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A brief detour: 10 reasons why politicians fail to represent us (and always will)

Why can we more easily conceive of a catastrophic event ending life on this planet than even small changes to our current economic order?
— Slavoj Žižek, in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Although there is widespread support for the idea that those in power do not represent the public interest, we often fail to give adequate thought to why this is so. Let's look at some possible explanations.

As it will become clear, I draw on varied sources. Some of the factors discussed below are recurrent themes in the media and in general political discourse; others come from well-established results in the social sciences. This diversity of perspectives is a good thing, as it promises a richer understanding of why democratic representation fails.

What nearly all of these explanations have in common, though, is that they point towards this failure having structural causes. In other words, the problem is in the political system itself. An improved understanding of its limitations will be helpful when considering how we can reform it.

Note: The term “public interest” will come up a lot in this book. It might be worthwhile to keep two simple insights in mind. First, and as the influential political scientist Jane Mansbridge remarked, the fact that it is famously difficult to agree on what this term means does not really reduce its practical usefulness. So, I will not be shy about using it—even if in these pages I haven't personally tried my hand at solving this ages-old philosophical debate. Second, and for reasons discussed at length in the next chapter, we can, however, confidently say that the public interest is not always the same as the wishes of the majority as captured, for example, in the latest opinion poll. This is an important distinction that will be useful at several points in the book.

1. Corruption

When citizens are asked why politicians fail to meet their expectations, corruption figures prominently in many of their answers. The term can, however, refer to a number of quite different phenomena, only some of which are clearly unlawful in most countries.

In its most brazen form, corruption involves the illicit exchange of money for political favors. However, the concept can also encompass conflicts of interest, as when a politician has active professional and/or financial ties to a company that he regulates. Or it could refer to substantial campaign contributions, which—even if they are legal—are likely to be “remembered” by politicians once they are in power. Finally, we can also speak of corruption when discussing the policy consequences of the pervasive “revolving door” arrangements, by which government officials know that they will likely be offered lucrative positions (e.g., as consultants or board members) in the same private-sector companies that they previously gently regulated and/or gave hefty public contracts to.

2. Electoral politics gives politicians the wrong incentives

Other problems result from politicians simply trying to be reelected. Though elections are the main mechanism through which we (periodically) control politicians, elections also provide a set of “wrong” incentives for them. A politician seeking reelection will often become a demagogue, appealing to the public's emotions, rather than their reason, to easily win their votes. Political candidates will, for the same reason, shy away from any necessary reforms that might come at an electoral cost—especially if the rationale for those reforms becomes evident only when one adopts a long-term view. Political inaction on the issue of climate change is a prime example of this.

3. Mainstream politics attracts the wrong kind of people

As of the early twenty-first century, it seems likely that most people who decide to start a professional career in politics are driven more by a pursuit of power—or, just as depressingly, a combination of ambition and a lack of comparably remunerated career alternatives—than by any genuine attachment to an ideal of public service. As a result, the political class tends to be populated by quite a peculiar group of people. This exemplifies a broader phenomenon known in the social sciences as “self-selection”: when participation in an activity is voluntary, it will often end up attracting a “crowd” with particular characteristics.

If we apply this idea to those who choose a career in politics, we come up with two possibilities. The first is that, nowadays, those who join a mainstream political party and devote themselves to artfully climbing its ranks are doing so because of a strong urge to serve the public. This does not seem too likely. A second explanation seems more plausible: that self-interest and a desire for power are what drive them to enter politics. And, obviously, these are precisely the two worst possible traits for someone whose job it is to represent the public.

4. Politicians feel themselves immune to control by the public

Though it may, at first, appear to contradict the “electioneering” perils described above, the reverse also happens. In a great number of important decisions, politicians feel invulnerable to public opposition and, thus, press ahead with measures that a vast majority of the population objects to. Unfortunately for us, that often seems to be the case with major, highly contentious decisions that will affect us for several generations. In most countries, there is no mechanism for citizens to effectively block a measure being advanced by their elected government and parliament. Politicians know this and often exploit this absence of fine-grained popular control over their actions by pushing through controversial measures that the public opposes soon after taking office. Clearly, they hope that the issue will be long forgotten by the time they come up for reelection.

It is hard to overstate how perverse the combination of these two factors—electioneering perils (reason #2) and the threat of not being reelected failing to deter behavior against the public interest—actually is. In the worst possible way, the threat of not being reelected seems to make our politicians eager to please us in the most superficial ways (e.g., by ceding to populist demands on the scandalous topic du jour), while feeling immune to our disapproval over serious policy choices (e.g., going to war on false pretexts, signing major international treaties that severely limit national sovereignty and/or privatizing large chunks of the public sector).

