Why do politicians lie?
HAHA, funny blog, I know. It’s like a bad stand up; “But seriously, what’s the deal with those lying politicians?”
In reality, politicians lie all the time — but it’s for a different reason than you probably think. While some speculate that big money is behind it (which I suppose it could be), I suspect something much more fundamental: job security.
First off, don’t tell me you go to work with the outlook that work is the same as your personal life and/or views. I doubt it. Instead, you go to work focused on tasks, finishing what you need to finish to go home, attend meetings, and generally do professional things. Politicians do the same thing. They go to work, attend meetings, vote on some stuff, argue a bit (probably the same as your last business meeting), throw ideas around, and, at the end of the day, have to spit out some work — although we all know that Congress is highly dysfunctional because of polarization.
However, this polarization is not only in Congress. It generally is present in your everyday life. When was the last time you were in a pub and made a political stance? Maybe you mentioned something about a policy to your family and it became a grudge match. I go on the internet to see news outlet feeds that are a bit further from simple “fact reporting,” and instead capitalizes on this polarized climate to get more viewers, or advertisements — because money makes the world spin. In general, the media learned that viewership is up in a polarized atmosphere, but with repercussions. While everyone is reinforced in their two camps of debate, pundits largely pit people against people when the focus should be on the system. Instead, its immigrants vs. Americans; blacks vs. whites, minorities vs. majorities. In reality, there is a combination of structural issues, people who actually don’t want to make things better, and money.
The point is that this polarization is affecting all of us. Here is how the structure kind of fosters polarization: Because we live in a system that largely has winner-take-all elections (meaning the most votes wins the whole thing), there is a tendency to divide issues into two spheres. Because we can only choose one winner, having three candidates screws up the logic of the system (say Romney gets 30% of the votes, Obama gets 40%, and the remaining 30% goes to Ron Paul — there is no majority winner! Hence a runoff must occur), somebody must win. So now you’re forced into two camps; us vs. them.
HEY YOU, WANNA RUN FOR CONGRESS?
If you are running for office, you need the votes. How are you going to get those votes? By appealing to voters. Who votes? Mostly older, white people. So, the representative must appeal to them to get the job. How do they appeal? By saying anything the majority voting group wants to hear. The candidate does this by listening to the largest groups he can secure votes from — so mostly interest groups, core supporters, or localized loyalists. So if the voters only care about Bible teachings and guns, then that better be your platform.
Now, as a candidate, you have said what the people want to hear, and you’re in office. Now what? You actually have a job to do, and that means compromise if you want to be successful with your colleagues. Similar to a professional job, you can give input, analysis, and opinions, but at the end of the day there is a decision maker, or set of decision makers. The House has the Speaker of the House; and the Senate … well, the senate is a lot more mature and cordial. However, in the House, the Speaker decides what’s voted on. And to be successful, you can be sure (S)he will put to a vote something that will pass, and is what his party wants (particularly if (S)he wants a cabinet appointment or a presidential bid).
Back to you as a Congress member (because you won the election). One year passes, and you’ve been compromising at the Hill, but elections are coming up. You voted against what your voters wanted a few times, maybe because you wanted to get along with your co-workers or had to pass some bills in order to get other bills passed you really want. After all, Congress essentially operates on favors (fancily called “logrolling”). In either case, the voters see that you didn’t represent their wishes. To get re-elected, you have to act as though Washington is dysfunctional, there is a conspiracy, or you were held back in some way so you can appeal to those who vote — which, in our district, is pro-gun and the Bible folks. So, at the end of the day, you’re seen as a traitor and liar. However, you were just getting along with your co-workers so you can possibly get an important bill passed that will actually impact your district. The good news, for the representative, is that a lot of states have no rules on term limits, and there is a high chance you’ll get elected again. Because people don’t really invest in any substantial research of candidates, they’ll generally go with who looks familiar, and hence we have a professionalized politician force.
TOO MANY PEOPLE TO PLEASE!
Another component is that you have to appeal to donors to fund commercials, media teams, a website, travel, food, consultants, and pretty much anything else you need on a campaign — depending on how big it is. So, now you have to please companies and donors who have money. Pressures are coming from donors, voters (and public opinion is notoriously unreliable and changes daily), the party (if you want to be president, you better have party backing!), and fellow co-workers (if you care I suppose). So now you have to decide who to make happy, and when, and sometimes that involves “flip flopping,” failed campaign promises, or some representatives being plain ineffective. So what is success in the political arena? I say, keeping your job. After all, if you aren’t employed as a representative, then what else are you gonna do? I don’t think many representatives can sing, act, or play sports — but they do know how to balance interests and strategize.
To deal with voters, most members of Congress devised a great, nifty way of staying in office by having his/her staff provide customer service to whoever writes or calls. Got a problem at the DMV? Call the representative. Have problems getting a state permit? Call the representative. By performing routine and mundane tasks (writing letters back, calling constituents back, clearing up bureaucratic mix ups), the congressional member knows that the voter will remember that one time when Congressman X resolved a problem or wrote them back. So when the voter goes to the polls, Congressman X is on it, and because he’s a swell guy, he gets my vote!
So, what the question really should turn into is; Is it the politician’s fault that nothing happens, or are there too many pressures on politicians to make changes? Would term limits fix anything? These questions have been floating around for quite some time. I gotta say, most professional jobs don’t have that kind a pressure. Most of the time there is only one boss, a few clients, or a board to please. From that perspective, it’s hard to say that politicians are straight out liars — although sometimes they are pretty unethical in taking funds and abusing power.
So how to make sure they don’t lie? Have everyone vote would be ideal, and in fact mandatory voting laws exist in countries like Australia, Brazil, Argentina and even North Korea. However, in North Korea, there is only one candidate … which I would say defeats the purpose of an election. Barack Obama has even entertained the idea of mandatory voting. However, it would make more sense at the House and Senate elections, because we have that nifty little think called the Electoral College for the presidential elections. The idea is that if everyone votes, then a clear public consensus is possible. If that is possible, then representation is a more-accurate account of collective judgement. If that is the case, then Congress would pass laws that the majority actually wanted, because they face elections inevitably and we assume politicians want to be paid for the next few years.
Because the United States operates on individual freedom, everyone must be heard. The Supreme Court continually rules that organizations can be treated as individuals. So now organizations and voters are being treated as voters (although organizations don’t physically vote, but that would be hilarious though). But organizations are treated as voters when it comes to donating to political representatives. While there are limits on individual organization donations, nifty little things called Super PACS ensure that money is funneled however they want, therefore starting campaign-funding wars. So NOW what? In general, it’s a structural problem that has no real good answer. It’s always a game of figuring out how to accurately interpret what the majority of citizens (and now organizations) actually want as policy.
I suppose you could be a politician, but, in general, you have to take criticism to the extreme on a daily basis just to keep people happy. So do politicians lie? Of course, but it’s because they have to! So why should we hold politicians up to an unrealistic standard where they have to please every individual? Frankly, it can’t be done.
Keep it real you political junkies.