and some change

The Difference Between Politicians and the People

One of the most frustrating things about discussing US politics is the disconnect between politicians and “normal people” - whether or not the representatives who are, in theory, supposed to defend the interests of their local constituencies are in fact interested in defending or even aware of these interests. It seems to me that this is one of those questions where everybody assumes their own opinion as fact without further proof - all too often I see people start or end their arguments with some variant of “well, politicians are corrupt”, or as in David Frum’s recent article discussing how the Democrats “got the better end of the deal” with respect to healthcare reform, that our representatives are better-served by putting into place policy that serves their constituencies.

As is, we’re getting a bad trade: Republicans may gain political benefit, but Democrats get the policy. In this exchange, it is the Democrats who gain the better end of the deal. Congressional majorities come and go. Entitlement programs last forever.

I’m not thoroughly convinced that’s true. It’s a pretty well-known fact that, when it comes to major entitlement programs and economic reforms, there exists a significant delay between when said programs and reforms are passed and when the general public starts becoming aware of the benefits of said programs and reforms. US politics exhibits strong hysteresis, if you will. Evidence for this sort of phenomena is everywhere - take one look at how people credit US presidents for economic booms and busts and you should be persuaded. As such, it doesn’t seem at all clear to me that the Democrats “got the better end of the stick” at all. It seems perfectly plausible to me that, five to ten years down the road, the American public will have forgotten the long, arduous journey that healthcare reform passage was for the Democrats, and the public consensus will be that healthcare reform is a product of both parties, passed by the Democrats but trimmed and shaped by the Republicans. And the terrible thing about this is that it makes passing legislation all that much more politically untenable; if we are to expect our representatives to put in the hard work of passing major legislation, the very least we can do to encourage this sort of behavior is to credit their work appropriately.

All in all I don’t think that this sort of thing is inevitable; the American public’s disinterest in correctly attributing blame and credit for political action seems like a solvable problem. Given a more open, well-behaved Congress I could see the American public being more interested in and well-educated about American politics, but it’s not going to be solved in a day to be sure.