Politics, promises, and pandering to self-absorbed voters

There’s an election in the air.  It’s the Ontario Provincial election.  And, as usual, the politicians are pandering to voters by promising all kinds of silliness.  And voters are going to base their choices on election day based on the clearly falsifiable proposition that the politicians who are elected will keep their promises.  There’s a better way, though: voters should vote based on a politician’s (and a party’s) performance in the past, not their promises for the future.

During an election, politicians will promise almost anything to get elected.  They do this because they know it works: voters will take their promises as true contracts. Lower taxes; no service cutbacks; more public transit; better roads; shorter wait-times for those seeking medical attention;…whatever.

However, there are few governments that manage to keep more than a very few of their election promises.  I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I have noticed that over the last 20 years or so, most promises expressed during elections go unfulfilled in later years.

There are two very good reasons for this: (1) politicians do not base their promises on deep analyses of how events might play out; and (2) humans generally suck at predicting technological/societal/cultural progress.

The first claim is largely obvious from the lack of credit offered by political parties to academics who have the expertise and arms-length objectivity to conduct such work.  Sure, sometimes a think tank or some other similar organization will pipe up in favour of this or that political promise, but these are invariably partisan groups and so cannot be expected to produce truly objective proposals.

The second claim is true simply looking back at even just recent history and seeing how many claims made about humanity turned out to be false.  Some interesting examples are at this ETNI page.  No one was able to predict how the battle for equality in the USA would play out.  No one saw 9/11 coming.  No one predicted the Web. (Indeed, even it’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, didn’t imagine what the Web would become.)  When I was a child, there were all kinds of predictions that by the year 2000, we’d all have flying cars and robot servants.  People predicted Canada would have become the 51st US state.  People predicted the laughable Y2K disaster.  It should be rather evident that when it comes to large scale prediction of humanity’s behaviour, we suck.

This means that it shouldn’t be surprising that politicians don’t keep their promises.  By the time they’re in the thick of governing, situations have changed so much that keeping their promises would usually be exactly the wrong thing to do.

All this, of course, doesn’t matter to politicians, because there are only two main goals for any politician: to get power, and to hold onto to it once it’s been got.  And experience tells them that promising things – regardless of their keeping the promises – will improve the odds of achieving their goals.  They don’t care about making promises they know they won’t keep, and they don’t care about breaking their promises once their in office.  Why should they?  Promises are only a means to an end.

This approach wouldn’t work, however, were it not for the spectacular ignorance and self-interest of the average voter.  I once met a woman who told me she would vote for a particular politician, because she knew him and if she needed to, she could jump queues for public services by asking him for a favour.  I asked the woman if she knew what the tragedy of the commons was.  Not surprisingly, she had not a clue.  So, ill-informed, selfish people are choosing the people who will run the country.  Am I the only one who sees a problem with that?

In any case, politicians make these promises to appeal to these voters, because they can, and because no one will hold them to account if they’re elected.  It’s just as well, of course, because most election promises are based on bad reasoning, bad data, or bad motivations.

This is clearly a problem.  We elect politicians for bad (or at least highly unreliable) reasons, to do things that are largely unsupported by real research, and we get angry when they break their promises.  Yet we do the same thing at every election election.  Isn’t that insane?

So, being a designer, I thought of seeing what could be done about this, without having to completely reconstruct the electoral system.

It turns out, there’s a pretty good way for the average voter to decide how to vote, that is based on much harder evidence than any promise a politician might make: base you vote on the track record of politicians and governments.  Forget about what a party promised they’d do, and consider instead what they actually did, whether they promised to or not.

So, for instance,  what did the ruling Ontario Liberals do in the last eight years?  They did some good things, and some bad things.  Okay.  What of those things were most important to you?  How did you benefit from the good things and suffer from the bad things?  Overall, how would you rate their time in office?

Now how did the opposition parties do during those same eight years?  Did they argue well for their positions?  Did they take the “high ground” in debates?  Did they catch the mistakes of the Liberals?  Did they offer any corrections for those mistakes.  How did they perform with respect to the Liberals?

Now of course, this cannot be the only factor you consider.  There is one other thing: the principles that the parties stand for.  Principles, mind you, not promises.  It doesn’t matter who promises to lower taxes – because odds are they won’t, not in the long term.  The real question is why would they lower taxes.  Is it just to buy your vote?  Or is it because the money is really not needed?

These principles are far more robust than any promise a politician can make, because they represent the underlying ideology  – oh, yeah! I went there, girlfriend! – of the party.  (Sidebar: I really don’t understand why ideology is used as a pejorative these days – everyone has an ideology, whether they admit it or not.  But that’s best left for another post.) Which ideology makes the most sense to you?  Now how was each party’s performance with respect to their ideology?  That should help you decide how authentic each party is.  Authenticity is a good thing.  Whether you like the NPD or not, you really need to respect Jack Layton, exactly because he “walked the walk,” he was principled and acted every day on those principles.  You have to respect someone like that, even if you disagree with his principles.  That’s authenticity.

Now, here’s the catch.  Doing all this is hard work, much harder than just listening to politicians at election time promise you the moon with a cherry on top.  You basically have to keep up to date on what the government is doing, every day, every month, every year.  That requires an investment of time and a level of competence that few people have.  But you do get what you pay for: investing more time and effort into understanding what’s going on will make you a more informed (and therefore more competent) voter.

And if voters were more competent, then the politicians who want to get elected would have to rise to the challenge of convincing a more competent voting public that they’re the best candidates for the job.  Which means we’d end up with better politicians, and in turn better government.

So stop listening to politicians at election time – they’ll do you no good.  Use your head, keep your eyes on what your government is doing, and vote based on the track records of the parties, not their usually empty promises.

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