Politicians Don't Pander is one of those valuable books that force us to confront our compartmentalized thinking about politics. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro, two prominent political scientists, point out that Americans simultaneously hold two contradictory beliefs, each with firm conviction. One is that the growing influence of public-opinion polls has increased political pandering--politicians abdicating true leadership in favor of slavishly following polls. The conflicting belief is that the pernicious combination of money and partisanship causes officeholders to ignore the wishes of the public in favor of pursuing their own agendas and those of special interests.
As one can deduce from the book's title, the authors come down squarely on the side of the second belief. They marshal an impressive body of documentation against the pandering-by-polls platitude, bolstering the claim that today's politicians are busy with agendas that have little to do with the preferences of the vast majority of voters. Here, in broad outline, is their case:
The result is ideological dissonance: The views of a fractious elite (politicians and the activists and donors that influence them) diverge from the more pragmatic, less ideological sentiments of the majority of the voting public.
Why have these trends occurred? What happened in the 1970s and subsequent decades to make politicians pay less heed to ordinary voters? Jacobs and Shapiro cite a number of structural changes in American politics that caused this shift:
The combined effect of these changes is to give politicians strong incentives for "discounting what most Americans prefer."
The authors are pessimistic about our chances of reversing these trends. They don't think elections will do the trick. And they believe that, under the present system, politicians have learned that manipulation pays off and that they can get away with putting their own agendas (and those of their activist or moneyed supporters) ahead of the centrist majority's.
The two scholars paint a disheartening picture. They accuse Democrats and Republicans of systematically hiding their real policy goals through clever use of what they call crafted talk, specially designed to deceive voters and to obscure their true positions. They express concern that this state of affairs "invites political recklessness" by undermining our tradition of popular sovereignty and feeding the growth of voter cynicism and alienation. Their distaste for these changes leaches out of their dry, qualify-every-statement academic prose style.
Yet the authors seem more sure of their ground in describing the problem than in prescribing solutions. Though they acknowledge the popularity of campaign finance reform and reform of party rules to reduce the influence of party extremists, they don't think such reforms will be enough to change the status quo, in which it is "safer to defer to party activists and campaign contributors than to the median voter." Our society must, they believe, find new ways to shift incentives for politicians back toward responsiveness to the centrist preferences of the people.
To produce this shift of incentives, they place their hopes on creating a more deliberative democracy through "altering the process of public communication." They cite with approval recent grass-roots strides toward citizen self-education, journalistic reforms such as the civic journalism movement, attempts to make opinion polling more deliberative, new communication initiatives to "confront officeholders with their defiance of centrist opinion," and efforts to pay more attention to the opinions of the best-informed segments of the public. Using the communications media in these ways to shift politician incentives is the main thrust of their strategy.
My own experience in public-opinion research over the past half century supports the authors' analysis of trends, but not their proposed remedies. I see huge difficulties with their strategy of shifting incentives, starting with the likelihood that the tactics they propose--changing public communications--will not do the job. One should be skeptical about whether using the media to shame politicians into being more responsive will be effective. Fiddling with communications to counter structural defects, especially if it involves the mass media, easily becomes an exercise in futility.
Even assuming that politicians had strong incentives to respond to the preferences of centrist voters, how are they to know what these preferences really are? Ironically, opinion polls, despite their proliferation, rarely reveal the public's real preferences on complex issues. Polls work best when people know what they want. But on most complex issues most of the time, people haven't worked through what they want, especially when painful trade-offs are involved. As a result, polls often mislead and confuse politicians.
The authors present the Clinton health care plan as a striking example of how polls can mislead even the most astute of politicians. When the Clinton plan was first introduced, polls showed majority-level support, encouraging Clinton to believe that his powers of persuasion could vanquish all public doubts. But over a period of months, a huge chunk of this support vanished, partly as people became more familiar with the plan's drawbacks and partly for political and media-driven reasons on which the authors elaborate in detail.
The authors of Politicians Don't Pander are trapped in one of the Enlightenment's infamous false dualisms. Their distinction between politicians' policy choices and those of the public is far too sharp. They assume that these two sets of choices are so separate and distinct that politicians have only two alternatives: to get the public to embrace their choices (either through persuasion or manipulation) or to pursue the public's choices. But in reality, without active leadership, the public does not ordinarily have clear-cut policy choices of its own.
The problem is not that people are confused or dumb or incapable of formulating clear alternatives. None of these allegations is valid. Rather, the difficulty lies in the fact that political leadership shapes voter choices. Politicians do not stand outside the choice-formulating process; they are an inherent part of it. The role of the political leader is not the same as that of the scholar or the pollster: to study voter preferences. It is to formulate policy choices for the public.
In a true democratic process, there is a clear division of effort between politicians and the voters. Voters have their own values, and they know what these are. But they don't usually know how these values apply to specific policy issues. That's where political leadership is needed: to generate new ideas for achieving the voters' most cherished ideals and to spell out various policy choices for doing so.
I believe the authors dismiss the transformational abilities of elections too quickly in favor of vague communication initiatives. If politicians were to offer the electorate a new conception of leadership, elections could once again work their magic. The chances of this happening in the political domain are excellent. Look at the private sector. Every day, both in new-economy companies and in not-for-profit organizations, less hierarchical and more dialogue-based forms of leadership are taking hold and gaining momentum. It cannot be long before these conceptions find their way into politics.
New conceptions of leadership revolve around dialogue in which leaders work with their constituents to hammer out a shared vision of the future and the choices needed to achieve it. People have a voice in shaping their own destiny and are not manipulated. They begin to feel less cynical and alienated, restoring a badly needed measure of trust to the system.
The electorate needs two kinds of initiatives from our political leadership: a future direction for the nation with policy choices as subjects for public dialogue, and swift action to reduce the influence of money and party activists in politics. With initiatives of this sort, the power of elections to transform our political life--a power realized many times before in our history--may again reassert itself. Renewal of this sort has the power to restore the popular sovereignty that the authors rightly see as the heart and soul of our democracy.
These reservations about the authors' policy prescriptions do not detract from the enormous value of their thoughtful, well-documented analysis. The book gives all of us kibitzer-citizens on the sidelines a sound basis for thinking about our nation's political future. ¤