Why Campaign Rules Turn Politicians and Voters into Bad People

Posted by at 12:34PM

When presidential campaign season gets fully into gear, I seem to always arrive at the conclusion that the best form of government would be rule by the elite: it just seems like there’s too much ignorance (driven by our personal biases and media coverage) to make the votes of most people at all valuable in deciding who should have power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about it a little more, though, and I’m beginning to think that the problem is worse than that. There are a lot of smart people around, including in the government, and at the moment, it doesn’t seem like they’re making things better. I think the system is working against us, and I’ve a story for why that is. Here’s a rough outline of my argument:

  • Our government isn’t doing very much right now
  • In a 2-party system, it’s better for politicians not to compromise
  • As voters, it makes sense to pick extremely polarizing candidates
  • 2 parties is the natural product of a capitalistic society
  • Public campaign finance will moderate the effects of this process

For full disclosure, I have never studied either economics or political science and thus have a naive understanding of the system. I’m very liberal, get most of my news from The New York Times and reddit, and worse, I’m Canadian. Despite all of that working against me, I hope you take the time to read my argument seriously and at least explain to me why I’m wrong. I like to think I’m at least open-minded enough for that.

When Nothing is Better than Something

Today, it’s a pretty common complaint of Congress that they’re not doing anything. Many of us will say, “Do Anything. Please. Absolutely Anything,” but in fact, that’s not true. Well, at least that’s not true for me. There are some positions that universally sound good, but politics is really driven by the essential dualities. In the economy, it seems like the main one at the moment is whether we should raise taxes and increase government spending or lower taxes and shrink the government.

It would seem that the best thing to do would be for politicking to occur and to come to some sort of compromise. Unfortunately, it seems like compromising has become something of a pejorative today. When politicians abandons any part of their platform, someone will be disappointed that they didn’t completely follow through with their promises, which is bad. Even worse, it doesn’t even really make sense to compromise, especially when one expects the other side to cave first. By standing strong on an issue, politicians can hope to extract more and more concessions from the other side, which gets them closer to their actual goal. I think that’s why many issues go up to the last minute despite the alarm it causes.

It gets worse, though. In many repeated games, parties will behave in ways informed by how others have acted in the past. If someone is known to compromise on issues early, others will take advantage of that fact. Thus, pragmatists, who prioritize action over ideals, are branded as being weak or being flip-floppers. For politicians, it makes sense to not give in even on the little things because others will hold it against them in the long-term.

Things really hit rock-bottom, though, when not even compromising is okay. What we’ve seen recently is that some people are more okay with doing nothing than doing something that they somewhat like and somewhat don’t like. This is most crystallized by the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which ties the hands of those who signed it. In signing it, they have effectively removed themselves from needing to make any difficult decisions and can blame all actions on this pledge. It also clearly signals to the opposition that they are unwilling to compromise and would be willing to do nothing instead of seeing taxes raised.

Note, however, that this is a consequence of there only being 2 major parties and the few independents lining up with 1 of the 2 parties. With more groups, compromise becomes necessary because groups may be willing to swing, and if they don’t like things enough, they can swing the other way. For example, imagine 3 parties each with 1/3 control. Suddenly, doing nothing can be disastrous for any party as the other 2 can always work together and pass something very painful. Admittedly, the details of this are fuzzy as I don’t really know what multi-party systems look like. I’m under the impression that 2 opposing groups may arise under a multi-party system because of balance theory anyways, but other people certainly know better than me.

So in short, it seems like the natural consequence of having a 2 party system is deadlock. Thankfully we have a mechanism to prevent this: elections. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be working right now for 2 reasons: voters are just as bad as politicians, and the system isn’t built to prevent this result. Let me explain both of those a little more.

When Voters are as Bad as Politicians

Being a bleeding heart liberal, my interest in the Republican primaries is usually restricted to a combination of disgust and amusement. More substantive, however, is my conflict about who I want to have win. If I had to pick a Republican candidate for the presidency, it would definitely be Mitt Romney: his governor record shows a moderate streak, and his experience in business suggests that he is very practical and effective at getting things done. It’s a bit of a shame that he’s had to shift his views so far to the right to appeal to his base, but that’s an unrelated issue. Unfortunately, I don’t want Mitt to win the primary: I would prefer someone like Michele Bachmann to win because she’s crazy and would lose to my preferred, liberal candidate.

It was a sad moment when I realized the mental trap I was in and that I had logically justified the same decision that I accuse others of. Although I want more moderate, effective candidates to win the election, I really want my own, very liberal views to be executed. Even though John McCain had a history of bipartisan work, I still much preferred Obama. And even though I think Obama has been ineffective as bridging the gap, I’ll still support him, because when push comes to shove, his compromises will be further to the left than Romney’s will be.

To summarize, as voters, our goals align with some set of the politicians, and we naturally vote to see their policies enacted. However, based on the current state of the government as described above, we’re encouraged to pick more and more polarizing candidates, which makes the situation worse. Campaigning and voting, the mechanisms by which we can change the government and solve the problems we see, are set up in a way that doesn’t help the situation at all. So let’s delve into that next.