5. Parties and elections morally corrupt our political leaders

Another possible explanation is that our elected leaders initially enter politics as well-meaning, public-spirited individuals but that the process through which they are selected morally corrupts them. The difficult task of rising through the ranks of their own party makes them lose sight of the common good, instead “training” them to focus on small-minded career advancement. They learn to please the higher ranks—in whose hands their future lies—at all costs. In countries in which political campaigning relies heavily on private funds, seeking campaign contributions from wealthy donors and well-funded organizations further compromises their ideals of public service. At the end of the process, actually running for office in an election also further degrades their morals. After all, winning the public's favor in a modern-day election is not easy, and the prerequisites for doing so appear to include learning how to bend the truth and taking a lax attitude towards personal or ideological loyalties. [3]

6. The effect of norms on elected politicians: “politics as usual”

Besides the corrupting effect of the process through which they are selected, we also need to consider the role of what we might call the “dominant culture” in politics. Once elected, politicians do not work in a vacuum. Instead, they become a part of a professional field with its own norms, traditions and habits. As social scientists have extensively documented, someone who enters a profession will, in a variety of both conscious and unconscious ways, be subject to pressures to conform to the norms of that field. Newcomers to professional politics are no different. Even the most determined and well-meaning among them will, upon taking office, enter a world in which all social or professional interactions encourage them—subtly or not so subtly—to play along and not make too many waves. Over time, they learn to respect “the way things are usually done around here” and, ultimately, conform to the status quo.

Ironically, another part of the social norms guiding professional politics pushes people in the opposite direction—often with dire consequences. In our political culture, elected office holders feel pressure to “leave a mark” of some sort. Thus, their inclination not to rock the boat is offset by a strong desire to be known for one or two career-defining Faustian projects. These can range from major infrastructure investments to drastically reforming the nation's public sector—or even to a deadly war, always justified “for humanitarian reasons,” in a faraway land. Unfortunately for us, these “projects” are undertaken in a political culture that does not support reasoned public debate. Instead, our leaders see themselves as enlightened visionaries who single-handedly bring about much-needed reform in the face of widespread opposition from “backward” citizens who “just don't understand” the need for action.

Thus, the social norms guiding professional politics succeed in simultaneously harming the public interest in two seemingly contradictory ways. Our elected politicians are both pulled towards inaction in matters where change is required and encouraged to make “daring” major decisions without public consultation. Unfortunately, experience strongly suggests that such bouts of proactivity by elected leaders in the face of public disapproval only very rarely work to our benefit. Much more often, they appear to serve either the private interests of the politicians' associates or merely their need for self-aggrandizement.

7. The psychological effects of power and identification with other elites

The social sciences offer us two other insights into how politicians operate. These have to do with power and what happens when politicians spend time dealing with other influential individuals.

First, social psychologists have found that individuals who experience a sense of power become less able to empathize with others. Politicians, by virtue of their jobs, are likely to perceive themselves as power holders and, thus, to be unable to adopt the perspective of those affected by their decisions. As their political careers develop over the years, and they come closer to attaining positions of greater power, politicians will gradually become less and less able to put themselves in the shoes of the average citizen.

Second, we know that a sense of identification with a social group—i.e., perceiving oneself as “belonging” to a certain group—is a powerful determinant of attitudes and behavior. Individuals identify with groups with whom they believe they share significant traits. The result can range anywhere from calling yourself British to emphasizing your ethnic background or even simply saying you are a supporter of your local football club. Those would all be examples of more “explicit” forms of self-categorization. However, sometimes identities can also take more “latent” or “implicit” forms. Think, for example, of an immigrant developing a new sense of national identity or someone who recently switched careers. In those (and other) situations, individuals can combine within themselves several identities, sometimes without even being fully aware of it. Needless to say, we all categorize ourselves—be it in more or less conscious fashion—into a variety of groups.

What happens next, though, is even more interesting. A body of work in social psychology known as “social identity theory” describes how, once people identify with a certain group, that sense of belonging significantly affects their attitudes and behavior. They develop an increasingly positive image of fellow group members. They experience a sense of loyalty to the group and exhibit, either consciously or unconsciously, a much greater inclination to help and cooperate with other group members. At the same time, group members start to perceive members of the “out-group”—i.e., those who are seen as not belonging to the group—in a less positive way and find it increasingly difficult to empathize with them. As a result, the group member becomes less prone to help and cooperate with them.

