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Myth of Political Accountability

Medium has no shortage of left-wing writers who know how to fix democracy. Everything from waving magic wands for utopian solutions to street protests to abolishing the Electoral College. Get these things done and the USA will be a much better place. Right?

And then we have those armchair politicians who are singlehandedly smarter than the entire Biden administration. In computer dungeons, far away from the real world, these Medium commentators somehow believe their time in front of the monitor can bend the will of those overly ambitious citizens who are looking for our votes. These commentators fail to understand the complexity of internal party politics, of running for public office, and of managing that office if the election is won.

Another common platitude when talking about a better world is “political accountability.” Political scientists tell us elections are forums to hold politicians to account. Voters can cast out those politicians who fail to meet their expectations. That’s how the system is supposed to work. And many political junkies believe in political accountability can work. 

But this axiom is just a myth.

Example of Political Accountability

To make my case for the myth, I’m going to get hypothetical. Let’s assume that you are running for councilor in Ward 6 in Good City, USA. You properly file your nomination papers at City Hall and get a promise that your name will be put on the ballot.

Then you start your campaign. Knocking on doors. Attending community meetings. You start hearing a certain complaint from the Residents of Ward 6:

Ward 5 and Ward 6 are adjacent suburbs. Similar population. Similar average incomes. Similar racial and religious makeup. Just ordinary folk who are paying their bills and taxes and being productive.

But when Ward 5 and Ward 6 changed from a farmer’s field to a suburb 50 years ago, Ward 5 got 120 fire hydrants and Ward 6 got 41. Ward 6 voters are a little miffed that their level of fire protection is not as good as in Ward 5. They are looking for someone to fix the problem.

Your political sense says it would be a good idea to get on board with this unfairness. So your campaign platform takes on a plank of more equality in fire hydrants.

You win the election! Now it’s time to deliver on your promise.

Like many newbie politicians, you haven’t had much exposure to civic politics before. It takes time for you to learn the ropes of Good City’s parliamentary procedures.

Three months later, you are able to properly introduce this bill: “Hereby be it resolved that Ward 6 has a shortage of fire hydrants and in all due fairness, the City should add at least another 60 fire hydrants in Ward 6 to be equivalent to Ward 5.” The motion is put on the docket, turns into a bill, and will get its fair hearing in due time.

A month later, the first reading of your bill comes up. Your voters should be proud of you.

Tony Curmudgeon has been the Ward 2 councilor for almost forever. He says: “We discussed a similar bill about seven years ago. The engineers figured that it would cost about $35,000 to install each new fire hydrant. When we talked to the Fire Department, they said the original 41 fire hydrants were well spaced. Most homes were still well protected, and the Fire Department has some extra protocols when bringing a fire brigade into Ward 6. There has been no instance of a fire getting out of control because of the lack of a fire hydrant.

“Oh,” you are thinking, “I wasn’t aware of that.”

So now you are put into a box. You now understand there are good reasons why the problem was not fixed a long time ago. But you promised your voters that you would fix the problem. What should you do?

You try to explain the situation in a town hall meeting in Ward 6. “We heard all those flimsy excuses seven years ago,” shout the more vocal participants, “The bottom line is that Ward 5 has 120 hydrants, and we have 41. That’s unfair.”

You made a promise to the voters of Ward 6. If you do not continue to fight for them, they should kick you out of office in the next election. That is just political accountability.

So you shepherd your bill through the legislative process. You bring up the unfairness of 120 fire hydrants to 41. The city engineers tell the council of the $35,000 cost to install each new hydrant. The Fire Department says they can work with the 41 hydrants. The bill fails: one vote for and nine against. While the other councilors are annoyed with you taking up valuable council time, you have proven to the residents in Ward 6 that you will fight for them.

At your next town hall meeting, you get chastised: “You didn’t get done what you promised. You should have made some deals. What kind of politician are you anyways?” You are probably not going to be reelected.

But in your one term as a councilor, you voted 115 times on civic issues. Did the residents of Ward 6 evaluate your performance on the other 114 times?