When Politics Becomes a Duopoly

In 6th grade, my classmates and I were part of some program where we voted for president. Our votes obviously didn’t count towards the actual election, and in retrospect, they were probably just a part of some poll and research study on how the political opinions of kids are shaped by their environment. Even so, it is a more remarkable moment for me: it’s the last time I will ever vote for an independent candidate. When you know that your vote doesn’t matter, it’s okay to vote for Nader. Otherwise, it can be detrimental.

Again, it’s kind of sad that there’s no reason to vote for most independent candidates. Because of our winner-takes-all system, it doesn’t matter because an independent probably won’t win without a huge warchest, which I think is the problematic cycle we’re in. The candidate with more money should win, we will support and give money to candidates who will think will win. Yikes.

So this loop, by its nature, isn’t necessarily going to cause the 2-party system (that I’m blaming) on its own. Only if the money or our opinions aren’t equally spread will it be problematic. Unfortunately, the money is largely locked up in the 2 parties, and I doubt that’s going to change. Currently (and even effectively in the past before this Super PAC mess), donations can go as high as desired, creating a largely capitalistic setting, and as much as we love capitalism around here, it’s not healthy for our government.

People often don’t have all the information, either out of ignorance or deliberate information hiding, and we fall to typical biases and fallacies (such as the availability heuristic) that make us less than the ideal consumer. In voting, this means that we often don’t know everything about the candidates (or even who all of the candidates are), can be swayed by ads easily, and won’t act in our own self-interest. And because our actions directly contribute to the structure of the candidates, we’re going to end up with 2 parties.

This part of my reasoning is admittedly fuzzy, but a duopoly seems like the natural convergence as smaller parties get snatched up or fail to compete, until the advantage of the big players is insurmountable. Even when there are big movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, that might create a new entity, they get snatched up by the major parties. In capitalism, we end up with monopolies and trusts, and only government laws prevent these from emerging and maintaining balance (in the interest of the people who themselves aren’t realistically capable of dealing with it by themselves). Anti-trust laws, however, don’t appear in public elections, so here we are with 2 parties, unable to fold into one simply because it’s hard to be a perfect moderate.

The central point here is that in a winner-takes-all system with unlimited financing, we’re going to converge to a 2-party system, and as I argued above, we end up an equilibrium where there’s just enough natural ignorance (I mean that in the best way possible) that no one wants to do anything differently.

My Conclusion that Proves I’m not Just Whining

If you’ve read this far, you’re either a) disgusted by the poor logic, ignorance, and incorrect facts and are looking for more ammunition or b) just as bad as me and wondering where I’m going with this. In either case, I presented the points above to follow the path of my argument to show that I believe that our current discontent with the government is a product of the system and not really something we should blame either on voters or individuals in Congress. Scroll up for the outline if you want a recap.

To end here would simply be complaining, but I’ll offer up my solution to this problem: public financing only. By removing all external donations, we can hope to even the playing field for other candidates. In doing so, we, as voters, are no longer encouraged to vote just along party lines and pick extremely polarizing candidates. This opens up the government to finding better compromises and removes doing nothing as the best position.

I know commenting is a bit of a weak point for a lot of blogs, and I expect that this is probably well over the TL;DR limit of most people, but I would really appreciate feedback on this, if simply for me to gain a better understanding of how things actually work. And feel free to rage: I think I can take it.

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2 Responses to “Why Campaign Rules Turn Politicians and Voters into Bad People”

  1. Josh says:

    Kevin,
    I’m excited to see you delve into politics. A good read would be anything by Lawrence Lessig–his newest book is Republic, Lost, which I believe talks about his campaign finance ideas. His idea is not that we should take money out of politics (impossible) but rather put more money into politics by subsidizing everybody to have a say. Worth a look.

    There is also the median voter theorem, which essentially states that in a general election whoever moves closer to the center will win. This is the academic version of what you are saying in wanting Bachmann over Romney: anybody to the left of Obama will vote Obama anyways and versus Bachmann Obama is much closer to the center.

    Other political ideas that might help rectify a political system that is, without a doubt, entirely screwed up and way more akin to entertainment than democracy are ideas such as non-party primaries (all candidates run in the same primary and then the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, get to run in the general election) or bipartisan redistricting (actually drawing competitive congressional district lines instead of superpartisan ones, meaning that the politicians, in theory, have to be more responsive to the center since their constituents won’t necessarily reelect their party no matter what). Both of these are being tried in the lovely state of California, so we’ll have to see what happens. Attempts to fix other problems, such as implementing public campaign finance, have run into serious problems–for example, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law to implement public financing. As long as the Supreme Court says public financing is unconstitutional, it will be hard to affect change in that area.

    There is also the problem of constant media attention, which means that every action is judged on how it looks in a small soundbite and not actually how important, effective, or useful it could be. See: Christmas Tree tax.

    Oh, democracy.

  2. kevin says:

    Thanks for the reference, Josh. I figured there were a lot of ideas out there already, though obviously uncertain of what they are. I guess the median voter theorem is what justifies the move towards the middle that candidates make after winning their primaries. I think it’s unfortunate, however, that it’s not a good position to start out with as candidates need to appeal only to their constituency. And even if they don’t, all primary candidates need to tune their message according to them competition, some of whom may be quite extreme. In any case, I’ll be curious to hear how some of the other proposed changes do or don’t pan out.

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