These ideas can help us understand the behavior of our elected political class. We know that, over the course of their duties, acting politicians will spend many of their waking hours dealing with members of other powerful elites. They will, for example, spend vast amounts of time interacting with representatives of large corporations and other established interest groups.

We can easily envision how this process unfolds. Locked in meeting rooms with members of the business sector for countless hours, our elected representatives will, over time, develop a shared sense of belonging to something we might call the “economic-political elite.” After all, the actions of politicians and business leaders jointly determine many of the crucial decisions we collectively care about. It is only natural that, over the course of time, most politicians will start to see business leaders as their peers in the process of policy-making.

Employing the lessons of social identity theory, it becomes easy to predict what happens next. Politicians become increasingly sympathetic to the arguments presented by the other members of this elite they belong to. Over time, they adopt, more and more, the logic of business, and the demands/arguments of other groups will become harder and harder to understand. Perhaps most distressing is that this process can take place in a largely unconscious way. Politicians themselves might often be unaware of the ties and the growing sense of identification that they are developing with their peers in the business community; yet, whether or not they are aware, the consequences will be just as real.

Therefore, we have at least two distinct psychological mechanisms that can help us understand how our elected politicians will, over time, become increasingly unable to adopt the perspective of the common citizen—and all the while their way of thinking will continue to grow closer and closer to that of other powerful factions in society.

8. Ideology as a bias

However, it is not just a sense of power and identification with other elites that can bias politicians' reasoning. Powerful ideas warp the way we think, too—especially when those ideas are fundamental to our way of seeing the world or we are known for espousing them. [4]

As cognitive psychologists have learned, we are very good at filtering information according to how well it fits our worldview. In a process known as “confirmation bias,” we tend to welcome all information that validates our preconceptions and to discredit any that challenges our thinking. This process largely ensures that we will tend to (re)confirm our views and continue acting according to them—even when evidence overwhelmingly points in a different direction.

A discussion of “ideology” will seem strange to some, given that many tend to think that modern-day politicians are mostly free of sincere political convictions and are mainly engaged in a mixture of optimizing their chances of reelection and catering to private interests. This view is correct, but even spineless politicians operate within a set of beliefs about how the world works—beliefs that they might have picked up from their colleagues, party elders or simply the broader political milieu. It is in that sense that we can speak of them being “ideological.”

This—and the dramatic effect it can have on public policy—is so painfully clear as of 2014. In recent years, both sides of the Atlantic have lived through an ill-timed drive for “austerity” or “deficit cutting” that has threatened to cripple the economy and (at least in the case of Europe) keep many millions of young people in long-term unemployment. The amazing thing is that the “political consensus” that has emerged among mainstream politicians has flown in the face of nearly everything we know about economics, as well as the public views of countless respected economists.

For example, regarding the US fiscal debate, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote that it was “dominated by things everyone knows that happen not to be true.” One of them is the notion that the US was going through a fiscal crisis in the first place. Similarly, Joseph Stiglitz, yet another Nobel laureate in economics, remarked that in Europe, “the cure is not working and there is no hope that it will,” calling austerity measures “deeply misguided.”

Obviously, several other factors influenced the behavior of the European and US political classes. However, much of what we witnessed was the result of ideology—often with the undertones of a morality play—winning out over reason and evidence.

A narrative built on feelings of guilt and a need to atone for alleged past sins—years of “living above our means”; a public that was complicit in the “irresponsible,” “spendthrift” ways of earlier governments; etc.—was a common theme across the Atlantic. In the US, it got combined with a general ideological discomfort among its political class with the idea of public spending. In Europe, it blends in with the sacralization of the Euro, made clear in the words of Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, when he said that the European leadership would do “whatever it takes” to ensure the survival of the common currency. Other ideological elements are the deep-seated, extreme aversion of German politicians (and, by implication, the ECB) to any risk of inflation and, on the part of a subset of European politicians, the desire to use this crisis as an opportunity for dismantling parts of the state.

In both cases, the insularity of our political classes—and the way they exert power from the comfort of the little “bubble” in which they live—leaves them and their preconceptions safely unchallenged. Thus, inherited notions continue to shape the debate and guide public policy over crucial matters, without pesky reality getting in the way.

