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Throwing Some Cold Water On Ezra Klein's Otherwise Excellent Column

I hesitate to do anything other than praise Ezra Klein’s terrific WaPo column over the weekend, in which he asked political scientists “what they wished politicians knew about politics” (disclosure: I was one of those he asked, and I was absolutely useless -- John Sides was the other person there with me at the time, and he nailed it). Each of the findings Klein used in the column was in fact worth knowing, and I’m very glad that terrific policy journalists such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn are listening to what academics are learning. 

Ah, but the caveat. It’s about the conclusion, which Sides and Seth Masket both quote approvingly:

So political science is often accused of a sort of nihilism: Lobbyists don’t much matter, it says. Speeches are ineffective. Voters are driven by the economy, and campaigns barely move the needle. Most of the stuff that obsesses us during election season has no effect on the eventual outcome.

But if politicians took these findings to heart, it would free them to do their jobs better. “The fact that much of what cable news is talking about on any given day is not important probably is empowering,” Sides says. Particularly combined with the finding that what does matter, both for elections and for people’s lives, is how well the country is doing. Worrying less about tomorrow’s polls and news releases and more about the effect of today’s policies could make for better bills -- and happier, more successful politicians. 

I just don’t know. I missed a lot of reading over the holiday, but I did note an exchange between Karl Smith and Matt Yglesias about why democracy “works,” in the sense that democracies tend to be rich and the people in them tend to be happy. Smith suggested that democracy works despite elections that depend on “the least knowledgeable and indeed least policy interested people in society – swing voters” because of some “invisible hand” effect, while Yglesiasresponds by speculating that the good things that seem to happen in democracies are probably the cause of democracy, not its effect.

Sensible points, but I think the more obvious explanation is a visible hand: politicians, who act as if they believe that their careers depend on pleasing all the people all the time, as if their every last constituent was a C-SPAN watching, Mike Allen-reading LWV-approved citizen who will flip his or her vote at the first hint of scandal, the first sign of Potomac Fever, the first indication that the Member of Congress isn’t a slave to the district’s every whim. To bring in a bit of political science research to the party, I’ll refer you to the work of Richard Fenno (e.g. this one and this one), who uses an over-the-shoulder approach to learn what Members of Congress see when they see their districts. Reading Fenno (and I think this will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in the home constituency of a Member of the House or a Senator), one enters a world in which politicians are constantly surrounded by people who are interested in them, who ask them for things, who criticize their actions. Of course, we know from survey research that the pol’s world omits lots and lots of constituents who pay no attention at all to politics and at best might recognize the name of their representatives in Washington, but that’s not what the pol sees when she’s back in the district. 

The problem is that to an alarming extent one gets the sense that if healthy representation is a two-way relationship, then good representation may almost depend on our politicians believing the fiction of the politically active constituency. That is, if representation is about pols making promises, interpreting those promises, acting in office with those promises in mind, and then explaining their actions in light of those promises, then the whole representational relationship really seems to depend on politicians believing that the relationship is real -- that the constituent end of it is real. 

Ezra Klein, John Sides, and Seth Masket want to free politicians from obsessing about trivial nonsense that voters don’t pay attention to anyway. I understand that impulse. I can’t imagine much would be lost if Senators felt free to choose their primary residence without worrying about whether they’d be accused of “going Washington,” or if Barack Obama could pick his vacation spot without worrying about its effect on public opinion polls. The problem is that I’m not sure you can separate this particular baby from this particular bathwater. A Member of the House who realizes that she can skip a few fundraisers because incumbent spending in elections is subject to severe diminishing returns might also realize that she can skip a bunch of committee meetings, because no one in the district really cares (especially since the local paper long since has closed its Washington bureau). A Senator who realizes that it doesn’t matter much whether or not he gets time on the evening news back home might also realize that he can in most cases ignore the preferences of his district on issues of public policy. A president who understands that his ability to move public opinion is extremely limited might just not bother holding press conferences or otherwise giving any access to the press.

It really comes down to some basic questions about politics. If you believe there is such a thing as The Public Interest, and that free from corruption or distraction all people of good will would seek and find Correct Public Policy to meet that interest...well, you’ll agree with Masket, Sides, and Klein. If, on the other hand, you believe that the public interest is mostly (if not entirely) made up of lots and lots of individual and group interests, and that there’s often no “correct” answer to questions of public policy, only various possibilities that will make different sets of constituencies more or less happy, and that at any rate politicians have no special access to good choices other than through representation: in that case, you’re going to be very reluctant to mess with the paranoia that Congress has about elections. Again, I’m certainly not saying that they’re wrong -- just that I’m not always sure that I want Members of Congress to learn how much they can get (probably) get away with. And, yes, to be clear, I do think that a large chunk of politician obsession with ephemera is entirely malignant. I just don’t know how you get them to separate the things that really matter a lot with respect to voting choices (which after all they often have little control over) from the things that matter only on the margins (which includes lots of things they can affect) from the things that don’t matter at all and which worrying about is purely self-destructive. 

As a political scientist, I’m all for spreading knowledge of how the political system works, regardless of consequences; if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be blogging. I’m just not really sure in this case that the consequences would be nearly as positive as some think. Nevertheless, we’re probably safe. Politicians by their nature are craven and cowardly (and remember -- I like pols!), and so no matter what we say they’re apt to continue being paranoid about re-election. And I for one applaud their misguided paranoia.