Missing in Action
When people turn their backs on public office
George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 begins, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Listen very closely: the political clocks are striking thirteen again.
Voters are making strange choices. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are gridlocked, unable to solve or even address major social problems, some of which they are themselves creating. Donald J. Trump is the U.S. president, Boris Johnson is the U.K. prime minister, and Doug Ford is the Ontario premier. Hate crimes and gun violence occur almost daily. Against this background, federal elections are coming in both Canada and the U.S.
Theories on increased polarization abound — manufactured by quality journals, newspapers, and broadcasts on the left and the right. Bookstore shelves sag under the weight of tomes describing the decline or even the end of democratic government. Hand-wringing in conferences and on websites is escalating.
Consider the august Perspective on Politics, published by the American Political Science Association, which speaks of “perverse institutionalization” and “elements of an antecedent non-democratic system.” The current U.S. system, it argues, “has begun to threaten the very notion that America is a democracy.” America no longer a democracy? What do we do now?
Significant social change can begin with our southern neighbour and then cross our border. It’s happened before, and there are already signs of sharpening ideological conflict. Nationally, Maxime Bernier has split from the Conservative Party and set up the new People’s Party, which is devoted to ending multiculturalism, promoting a single national identity, and limiting immigration. At a provincial level, newspapers reported on extreme nationalism in Manitoba in the recent election campaign. Other examples from across the country indicate what else could come. For now, at least, polls indicate Canadians have scant sympathy for the white working-class fears at the heart of American polarization.
Nonetheless, Canadians would do well to observe closely America’s ideological hyperpolarization, along with the declines in its capacity for effective governance. A good place to start might well be Andrew B. Hall’s new book. With Who Wants to Run?, the Stanford University political scientist offers an in-depth study of intense political bifurcation, which he links to the broader emergence of authoritarianism and populism.
Studies of polarization often begin with voters and why they elect the people they do. That’s the wrong approach, says Hall. Researchers should be examining the candidate pool: the individuals who choose to enter electoral politics. Hall estimates that during his chosen time frame, from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to the present, voter choice is responsible for just 20 percent of polarization, while 80 percent is rooted in the changing nature of the candidates themselves.
Put simply, voters pick from the names that are on the ballot. Only a handful of write-in candidates, fewer than ten since the Second World War, have been elected to the House of Representatives, and those wins have mostly been the result of special circumstances (a son or wife running to replace a deceased father or husband, for example). The real problem can be found in who decides to run, and even more in who decides not to run. “Most legislative polarization is already baked into the set of people who run for office,” Hall argues.
All democracies depend upon the quality and effectiveness of their elected politicians; their success hinges on the largely invisible, widely unappreciated process through which qualified people enter the electoral game. Of course, no law says anyone must leave private life and run for public office. Personal decisions have an immense if hidden effect on a nation’s political life. “The more fundamental problem faced by all democracies,” Hill writes, “in all times and places, is to attract good people to become politicians.”
As the British Tory Enoch Powell observed, all political careers end in tears. So why bother running? If you believe the biographers, there are days when most politicians who have run wish they hadn’t. But imagine Canadian history without John A. Macdonald, Louis St. Laurent, Lester B. Pearson, or Pierre Trudeau; with no John Diefenbaker, Bill Davis, or Peter Lougheed; short of Tommy Douglas, Agnes Macphail, or Lincoln Alexander. How do you ensure diverse, balanced views and a range of life experiences on the ballot?
Historically, it has been the job of political parties to identify, train, vet, and promote qualified persons. But over the last several decades, parties in many democracies have grown smaller and less influential. In 1953, for example, the British Conservative Party had 2.8 million members and the Labour Party, over a million. Today, the Tories have about 160,000 members and Labour has just under 500,000. As political parties have grown smaller, the population of would-be voters has grown larger. Reaching the voter has become more and more expensive.
In that sense, the party of today plays a lesser role in forming the candidate pool. The backroom of yesterday has given way to self-recruitment, increasingly by wealthy people capable of financing their own electoral ambitions. A tightly controlled party message must also compete with the influence of dark money and a popular fixation on celebrity candidates, with attractive personalities often trumping political experience.
Other demographic shifts, examined by social scientists under the heading of “massification,” have further widened the psychological distance between voters and their elected representatives, along with the sense of efficacy and connection. When the United States achieved independence, the new republic was home to roughly 120,000 eligible voters (of course, many more people were deemed ineligible by the founders). Today, it has in excess of 200 million. Even with more senators and representatives, it is infinitely harder for any one individual to feel his or her vote counts — which leads to a decline in voter turnout.
In the 2016 presidential election, about 130 million voted. Over 90 million eligible citizens did not. Here in Canada, the federal Conservative Party recently used Facebook ads to solicit candidates for the October election. The ads ran in more than 100 ridings — almost a third of the 338 federal ridings across the country. What does this say about the availability (or interest) of qualified candidates in our democracy?