9. The political class is not demographically representative of the general population

These issues are further complicated by the simple fact that the political class is, in demographic terms, highly unrepresentative of the general citizenry. It will come as no surprise that, in most of our countries, the average politician is a white male with a comparatively privileged socio-economic background.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily a problem: it is conceivable that—with adequate checks and controls—a politician meeting that description could truly represent the interests of the general population. However, given the lack of strong accountability mechanisms, serious problems arise from the fact that the vast majority of our political representatives effectively belong to a separate caste. Members of this caste are extremely unlikely to ever suffer from many of the issues that plague significant parts of the population (e.g., difficulty paying the bills, the threat of unemployment, lack of adequate health care or worries about street crime in their neighborhood). They know perfectly well that holding an elected post will ensure their livelihoods well into the future, in the form of cozy public- sector and/or corporate appointments once they no longer succeed in getting reelected.

As one might expect, this huge gap between the life conditions of our rulers and the reality inhabited by large parts of the population means that it is very difficult for politicians to even grasp the consequences of many of their decisions on the lives of citizens. And if merely grasping those consequences is already that hard, then it is virtually hopeless that politicians would be able to experience the empathy required to fully gauge the consequences of their decisions.

Not surprisingly, in demographic terms, our political class is remarkably similar to another relevant group: the same business elite—and the representatives of other powerful established interests—we discussed earlier. Those meeting rooms where they all get together are largely populated by white males used to a privileged life. In several countries, most of them will even be alumni of the same two or three prestigious universities.

As described earlier, the psychological process of identification with a group—and its pernicious consequences—is fueled by the sharing of traits between the individual and other group members. The large extent to which our elected representatives and those speaking on behalf of big business share demographic traits and/or backgrounds is yet another reason to fear that our representatives will unduly identify with members of that other group and, thus, fail to adequately represent us.

10. Perhaps the world functions in such a way that politicians' hands are effectively tied

An altogether different explanation also needs to be included in this list. It is possible that what we perceive as the gap between what our elected leaders do and the public interest is not actually due to some perversion of their mandates but, instead, to the sheer impossibility of acting in a fundamentally different way. Perhaps politicians, once they take office, discover that they are largely impotent to change even relatively minor aspects of how our societies function. This powerlessness could be due to various factors.

It could stem from the need to negotiate with other political actors (e.g., by striking a deal with other parties in order to secure approval in parliament for a given measure). This need for political compromise between parties helps explain why our representatives might not succeed in bringing about real change.

Or it could be due to the political dependence of our elected leaders on the business sector. As political scientists have been discussing for the past forty years, in our societies, the government is largely dependent on the private sector when it comes to job and wealth creation. These also happen to be the two main criteria by which the general population judges the government when election time arrives. (As Bill Clinton's campaign strategist famously put it, “[it's] the economy, stupid.”) Combined, these two elements ensure that our elected leaders will necessarily be quite eager to cater to the interests of the business sector; otherwise, business will suffer, unemployment will rise and the politicians' chances of reelection will be severely hampered.

A modern variant of this same argument stresses the interconnectedness of our economies. According to its proponents, if a government adopts measures that the business sector deems less than desirable, then corporations will simply shift their activity to some other place on the globe, leaving in their wake unemployment and a missed opportunity for increasing local prosperity. At the same time, global financial markets might “punish” the offending country by demanding higher interest rates for loans to people and businesses based there, which would, in turn, wreak further havoc on its economy.

Finally, yet another way in which our leaders might be powerless is by virtue of international agreements and/or membership in international institutions. According to this argument, belonging to bodies such as the European Union and World Trade Organization puts severe limits on what political leaders might achieve. An increasing number of decisions are made at the supranational level, and national governments have little choice but to implement them.

♦ ♦ ♦

As I already pointed out, these factors interact with each other in a variety of ways. One example is how electoral considerations contribute to several of the other problems identified above. Obviously, maximizing their chances of reelection plays a key role in cultivating a short-term, demagogical orientation among our leaders. It also makes them particularly eager to play the internal power games within their party to the best of their advantage—no matter how much they might need to compromise their principles in the process. Electoral considerations can also go as far as making many political measures (seem) utterly impossible to put into practice. For example, the prospect of negative media coverage discussing job losses caused by a new piece of environmental regulation can make its adoption politically unviable—and thus contribute to the “politicians' hands are tied” syndrome.