Why Political Accountability Can’t Work

While the above hypothetical story is a bit farcical, it’s still a good example to show that striving for more political accountability is not realistic. The list below shows many reasons why political accountability does not work.

1. Voters’ views are often not rightly focused. If they are able to exercise their version of political accountability, ineffective policies should not be a surprise.

2. Voters seldom have enough facts at their disposal. They seldom can see the bigger picture. If they are able to exercise their version of political accountability, ineffective policies should not be a surprise.

3. Voters are often too fixated on one or two issues. Society has hundreds, maybe thousands, of issues to resolve. The more numerous political issues will not be subject to the principles of political accountability just because the more popular issues will be taking all the energy for political accountability. This means no political accountability for many issues.

4. Voters are not united in their issues. Where a vote for political accountability is cast for a certain issue, another voter will be enacting political accountability in the opposite direction.

5. If 10% of voters have a valid issue but the 90% don’t seem to care, political accountability suggests politicians would be foolish to seek the votes of the 10%.

6. Or if 10% of voters have a foolish issue—and know how to work the system—they can use political accountability to override the interests of a naïve, apathetic, distracted, or disunited 90%.

7. In the case of Ward 5 vs. Ward 6, maybe too many fire hydrants were installed in Ward 5 some 50 years ago. While this was a waste of societal resources, were the decision makers held to account in their day for that mistake? Probably not. Can we hold these decision makers of that time to account today?

8. Many public policies have many hands in their making. And often, time is required to prove that the polities didn’t work out. How do we hold all the decision makers to account? Especially if they are no longer in public office?

9. Often, decision makers have to make quick decisions. There are many situations, like disaster management, where no decision is worse than a not-the-best decision. Should we hold decision makers to account for the not-the-best decisions? Especially when most of us probably would not have done much better?

10. Decision makers often have partisan, ideological, and re-election considerations clouding their judgment. If they don’t incorporate these considerations into the decisions, they likely won’t be re-elected. Should we really hold them to account when the system encourages them to make decisions in these clouds?

11. For me, my lodestone of political accountability would be how my representative behaves on his/her committee assignments in the legislature. Can my representative show consideration for other perspectives? Does my representative look at the facts? Is my representative a cooperative player? Or is my representative just a stubborn fool intent on inflicting his/her ideology on the rest of us? Unfortunately, there is no practical way for me to watch my representative on this level.

12. And our elected representatives are more and more not spending meaningful time on their committee assignments. The parties want them on the hustings meeting voters, not studying bills from an office chair. How can I hold my representative accountable to my standard if he/she is no longer being influential on committees?

13. With the elected representatives being further away from the development of legislation compared to 50 years ago, the legislation is more and more being crafted by non-elected people: the civil service and lobbyists. Yet we can’t hold these people accountable with an election, can we?

14. Most voters do not have the time to hold their politicians accountable. Where do I find the time to watch my representative in his committee assignment? I have to work. I have family obligations. I need a little R&R. Putting whatever spare time into watching my representative means personal energy not going toward other facets of life.

15. Most voters do not have the energy to hold their politicians accountable. After work and family, there often is not much energy left. I notice a big difference in personal energy usage between watching TV and reading a book. Following my elected representative would be a high-energy activity for me.

16. And we have other ways to spend that energy. For example, my writing of “Tiered Democratic Governance” has meant less scrutiny of my elected representative. We could say that I have committed a grievous political sin—if analyzing for political accountability is the goal citizens should strive for. 

17. Most voters do not have the inclination to hold their politicians accountable. Political junkies fail to understand that most citizens are not interested in watching politics as a major part of their day.

18. Most voters do not have the skills to hold their politicians accountable. The issues are both complex and interrelated. Even if time, energy, and inclination are present, how many citizens really have the critical thinking necessary to properly analyze the complexity and interrelatedness—especially when much of their information comes from a biased media?

19. Even the acknowledged experts working full-time on these issues often have different outlooks. So how is a non-expert, only working part-time, going to come up with the right answer to hold his/her politician accountable?