Polarization exacerbates the effect of all of these political changes. As a case study, Who Wants to Run? drives the point home. In it, Hall applies complex statistical models and data analyses to 24,123 candidates, both winners and losers, who have run for the House of Representatives since 1980. It is with the candidate pool, he argues, that the core problem in modern politics lies.
Historically, politics has been marked by compromise and collaboration. Extreme polarization effectively blocks compromise in both the making of decisions and the implementation of decisions that are actually made. Reciprocal accommodation has immense social and political value, and yet it is neglected time and again. Campaigns become more negative. The possibility of making a difference shrinks. The overall environment becomes increasingly unattractive. As a result, Congress no longer benefits from the talents of the best people. It’s not just that they don’t get elected: they no longer even enter the pool. “Smart people figured this out years ago,” Hall writes, “and decided to pursue careers other than running for Congress.”
Incentives for running once included prestige, bringing important issues to the attention of government and voters, influencing public policy, and making decent money for one’s service. Then, around 1980, congressional salaries began to fall (when adjusted for inflation) as the cost of campaigning skyrocketed. Members had to spend more and more time raising funds for their next campaign — and less time actually serving their constituents.
Today, the average member spends at least thirty hours a week off Capitol Hill, “dialling for dollars” from a crummy hidey-hole (they cannot make fundraising calls from their congressional offices). Each hour spent raising election money is an hour not spent on other tasks: writing legislation, sitting in the House, serving on committees, or addressing the needs of constituents. And should a representative be lucky enough to have a reasonably safe seat, he or she is expected to raise and donate money that the party can transfer to candidates running in tighter races.
The negatives of running outweigh the incentives in other ways. Today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle means media scrutiny that is more intense, more personal, and more intrusive than ever before, especially for families. The first “tabloid scandal” of American politics, which destroyed the career of the Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, occurred toward the end of Reagan’s second term, in 1988 — well before the advent of cable news.
And it’s not that voters prefer extreme politicians. Extensive data shows that, on average, Americans favour more moderate candidates — those with political ideologies in line with median principles in any given district. For Hall, “moderate” and “extreme” are relative terms, not absolute. But even in this sense, the system does not give voters true choice: “Many people don’t believe U.S. elections favor moderates because they see so much extremism in our legislatures and in our public discourse. This is a tempting fallacy.” Polarization grows as the number of moderates running declines. Put another way, “our legislatures seem to be extreme mainly because voters are constrained to choose from a polarized set of candidates.”
Hall is concerned with extreme views — regardless of whether they’re left or right. (Some Democrats, in particular, seem to prefer a certain level of extremism in the lead-up to 2020.) Would-be moderate candidates may be especially sensitive to the diminishing returns on a campaign: “When costs of running are high or benefits of holding office are low, more-moderate candidates are disproportionately less likely to run.” But extreme candidates, he asserts, are more viscerally opposed to ideologies different from their own, and are therefore motivated to run in order to moderate their progress. This has been happening for years.
Ideologically entrenched candidates do not adjust their ideologies to align with the dominant preferences of the voters in their districts; few politicians are “infinitely pliable.” Yet voters do not respond to rigidity by replacing incumbents with new candidates, so polarization compounds with each new election cycle: “Ideological divergence in U.S. elections is persistent.” As a result, essentially all Democrats are to the left of their districts’ ideological midpoints, and all Republicans are to the right of them. In this sense, the left-wing Squad and the right-wing Tea Party are to be expected.
Among the more innovative aspects of Hall’s methodology is how he determines the ideological orientation of both candidates and elected representatives: by examining the mindset of their donors. Traditionally, one would evaluate voting records in the House of Representatives to place someone on the ideological spectrum. But losers from the candidate pool — who always outnumber winners — do not have such records. Drawing conclusions based on financial donors provides valuable insight about the source of polarization; it gets us closer to the root cause of the problem. Unfortunately, Hall’s recommendations to fix that problem are less compelling.
Hall proposes three key changes to improve politics. First, reform campaign financing so that members of Congress no longer make fundraising their primary obligation. Second, raise their salaries to compete with private-sector jobs. Third, members of a legislative caucus should consider how their choices might encourage or discourage moderate candidates from running in the future. Combined, these recommendations place a greater emphasis on recruitment of qualified individuals: “We cannot have high-quality representatives unless high-quality citizens run for office, and high-quality citizens will not run for office unless they have the proper incentives to do so.”
But what could leaders in both parties, and in both houses of Congress, do right now to decrease polarization among those already in office? Hall doesn’t say.
I recently received an email from someone considering a run for Congress. He was about to announce his decision:
I was struggling to officially commit. I know how hard it is to run, how much time it takes away from my family, and the hateful attacks we will endure. I also considered other opportunities as a business professional, and even other roles as a public servant. Certainly, there is a path of less resistance.
He has run before, in a state that usually votes for his party. He lost by less than 1 percent last time. He has a good shot at winning this time. But even for someone like him, the path to public office is getting steadily steeper and less attractive. The choice to run is getting harder.
Voters will continue to make strange choices if extreme options are all they have. In an overly polarized world, whether in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada, the public is the true loser.