Keeping Them Honest: What Politicians Say vs. What We Make Them Do

By dismissing politicians’ promises as meaningless, we let ourselves off the hook for making them take action.

Politicians are big, fat liars. It’s a belief so deeply ingrained in American culture that we’re taught to revere George Washington as the one-of-a-kind exception who narced himself out for chopping down a cherry tree, and even that story is completely made up. Like many things we believe, it’s not necessarily true that politicians produce lies the way plants produce oxygen. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has noted, presidents do basically try to fulfill their campaign promises, but they make more headlines by breaking them. And the 40-year-long effort to discredit government, which Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick has highlighted, has also probably contributed to the belief that our politicians are up to no good. But our constant and perhaps justified skepticism poses some big problems during a presidential election, which is at least partly about whose story of America we find more convincing.

But what if we focused on a different story? One of the most oft-cited incidents from FDR’s presidency is a policy meeting he held with labor leaders shortly after his election, which he concluded by telling them “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Did Roosevelt ever actually say those words? Who knows? Like Washington and his cherry tree, what matters is why we tell the story and what it says about how we view the man in question. FDR understood that regardless of what he personally believed, change had to happen from the bottom up, not just from the top down. He was a bold leader who was never afraid to take on a fight as long as he had the American people on his side. If we stop assuming that politicians will simply deliver progress without our involvement or that the process of policymaking is out of our hands once our votes are cast, then we might start to see elections in a very different light.

This question of trusting what politicians say is a tricky one for both of the major presidential candidates this year. As Mitt Romney makes his 97th pivot from the primaries to the general election, he may try to recant or alter positions he took to please the right-wing base that would send moderates screaming for the hills. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that “[a]ccording to a Romney adviser, his private view of immigration isn't as anti-immigrant as he often sounded” during the primaries. This prompted Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to ask, “Does [that] mean Romney said things that he doesn’t really believe? …How many other ‘private’ positions does Romney hold that we don’t know about?” Romney has been plagued by such accusations of insincerity throughout the campaign, with opponents referring to the presumptive Republican nominee as a “well-oiled weather vane” and piling on an ill-judged remark comparing him to an Etch-A-Sketch.

Likewise, President Obama has come under fire from the left for promising “change you can believe in” and delivering only a handful of heavily compromised victories. Some progressives are especially frustrated because they believe Obama secretly agrees with their policy prescriptions but lacks the courage or political support to advocate for them. One such issue is gay marriage, where Obama claims his views are “evolving” in favor of legality despite the fact that he openly supported it 16 years ago and conveniently devolved just in time to run for higher office. Others see it as naïve to think that Obama has done anything other than what he wants to do. Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller wrote that by blaming the president’s failures on management rather than ideology, “all the media boosters and center-left validators of Obama in 2008 let themselves off the hook for mistakes. Instead, they ask, ‘where did our inspiring Obama go?’”

Stoller’s point about the president’s critics letting themselves off the hook hints at the real answer to whether candidates tell us what they honestly believe or what they think we want to hear: We can’t know unless we read their minds, so we have to take them at face value, exercise our own best judgment, and either keep pushing them forward if we agree or stop them in their tracks if we don’t. Sure, all else being equal, it makes sense that progressives and conservatives alike want a man or woman of principle representing them in the White House. And obviously we don’t want chief executives so dishonest that they risk leaving office in handcuffs. But by focusing all our attention on the failings of our leaders, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for shaping and implementing the policies we want to see. Sometimes we’ll find a dream candidate, although more often we’ll have to settle for the closest match and work to move them in the right direction. But either way we need to go in with our eyes wide open, not simply trust that they’ll one day emerge from their campaign cocoons to become the beautiful butterflies we want them to be.

Elections are not, or at least should not be, a “fire-and-forget” affair in which we vote for our favorites and send them off to govern while we cross our fingers and hope for the best. As New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at the launch conference for the Rediscovering Government initiative, “great strides in social justice don't come out because of politicians; they come out because of movements.” Even if Barack Obama’s views were far enough left to make Bernie Sanders look like a member of the John Birch Society, it would still be incumbent on progressives to keep the pressure on him and the members of Congress to make sure real change was made.

If we were to get over our learned helplessness and take charge of our political process, what would that look like? Ideally, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Sabeel Rahman wrote recently, it would involve thinking of citizenship not simply as a chore we’re reminded of every two to four Novembers but as a kind of office with duties that extend far beyond the ballot box. It would also involve engaging in dialogue with people we do and don’t agree with and getting our message out as broadly as possible and through as many channels as we can, I say as I write this blog post.

Perhaps most importantly, it would involve good old-fashioned organizing. When Barack Obama implemented spending policies that conservatives didn’t like, they donned their finest colonial period costumes, took to the streets, and helped derail most of his domestic policy agenda. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gutted the rights of public workers, union members and activists rallied against him and gathered support for a recall election. And when Americans from all walks of life got fed up with our leaders ignoring the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, they sparked a worldwide movement that has put inequality front and center in our political debate. By taking on these and other big fights, ordinary Americans can prove that governing is what happens while politicians are making other plans.

None of this is easy. Faced with billionaire-funded Super PACs trying to bludgeon their ideological opponents into submission, political institutions so polarized and paralyzed as to be functionally useless, and an entrenched two-party system that often boils down to a choice between right and really far right, it’s very tempting to just give in to cynicism and retreat. But regardless of how much our leaders’ rich buddies chip in for their next campaign, dollars aren’t votes (at least until the Roberts Court says otherwise), and the nice part about being part of the 99% is that we outnumber them. By working together, we have the power to set the agenda and make sure our policymakers don’t keep their jobs unless they keep their promises. In other words, it’s on us to make them do it. This story might seem more implausible than the one where we’re all long-suffering martyrs who are constantly deceived and betrayed by cunning politicians, but it’s almost guaranteed to have a much better ending.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal.