Why Do Good Politicians Do Bad Things?

March 2015


political corruption 6


Have you noticed that our politicians sometimes do things that can only be described as harmful to society? I have. Here are a few that easily come to mind:

  1. Both Republicans and Democrats have perfected the technique of gerrymandering, a highly anti-democratic (but currently legal) practice in which the political party in power within a state draws the boundaries of congressional districts in a way that gives their party an advantage. The party essentially selects the voters rather than the other way around.[1] Gerrymandering is harmful because it greatly distorts the electoral process, and can easily result in one side “winning” in a state even though the other side actually got more votes.
  1. Fifteen Republican governors (as of January 27, 2015) have refused to expand Medicaid in their states under the Affordable Care Act,[2] despite the fact that the Federal Government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for the first three years, phasing down to 90 percent by 2020.[3] It is the working poor in those states, many of whom are currently uninsured, who will suffer as a result of these decisions. It is predicted that some will die as a result of lack of health insurance that they could have had at little expense to the state.
  1. Almost all Republicans have denied that human-caused climate change is real. This stance is at odds with the overwhelming empirical evidence. And since that evidence also strongly suggests that not acting on this existentially important issue will result in potentially catastrophic levels of damage and human suffering, this stance is clearly harmful to our society (and to the entire world, for that matter).

I assume that, at least when they start out, politicians are basically well-intentioned, that they want to help, rather than harm, their constituents. And I suspect that’s a reasonable assumption for most (although perhaps not all) of the politicians in this country. So why do they sometimes end up doing things that are clearly seriously harmful?

Assuming they are indeed well-intentioned, politicians come to office to serve their constituents. But they can do that for only one term in office unless they can stay in office beyond that first term. So they do what it takes to get re-elected. And one of the things it takes is to satisfy (or at least not antagonize) their “funders” – the sources of the really big money they will need in the next campaign – so they can get re-elected and continue to serve their constituents’ interests.

At this point, although we can continue to think of politicians as well-intentioned, you can see how there might be a problem if their funders’ interests conflict with those of their constituents.

In his book, Republic Lost, Lawrence Lessig looks at the seriously corrupting influence of big money in politics and similarly suggests that this corruption may not be the result of corrupt politicians. “What if the absolutely debilitating corruption that we face is a corruption caused by decent souls, not crooks?” he asks.[4] He goes on to talk about the systemic corruption of our politics that has altered the incentive structure our representatives in Congress face.

“Individuals live within a system that demands certain attentions. Certain sensibilities. As those sensibilities are perfected, the representative begins to function on automatic pilot. And when she bends, she’s not bending because of a particular interest. She’s bending because of a process she has learned, and perfected. As [Robert] Kaiser puts it, these are ‘ordinary people responding logically to powerful incentives.’[5] There’s nothing else to do. It isn’t selling out. It’s surviving.”[6]

So one hugely important reason why politicians may cause damage to society is that what is good for society may conflict with what is good for their funders. They cannot continue to serve the interests of society unless they get re-elected, and to get re-elected they need to please their funders (or at least avoid displeasing them). But to do that, they may have to do something harmful to society or their constituents. There are, unfortunately, quite a number of examples of this, but I’ll note just two that are particularly salient.

The Great Recession at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse, was believed to be due primarily to excessive risk-taking behavior by large financial institutions. Many Americans lost their livelihoods and/or their homes as a result. It was the most serious economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

This bad behavior by these institutions was due in large part to the relaxation of regulations that had been intended to keep such behavior in check. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, was designed to correct this and to avoid a repeat of the behavior that brought the world economy to the brink. However, a rider to the recent continuing resolution omnibus (or so-called “Cromnibus”) spending bill basically rolled back an important part of Dodd-Frank, once again putting the country – and the world – at serious risk of another economic maelstrom.[7]

