a blog about philosophy in public affairs

What should voters look for in their politicians?

hillary-clinton-bernie-sandersAmidst the political chaos of the past few months, some have taken the opportunity to reflect on what it all means for democracy. In particular, the question of whether individual Members of Parliament are bound to permit Britain’s exit from the European Union because their voters supported it has led to a number of reflections on an elected representative’s duties to their constituents, often drawing on Edmund Burke.

However, I think the reverse relationship – how individual voters should relate to their representatives –  is just as interesting. Among the dominant sentiments around the EU referendum was confusion. In a campaign without the standard reflexive party political loyalties, many people appreciated for the first time the responsibility they carried with  their vote, but were at a loss as to how to use it. I think this is the best explanation for the repeated demands for ‘more facts’, patently absurd in a period where the internet means the vast majority have access to a volume of information inconceivable a generational earlier. People weren’t lacking for information, they were lacking for guidance as to how to use it.

The strange political alignments of recent months on both sides of the Atlantic have left many similarly rudderless, whether it is Republicans deliberating whether to support a person with as many personality flaws as Trump, or those on the left torn between the apparent idealism of Corbyn/Sanders and the supposed pragmatism of Clinton/mainstream Labour candidates.

On what basis should we decide between such candidates? I would suggest that there are (at least) three dimensions – policies, principles and effectiveness. I want to argue that political campaigns would be better and more helpful to voters if these were more explicitly recognised. While all three matter, I believe the balance in the relative attention that they currently receive is skewed (towards policy and the most trivial elements of character). My personal view is that principles should be the primary basis of voters’ decisions, though not to the exclusion of the others. However, I do not pretend to make a conclusive argument for such a position, and indeed welcome further debate.

Let’s start with policies, because it is common to hold that these should be the dominant, if not only, ground of political debate. On such a view, the individual voter is supposed to come up with a shopping list of measures (e.g. higher income tax on the rich, comprehensive schools, nationalisation of the railways), compare this list to each candidate’s manifesto, and vote for the one that closest matches their own. The problem with this is that policy is often technical and complicated. Ordinary voters do not have the time and resources to develop such understanding. The more domains of public policy I personally learn about, the more I appreciate how little I know. Many voters express similar humility, and understand that on a range of questions experts will have a better view than them (many more, of course, do not express such humility, but should). The 2015 UK General Election, for example, became an absurd referendum on macroeconomic policy, even though many, perhaps most, voters would not even pretend to understand rudimentary economics.

Moreover, the idea that elections should be fought on policy stances ignores the fact that policy is often reactive, responding to events that could not be foreseen. It would have been bizarre for George Bush or Tony Blair to spend a lot of time debating their responses to Islamist terrorism in the 2000/2001 elections, but these came to define their political careers.

Since most voters – and just to be clear, I would include myself in this – lack the time and ability (and clairvoyance!) to debate the detail of policies, a more honest and useful debate would concern principles. This reduces policies to their fundamental aims, and so abstracts away from technical detail to the fundamental questions of value we are all capable of evaluating. To take some standard examples, should we prioritise freedom or equality, diversity or community, parochial interests or global solidarity? By understanding how a political candidate trades off such values, we can go a significant way to understanding how they will respond to specific dilemmas and respond to unpredictable situations, even if we don’t ever appreciate the detail of these. Value debate need not be at such a high level, either. For example, instead of debating grammar schools, we might ask if the school system ought to ‘pick winners’ and heavily support the most promising children, or if it should prioritise a good standard of education for all, even if this offers less support to those promising children.

That said, arguments at the level of principle can very easily be obscured. At one extreme of abstraction, there is a danger of rhetoric losing touch with reality, and all politicians agreeing on ‘motherhood and apple pie’ values. Almost everybody says they favour freedom, equality and security – but some excavation is necessary to uncover the different conceptions or prioritisations at play. Just because Theresa May’sDowning Street speech sounds like it could have come from a politician of the left, doesn’t mean we should mistake her for one. At the other extreme of practicality,  ‘principles’ can be hard to disentangle from technical questions of policy. For example, are objections to private providers in the NHS normative positions, or based on a certain understanding of efficacy?

For all the importance of principles, politics is not just about having good ideas and intentions. It is as much about taking meaningful action. I use the term effectiveness here to refer to a person’s ability to effectively promote their values. This encompasses a range of features, including temperament and dispositions, but also skill and competence.* It might include the wisdom and intelligence to seek and act on the best advice, the interpersonal skills to persuade and build effective coalitions and the coolness to respond well to crisis. Moreover, it includes the structural advantages or disadvantages of a candidate – for example, if their party is better placed to strike the deals necessary to govern.