These are 19 reasons why political accountability really cannot work. So when a political scientists on TV news channels tells us to make “political accountability” work, how will that platitude take away any of these 19 points?

You Won’t Like This

Now it is time for me to be cruel to be kind. Stop reading this article if you don’t like your feelings being hurt.

The best example of political accountability is Donald Trump. Twenty-seven percent of Americans liked Donald Trump’s style in 2016, so they voted for him. In the four years he was president, he delivered on their expectations. So they—and 12m more Americans—voted for him in 2020. They will vote for him in 2024, based on his 2017–2020 record. After watching many Canadian and American politicians for 40 or so years, I have not seen another politician who was more accountable to his voters than Mr. Trump.

Should I bring up “Voters’ views are often not rightly focused” again—as a reason for political accountability not working?

So when I hear “politically accountable” on Medium, it often implies a criteria that is “not Trump.” Trump supporters are not exercising their power of political accountability, whereas Trump opposers are. Right?

It seems political accountability is often dependent on the issue and on which side of that issue the writer happens to come from. So when I read an article admonishing voters to hold their politicians accountable, my between-the-lines interpretation is: “If people don’t vote the same way as I am voting, they are not holding their politicians accountable.” In essence, such thinkers are only putting the blame for the failings of their democracy on the other voters who do not have the correct notion of political accountability. How is this blame going to fix things?

The TDG Fix

My lukewarm followers already know my pattern in my articles. First, I bring up a political mechanism that is failing in western democracy. Then I explain how Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG) fixes the problem. Are you waiting for my solution for how the TDG fixing political accountability?

Well, there isn’t one. The TDG will not provide a forum for its voters to cast a vote based on meaningful political accountability. That principle will not exist in the TDG, just as it really does not exist in today’s democracies.

TDG voters won’t be looking for politicians to promise or do certain things for them. Rather the voters will find sensible people and put them into governance.

The key word here is “sensible.” How do we get sensible people into these positions?

TDG voters will be trained to look for good character and capacity for governance when casting a vote for their neighborhood representative. Within those two criteria comes the adjective “sensible.” TDG voters are, consciously or unconsciously, asking themselves: “Who is sensible in my neighborhood?” Then they will cast a vote toward a sensible person as neighborhood representative. One of the more sensible neighbors will become the representative!

Neighborhoods will be joined together to form a district. The neighborhood representatives will be meeting to discuss the affairs of their district. Once a year, the neighborhood representatives will vote to move one of them higher in the TDG. Since all of (or most of) the neighborhood representatives are already sensible, it is likely these sensible representatives will be moving up someone who is also sensible: perhaps the most sensible of them all.

Sensible people are being moved up, one tier at a time. The higher tier should be composed of very sensible people. They won’t have promises to keep or mandates to deliver. They have no political party to pander to or donors to appease. Instead, they will use their sensible nature and TDG experience to work together to look at the facts. They will ask experts and stakeholders for differing perspectives. Then they will find the solutions we really need.

How did the representatives at the highest tier get to this state of thinking? Answer: From their experience at the lower levels of the TDG.

How did the lower levels get that experience? Probably because the early TDG builders set up that culture of consultation so well that it has become automatic in the TDG. With the right culture, not too many not-so-sensible people will be elected in the TDG. Those not-so-sensible who manage to get elected will not rise very high.

To conclude, let’s compare citizen involvement in the two systems. In the TDG corner, citizens vote once a year for someone they feel is sensible in their neighborhood. Then these voting citizens go to more non-political activities: like playing with their kids and grandkids, working a little overtime for some extra household cash, volunteering, socializing with good friends, taking care of a sick relative or neighbor, or pursuing artistic hobbies. In the political accountability corner, citizens need to find and spend spare time watching and reading the news, analyze their findings, and then cast a vote every few years to the politicians who are more politically accountable to them.

Which system—TDG or political accountability—sounds more sensible to you?

Published on Medium 2022

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