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The Mindset of Unethical Politicians

- August 27, 2009

Jeff Smith is a friend of mine from our days at UNC-Chapel Hill. After college, he went back to his hometown, St. Louis, and got a Ph.D. in political science at Wash U. His heart was always in politics — even in grad school, he was working for Bill Bradley in 2000 — and in 2004 he decided to run for the congressional seat vacated by Dick Gephart.

Jeff was a nobody, politically speaking. In the primary, his competition included not only incumbent state legislators but also a scion of Missouri’s leading political family, Russ Carnahan, who was the presumptive favorite. But Jeff raised money diligently — e.g., from political scientists, including me — and ran a concerted grassroots campaign, positioning himself to Carnahan’s left.

Jeff nearly pulled it off. He came in second, losing to Carnahan by 1.6 points. His unlikely campaign was the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” He later won a seat in the Missouri State Senate.

On Tuesday, Jeff resigned his position and pled guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, stemming from violations of campaign law during his 2004 campaign. In 2004, he directed a friend to help an independent group raise money, money that would then be spent on mailers attacking Carnahan. This sort of coordination between the candidate and an independent group is not allowed under election law. The FEC investigated this in 2004, but was unable to find sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Jeff lied about his actions then. In 2009, when new information came to light, the FEC re-opened the investigation at which point Jeff lied again and also encouraged his friend to do so. (The court document is here. It puts Jeff in a very bad light.)

I am reflecting on this, both because Jeff is a friend and I am simultaneously sad for him and mad at him, and in light of some recent posts from Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein about the mindset of politicians. Yglesias writes:

bq. But I find it very difficult to extend my powers of moral imagination to the kind of people who hold high political office in the United States. Tyler Cowen deems the relevant psychological dynamic the addiction of fame and power and it’s just an addiction I have a hard time understanding.

Here is my struggle, based in part on Jeff’s story. I can see why a politicians might just want money. Politics doesn’t pay that well, at least given the alternatives available to most politicians, and money buys stuff, like, you know, antique rugs. That is wrong, but it’s not incomprehensible.

But the things that politicians will do for fame or power or reputation do mystify me (see also this previous post). And they mystify me because I can’t imagine why politicians think that all this conniving _works_. Did Jeff honestly think that a mailer attacking Carnahan was going to win the election for him? Especially given that few people read direct mail anyway? He has even less excuse, since he should have encountered the political science literature on campaigning, or at least talked to consultants who could have disabused him of any faith in the power of direct mail. Of course, given the closeness of the race, in retrospect maybe it looks like Jeff’s actions were reasonable risks. But that’s only in retrospect. I doubt that at the moment Jeff told his friend to collude with the independent group (sometime in the spring of 2004) he knew that the race would be as close as it was. And even if he did, he should know better than to think that some mailer would make all the difference.

Perhaps fame and power really are addictions, as Yglesias says, and so politicians simply cannot think rationally about the means by which fame and power are obtained — and therefore exaggerate the importance of their own actions (ethical or unethical). If rationality is defined (weakly) as pursuing the most efficient means to some end, then it’s far from clear to me that Jeff’s actions, or the white lies politicians tell, or many other misdemeanor and felony offenses, are “efficient” at all. Surely there are better ways to win votes with less risk to one’s career.

Maybe what politicians need is an advisor who’s sole responsibility is to say: “It won’t matter.” So when politicians are tempted to do unethical things to win elections or advance their careers, someone will be reminding them that their petty crimes are not just wrong, but ineffective.