Monday, September 13, 2010

Now who's being naive, Kay?

In response to Ezra Klein's Sunday column, John Sides and I had some nice things to say about the idea of political science freeing up politicians to work on public policy rather than be obsessed with ephemera that don't affect elections.  Jonathan Bernstein objects, however:
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.
Jon's whole post is quite good.  And there are certainly some reasons that we really wouldn't want politicians to take political science to heart.  (For example, what if the minority party read some poli sci and realized that the ticket to them becoming the majority is a faltering economy, so they used all their powers, notably the filibuster, to thwart the majority's efforts to stimulate the economy.  Whew, good thing that doesn't happen in real life!)

But I take issue with Jon's contention that we can't separate the good kind of ephemera from the bad.  To go off one of his examples, I really doubt that most members of Congress attend committee meetings because they're concerned that voters are watching the hearings on C-SPAN and taking roll.  They attend because they know it's part of the job, because they're socialized into it, because they'll catch grief from their colleagues if they don't attend, because their party might get rolled on an important vote if they don't show up, and because their colleagues might not be there for them the next time around if they aren't there for their colleagues.  I also doubt that exposing politicians to political science would cause them to shirk their districts.  After all, there are a number of solid studies (like this one) showing that members of Congress who don't vote their districts have a harder time getting reelected, even if no one individual roll call vote particularly matters.  Members would still know this, and if they didn't, they'd eventually be replaced by people who did.

I recognize we're in the realm of political science fantasy here, but I believe that elected officials would still have plenty of motivation to actually represent their constituents and do their jobs even if they didn't go on audience-less Sunday talk shows or poll-test their vacation destinations.  I'm not sure how we get to that point, but I think Ezra's column is a start.


Jonathan Bernstein said...

Good points, all.

I have to say I've wondered whether some GOP operatives read & believed Richard Brody's great article about "rally around the flag" effects (the key variable that determines whether a rally happens or not is opposition reaction), and that explains a fair part of GOP rejectionism in 1993-1994 and therefore GOP rejectionism this year and last.

But to get to the main point...I think that we probably agree, but are just emphasizing different parts of it. Basically, I agree with most of what you, John, and Ezra are saying...but I suspect you agree that sometimes uncertainty or ignorance works in favor of politicians working harder, behaving better, and being more in touch with their districts than is actually necessary. I also would say that there are strong factors leading pols to be paranoid about reelection (and I'm particularly interested here in Members from safe districts, who really shouldn't have much electoral incentive at all -- and that's a lot of districts), and that it really is fantasy to believe that we can hope to overcome that.

Actually, in my paper on representation that I really should revise and try to publish at some point, I argue that parties are the insurance that representation isn't all in the rep's head, and I think that's the correct way out of it. Don't know how relevant that is to the general point, but if I'm not publishing it I might as well drop it into blog comments, at least.

Seth Masket said...

That sounds like a cool paper. Did you ever read Rosenblum's "On the Side of the Angels"? She makes the argument that it's parties (or, more specifically, partisans) who sustain the game and put meaning behind politicians' stances.