Holding Politicians Accountable

I struggle to think of another essay that brings such excellent data and analytical power to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion.

The correct starting point for addressing the issues raised in this piece should be the following basically incontrovertible points about the past half-century of American history.

First, the structure of political and economic life has changed substantially since the Johnson administration. Second, George W. Bush’s first term was not a period of successful public policymaking, either in conception or in execution. Third, the Great Society—Medicare, Medicaid, federal education assistance, etc.—made a lasting and meaningful contribution to the well being of working- and middle-class Americans.

Therefore if survey data illustrate that policy responsiveness to public opinion reached its apogee in 2001–2004 and was at a nadir in the mid-1960s, it must be telling us that policy responsiveness to public opinion is not particularly important.

And, indeed, the idea that the point of democracy is to implement legislative outcomes that are supported by broad-based surveys seems almost like a straw man dreamed up by an eighteenth-century monarchist. Gilens concedes that other values—the protection of minority rights, for example—may also be important, but this misses the forest for the trees. The purpose of a political system is to resolve political questions in a satisfactory way. When you hire a plumber, you don’t want him to ask you how you think the plumbing should be fixed. You’ve hired him so that he can look at the situation and do what needs to be done. Your role as the customer is to try to find a plumber with a good reputation, to recommend him to others if he’s done a good job, and to fire him if he can’t make it work.

The purpose of a political system is to resolve political questions in a satisfactory way, not to reflect wider views.

Representative government is not so different. The watchword of democracy should not be responsiveness but rather accountability.

In a well-functioning system, voters should elect a team of politicians and then fire them if their performance is seen as unsatisfactory. Seen in this light, the problem with American democracy today is that the intersection of counter-majoritarian legislative procedures and increased partisan polarization has blurred the lines of responsibility. Eighteen months into Barack Obama’s term in office it was plain that the results had been unsatisfactory. The electorate voted in the midterms to blame Obama and his co-partisans for that, even as sophisticated observers recognized that Senate Republicans had used the filibuster to exercise de facto veto power over many of his signature initiatives.

Gilens emphasizes that this sort of gridlock can enhance responsiveness by ensuring that one party or the other will block controversial initiatives. That’s nice as far as it goes. But it’s a poor recipe for a well-governed country, making it difficult to take on policy problems and decide who is accountable when things end up poorly.

Needless to say, the disproportionate influence of the rich on the political system is also troubling from an accountability perspective. It suggests that elected officials will be more responsive to the objective needs of the prosperous at the expense of those whose objective needs are more pressing. But pining for a world in which policy outputs precisely reflect the views of the public is neither here nor there in terms of obtaining a better political system.