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Accountability and dishonesty

- May 22, 2009

A while back, John Sides and I had a discussion, motivated by Seth Masket’s new book No Middle Ground, about the relevance of the "true preferences" of politicians. That got me thinking about the sincerity of preferences, which led to a post a few days ago, where I argued that we shouldn’t care so much if politicians offer us arguments that they themselves don’t seem to believe. The discussion got pretty metaphysical, which is cool. But the general idea is something I would hope journalists and commentators would pick up on. Having gone deep on the arguments, let me make the possibly less intense claim: We shouldn’t care so much whether politicians actually favor the policies they say they stand for (forget about why they say they favor them). To get there, we need to stop off at some political theory and some political science.

First, the political theory:

As much as we might value character and principles, we generally think that democracy is supposed to be about accountability and representation. By accountability, I mean that when political leaders do something, someone else — ultimately voters — ought to be able to identify who has done that something, and then punish or reward them if they like it. We like to think that such accountability enables representation. Whether you think representation is about delegation (your representative is supposed to do what you would do if you were there) or trusteeship (your rep is supposed to do what they think is right, and you just try to put someone into office who you think will do god things), you retrospectively get to reassess your decision. Knowing this, representatives will try to be good delegates, trustees, or whatever it is they think you want.

Then, the political science:

So far so good on accountability, but the obvious next question is, accountable to whom? We think "the voters," and there is at least some good evidence that they can hold leaders accountable for broad successes and failures, like good economic performance and poor foreign policy. But a different group that politicians heed is political activists, notably partisan activists. After all, the party hold the keys to renomination. And party activists are the foot soldiers in re-election campaigns. Their cooperation is also critical in policy fights. So politicians are accountable to voters, but also to the party.

That’s what Masket was arguing. And what I (with co-authors) and Masket and I (again with co-authors) have argued. If we’re right, then what it means is that if you want to know what a politician will do, you should think about what that politician thinks voters and his party want him to do, more than what he himself thinks is right. (Of course, the voters and the parties would do well to put people who share their true preferences into office, but that assumes you could ever know what they really think, given their incentives to deviate).

Now for a two contemporary examples:

1. As several people have pointed out recently, Obama has the same policy preference on gay marriage as Carrie Prejean. Conservatives seem irked that liberals are mad at Prejean but not at His O-liness. They think the same thing. (And, come to think of it, Kerry and Bush thought the same thing in 2004, and Palin and Biden agreed to it in their debate as well).

But Obama (and Kerry, and Biden) are Democrats, and the Democratic Party includes within it activists for gay rights, including marriage. And so Obama opposed Proposition 8, even as he doesn’t move to revoke Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Liberals can be mad that he’s not moving fast enough, and conservatives can suspect that his true feelings are hidden. Obama’s position is best understood as a struggle to be accountable to the Democratic activists, who favor gay marriage, and the genereal election voters, who are on balance opposed.

2. When Arlen Spector skipped out on the GOP, a lot of people called him opportunistic. He’s not doing it because he’s in principle opposed to the Republican Party, but because he wants to keep his Senate seat. But political scientists correctly asked just how much a switch from being accountable to one party to another matters, especially for someone who seems to be not that accountable to either (and yet apparently satisfactory to the voters of Pennsylvania.)