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Politics and Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
March 27, 2015

Immediately after the votes were counted in November 2014, our country’s political focus turned to the elections of 2016. There was not a moment’s delay. We may like to imagine that things have not always been this way, but they have. There is an important lesson here.

Last month’s column noted the classic academic view that political bargains are prerequisites to policymaking. Let’s now contemplate the prerequisite to political bargains, which is winning elections. Democratic government is about elections. Elections are the heart, soul and essence of democracy. This is as it should be and must be. Not turning our focus to the next election in the immediate aftermath of an election just concluded would be a far more worrisome proposition than doing so.

Nevertheless, denigrating politicians for engaging in what is often regarded as the tawdry process of running for office is a favorite pastime. We honor the concept of democracy, but we deplore many aspects of its practice. We especially deplore the relentless need to raise money that so often casts candidates in unflattering light, the incessant self-promotional activities of candidates and office holders, and the personal attacks that dominate political campaigns and discourse. Or, more correctly, we say that we deplore those things. But we don’t mean it, because politicians who fail in any of those regards do not get elected to office.

Wilson marchTheory has it that politicians have two jobs. The first job is to win election. The second job is to govern. But consider how we determine if elected officials are governing satisfactorily. There is one and only one means of making this determination: at the polls. The evident fact of the matter, then, is that politicians have only one job: to win election. The idea that governing is a second, separate job is simply wrong: there is no second, separate job. The job of governing is a subordinate component of the job of getting elected.

Consider our experience with term limits. If there were a second, separate job, termed-out or “lame duck” politicians would be in perfect position to achieve in it. Their seniority, knowledge, and independence from the next election would make them ideal governing and policy leaders. Instead, termed-out politicians are universally weak. Not running in the next election turns out to be, in practice, an insurmountable handicap for politicians, demonstrative of a fundamental truth about democracy: the tasks and responsibilities of governing flow from the last election and anticipate the next one.

It is foolish to call on politicians to set aside contemplation of the next election so as to govern in the interim. I am often called a diabolical cynic when I offer this perspective. But if any view is cynical, it is the view that politicians should value policy above elections. If we want to understand how elected officials govern, we must see governing as a subcategory in the larger category of elections.

If the way to win elections were to analyze and produce intellectual policies that address the complexities of the modern world, in the manner of schools of public policy, our politicians would have no problem doing exactly that. They are plenty capable. That it is not done says nothing at all about what elected officials understand or dare. The plain fact of the matter is that doing so would not be rewarded at the polls. When doing so is rewarded at the polls, it will be done straightaway.

It is a fundamental truth, everywhere and always that holding office is the highest political value. Democracies are no different from other forms of government in this regard. What distinguishes democracies is that office holders obtain office through elections. This is arguably the most important distinction in the human experience.

It is therefore obligatory for politicians to speak and act in accordance with the results of the last, and expectations about the next, election. This conduct is honorable, not dishonorable. As they discharge their responsibilities in these regards, elected officials refer ultimate responsibility to exactly the right place: the voters.

When we observe the political arena through the election-focused lenses politicians wear for as long as they serve, we obtain a new vantage point. The conduct of elected officials comes clearly into focus. We see responsibilities and burdens previously overlooked. Maybe a reappraisal of politicians’ performance is in order.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management. 

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