“All Politics Is Yokel”: Ambition and Representative Democracy

By Blake Holt, staff editor Christopher Hitchens’ recent article for Slate punned the above crack while discussing the indignities that seem to be par for the course in running for political office.  Campaigning now involves constant fundraising and facing an “incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of [the candidates’] lives”. Hitchens claims that electoral success is too often left to those willing to put up with these burdens and, further, willing to engage in populist pandering.

But is this a bad thing? Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein says it isn’t. “The system,” Bernstein argues, “needs -- is dependent on -- people who crave election and re-election so badly that they're willing to do whatever it takes…Ambitious politicians are going to work hard to figure out what voters really want, and deliver it to them…because it will get them reelected.” If our system fails to weed out the non-ambitious, we could very well have a government that fails to be truly representative.

Bernstein’s insight into the constructive role of ambition is an interesting one, but I believe it focuses on the role of individual incentives at the expense of institutional incentives. Bernstein claims that ambition will lead politicians to “work hard to figure out what voters really want, and deliver it to them”. But it’s just as likely that ambition could cause a politician to not deliver what voters really want.

One of Bernstein’s own examples provides a case where this can occur. “[Politicians are] going to want a healthy economy...because that will get them re-elected.” The problem here is that the minority party has an overriding incentive to see the majority party fail in implementing its agenda. It may be true that a politician’s voters want to see an improving economy--but are the politician’s election chances better served by handing the majority a bipartisan achievement or by blaming the failure of the economy on the majority?

The same tension between ambition and deliverables is evident in crafting a cap-and-trade response to global warming and establishing a mandate in health care  reform. In both cases, minority ideas have been incorporated into policy solutions, only to be denounced by that same minority because it is in their electoral interest to do so.  This is, importantly, a function of minority status rather than political ideology. As long as the minority has both the electoral incentive and the procedural means to obstruct majority achievement, individual ambition may be harnessed to frustrate voter preferences rather than serve them.

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