The Cromnibus bill, with the crucial rider, passed in the House by a vote of 219 to 206, with 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats voting for it. An analysis of House votes showed that those who voted for the bill had received a lot more money from the finance industry than those who voted against it.[8] An analysis by TIME magazine of the votes of House Democrats was particularly striking. Based on data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, the analysis found that, in general, the more money Democrats received from the finance industry, the more likely they were to vote for the bill.[9]

We cannot know what’s inside the head of a politician who votes one way or the other on a bill like this. We might surmise, however, that a politician who wants to be able to continue to stay in office to serve his constituents – and who had received a lot of money from the finance industry – might note that a big “dent” would be made in his “war chest” for his next campaign should the industry withdraw its largesse. In such a situation, he might decide to serve the interests of a big funder, even when those interests conflict with the interests of society – because, after all, he can’t continue to do good things for his constituents and society unless he can stay in office.

Another example of this phenomenon is the Republican denial of human-caused climate change – a position that is clearly at odds with the empirical evidence. The fossil fuel industry is one of the richest and most powerful industries in the country. It exerts enormous influence on Congress – and it has bestowed a large amount of money almost entirely on Republicans,[10] who have “returned the favor,” in part by denying that the burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate and posing an existential threat to humanity.

All that fossil fuel industry largesse increases Republicans’ chances of staying in office to continue to do good for their constituents – as long as those constituents are not killed by any of the increasingly extreme weather events that have been occurring ever more frequently as a result of the human-caused climate change they are denying.

Some of these Republicans represent states that benefit directly from the fossil fuel industry – states like Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and now North Dakota where the fossil fuel industry provides jobs and revenue for the state. Not only do these Republicans benefit from the largesse of the fossil fuel industry, but their constituents benefit too, at least in the short-term. For these Republicans, there is a genuine conflict between the short-term good they can do for their constituents by supporting the fossil fuel industry and the long-term severe damage that will surely result.

And it’s not just Republicans who face this conflict. Democrats in coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia are just as eager as Republicans to fight climate change mitigation efforts, like EPA’s proposal for large emissions reductions from power plants, if those efforts will hurt their states in the near-term.[11] Like Republicans in similar situations, they simply ignore the long-term severe damage that will result from maintaining the status quo.

But the broader denial that human-caused climate change is real is largely a Republican position, presumably motivated primarily by the largesse of the fossil fuel industry – again, all that money will help them stay in office so they can do good for their constituents.

But then why don’t Democrats also deny human-caused climate change, since if they did, then perhaps they too could benefit from the largesse of the fossil fuel industry (which might be persuaded to recalculate how it divvies up its campaign contributions between the two parties). This would then help them stay in office so they could continue to do good for their constituents – i.e., the same argument used above for Republicans. Why are virtually all the deniers of human-caused climate change Republicans?

Climate change presents an ideological problem for Republicans that it doesn’t present for Democrats. The Republican Party is the party of limited government. If you ask any serious conservative what conservatives believe, you are likely to hear (among other things), “we believe in limited government” and “we believe in a free market without excessive government regulation.” Other than national defense, you almost never hear conservatives talk about the federal government addressing a really big challenge – and yet, as I noted elsewhere, if ever there was a problem that requires a big government response, it’s climate change. But admitting this fact would be tantamount to admitting that the party ideology isn’t a good fit for all situations – including some very important ones. As Paul Krugman noted, “If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you want to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions.”[12]

Democrats don’t have this problem. A big government response to a problem like climate change does not conflict with their ideology, so they are freer to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that human-caused climate change is real – and to advocate for doing something about it that is up to the challenge.

Conflicts between real-world issues and a political party’s ideology can present a serious problem for the party. An ideology is not just a “theory.” It’s a description of “who we are, and what we believe”—the very identity of the party. If a real-world issue challenges something about that ideology, the party is more likely to somehow dismiss that issue than to take a hard look at its ideology.[13]

Recent research has revealed just how “tribal” our politics has become. When partisans are presented with evidence that contradicts their strongly held beliefs, rather than changing their minds they just dig in deeper.[14] Evidence contradicting their beliefs is experienced as an assault on their identities. Denying human-caused climate change has thus become a badge of solidarity with the Republican Party, a statement of “tribal affiliation.”

