Jun 07 2024

Choosing our Representatives

Published by under General
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As we are in an election year in the US, there seems to be only one thing on which there is broad agreement – this upcoming election will be consequential. So allow me to share some of my musings about the process of electing our political representatives.

Let me start by laying out what I see as the major considerations for what makes an ideal representative. This is basic stuff, but it’s worth framing the discussion. We tend to evaluate candidates on three major criteria – their overall morality and character, their experience and competence, and their ideological alignment. At least, we profess to evaluate them on these criteria, and to some extent we do. But we also use some heuristic proxies – how charismatic are they, and how good a speaker/debater are they? Sometimes we even use superficial proxies, like height – the taller candidate has won 58 percent of U.S. presidential elections between 1789 and 2008. This is obviously not a huge factor, but may tip the scales in a close election.

One question is, how do we balance the three main factors above, character, experience, and ideology? The conventional wisdom these days, which matches my experience and I think is correct, is that in the past character was not a determinative factor but a minimum bar. In other words, we generally would not necessarily vote for the person with the better character, but lack of character could be disqualifying. Many a candidate has been sunk by a “scandal” involving their moral character (ala “Monkey Business”). Although some politicians have been able to use their charisma and oratory skills to minimize the impact (think Jennifer Flowers). And again we often use dubious proxies – are they “church-going”.

How valid is character as a criterion? I think very. We are to some extent trusting individuals with a tremendous amount of power, in positions that involve lots of temptations towards corruption and self-dealing. Character matters. But to clarify, I am not defending the old standard, which was too tabloid scandal-based. It motivated the opposition to find any “dirt” on their opponent and run smear campaigns. This is where good journalism is critical to democracy – finding hard examples in the records of candidates to indicate their dedication to public service and resistance to corruption. Regardless of how we determine character, it is reasonable to expect and even demand a minimum threshold to qualify for public office.

It does seem that over time, and massively accelerated by Trump, character has ceased to be a criterion at all. This, in my opinion, is very dangerous. Trump has made shamelessness a superpower, making himself virtually invulnerable to scandal. At least, that’s the popular narrative. I think that overcalls it – it does affect voters on the margins, and that may determine election outcomes. But what is true is that a large number of voters seem unbothered by a fatal lack of character, in a way that I do not think was possible in decades past.

What about ability and experience? I do think this continues to be a valued trait, but again, not determinative unto itself. I think it should be more of a criterion. In fact, I would argue this is the most important of the three. I would rather have a competent, experienced, and morale leader with whom I disagree ideologically, than one ideologically aligned with my politics but immoral and incompetent. Of course – we all want all three, the triple threat perfect candidate. But we can’t always get what we want and we have to figure out how to make the best compromise. I do think experience is generally undervalued, and we would be better off collectively if we demanded more of our representatives.

What about ideology? To me, this is the least important. This may be partly due to the fact that I don’t align strongly with either major political party, but tend to have individual topic views that range across the ideological spectrum. I tend to prefer centrists and pragmatists to extremists of either party. (I tend to be overall anti-ideology.) But you know – so do many people. When you ask them about individual topics, stripped of partisan labels, there tends to be a 60% or so consensus on centrist common sense positions and solutions. But that’s not, unfortunately, how politics works. We have tribes, and those tribes have packages of positions.

There is another variable here, and that is – how much ideological purity is generally required within political parties. A party can be a broad coalition, with room for a range of opinions, or very narrow, policing its own members for ideological purity. Right now the two major political parties in the US differ considerably on this score. Democrats are a pretty broad coalition, from progressives to centrists. While especially in the last decade Republicans have been “Rino hunting” (their own words – Republican in name only) and strangely narrowing their ideological coalition. With Trump that ideology is no longer even conservative – it’s one thing, loyalty to Trump.

The worst case scenario for many people is to face a candidate who fails when it comes to morality and competence, but promises to champion our ideological agenda. Do we make a “deal with the devil?” I think the answer should be no. This is a fools bargain that is highly likely to blow up in our faces. This should be obvious – but there are some problems here. One is the insulated information ecosystems that the media, algorithms, and our own behavior have created. But also there is motivated reasoning. We are good at making up reasons to do what we emotionally want even when we intellectually know it’s wrong. So we convince ourselves of whatever version of reality allows us to have our cake and eat it too. The media ecosystems make this easy – they do all the heavy lifting for us. All we have to do is sit back, soak it in, and not question anything.

But we owe each other, as responsible citizens, not to lazily fall for motivated reasoning, and not to blindly follow the ideological narratives that have been crafted for us. We need to each do our due diligence, and be willing to compromise on ideology to make sure that we hold our elected officials to high standards of ethics and competence. This is partly what the next election is about, and I think it eclipses any other considerations.

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