Getting Elected for Its Own Sake

One persistent meme about U.S. and European politics maintains that all parties are in the grip of plutocrats and that’s why very little substantive reform happens no matter who is in power. Peter Oborne offers a different and intriguing perspective focusing on the role of the media and those politicians who are servants to it:

Post-war politicians can be broadly divided into two categories: those who have been dedicated to real, substantial achievement, and those who have concentrated on style and presentation. Within the first category fall Clem Attlee, Aneurin Bevan and Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not we admire what they did, there is no question that all three left an imprint on history..

Politicians from the second category are more elusive, because they tend to treat politics at least in part as a branch of the public-relations industry. Tony Blair represented the apotheosis of this particular tradition, though David Cameron most unfortunately chose to be his disciple.

Tony Blair was and is a puzzle to many people and not only because he chose to send British troops to Iraq. He was extraordinarily good at maintaining his popularity and getting elected, which is why he was one of the longest serving Prime Ministers in history. But why did he go to the trouble? His only deep commitment once he got to Number 10 seemed to be staying there. There would be a poll-tested small-bore accomplishment here, a few friendly cultural signals (e.g., “Cool Britannia”) there and suddenly it was time for another election. Bill Clinton had similar impulses and might have carried on entirely the same way had he ruled in a Parliamentary system rather than in ours where Congress (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad) forced him into taking some risks and making some substantive policy changes.

I hope Oborne is wrong that Cameron is going to go the same way. I can hear some political pros rolling their eyes as I say this, but “We have to do this to get elected” is not an adequate justification, by itself, for political decisions. Getting elected is a means to actually accomplishing something, not an end in itself, and no head of state who left a positive mark on history shrank from this truth.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.