And this extends beyond the politicians to the voters as well. Republicans have dug a hole, I believe, and now they’re casting around for ways to climb out of it without damaging themselves too much. That hole – of climate change denial – has been dug with the help of the Republican “media machine.” Outfits like Fox News and various conservative talk radio shows have consistently cast doubt on human-caused climate change, so that Republicans are much less likely than Democrats or Independents to believe it is real.[15] These people vote. Having spent decades stoking hatred of “big government,” Republican politicians are not likely to fare well at the polls if they acknowledge the necessity of a “big government” response to the problem of climate change.

So even if, in the privacy of their own minds, Republican politicians know that human-caused climate change is real, they may fear admitting this to the voters – especially in Republican primaries, where there may be a challenge from the right by a Tea Party Republican. Bob Inglis (R-SC) was one of the very few in his party who, in 2010, publicly said he believes that human-caused climate change is real. He was subsequently defeated in a primary by a Tea Party candidate who most certainly did not believe in climate change.[16]

The climate change issue illustrates what can become a problem for either political party – if you’re too lax in adhering to reality, you can ultimately get trapped in an untenable position. Not only do the Republicans’ fossil fuel industry funders not want to hear about human-caused climate change being real, many Republican voters don’t either. Thus we hear prominent Republican politicians saying vapid things like, “I’m not a scientist” rather than admit climate change is real, because they fear they’ll lose in the next primary if they admit what is becoming obvious.[17]

Which brings up another “wrinkle” in the question of why good politicians sometimes do bad things – sometimes what a politician’s constituents want is at odds with what is objectively good for them. A politician may want to serve the interests of his constituents, but if those interests are based on harmful false beliefs that he and his party have encouraged, then serving those interests just exacerbates the harm. This, I believe, is part of the bind that Republican politicians are in when it comes to climate change. They have, in effect, “created a monster,” and they haven’t yet figured out how to tame it. Pleasing their voters by adhering to false (and ultimately harmful) beliefs has come to feel like a necessity to continue to stay in office to “serve their constituents.”

In addition to maintaining good relations with funders, and to avoiding antagonizing voters by contradicting their (possibly false and self-destructive) beliefs, it also helps to have the support of your political party, which can direct resources your way in the next election. There is thus an incentive to “toe the party line,” even if it is at odds with reality, and even if its implications are ultimately harmful to society at large or to the politician’s own constituents in particular.

The refusal of 15 Republican governors (as of January 27, 2015) to expand Medicaid in their states under the Affordable Care Act appears to be an example of showing solidarity with the “party line” – in this case, that Obamacare is a disaster that should be repealed.[18] Despite the fact that this isn’t actually true,[19] it has become a staple of Republican discourse. A Republican governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid in his or her state is a show of solidarity with that position and, thus, with the Republican Party.

Several Republican governors actually have expanded Medicaid in their states under the Affordable Care Act, and several others are considering doing so, despite the fact that this could be seen as “breaking with the party line.”[20] It is a testament to their interest in serving their constituents that they were willing to go against the “party line” in this case. Others, however, appear to be unfazed by the fact that their decision not to expand Medicaid is clearly harmful to many in their states.

Assuming that a politician truly believes that the ideology of his party is the best basis for a good society, he may privately acknowledge that an act taken in solidarity with his party will hurt some of his constituents or ultimately be harmful to society but think that this is all being done in pursuit of a greater good – namely, increasing the chances of his party’s success and thus the chance of a better society, once the country’s policies can be based on his party’s ideology.

