23 Jan 2011

Political Self-Interest Trumps the Public Interest in Our Two Party System

One can argue that given our current situation the two party system has some real failings, despite our advantages. There is real discontent with both parties. This suggests some sort of problem. Reasonable questions include asking how and why we got here. Although there are multiple reasons, three major factors keep coming up: Special interest money, rigid political and religious ideology and self-interest before public interest.

The last one is hard to pin down. Politicians in office rarely admit they put self-interest above the public interest. However, politicians out of office occasionally do.

A recent example (brought to my attention by Jeff Vanke) is comments made by former California legislative leader Willie Brown, who recently said that the the civil service system was “set up so politicians like me couldn’t come in and fire the people (relatives) hired by the guy they beat and replace them with their own friends and relatives. . . . . . Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide for most officeholders.”

That’s an admission against his own interest (his reputation) because he was involved. Mr. Brown was termed out of office and had nothing to lose, reelection-wise. Mr. Brown did not say those things while still in office. That would have been too politically damaging, i.e., “career suicide”. This is an example of political self-interest before the public interest and explains why the public rarely hears about it.

Another example comes from former senator Max Cleland (D-Georgia). Mr. Cleland admitted (interview comments at 14:15-19:02) that he voted in favor of invading Iraq, even though he was not convinced by the Bush administration’s evidence for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He admitted he did so at least partly because of deference to the Bush administration and partly because of political self-interest in the midst of his re-election campaign (political suicide to vote against invading Iraq). Based on his comments, Mr. Cleland presumably would have voted against authorizing force if his political self-interest was not a factor.

Those are examples of political self-interest before the public interest. Is the human trait of doing that anything to worry about? Take Mr. Brown’s example of politicians not wanting to tell the public the truth about government. Apply that to how America conducts itself, for example, in war. If you believe that the government doesn’t want the American public to really know what is going on, then when Americans say they support or do not support a war, how reliable is their opinion? How can they come to an informed opinion, if political self-interest dictates keeping citizens in the dark?

The answer is that they can’t.

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This centrist community blogger has chosen not to reveal much about themselves in their bio – as is their right.
This centrist community blogger has chosen not to reveal much about themselves in their bio – as is their right.

12 thoughts on “Political Self-Interest Trumps the Public Interest in Our Two Party System”

  1. I didn’t even need to read the article. The headline pretty much sums it up perfectly. (But I read it anyway.)
    It’s too bad political honesty has to wait until AFTER they leave office.

    1. Candor like that doesn’t have to wait until after politicians leave office. Us voters need to force them to come clean and be honest and direct.
      How does one do that, especially when all the players (politicians and special interest lobbyists) will fight to keeps us in the dark? By forcing as much transparency into politics as possible. That won’t be easy, but it is all I can think of to at least partially fix this problem. I have elaborated on transparency angle this elsewhere (http://california-moderate.blogspot.com/2010/07/money-versus-transparency-post-5.html).

  2. Sol,
    That’s a good point. There are groups out there, like the Sunlight Foundation, that probably are acting in the public interest and without being dominated by partisan politics or political ideology. They try to find unspun truth and inform the public. You also mentioned in one of your comments elsewhere about a politican that you felt ran a clean campaign and deserved moderate support.
    Is there a list or ranking anywhere of people, politicians and information sources or foundations that are not partisan, not ideological and act in the public interest? I know that groups like CREW claim to be nonpartisan. The problem is that when CREW skewers someone or some cause, the offended party usually labels them as biased opposition partisans. I suspect that CREW is generally fair and reasonable.
    For organizations like the CATO institute, I suspect that almost anything they say is propaganda. CATO is dominated hard core political ideology and by money flowing to the institute from wealthy sources that are interested in their personal agenda and not the public interest. Obviously, most of these organizations claim to be fair, unbiased and acting in the public interest. The problem for me is telling when that is true and when it isn’t.
    In the case of CATO, I have spent some time comparing their numbers and analysis on issues with similar analysis from other organizations. Guess what? The CATO numbers reflect what hard core, anti-government ideologues want, while the numbers from liberal sources reflect the “reality” that liberals see, or want us to see. When I see things like that and am convinced I am not misleading myself (which has happened), I just walk away and never go back. My interest is unspun truth, not some useless world view polluted by some failed political or religious ideology.
    Having a reliable bias-‘o-meter (sort of like politico’s truth-‘o-meter) for various groups and people might be useful in more ways than one. Some people and groups just might get “better” if that meant they could get a good ranking on a well known and trusted list or ranking. Could that be one little way in which moderates might nudge things in a more healthy direction? Its just a thought.

    1. CREW is a good one too… they go after anyone.

      Yeah, CATO is a libertarian think tank.

      The Centersphere thing I have on here… I eventually want to make it into a full directory of organizations, parties, candidates, blogs, etc etc etc… with each having its own page, comments, etc. But… I just don’t have the time. One of those projects on my long list of To Dos, that I’ll probably get around to on some vacation in the future, or if I’m able to make a living off of this political stuff some day.

      1. Sol,
        You shouldn’t have to do all this yourself. You are only one person. People here could collaborate and suggest people or organizations they believe deserve credibility (or no credibility). And, they could state why they are credible.
        Another or the same group of contributors (or maybe anyone willing to participate) could then cast a vote, e.g., high, medium or low, in terms of credibility/public value for an organization they have an opinion or knowledge about. Or, something like that. Many variations are possible, e.g., one or a few people could pick a group, like the Sunshine Foundation, study it, discuss it among themselves and come up with a rating and rationale for it. Anyone else with an opinion, especially contrary opinion, could add their view and rationale.
        Asking this from one person just isn’t fair. It’s too big a task. The question is, is it worth the effort? I think so. I have a very hard time trying to find sources that are honest and relatively unbiased. It is so hard to spot bias in a sophisticated person or operation.

        1. Its not the content that is the problem, its the adding the functionality to the site that is the issue. I don’t want to just toss up some pages on it, I want to give them simple profile pages. I’ve seen add ons to WordPress that should do this, I just need to play with them. Its on the To Do list, just have a few things ahead of it… like fixing that darn gap between the main content column and the sidebar… and getting the new logo made and up.

            1. I’ve looked at that too.

              Might work better though. There are some theme designs that are specifically made for directory type sites that would probably work really well for this.

              CenterSphere.com is taken… .org is open, but I think I have a better name for it anyway, that has to do with something I should have working by next month that I’ve been working on and want to get up in an invite only alpha before the conference of independents in a few weeks.

  3. I imagine a lot of politicians are torn: represent the wishes of the people who voted you in, or vote your own conscience? As long as those are the only two options and representing the wishes of your special interests, including the rest of your party, is not, I’d say the politician in question is at least trying to do a decent job.

  4. Are there two options, or three? Is voting in one’s own political self-interest voting one’s conscience or a third way to see it? A self-interested vote doesn’t strike me as necessarily voting to represent the people who voted you into office. The same goes for voting for what special interests may want – that may be for, against or irrelevant to what your constituents want.
    The real question here is how often self-interest affects votes. I suspect that it is fairly common. I suspect that more senators than just Max Cleland voted the way they did for the same reason he voted to authorize force in Iraq. I bet there were at least a few other senators who knew that the information about the Iraqi “threat” was not solid and maybe even contrived. That’s how I felt at the time.
    If my suspicion is true and, say, about 30-40% of political policy/votes are decided by self-interest, then it is no wonder our politics is messed up. That is why I see this as one of the top three factors in our current messes.

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