Monday, April 21, 2014

The Fundamental Theorem of American Politics

Here's the sad truth, folks: our politicians don't really give a damn what you think (unless you happen to be a billionaire who's out slumming in the blogosphere).

How do I know this? Here's how: A recent paper (pdf) by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page at Princeton. 

They analyzed polling data and policy outcomes over the last 30+ years, and found that when the policy preferences of average citizens were different from those of the elites and of organized interest groups, guess who wins?

Maybe this explains why large majorities of the public want a higher minimum wage and background checks for gun purchases, but we still don't have them.

In any event, thinking about this has led me to a breathtaking insight, which I have immodestly christened The Fundamental Theorem of American Politics. Here it is:

To be successful, a politician must serve the interests of the elites while convincingly appearing to care about the interests of the common people. 

OK, maybe you already basically thought this, but looking at it in black & white helps explain a lot. For instance, Mitt Romney failed simply because he wasn't convincing in his attempts to claim he cared about non-rich people. Had he been a better actor (see: Ronald Reagan), he'd probably be sitting in the White House today.

And I don't say this just to dump on politicians; actually, it's quite a skill to be able to simulate caring about popular issues while actually doing nothing concrete to support them, and in many cases doing the opposite.

But it might help if we held their feet to the fire more often.

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