And in some cases, a politician may believe that what appears as “harm” is really, ultimately in people’s best interests. While, on the face of it, refusing to expand Medicaid may seem like a harmful thing to do, a conservative governor might believe that it’s a case of “tough love,” that it will force people to get their acts together and “get off the government dole.” After all, conservatives don’t like government help for the poor in part because they think it creates a culture of dependency. So refusing to expand Medicaid might be seen as an act to stop the culture of dependency that is ultimately bad for people. Whether this is an empirically valid characterization of the situation is beside the point, as long as the politician sincerely believes it.

Towards the “greater good” of furthering the chance of success for his party and its ideology, a politician may even happily support something that, while legal, is clearly anti-democratic and thus harmful to society – like gerrymandering, something both parties engage in as soon as they get the chance. According to a recent analysis, my own state, Maryland, which is controlled by Democrats, has the “honor” of sharing the title of “most gerrymandered state” with Republican-controlled North Carolina.[21]

I don’t think anyone would argue that gerrymandering is not anti-democratic – even the politicians who do it. I suspect what they would say, however, is, “The other side does it, so to stay competitive we must do it too.” Once again, I think there is probably a “for a greater good” logic going on here. If you believe your party’s ideology is superior to that of the opposing party, then you’ll go a long way (and perhaps do some “iffy” things) to increase the chances that your party will win – and this is logically consistent with wanting to do good for your constituents and for society at large.

Not all politicians follow the patterns described above, of course. There are some who do not compromise their values to ingratiate themselves to potential funders; there are some who risk the wrath of voters to try to “lead them to a good place rather than following them to a bad place.” There are some who don’t always “toe the party line.” But such politicians are rare – and their political lives are often short, since they often don’t make it past the next primary or the next election. Such examples are sobering reminders of why most politicians are so risk-averse.

So there are several interconnected reasons why good politicians sometimes do bad things. First and foremost, they are trapped in a fundamentally corrupt system in which money is essential to getting elected and special interests can spend almost limitless amounts to influence politicians. The resulting (unofficial) quid pro quos – in which politicians respond to the wishes of their funders, even if they may ultimately be harmful to their constituents – are simply unavoidable. As Lessig notes, it’s what a politician has to do to survive in such a system.[22] As a result, a politician who wants to do good must sometimes do harm in order to be able to “stay in the game” to continue to do good.

Of course, while politicians are trying to satisfy their funders to “stay in the game,” ordinary Americans are noticing that they’re not really in the game so much anymore, and as a result they disengage.[23] Voter turnout has been falling since 1964; in the 2014 midterm election voter turnout was the lowest it’s been since World War II.[24] Sadly, many of the people who tend to get harmed by politicians’ decisions are among those who do not vote. Thus, politicians are often not held accountable by ordinary Americans for causing harm – in particular, those who don’t bother to vote. So it could be argued that the (non-) voters are part of the reason good politicians do bad things.

And, as noted above, if a politician believes in the superiority of his party’s ideology, he may be willing to inflict some short-term harm in pursuit of the longer-term good of getting (or keeping) his party in power so that it can better serve society – better, that is, than the opposing party. This “in pursuit of the greater good” logic can be applied to all the examples of harm listed in the beginning of this essay. In fact, everything a politician does – both clearly helpful and clearly harmful – can be said to be in pursuit of (what he or she considers) the greater good of getting to a position where the party’s “superior” approach can be implemented.

At some point, however, you have to wonder whether the initially good politician is still so good. If he was originally motivated by the desire to be able to continue in office to serve the interests of his constituents, he may have had to compromise himself – and ultimately do some real harm to some (or many) of his constituents to stay in office. At what point does the accumulated harm outweigh the supposed good he is doing them by staying in office? And at what point does achieving “the greater good” of being able to set policies according to his party’s (superior) ideology become an insufficient justification for all the accumulated harm done in pursuit of that goal?

