How we can change the political capital formula
Apr 15, 2011

How we can change the political capital formula

It is a tautology that a successful politician is one who is capable of attracting votes. However the way successful politicians can attract votes is divided into largely two overlapping categories. They can enact and advocate for policies and political views that the public finds appealing. Or they can spend lots of money on advertising campaigns and the like which historically has an enormous influence on public voting. Of course, the two are not entirely separate in that one needs to still advertise views that the public finds appealing. There is an unfortunate asymmetry however because if a politician that supports a policy between elections that is not supported by the people, this only registers with the small minority of voters who are paying close attention unless it is particularly egregious so as to be highlighted strongly by the media or opposition while election season advertising is highly effective at changing votes.

Given the clear importance of advertising dollars as a strategy to procure votes, it is a more or less necessary trait of politicians to be able to attract campaign donations. There thus becomes a clear bifurcation in objectives for politicians when considering what policies to support. They can either support policies that are most effective at drawing votes directly from the people who find these politics appealing or they can support policies that are most effective at securing campaign donations. Sometimes these objectives overlap, such as a policy that is supportive of unions will induce campaign donations from unions as well as be generally supported by a large swathe of the public. However very often the two are at odds with each other where a policy such as oil subsidies is very successful in securing campaign donations but not particularly popular with the public. As such, there is an implicit balance between these two competing forms of political capital.

Because the public has in the final consideration all of the power through the vote, the public has the power to change this balance. It is because we as a society are so susceptible to political advertising and not that aware of the policies being implement that political advertising is an effective strategy. The fact that vested interests get policies that support them over the public happens precisely because those campaign dollars will muster votes more effectively than public outrage at the policies will deter them. A largely apathetic person whose political engagement involves viewing a few advertisements in election season and voting accordingly is essentially subsidizing with their vote a political system that gives advantages to the vested interest over the public. It is by changing the social attitude to political engagement so that the public is more willing to vote based on the policies enacted than by the advertising dollars spent that the political capital formula will switch from one that preferentially selects policies that induce campaign dollars to policies that the public supports.

While separate from my thesis, it should be noted that there is a third reason that politicians support policies as they do: they genuinely believe it is best. Indeed, it may appear at first that by ignoring this I have been implying that politicians are all unscrupulous simply making calculated choices to optimize their political capital regardless of their own beliefs. I believe it is probably a combination whereby sometimes the supported policies coincide with their beliefs and sometimes they do not out of a calculated political decision, depending on the politician, although it is usually very difficult to ascertain to what extent it is either factor. What I am suggesting, however, is that the political system that is in place selects for politicians who supports strategies that are successful at garnering political capital in the two ways discussed. The system probably selects both for politicians who genuinely believe in policies with lots of political capital as well as politicians willing to compromise on their beliefs to gain political capital. The point of shifting the public attention away from advertising and into considering of political policies is invariant under this difference because with a system that has a new political capital formula it will thus select for politicians who advocate successfully under the new pressures - regardless of whether they believe in it or not.


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