Vote for the smart, hardworking one

[by JSC5]

For a couple unrelated reasons, I’ve watched more legislative committee hearings in the past week (about 20 hours worth) than the average political junky will watch in a lifetime. It wasn’t an experience I’d really recommend to anyone else, so let me save you the trouble and summarize the take-home lesson: the vast majority of legislators in this country don’t know the first thing about anything. If we really understand that, then we should start changing the way we vote.

It’s true that your average voter dislikes a number of things about politicians. They’re perceived as being  slightly above used car salesmen in terms of trustworthiness. They’re seen as baby-kissing blowhards, shills, ideologically extreme, and creatures of special interests. But I don’t think voters usually think of politicians as dumb, ill-informed, or lazy. The stereotypical pol is far too devious and calculating to be dumb or ignorant!

But I’m here to tell you that your average politician actually is ill-informed and not very interested in learning. It’s true on the federal level, where the entire saga from the crash in 2008 to the financial regulation bill today has been hampered by a basic ignorance of how financial markets work, how they interface with the real economy, and how government policies work in this sphere. The (relatively) informed debate on health care reform is the one exception that highlights the general rule. Health care has been item #1 in progressive politics for several decades. Any politician that wanted to get progressive support had to get educated on it. And once it became a live debate on the federal level — ie, in the last 17 years or so — every politician that wanted conservative support had to bone up on the subject as well. But there aren’t many issues out there with that kind of electoral importance. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single one right now that carries the same import among the groups that determine what politicians care about.

That means politicians are free to be as ignorant as they want. And as uninformed as your average pol is on the federal level, it’s even worse in the state capitol: the elections aren’t as competitive, the activist and lobbying interests aren’t as well organized, the agendas are thinner, and elite politicians usually leave as soon as possible, dropping the average.

This leads to two unfortunate outcomes: (1) staff and lobbyists fill in the gaps left by politicians’ ignorance, letting them drive much of what happens in the legislature, and (2) most politicians are bench warmers, with only a few engaged pols taking an active role in the process. As a professor in college used to say, 90% of the work in Congress is done by 10% of the people.

This surely isn’t news to those of you who have any experience in legislative politics. But for the rest of the gin-swilling*, unwashed** masses: do yourself a favor and vote for the hardworking, smart guy/gal in the race. It’s hard for me to tease out how important competence is compared with policy positions, but it’s definitely in contention. A willingness to do your homework and come to a committee hearing prepared is rare, but the rewards for those who do — and for their constituents — are great.

As a post-script, let me say that while I’m as critical (if not more so!) of politicians as the next guy, I’m actually with Jonathan Bernstein in saying that I actually like politicians as a group. At least part of it, for me, is the fascination with a set of people who have basically said, “I’m opening up myself to be absolutely despised, denigrated, and mistrusted by a broad swath of society because” … well, fill in the blank. There are lots of ways to finish that sentence, but nearly all of them at least make for an interesting character.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with swilling gin! It’s just a catchy way of describing the general public I picked up from a fun, pompous professor I once had.

** Being unwashed actually is something of a problem. Luckily hygiene standards have improved greatly since the 19th century. But there’s still those select few, primarily hipsters, who have yet to discover ironic bathing.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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