And how does this good politician really know that his party’s ideology is indeed superior? Sometimes, in fact, the harm is done precisely because the party’s allegedly superior approach has been implemented – when it turns out that that approach isn’t so superior after all. There are, sadly, many examples of this. The Republicans’ “tax cuts cure all ills” approach to economic governance is a good recent example. When Kansas Governor Sam Brownback slashed taxes and that didn’t result in the influx of revenues he expected, he was forced to cut way back on spending on public services, harming all Kansans.[25] The insistence on continuing austerity measures in severely economically depressed countries in Europe is another example of implementing bad policy causing serious harm.

The underlying reason for this kind of harm seems to be an epistemic closure – an unwillingness to examine or question an ideology or theory, which itself may be harmful to society. Perhaps there is also an element of “intellectual laziness.” After saying “this is what we believe” enough times, it can be easy to forget to ask, “Why do we believe this?” or to think hard about the real world implications of those beliefs. It may be that the tribal affiliation politicians think is necessary to succeed “blocks out” any willingness to question the tribal doctrine. And that can cause enormous harm if that doctrine is seriously flawed.

Finally, there is truth, I believe, in the saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[26] I suspect that being in office, especially when that position of power is embedded within a corrupt system, can itself become corrupting – that it’s easy to fall into patterns in which staying in power becomes the primary goal rather than a secondary goal that is necessary to achieve the primary goal of helping one’s constituents or society at large. So to some extent the answer to the question is that politicians are human, and humans are flawed.

I hope it’s clear by now, however, that the problem of good politicians doing bad things is largely not just a matter of good politicians “gone bad” (although there does seem to be some of that).

When discussing the fact that individuals sometimes make poor (and self-harming) choices in their own lives, I argued elsewhere that …

“ … people’s choices are made within a social context. Children are embedded in families; families are embedded in communities. If a community is damaged or dysfunctional, it’s that much more difficult for the families in it to survive unscathed; if parents are damaged or dysfunctional, it’s that much more difficult for their children to survive unscathed. Even though we make our individual choices, and it seems as if people are doing so ‘on their own,’ it’s not that simple.”

Similar to individual citizens who make choices within a social context, politicians make choices within a political context. And for quite analogous reasons, if that political context is dysfunctional or corrupt, it’s that much easier for politicians to do bad things, and that much harder for them to do good things.

It is not uncommon for conservatives to point to the rare individuals who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” from truly difficult or dysfunctional circumstances to become successful. I argued (in the same essay) that it’s unreasonable to use those rare individuals as a standard by which to judge everyone else.

And similarly for politicians embedded in a dysfunctional and/or corrupt political system. If their political party is suffering from epistemic closure and has failed to examine the implications of its ideology in the real world; if voters don’t give politicians appropriate feedback because they don’t bother to vote; if the influence of big money in politics has fundamentally corrupted the incentive structure politicians face – and especially if all of these forms of dysfunction and corruption exist together in the political world – it would take a “superhuman” politician to rise above it all and not do some harm. Most politicians are not superhuman; they are reasonably ordinary good people who want to serve society (perhaps with a few sociopaths thrown in the mix).

The solution, then, is not to try to root out the good politicians “gone bad.” The solution is to tackle the sources of corruption in which both good and bad politicians must currently operate. None of the forms of dysfunction and corruption we currently see are new to our political system. There has always been some level of epistemic closure; there have always been people who were eligible to vote who don’t bother; there has always been the influence of money in our politics to some extent – but all of these problems have become more severe in recent years.[27],[28]

In my adult lifetime, I have watched as the problem of good politicians doing seriously bad things has grown; I’ve “marveled” at how more and more politicians seem caught in this web of corruption that has entangled our whole government.

I keep hoping that these good politicians who are doing bad things will “wake up” to the truly serious damage they are causing. But I’m not holding my breath. At this point, I’m putting my money on more and more ordinary citizens waking up.

