Anti incumbent is a reaction, not a strategy.
Nov 1, 2010

Anti incumbent is a reaction, not a strategy.

Anti-incumbent is a mentality that ebbs and flows in its poignancy but is particularly prevalent today. While it is a quite natural reaction, it is a rather poor voting strategy.

It is easy to see for most people that there are pronounced problems with out governance. Precisely the nature and solutions to these problems are widely disagreed on, but that there are significant problems is not. A very natural reaction is to aim to simply remove the establishment in an effort to fix the problems.

One reason it is so natural is that we can see clearly the failings of the incumbent but the failings of the challenger are in the future. That they may well be worse is a murky proposition. We are thus faced with this asymmetry where we have untested, positive rhetoric about change compared with the objective failings of the incumbent. The former may thus seem like a desirable option, yet when thus asymmetry is removed (by seeing the challenger in office) the challenger is much worse.

The question becomes: is this an effective voting strategy? It isn't for several reasons. Chief among these is simply that change does not necessarily mean change for the better. Voting for an even worse challenger does not solve the problem of a bad incumbent. The logical heuristic to use is to compare the options and consider which is best at suiting you interests. If the answer is an incumbent, the existence of problems does not minimize the moral obligation to vote this way.

One issue is that individual politicians may not ultimately be the source of the problems. The problems may be systemic in the system or from influences outside the system. Swapping up the old politician for a new, possibly worse, one doesn't fix these problems.

The dangers of this strategy becomes apparent in some of the more crazy of the tea party candidates drawing support or the recent election of Rob Ford as Toronto mayor. Taking anti incumbent mentality to its logical extension (such as it is) leads to supporting the furthest candidates from the incumbency. Ford was about the furthest away from the incumbent Miller and that was who was overwhelmingly supported. The problem is it takes politics to extremes. The mentality is not sensitive to small changes in direction and innately supports taking things to extremes with no analysis of whether this extreme is any better than what was before or better than other candidates.

Another issue with the mentality is that it encourages a constant flip flop and inhibits longer term reform. If the idea is to just vote out incumbents every time, then things will just go back and forth between republicans and democrats without a big movement towards any particular issue.  If instead, this focus had been on building a specific set of policy or ideological goals then legitimate change may have had the chance to occur.

A common phrase in defense of anti incumbent mentalities is to "send a message".  The idea being that by voting out incumbents it will increase the accountability of government to the people. However, is this the message that is really sent? It isn't, for example, a message of precisely how government should act or what the people are demanding, it is instead just saying "listen to us, or else" without giving anything for them to listen to. We should be advocating for specific policies sending the message that if you don't act in support we will vote for someone who does.

Finally, one way we can accomplish sending a clear message as to what we want and not being forced unto a choice between a bad incumbent and a worse challenger is to vote for third party candidates. If there is someone who more genuinely represents your views then supporting them sends the message loud and clear of what the politicians must support in order to earn your vote.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: