The summer after my first year at Harvard Law School, I worked at the Office of Legal Counsel for Governor Mitt Romney. At a small private meeting with the interns, an elected official (not Romney) said something that I’ve never forgotten. This politican pointed out that there are two different skill sets to being a politician: campaigning and governing. These two skill sets are different and we choose our politicians based almost exclusively on their skill at campaigning, not at governing. When we vote for non-incumbents, all we can go by is their skill at campaigning. For incumbents, we can look at their prior record when deciding. But few voters do. And even fewer have the intelligence, skill, and wisdom to ably evaluate a politician’s record (more on that later).
Someone who is good at campaigning isn’t necessarily good at governing. A lot of what it takes to get elected is looking good on TV (indeed, many studies indicate that a candidate’s looks influence voter choices, especially for less-informed voters and for voters who watch a lot of TV*), being a good public speaker, and being able to convince donors to give a lot of money to your campaign. Some of these skills can come in handy for candidates once they’re in power, but they are not the central skills to governing well. Having these skills doesn’t really say much about how wise and far thinking you are or about your level of integrity. They don’t show how well you know science, law, economics, foreign affairs, demography, and human behavior to understand what is happening in a society and thus make good, informed judgments to set a future course. For example, physicist Greg Cochran has pointed out that anyone who understood the basic science and engineering required to produce nuclear weapons would have known that the claims in the early 2000s about nuclear programs in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq—which were used to justify the Iraq War—were not in any way credible, given the state of Iraq’s human and physical capital.
When you think about it, it is bizarrely incongruous that we brag about how great democracy is, yet the thing we actually expect politicians to do—govern—requires a separate skill set from what we test them for on the campaign trail. Sometimes we luck out and get a politician who can do both things well. Too often we end up with disappointing mediocrities in power. The modern age of TV and internet makes this problem, which democratic republics have always had, even worse. It elevates form over substance and brings success to campaigners who look good on camera and give good sound bites, but who lack substance. More and more, we have elected officials who are good at campaigning but poor at governing.
The modern age also selects for a worse kind of candidate in a different way, because campaigns have become more grueling and difficult in three ways:
1) More time away from home. The American electoral process has always required that candidates spend time away from their homes and families, traveling and campaigning (especially for elections of the president, senators, and statewide offices). But the convenience and ease of modern travel and communication has caused campaign seasons to lengthen more and more. Thus, candidates are forced to spend ever-longer periods of time campaigning.
2) Increased scrutiny of their private lives and attacks on their character. Modern campaigns subject both the candidate and the candidate’s family to ever-greater intrusive scrutiny and criticism of all aspects of their lives and of their pasts—scrutiny both by the media and the opposition. And often the criticisms are not even true, or only partly true.
3) Fundraising and kissing up to donors. Modern campaigns require that candidates spend inordinate amounts of time fundraising and kissing up to donors.
What kind of person would subject themselves to this? Either someone who is extraordinarily public-service minded or someone who lusts for power, fame, status, and recognition. Which kind do you think most of our politicians end up being?
Even the public-spirited politicians, once they get a taste of power, too often end up going bad, and the bad ones just get worse. Modern research has confirmed Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt.” For example, people who occupy positions of power are prone to act with greater hypocrisy. They are more likely to judge others harshly for moral failings, but are less likely to actually follow those same moral requirements themselves—instead they judge themselves leniently for their own moral failings.** A laboratory study found that the more power someone had, the more likely they were to make choices that benefitted themselves personally at the expense of well-being of the group they were leading.*** Another study found that people even naturally became better liars—they got better at deceiving others—when they were given more power.****
To fix our system, we need a new way of selecting our leaders.
* Gabriel S. Lenz and Chappell Lawson, “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance,” Journal of Political Science, Vol. 55, No. 3, July 2011, Pp. 574–589, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00511.x, http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7536991/looking_the_part.pdf.
**Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky, “Power Increases Hypocrisy Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior,” Pstchological Science, Vol. 21, No. 5, May 2010, pp. 737-744, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/5/737, http://epoca.globo.com/edic/616/616_Power_Hypocrisy_Psych_Science_in_press.pdf.
***Samuel Bendahan, Christian Zehnder, François P. Pralong, and John Antonakis, “Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone,” The Leadership Quarterly, April 2015, Vol.26(2):101–122, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.07.010, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984314000800?via%3Dihub
****Dana R. Carne, D. Dubois, N. Nichiporuk, L. ten Brinke, D. D.
Rucker, A. D. Galinsky, “The Deception Equilibrium: The Powerful Are Better Liars but the Powerless Are Better Lie-Detectors,” Un-
published Manuscript, http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/deception.equillibrium.ms.and.ols.pdf.