A politician’s effectiveness is of course central to their success. The problem is that it is extremely difficult judge from afar. A person’s qualifications and experience can give us some indication of their character – if they can handle running a large business or a government department, that gives us more confidence in their ability to run the country. Insider gossip can be helpful, too. How ‘switched on’ are they in briefings? How do they get on with colleagues? But in practice, few people get to know their candidates well enough to get a full understanding of their effectiveness.

Considering politicians through these three dimensions helps to explain some of the dilemmas facing voters in recent months. The Democratic presidential nomination contest broadly pitted those who believed that Bernie Sanders’ limitations in effectiveness could be overcome (because that is what advisers are there for) against those who insisted that Hilary Clinton’s massive advantage in that domain compensated for any deficit she had on principles. Donald Trump is interesting because he is unattractive both in terms of his principles and his effectiveness. Yet I think the limitations of his effectiveness are more remarkable – while his ultimate goals could be argued to fit with the Republican mainstream, his temperament and lack of aptitude make him less suited to be president than basically any candidate in history. What both Sanders and Trump have done, I would argue, is bring effectiveness back to the fore: where previously it was taken for granted as a minimal requirement for standing for office, their deficiencies have shown its value. All the same, it remains an open question whether its value should override the others.

* I am still unsure as to whether virtue or the moral elements of effectiveness – a person’s compassion and courage for example – should be kept separate. For example, Lyndon Johnson was effective but not virtuous. Does that matter? And by running the two together, do we miss what is truly objectionable about Trump?

Aveek Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Social Policy at the London School of Economics. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from the University of Oxford. His research interests include cosmopolitanism, migration and political economy. He blogs at https://socialproblemsarelikemaths.wordpress.com/



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  1. Nic

    All of these three factors, but especially the last two, suffer from significant measurability problems (for the voter). As well as debating the balance between the three, it would br
    E interesting to think about how we could get a better reading on all of them.

    • Thanks Nic, I totally agree. I think the first step to addressing the problem of measurability is for people to acknowledge what they are trying to measure. So if more people thought that elections ought to be fought on principles and effectiveness as I have defined them here, there would be greater effort expended in understanding where candidates sit on these dimensions. For example, journalists would be more concerned to analyse underlying value clashes, and to assess competing evidence about a politician’s effectiveness.

  2. Kasper Ossenblok

    This is an interesting read, Aveek. I can agree with all what you say, but have the same worry as Nic. In particular with regards to the theme of ‘principles’. You say we should be aware, when we want to look at principles, not to move to one of the extremes (i.e. meaningless talk about justice, equality and freedom that can be interpreted in many different ways versus specific policies). But I find it hard to come up with a proper balance between the two. So do you have suggestions or examples of ways we can ‘measure’, ‘read’, or ‘interpret’ the principles of our candidates? Isn’t vagueness about one’s principle a much rewarded (in votes) quality for politicians?

    • Thanks Kasper. You are absolutely correct that it can be very tricky to pin down different candidates’ principles. In an ideal world, politicians would be more up front about this, but as you say, they have a strong incentive to avoid alienating potential voters by clearly stating their values.

      I think the media could do more – first, to push politicians to be clearer; and second, in drawing out these differences in their analyses. Journalists have a massive informational advantage over most people in that they get to see politicians in private, speak to their teams etc. I suspect if you asked a large selection of journalists what the ideological difference between Clinton and Sanders is, they’d give a fairly consistent and accurate response. But that is not a question they are used to answering directly, so it isn’t as clearly reflected in their work as it might be.

      In terms of what we as ordinary voters can do, heuristics can be helpful. For example, I think citizens would be better informed if they had a single question in their mind while listening to a speech or debate – ‘who would disagree with this and why?’, extending charity as far as they can to opposing views. The more we can do to draw out the fundamental, base level tensions, the more effective politics should be.

  3. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you Aveek, very interesting!

    I would say that there is another crucial criterion – and possibly the most important – which lies between principles and policies, and that is “perception of social facts”. In my view, there is little disagreement between people, parties and politicians on fundamental values and principles, but the policies that they will pursue depend on their appreciation of those facts. For example, many people agree that it is unjust if you are in a situation of poverty through no fault of your own. Yet the main difference between the left and the right on this topic is the appreciation of the following factual question: can we hold most unemployed people responsible for their situation? Depending on your view on this matter, you’ll advocate unconditional social protection or workfare programmes.

    Is it easier to appreciate than policies? I don’t know. Many politicians pretend to pursue the same goal (usually something like equal liberty). You might not know which policy is the best for that goal. But you can try to feel whether the candidates’ perception of reality is the right one. Of course, in order to make the correct judgment, you need yourself to appreciate the facts correctly. I’m not claiming that this is an easy task, but certainly a crucial task for voters.

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