Similarly, a variety of these factors combine to explain the often-suspect proximity of our political leaders to the corporate world. One part of the story is their dependence on the business sector to generate levels of economic growth that will smooth the way to reelection. Another has to do with demographic and psychological factors, such as the similarity and strong sense of identification between members of our political and economic elites. Finally, any instance of corruption—no matter whether it is more- or less-overt—will also further cement that relationship, as will a political culture that tolerates it.

When we look at the big picture—i.e., these different factors interacting with one another—it is hard to imagine a mischievous deity coming up with a political system that could possibly be worse-equipped than our current one to address the serious challenges facing us. What we can be confident of is that only under rare conditions would a professional politician ever take any action that would risk affecting her country's position in the reigning international political/economic order. One consequence of this is that pressing global issues—such as regulating an out-of-control financial sector and addressing climate change, to name but two examples—have little chance of making substantial progress outside of the murky, unreliable processes of international conferences. [5]

♦ ♦ ♦

With this said, things get interesting—and worrisome—when some of the major behavioral drivers governing the political class pull in opposite directions. This is the situation in which Europeans have recently found themselves, and it provides an exemplary case study of the limitations of electoral politics. [6]

The European financial crisis has placed the continent's political class in the crossfire between what are perhaps the two central drivers of its behavior: conformity to the international economic order and the desire not to openly antagonize large numbers of voters to a level that will generate electoral backlash (or even more serious social unrest). Both are ultimately forms of fear, as we will see.

All politicians (in northern and southern Europe alike) fear the consequences of challenging the ruling economic order. In short: the Euro must be preserved at all costs; the European Central Bank's mandate will remain largely unchanged; and sovereign debts are to be honored.

In northern European countries, electoral considerations cause politicians to also fear being seen as enabling “handouts” or displaying “forgiveness” towards the “lazy,” indebted southerners. This means that northern politicians will be very reluctant to take the steps that could restore the viability of the ruling economic order. At the same time, many of their private banks (and their broader economies) will be in deep trouble if southern nations collapse and abandon the Euro in a “disorderly” way. They are, thus, in a bind.

In southern European countries, something equally (if not more) perverse is happening. Politicians fear the electoral repercussions of imposing the cuts demanded by their northern sponsors. But most of them fear even more the electoral consequences of being held responsible for their countries leaving the Euro zone.

In the face of such a serious threat to the prosperity of the whole continent, the European political class is paralyzed by fear. For now, they seem unable to take either of the two viable courses of action: 1) salvaging the economies of the indebted nations appears impossible because substantial debt haircuts are off the table, inflation remains a taboo and the leaders in northern countries are unable to commit to the mutualization of sovereign debt and assume shared responsibility for future bank rescues; and 2) having southern countries abandon the Euro and go back to their former national currencies in an orderly manner seems impossible because no office-holding southern European politician dares to consider it as an option.

In the middle of all this noise, the bigger questions naturally are forgotten. In particular, it is easy to forget the extent to which this entire situation is the result of another epic failure of democratic representation. The European political elite introduced the Euro in 1999 through a project that largely sidelined the European citizenry. At the time, our Promethean leaders were so collectively enamored of the “Great European Project” that they pressed ahead, paying little attention to the serious concerns of countless economists and the skepticism of much of the population. Almost twenty years later, in the midst of yet another wave of highly undemocratic decision-making, Europeans are now asked to collectively pay the price for these follies. [7]


3. ^ A good illustration of the different facets of this process can be found in George Clooney's 2011 film The Ides of March.

4. ^ Admittedly, we all tend to reserve the word “ideology” for those ideas we disagree with. In this section, I will use it to refer to ideas that seem to fly in the face of most available evidence and, yet, are so strong that they seem largely unaffected by it.

5. ^ As David Runciman argues in The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, our democracies do have a track record of eventually addressing crucial issues—but only when these problems have escalated into full-blown crises and push society to a breaking point. Obviously, this provides little comfort. How long until our leaders badly miscalculate the need for urgent action? And—for those who take this as evidence of how “self-correcting” and “adaptable” our democracies are—who will be held accountable for all the avoidable human suffering incurred while politicians drag their feet?

6. ^ Readers to whom the recent European crisis is of no special interest can skip over these final paragraphs without hesitation. They are included merely as an illustration of the ideas discussed earlier in this chapter.

7. ^ Recent events in countries such as Poland and Latvia attest just how powerful these forces really are. With the extreme gravity of the European financial crisis plain for all to see, political leaders in both of these nations are aggressively pushing for their countries to adopt the Euro, even in face of widespread public opposition.

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