Episode Twenty-Six: Pinkerian Politics
This is intended as a provocative suggestion more than a thoroughly well-thought-out thesis: I don’t have the time to research how well this idea holds up in every advanced democracy. There are good reasons to think that this problem might be much worse in the U.K. than elsewhere, given how little capacity local government has now post-austerity. Responses are very welcome.
Stephen Pinker is famous for arguing that everything get better over time (with some rare exceptions). In an entertaining and compelling recent essay for Works in Progress, economist Ryan Murphy extends the argument to cultural products. We are not, however, aware of anyone that has extended this logic to democratically elected politicians. Accepting the Pinker-Murphy hypothesis at face value for the sake of argument, politicians should get better at being politicians. We assume democratic politicians have the straightforward goals of getting elected and re-elected, and any policy goals they may have are strictly secondary. What would this look like in practice?
Politicians rarely begin their careers as a tabula rasa. By virtue of temperament or ideological inclination or class or race or even just where they grew up, they are likely to appeal to some slices of the electorate more than others. Over time, therefore, as politicians get better at politics, we might expect higher quality matches between politicians and voters.
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This would have some notable downstream effects. Incumbency advantage should grow, especially at the more local levels of politics, as the barriers to winning increase and higher-quality challengers decide they can more profitably do something else with their lives. At a national level, electoral coalitions should be become more cemented over time, as parties get better at picking leaders who can at the very least reliably turn out the base (no more Barry Goldwaters, George McGoverns, or Michael Foots). In practical terms, this should mean that hard floors emerge on party support at national elections, even in generally unfavourable environments for one party (like the aftermath of a major recession that the party oversaw while in office). These hard floors increase the importance of a few swing states or constituencies in national elections, meaning that local issues in these areas can have huge shaping effects on national party platforms.
The future of increasingly efficient politics may lead us in some unexpected directions.
Once efficient politicians are in office, we should expect them to be more responsive to voter preferences. The political science literature documents a large voter preference for their elected representatives to focus on local rather than national issues. Accordingly, MPs and Congressmen alike should, over time, focus more on constituency issues. Gone are the days when parties could easily parachute high-quality MPs into tame seats they barely visited. In Parliament or Congress we might also expect these new-model elected representatives to be unexpectedly rebellious, as they view their vote as increasingly a personal one and their role as representative of a constituency rather than as members of a party.
In a sense, this model of politics represents something of a return to tradition. It partly resembles the structure of politics at the accession of George III, the unreformed Parliament so wonderfully analyzed by Sir Lewis Namier. In 1760, political parties and whipping had yet to be invented, and Parliament was full of men elected to represent local interests – often those of the local landowners, but in the great port cities the merchants.In those days, however, the executive sat outside Parliament and the the patronage powers of the Crown were very considerable, the franchise was much smaller, and the secret ballot had - perhaps fortunately - not yet been invented. Today, a world of elected representatives with an increasingly local focus might represent more of a challenge to good governance.
This is not, of course, intended as a criticism of elected representatives in unusual positions. It is not, for instance, a coded dig at Joe Manchin, since surely only a Democrat like Manchin could win in West Virginia at all. But it might partly explain the emergence of strange phenomena like a political party committed to Net Zero simultaneously banning onshore wind generation (and now threatening to cripple the proliferation of solar farms), as national policy clashes with local wishes across key constituencies. Over time, our theory predicts that local wishes will win ever more frequently, although we admit that we are almost certainly over-indexing here on the last twelve years of Tory rule in the United Kingdom.
As new technologies, especially email and far more sophisticated polling, enable elected representatives to know what their constituents think, on a scale unimaginable to politicians of decades gone by, their constituents have simultaneously more incentive to care what their MP does, as the reach of the state expands over time into ever more facets of daily life. Our model does not seek to explain all political sclerosis, and it clearly interacts with other trends, such as ageing populations increasingly divorced from the consequences of national policy outcomes, and perhaps also decreasing voter loyalty. But we think it could explain a few things, and commend it to the readers’s intuitions. Pinkerian politics might, paradoxically enough, mean that everything gets worse, barring the emergence of new techniques for aligning local with national interests.
The port cities had very few MPs relative to population, but merchants wishing to enter Parliament could fairly easy buy themselves a rotten borough. Ironically, the most obviously corrupt part of the old system was simultaneously the most meritocratic and accessible for men with money but no family background in politics.