Before I get started I want to thank everyone for all the comments on last week’s post, Reconsidering Gift Economies. I will return to that topic next week with some revised thinking. This week I want to shift topics, inspired by an interview with election expert David Brady, via Russ Roberts of EconTalk, which suggests some curious conclusions regarding the benefits of transparency.
The part that captured my attention was a discussion of what Brady calls ‘the personal vote‘. He is referring to the trend, beginning in the mid 1960s of congressional candidates running more on the basis of their personal characteristics and relying less on their party affiliation. It is important to be clear, he isn’t arguing that candidates became less partisan…only that candidates increasingly positioned themselves as individuals with unique platforms rather than as ‘the Party X candidate’. Their messaging became more “vote for me” and less “vote for my party”.
As evidence Brady offers comparative analyses of the voting trends across branches, within the same election:
Prior to 1964, say, the first time we know we can measure this accurately, 60% swing to one party brings that party the President, the House, and the Senate. Post-1964 it doesn’t do anything like that. So you can have huge victories for Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 because Congressmen run individually.
If its not clear from the quote, Brady is pointing out that the landslide presidential victories failed to carry over into the congressional elections. In all three cases the opposing party maintained control of congress, indicating that voters were splitting their votes across party lines. We shouldn’t be surprised then that the rise of ‘the personal vote’ coincides with the rise of the independent/moderate swing voter. According to Brady’s analysis, as candidates increasingly distinguished themselves as individuals, voters softened their party allegiances and increasingly allowed those individual characteristics to influence their votes.
In my favorite exchange of the interview, Roberts offers a preamble describing Lyndon Johnson’s dedicated ties to the democratic party, then poses the following questions:
Roberts: This era is very different, (the) post-1960s era. What changed? Was it innovation? Politicians figured something out?
Brady: Because you are an economist, you always have to have some exogenous variable.
Roberts: Yes, give me one!
I am tempted to change the tagline of this blog:
OnTheSpiral – Identifying Variables Exogenous to the Conventional Model
Thoughts? Ok, moving on…
Brady placates us economist folk with two such exogenous variables. First, he suggests that once accurate polling became available candidates de-emphasized their party affiliation if the polls showed their party was out of favor. Secondly, he suggests that TV commercials allowed candidates to theatrically communicate desirable character traits to much larger audiences. To support the latter claim Brady points to election data showing the personal vote to be more prevalent in districts where TV advertisements can be more targeted effectively – i.e. rural areas where TV broadcast boundaries align with congressional district boundaries.
Brady’s arguments imply that politicians are putting more personal reputation at risk as they move out of the party’s shadow. If you believe as I do that government is a hopeless bureaucratic mess that rarely gets anything right, then we can draw some interesting conclusions…
For one, if government action is more than likely to produce undesirable outcomes, then the dominant strategy is to do nothing. Brady’s data supports this conclusion:
…in a rather systematic analysis that I won’t bore the audience with…we make an estimate of how much did it cost the Democrats and Obama to have pushed health care and cap-and-trade. And our best bet is that it’s about 23-25 seats…So, the facts are that if you came from a district that was moderate or conservative, you voted for health care and cap-and-trade, you greatly enhanced your chances of losing.
A further complicating factor is the public primary system, which rewards candidates who initially pander to the extremist party line, but who then move towards the center during the general electorate. As a result we regularly elect candidates who have essentially run on two distinct platforms. Such a candidate is stuck in an untenable position…
Take an average power hungry politician…add risk to personal reputation, adverse incentives and conflicted interests. Now add a dash of transparency and what do you get?
A big fucking mess of unintended consequences.
Brady discusses the implications of transparency for legislators whose constituencies are dominated by concentrated special interests. Prior to the legislative reforms of the 1970′s representatives would promote their agendas directly to the committee chairman, who held all the power. Their pet projects would generally be behind closed doors and could pledge to his electorate that he tried his best. Add transparency and this representative is now forced to either publicly introduce hopeless pork-barrel legislation or publicly backtrack on his campaign promises. We might hope for a more honest campaign platform, but when has honesty ever mattered in political campaigns?
A 2003 study on the causes and effects of the 70s legislative reforms concludes:
Therefore, our findings reinforce earlier accounts that portrayed the 1970s reforms as having important decentralizing effects…The reforms of the 1970s empowered both rank-and-file
members and party leaders, creating a partially contradictory combination of institutions.
Indeed, a close analysis of congressional history suggests that institutional change typically occurs through a confluence of multiple, potentially competing interests… As was true in the 1970s, the resulting institutions are not coherent wholes but rather historical composites full of tensions and contradictions.
An empowered rank and file would surely be held to a higher standard of accountability and transparency…that is, unless they managed to co-opt the “partially contradictory combination of institutions” to obfuscate their compromised behavior. And that seems to be exactly what happened. It was much easier to impose (supposed) transparency top-down than to resolve the conflicts of interest inherent in the “historical composites full of tensions and contradictions”.
Unfortunately, transparency only offers an easy remedy if there exists a viable choice between right and wrong action. Otherwise, we only shine an ever brighter light on a path that leads inevitably to failure. It should be no surprise then that increased transparency has had unintended consequences – less transparency. The bizarre creatures who still embark on this path simply adopted new strategies to subvert the transparency imposed on them.
Candidates who make no tangible promises cannot be held accountable…so we are forced to endure ever more superficial campaigns consisting of nothing but cliches and emotional appeals. During interviews and debates, the campaigning hopefuls blatantly ignore the questions asked and return doggedly to pre-programmed talking points. Once in office, our elected representatives construct unintelligible legislation consisting of thousands of pages of legal obfuscation.
Perhaps most importantly, increased transparency has allowed for increasingly devastating personal attack advertising, further exacerbating the damage done to personal reputations. Every action taken by a “public servant” offers potential fodder for future slanderous attacks.
Avoiding A Losing Proposition
Is it any wonder then that there seem not to be any good candidates anymore?
Most candidates are, quite simply, not very likable. Very few appear to be genuine, decent, intellectually honest people. Regardless of whether power corrupts, or power attracts the corrupt (surely both), the outcome is the same…our political candidates increasingly represent the bottom of the barrel.
This is where I find the notion of the personal vote particularly interesting. It is one thing accept the political clown show as an unfortunate necessity of one’s chosen profession. It is quite another thing to accept those necessities as a reflection on one’s character. I find it difficult to imagine a decent uncorrupted person choosing to enter such an environment…an envirnment that forces you to pander, to obfuscate, to compromise your principles, to feign false principles…and to do it all publicly.
Yet, it is equally difficult to imagine a reversal towards less transparency. Even if the legislative rules were reconfigured the exogenous variables can’t be reversed. The individual spotlight created by TV, polling, and now all manner of internet media will only get brighter.
If transparency is inevitable, it stands to reason that honest people who value their reputations will increasingly avoid environments that force them to compromise their integrity. Rather than creating better behavior within existing conflicted organizations, transparency will starve those organizations of respectable talent. That is, unless those same organizations reinvent themselves from the bottom up…
 Remaking the House and Senate: Personal Power, Ideology, and the 1970s Reforms – Eric Schickler, Eric McGhee and John Sides
photo courtesy of Enough Project