t vote. Politicians don’t listen to citizens, they listen to donors (more on that in the future) and voters. Elections happen more often than once every four years. Register to vote and then vote.

(2) Fix the Senate.

A healthy exchange of ideas is good for democracy. It’s at the very heart of a people’s attempt to govern themselves. But elections are how we settle policy debates: if you win, you get to implement your policies. If the people don’t like your policies, you’re held accountable. Along with checks and balances, this system has served us well for over two hundred years. But it has broken down in the Senate. As it stands, a committed minority can stop all legislative progress in the country and they’re not held to account because they’re not perceived as controlling the chamber. In other words, the US Senate can prevent a majority (even a super-majority) of the country from pursuing its policy agenda. This empowers radicals. It isn’t in the Constitution and it isn’t democratic.

(More on the Senate in Thursday’s post.)

(3) Stop Gerrymandering.

Self government is about the people selecting their leaders and holding them accountable, when politicians manipulate districts to safeguard themselves they violate the public trust and corrupt the system. Gerrymandered districts make it possible for the Congress to be less representative of society both in quantitative and qualitative ways. Safer districts mean more partisan primaries that serve as echo chambers rather than healthy democratic forums.

* * *

Notice I didn’t say ‘be less partisan’. The problem isn’t that we disagree, the problem is that (a) we aren’t willing to find ways to work together and (b) we have a system that deepens rather than binds the fissures that divide us. Then we lie to ourselves about the whole thing. That’s how it’s possible for almost of 80% of the country to disapprove of Congress while still reelecting 91% of its members.

Oy vey.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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