We think of politicians as powerful – since, after all, their actions affect us all. But when even more powerful forces have “captured” our political system and the politicians in it, there is no one left to counter that huge power – except us, ordinary Americans. Each one of us individually has hardly any power at all. But if enough of us join together, we can be a powerful force indeed. We may ultimately be the only force powerful enough to counter the corruption and dysfunction that has become so endemic in our country. I hope we can. I suspect that a lot of the good politicians who do bad things hope so too.


[1] This piece at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog does a good job of explaining and illustrating gerrymandering: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/01/this-is-the-best-explanation-of-gerrymandering-you-will-ever-see/?tid=sm_fb

[2] http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/state-activity-around-expanding-medicaid-under-the-affordable-care-act/

[3] http://medicaid.gov/affordablecareact/affordable-care-act.html

[4] Lessig, Lawrence. Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. Twelve. 2011. Preface, p. xi

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Damn-Much-Money-Corrosion-Government/dp/0307385884, p. 346.

[6] Lessig. Op cit., p. 238.

[7] http://time.com/3631398/bank-derivatives-swap-congress/

[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/12/12/democrats-who-voted-for-the-spending-bill-have-received-twice-as-much-money-from-the-finance-industry-as-the-no-voters

[9] http://time.com/3640338/wall-street-congress/

[10] In the 2012 election cycle, 90 percent of contributions from the fossil fuel industry went to Republicans. https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=E01

[11] See, for example, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/coal-state-democrats-epa-97125.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/carbon-plan-puts-democrats-in-coal-states-on-the-defensive.html

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/opinion/paul-krugman-hating-good-government.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

[13] In a 2005 essay, Jonathan Chait makes the case that this is far truer of conservatives than liberals, because conservatives, he argues, are far more ideological than liberals (who are far more empirically-minded). http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/fact-finders

[14] There has been a lot written recently about this. See, for example: http://www.alternet.org/story/154252/the_republican_brain%3A_why_even_educated_conservatives_deny_science_–_and_reality/?page=entire; or http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/02/25/why-all-we-believe-our-own-favorite-experts-and-why-they-believe-themselves/

[15] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/23/most-americans-believe-in-climate-change-but-give-it-low-priority/

[16] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/interview_bob_inglis_conservative_who_believes_climate_change_is_real/2615/

[17] The recent refusal of Scott Walker (R-WI) to say if he believes in evolution is probably due to the same fear, since a substantial percentage of Republicans don’t believe in evolution.

[18] http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/state-activity-around-expanding-medicaid-under-the-affordable-care-act

[19] By all accounts, Obamacare is exceeding expectations. See, for example, http://www.vox.com/2015/2/2/7965911/obamacare-cost; http://www.vox.com/2014/11/11/7193451/obamacare-premiums-are-falling-by-0-2-across-48-major-cities; http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/06/its-time-acknowledge-reality-obamacare-working-pretty-well; or http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119623/obamacare-one-year-seven-charts-show-law-working

[20] http://kff.org/health-reform/state-indicator/state-activity-around-expanding-medicaid-under-the-affordable-care-act/

[21] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/15/americas-most-gerrymandered-congressional-districts/

[22] Lessig’s book “Republic Lost” provides an excellent discussion of the problem of money in politics. Highly recommended. http://republic.lessig.org/

[23] Academic research has shown that both Republican and Democratic congressmen respond to the desires of the rich, but not to those of the middle class or poor. See Bartel, L. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8664.html; see also Gilens, M. and B. Page. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” http://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf

[24] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/11/10/voter-turnout-in-2014-was-the-lowest-since-wwii/

[25] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/kansas-gov-sam-brownback-cut-45-million-public-school-funding

[26] Attributed to Lord Acton (1834–1902). See, for example, http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely.html

[27] I explore some of the reasons why this is so in another essay, “Trying to Explain My Crazy Country.”

[28] On the rise of epistemic closure, especially on the right, see, for example, http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/04/07/epistemic-closure-technology-and-the-end-of-distance/; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/28/books/28conserv.html?_r=0




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