Getting Elected for Its Own Sake

One persistent meme about U.S. and European politics maintains that all parties are in the grip of plutocrats and that’s why very little substantive reform happens no matter who is in power. Peter Oborne offers a different and intriguing perspective focusing on the role of the media and those politicians who are servants to it:

Post-war politicians can be broadly divided into two categories: those who have been dedicated to real, substantial achievement, and those who have concentrated on style and presentation. Within the first category fall Clem Attlee, Aneurin Bevan and Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not we admire what they did, there is no question that all three left an imprint on history.

Politicians from the second category are more elusive, because they tend to treat politics at least in part as a branch of the public-relations industry. Tony Blair represented the apotheosis of this particular tradition, though David Cameron most unfortunately chose to be his disciple.

Tony Blair was and is a puzzle to many people and not only because he chose to send British troops to Iraq. He was extraordinarily good at maintaining his popularity and getting elected, which is why he was one of the longest serving Prime Ministers in history. But why did he go to the trouble? His only deep commitment once he got to Number 10 seemed to be staying there. There would be a poll-tested small-bore accomplishment here, a few friendly cultural signals (e.g., “Cool Britannia”) there and suddenly it was time for another election. Bill Clinton had similar impulses and might have carried on entirely the same way had he ruled in a Parliamentary system rather than in ours where Congress (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad) forced him into taking some risks and making some substantive policy changes.

I hope Oborne is wrong that Cameron is going to go the same way. I can hear some political pros rolling their eyes as I say this, but “We have to do this to get elected” is not an adequate justification, by itself, for political decisions. Getting elected is a means to actually accomplishing something, not an end in itself, and no head of state who left a positive mark on history shrank from this truth.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Getting Elected for Its Own Sake”

  1. Uh. Bill Clinton did or tried to do the following despite not being in a parliamentary system:

    – 1993 deficit reduction bill
    – GATT
    – NAFTA
    – family and medical leave act
    – welfare reform
    – health care reform

    Leaving aside the merits of any of that, that hardly resembles somebody who was just in it for the paycheck. If the US had had a parliamentary system, it would have been Clinton not Obama who signed a health care reform bill and probably some kind of price on carbon (perhaps the BTU tax that was briefly considered in 1993).

  2. About Bill Clinton … Ron E.’s comment +1.

    About Tony Blair … You can criticize his judgment; certainly, I would.
    But he repeatedly took big political risks to do what (he saw as) the right long-term action.
    Examples include the invasion of Iraq; Gordon Brown’s economic policies; restructuring the UK government [House of Lords, regional devolution, Supreme Court, etc.]

  3. Yes to Keith Humphrey’s thesis and no, after reading the wish list of one of Cameron´s most trusted advisors and his ‘blue sky’ thinker, Steve Hilton, I hope that Cameron´s sole ambition is merely to hang on to his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and not too much about his legacy.

    “Ministers yesterday disowned controversial ideas floated by David Cameron’s strategy guru, including the scrapping of maternity leave and consumer rights and the closure of jobcentres..The fact that he supports such a crackers and unfair plan as proposing the abolition of maternity leave says something ominous about this Government and once again about David Cameron’s judgement too.”

    If Cameron were to obtain a majority government, next election, then the sky might indeed be the limit.

  4. Like so much political analysis, this lets us put politicians in “good” or “bad” categories based on our own whims. And so it’s not really analaysis at all. Take Tony Blair: I don’t have strong opinions about him one way or the other, and of course he was a public relations man. But even in my provinical backwater, we heard about the Good Friday Agreement…the creation of Scottish, Irish and Welsh Assemblies…reform of the House of Lords…the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

    Good or bad, those last three sound like quite a constitutional shake-up to me. Perhaps we have different ideas as to what would constitute a “large-bore” achievement?

  5. Also Clinton tried to pass a BTU tax to fight climate change and took on gays in the military back in 1993.

  6. The ultimate American “getting elected for its own sake” politician is in the White House right now.

  7. Perhaps there are a few U.S. congressmen (women) with lofty goals, but I think there are a great many like Christine O’Donnell looking for a generous income and hoping to hang on to it. Many others who already have wealth like the power games. Priorities are fund-raising, re-election, and catering to funding overlords. The nation’s business is merely an inconvenient waste of time and an arena for egotistical control games. The only way citizens can regain the “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” principle is by voting politicians out of office after one term. We would have better luck with a congress full of novices rather than the partisan-fanatic crew currently ruining democracy.

  8. Joy, imagine, if you will, a Congress full of novice partisan fanatics who can serve only 1 term and thus have nothing to lose by being as partisan and fanatic as they want. Imagine these same hacks having no appreciation of the complexity of government and society and writing really bad legislation full of unintended loopholes and ambiguous meanings. It’s nice to dream about how a “One Term” rule would bring us closer to a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” utopia. But I don’t think you’ve really thought through how badly it could go. You seem to be searching for a way to maximize integrity amongst our congress critters. I’m definitely sympathetic to that but I think a “One Term” rule is as much a shot in the dark as what we currently have. Worse, actually.

  9. Ron E.: Good point about Clinton and health care reform effort, that was a case of dreaming big and I should not have minimized that.

  10. I agree with Ron E. and others above that this post is very unfair to Clinton. And while I’m not exactly familiar with Blair’s achievements or aspirations, even to an occasional and not terribly engaged observer it seems to me that he and the people around him succeeded in transforming the Labor party to the point where it became relevant and electable again. Compare him with Michael Foot for example.

    More generally I don’t know what to make of complaints about “small-bore” achievements. He and Clinton are basically pragmatists and technocrats. I think that’s a good thing.

  11. Larry: “transforming the Labor party to the point where it became relevant and electable again….”

    He did. So what? My position is that it doesn’t matter if a party is electable if it doesn’t accomplish things. Promise the voters 5 dollars in benefits for each dollar in taxes and you can get elected and stay elected. So what? Nothing to be proud of, by itself.

  12. Aren’t we omitting getting elected for the sake of distributing graft to one’s friends and associates, either by name or by class?

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