Skip to content

When politicians are undemocratic, there’s something to learn

Politicians often do things which are blatantly undemocratic, in that they poll poorly and are thus presumably against the will of the people: bailing out banks, nixing referendums on the EU, protecting the city of London, negotiating often unpopular free trade agreements, increasing certain taxes or cutting certain services. When this happens, the first question should always be: why are they doing it?

The first explanation given is always corruption: such and such a politician gets kickbacks from someone objectionable and rich. But this is a feeble explanation: money is good for a politician, but staying in power is much better. If there is evidence of corruption, or if the deal was done in secret and exposed by some heroic reporting, then well and good; but if not, corruption is unlikely to be the reason. The rich always get a better deal from a politician than the rest; but seriosuly annoying 10% of the rest is not worth doing for any rich 1%.

A second reason could be ideological: politicians operate in parties with particular collections of ideologies, and going against them would cost the politician support. But parties are managed as well, with the aim of reaching and retaining power; if the ideology didn’t have some support in the public, it would be quietly pushed out. So maybe some measure is unpopular among people who wouldn’t support that party anyway, but popular for the motivated core supporters: in that case, it’s rational for the politician to go along with it. But some measures, such as bailing out banks, have no real support on any ideology, so this cannot be the whole explanation.

This brings us to the third explanation: politicians really believe that not pushing through their unpopular measure will cost them more votes than letting it slide. The economy is roughly what wins politicians elections, so this effect will be particularly strong in economic matters.  The bank bailouts are a case in point: (apparently) very unpopular with the population, but politicians do them anyway, ever since the collapse of Lehman brothers. In this case, the population don’t know what they’re talking about, if they believe what they’re claimed to believe: few people have experienced genuine banks runs, which would collapse the economy into far greater misery than bailing out a few undeserving rich bankers. Politicians know this, and so – correctly – don’t let the banks fail, no matter what flak it costs them.

So when a politician does something unpopular but not obviously corrupt or blatantly ideological, the question we should ask ourselves is “What do they know, or think that they know, that we don’t?” They might be wrong in their beliefs – but so might we, and they do have a lot more sources of information than most of us. And they are much more motivated to get their beliefs right: their power depends on it.

Share on

3 Comment on this post

  1. I think the "ideological" explanation deserves more emphasis, but it needs nuancing: it's not just a question of venal politicians currying favour within their party. In my experience most politicians are at least partly motivated by personal conviction and a desire to do good. We should not make politicians out to be worse than they are, no matter how much we may love to hate them.

    1. Point well taken – but I didn't feel a qualified defence of undemocratic political practices was the right place to put a more general defence of politicians. If my thesis remains true even if all politicians are venal corrupt and like kicking puppies, then it is certainly true in other situations.

      1. Actually there's another issue here, namely to what extent "unpopular" equates to "undemocratic". What do we really want from our politicians? Do we necessarily want them to do the things that we say they ought to do when asked by pollsters, or do we want them to exercise their judgement? After all, most of us have better things to do than develop expertise on specific policy issues.

        This question is of course relevant in the context of partipatory governance, stakeholder consultation, and some of the more radical ideas circulating in the context of Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere. I think it makes sense for policy to be increasingly crowd-sourced, as in the recent case of the new Icelandic constitution.

Comments are closed.