Popular policy is an electoral liability

Keane Bhatt writes for FAIR:

According to [CNN TV anchor Wolf] Blitzer, policy proposals such as paid sick leave and maternity leave, an increased minimum wage and free community college are all liabilities to pragmatic Democrats concerned with winning elections–which explains Obama’s reticence prior to November’s midterm elections. However, public opinion polls show widespread support for those measures, including, in many cases, from Republican voters.

A CNN poll (6/9/14) found 71 percent of the public supporting an increase in the minimum wage, including a majority of Republicans and conservatives. In November, voters in the Republican-leaning states of Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska passed ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage by large margins (Huffington Post, 11/4/14).

A HuffPost/YouGov poll (6/20/13) found that 74 percent of the US public supports requiring companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees; paid maternity leave garnered 61 percent approval. In a number of recent polls, the idea of free community college received majority support (The Hill, 1/20/15) – one poll found that more Republicans favored the measure than opposed it, rather remarkable given that the idea was only recently popularized by President Obama himself.

So it’s not voters’ preferences that, in Blitzer’s words, “could hurt Democrats” facing elections. A likelier reason is election funding. Political scientists Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson observed that politicians largely depended on financing from economic elites (AlterNet, 12/18/14) in what were probably the most expensive midterms in history (Washington Post, 10/22/14):

The president and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money–defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1,000) from the 1 percent–as the Republicans. To expect top-down, money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle.

5 Responses

  1. So, to paraphrase your argument, politicians adopt unpopular policies in order to attract sufficient funds to enable them to persuade voters to vote for policies they dislike, rather than a competing party offering popular policies. Occam’s razor might suggest that this is hardly the quickest route from A to B. It’s a bit like saying most (71-74%) people go to MacDonalds on account of their advertising spend, even though they fill in opinion surveys saying that they would prefer a different recipe. Surely Burger King would then use these surveys to change their recipe and steal all MacDonald’s customers without needing the advertising outlay. In practice, of course, both restaurants are extremely sensitive to public opinion, and it’s hard to see why competing political parties should behave differently. A competitive market is a market, whether the commodity is public policy or hamburgers.

    Granted that seed-money is needed to build a party machine and get noticed, why don’t either of the existing two big parties just tell the rich ‘n powerful to sod off, adopt the popular policies and then win a landslide? Given that voters will subsequently get what they wanted all along there will be no need to bribe them in the future. Bear in mind that the return on the political advertising buck doesn’t appear to be very high, given that despite all the propaganda, voters still want all the things that you have outlined. Or are you suggesting that all politicians are just disingenuous fraudsters who are only pursuing their own interests and couldn’t care less about the public? Have they been literally bought by the rich ‘n powerful and only want to feather their own nest? If so, that’s quite a strong thesis.

    In the long debate on Gilens we considered a host of other reasons for the discrepancy between opinion surveys and public policy that had nothing to do with the rich ‘n powerful. Note also that most sortition proposals are also based on the need to refine the raw preferences indicated by public opinion surveys by deliberation. But if all we need is to ask the public what they want and then give it to them, then why bother with sortition, why not just leave it to the folks at HuffPost and CNN?


  2. You seem unable to distinguish the issue of actual policy from that of campaign rhetoric. Actual policy hasn’t been touched upon either by the FAIR article or by the CNN segment it discusses.

    Regarding the considerations parties are facing when fashioning their campaign rhetoric, the formalization I offered here should be of assistance.


  3. >policy proposals such as paid sick leave and maternity leave, an increased minimum wage and free community college are all liabilities to pragmatic Democrats concerned with winning elections.

    So in what sense then are popular policies an electoral liability? Is your claim that “money-driven” political parties make rhetorical appeals to popular preferences and then fail to deliver the policy outcomes, or that they have to tone down their rhetoric in order not to anger their rich ‘n powerful paymasters? If the former then voters will, in the end, see through the dissembling; if the latter then they won’t care, as they will get the policies they desire (even without the rhetoric). It would seem more plausible that “pragmatic” voters, unlike free-spending Democrat partisans, see these as liabilities as they are not entirely ignorant of Micawber’s Law.


  4. Isn’t the point of the post that CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer (not Yoram) asserted that these popular policies (according to polls) would be problematic for the politicians who supported them? The question is why does this well-informed political observer think this is true if not the fact that some people with more power (money) than average voters could wreck their chances of re-election if they championed these “median voter” policies?


  5. Terry,

    >some people with more power (money) than average voters could wreck their chances of re-election if they championed these “median voter” policies?

    But why would this be, given that the immediate currency of elections is votes, not dollars? If these policies really are so decisively popular, and have bipartisan support, then if either mainstream party put them on their ticket they would win the election (as neither party requires seed-corn funding to get noticed). Given the popularity of the proposals (and assuming no adverse consequences, fiscal or otherwise, of implementing the policies) then they could be confident of re-election, irrespective of how much mud was thrown at them by the rich ‘n powerful. It strikes me that there are only two answers to this conundrum:

    1. Politicians are corrupt in the strong sense that they are only in it for their own personal benefit (rather than the system leading to corrupt outcomes). Campbell has implied that Obama campaigned to close Guantanamo in the full knowledge that he couldn’t do it, but he didn’t really care so long as he won the election. As a former elected representative I imagine you would balk at this sort of cynicism.

    2. If voters are presented with a survey asking them “would you like the state/your boss to give you more money”, there’s a good chance that they will say yes. But they are not so stupid as to think that money grows on trees and will be aware that someone will have to pay, and that will mean either higher taxes or increased borrowing. Motherhood and apple pie may have to be put on one side for the moment if it can’t be afforded. Some voters might even have an understanding of business realities and realise that paid sick leave and raised minimum wages (however attractive sounding in opinion surveys) may even affect their own job security, especially in the world of global capitalism. Politics always involves trade offs, and you can’t always get what you want.

    But given the emphasis of the sortition movement on the need for well-considered deliberative judgment, I’m puzzled by Yoram’s frequent appeals to raw public opinion surveys. If fulfilling raw public preferences is all that matters then why bother with sortition, when you can leave it to the folks at CNN and Huff-Post to decide? Obviously this fits in with Yoram’s denial of the theory of rational ignorance and espousal of the direct representation of class-based interests (in the sense of the elite – vs – the masses). In Yoram’s view sortition is just to let the 99% rule over the 1%, as opposed to optimising the deliberative judgment of the whole demos. I used to describe this as a Marxian perspective but, in this context of this blog, it would be more accurate to describe it as Aristotelian.


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