The Politicians We've Got

by Conor Friedersdorf

Matt Yglesias writes:

I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Making it all the odder, the level of self-interest at stake isn’t all that high. Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era. Nobody ever writes a biography about the guy who did a good job of reconciling his party’s ideological base with the parochial interests of local businesses and his campaign contributors.

Breaking ranks with your party doesn't merely risk losing a politician the campaign contributions of special interests and the votes of constituents -- a lifelong partisan who bucks his ideology risks losing his influence in Congress and destroying his ability to advance his legislative aims on the few issues about which he genuinely cares.

The partisan politician also risks his friends, future speaking engagements, a well-compensated spot as a fellow at an ideologically friendly think tank, business deals with ideologically friendly entrepreneurs, and sundry other opportunities to enrich himself after leaving office. That former Congressional members are rich isn't incidental to the fact that many are willing to sell out their actual beliefs. And even a desire to get into the history books hardly predicts the pursuit of sound public policy. Hence the members of Congress who love nothing more than to name stuff after themselves.

It helps to remember that many of the people who rise to national office come up through local politics, a realm that doesn't tend to reward the principled or virtuous. If you're unwilling to pander and obscure or even change your actual beliefs as you rise from City Council to the County Board of Supervisors to the State Prison Board to a seat in Congress, you're probably not going to rise at all.