Disincentives for Disincentivizing

Larry Lessig’s organization MAYDAY PAC attempted to support candidates who would push for comprehensive campaign reform and an end to the systemic corruption described in Lessig’s recent books Republic Lost, One Way Forward, and Lesterland. I was one of the many people who sent money to this effort. Sadly, not much came of it. In an email sent yesterday to supporters, Lessig drew a few lessons, among them:

A significant chunk of actual voters rank our issue as the most important. These voters are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And in the right context, we believe the data show that they can be rallied to the cause.

The important qualification in that sentence, however, is also the most important lesson that this cycle taught me: “in the right context.” What 2014 shows most clearly is the power of partisanship in our elections. Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win.

Lessig goes on to speculate that if MAYDAY can put its future efforts into the selection of candidates through party primaries, where defeating the other side is not an issue, it may be successful in promoting the campaign-reform agenda.

I wonder if there is anything to this at all. At the primary stage, the top question is always whether a candidate is “electable,” and that means anticipating a victory over the other side. We’ve seen recent upsets of incumbents by insurgent groups with a narrow agenda, and sometimes those who came out ahead in the primary were not in fact electable; but often they did get elected, because voters do seem to treat parties as sports teams they are cheering for, and nobody abandons their team because the pitcher is replaced. Moreover, the primary election is the stage at which candidates are preening for the attention of the tiny minority of rich individuals and the handful of PACs who can make their dream come true, and none of these are going to invest in a candidate whose goal is to negate their own influence. It would be nice if a tsunami of ten-dollar donations to MAYDAY could take the place of those money barons and see reform candidates through to the finish, but that’s awfully speculative too.

The way elections are run in the USA, especially since the Citizens United decision, constitutes a massive disincentive to people getting involved in politics for any reason other than to participate in the system Lessig decries. And from what I read, the farther you go in politics, the more you get enmired in stupid, venal, short-term-benefit compromises as the price of getting anything done. (For a top-level example, see the ACA.) And at the lowly citizen level, there are voter-ID laws and other tricks to keep people from casting ballots, unless you’re willing to devote several days to overcoming the disincentives right-wing politicians have put in your way.

The reason voters are not motivated to get militant against the role of money in politics is that they can’t see an alternative to the wasteful, infuriating months-long fund-raising drive that elections have become; the possible outcomes are to get more money than the other person, which often leads to the outcome known as “winning,” or to fail to do so, even if for virtuous reasons, which usually leads to the outcome known as “losing.” If a football team were to start using stun guns against the other team, the response of this kind of sports fans would be to clamor for their own team to get more and bigger stun guns, not to outlaw the use of them. This is what happens when your investment is in the team and in victory, not in the game.

The motive for voter choice described by Lessig– “they wanted their team to win”– conceals a great deal of everyday cynicism on the part of even motivated voters. They want their team to win more than they want to see excellent playing. They have become spectators in a national sport, not protagonists.

To get even bitterer about it, the game analogy suggests that politics is for those who participate in it now purely a formal exercise, a matter of scoring points and besting the opponent, and not about making this a good country to live in, defending against our enemies or creating the best conditions for our fellow citizens to live under. Politics is then divorced from its traditional purposes: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” as the Preamble to the US Constitution has it.

And to shift perspectives a bit suddenly, what happened with the implosion of Iraq, the “Arab Spring” and associated movements is a parallel to our sad situation. People who for the first time had the chance to choose their leaders had no investment in the game itself, in building strong institutions that would contain and temper the conflicts that are inevitable to human societies; they just wanted their team, sect, ethnicity or robber band to dominate and kill off its rivals. The huge cost in human lives and welfare was incidental, because what could be more important than winning? (Especially since if any of the other teams won, it’s a sure thing they would go on to eliminate yours from making any future showing.)

I would like to see a powerful loyalty to making institutions strong. This means an aggravating devotion to fairness. It also means weakening those caterpillars of the commonwealth– the political fund-raisers, the contentless parties, the spin doctors, and especially the billionaire campaign donors. I would like to sit with the fans who don’t care about the score, but only about the quality of performance that the competitive situation and a strict rulebook exact from the players. I apologize if this sounds very non-partisan and high-minded, but even such a call for strict rules, for a reorientation of our political investments toward preserving the supra-partisan structures, has a partisan flavor in a country like mine where the goal of one of the major political parties is to destroy the institutions that make popular rule possible.

When something is harder to get, it becomes more valuable, says the old chestnut of supply and demand, but demand isn’t infinitely elastic: if the price of political involvement, at whatever scale, is too high, people will walk away. Their doing so brings the price within reach of the people who don’t want you to have a role in it. Lessig’s cause is a noble one and I will continue to send him checks in those optimistic moments when I’m not looking for alternative universes to live in (hint: hobbits!), but it will have to overcome some crippling disincentives, and I don’t think it will get there until someone finds a way to strike at the root of the wrong kinds of motivation.

I will try to say something about my personal political utopianism– bland by the standards of 1788, scandalously out-there today– in a later post.