Monday, January 9, 2012

Rhetoric matters

US Presidents generally fulfill, or seek to fulfill, their campaign promises (via):
Michael Krukones in Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984) established that about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel looked at campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. What he found was that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping. Similarly, Gerald Pomper studied party platforms, and discovered that the promises parties made were consistent with their postelection agendas. More recent and smaller-scale papers have confirmed the main point: presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.
Or, to put it another way, what Presidential candidates say as candidates is generally what you get as Presidents.

Sure, we remember broken political promises (generally, more than kept ones) but a President is generally going to do (or seek to do) as they promise. So, paying attention to what Presidential candidates say on the campaign trail is a very good idea.

Which is good news for democracy-as-voter-power. What candidates tell the voters is what they will (mostly) do if elected. The implicit contract with the voters (if you elect me I will do X) has genuine power. Indeed, a study of how members of Congress behave indicate just how much power:
What he has found is that representatives and senators see every election as a cycle that begins in the campaign, when they make promises to their constituents. Then, if they win, they interpret how those promises will constrain them once they’re in office. Once in Washington, Fenno’s politicians act with two things in mind: how their actions match the promises they’ve made in the previous campaign; and how they will be able to explain those actions when they return to their district. Representation “works,” then, because politicians are constantly aware that what they do in Washington will have to be explained to their constituents, and that it will have to be explained in terms of their original promises.
No wonder Americans generally like their local representative even as they dislike Congress. Their local representative is far more likely to try to do what they want than Congress as a whole.

The deeper question is why? Why are politicians from the President down so fixated on their political promises?

To which the simplest answer is: that there is an implicit contract, an exchange, a transaction, going on between candidate and voters. The exchange is votes-for-promises. In offering this exchange a politician faces various dangers: insufficient promise-credibility (insufficient, that is, to offer voters something worth their votes); misdirected promises (not what the voters want to be offered); misguided promises (not the consequences voters wanted when enacted). Acting as if promises matter signals credibility and so keeps the politician in the exchange-for-votes game.

And, since they are all in that game, it becomes a crucial currency with each other as well as the voters. They do promises trade-offs because that gives them win-wins--they give each other credibility. A clever politician offers specific promises so they can "horse-trade": they can help other politicians keep their promises without breaking their own. Which means politicians with congruent promises will tend to work together and those with contradictory promises will tend not to.

But they are not only signalling to voters, they are also signalling to their activists, staff and subordinates. This applies particularly strongly to Presidents, who have to signal to an entire Administration. The notion of "secret" channels of communication successfully hermetically sealed from public communication is deeply implausible (especially in such an open society as the US) and hardly any more functional, given the need to interact with other office-holders.

So, what you see is (mostly) what you get because the key communications are public. True, there is some talking in "code" (in phrases which resonate in particular ways with particular groups) but it is a "code" embedded in public speech. Rhetoric matters because it is crucial to the signalling that is so much the stuff of politics.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied]


  1. The obvious question arises is what the percentage of kept vs broken promises are for Australian elected representatives. I think that the strength of the party system in Australia means that the individual candidate runs more on the membership of a political party than they do on individual promises to their electorate. This tends to mean that promises are "party" promises more than candidate undertakings and therefore more rubbery in there fulfilment.

  2. Great question: my expectation would be the same as yours.