Saturday, September 11, 2004

Elections and the Political Imagination

From Snarkmarket's "Can I Be Secretary of Expectations?": Robin Sloan notes (following Matthew Yglesias) that political elections revolve around the gap between real and imaginary accomplishments, i.e., the difference between what someone has done and what they say they will do.

In an electoral democracy, this is in some sense inescapable: anytime you're considering a candidate who isn't the incumbent, all you can consider are their imaginary achievements, by projecting their political promises, personal character, and past actions in a different filed or position onto their potential future performance.

The incumbent's advantage is always that he or she already has the job. This is why elections -- especially presidential elections -- often turn out to be a referendum on the current office holder's performance -- or, referencing Louis Menand and myself, the performance of the country, or even that of the voter themselves. When things have been going badly, the principle of hope offered by a political challenger, especially hope for positive change, can be a very powerful (and positive) thing. Or you could put the Nazis into power; it works both ways.

An incumbent, then, especially in difficult times, needs to conquer the imaginative space of the electorate. This is the best way of outflanking the challenge posed by an incumbent -- any incumbent. When tough times hit California, Gray Davis responded in a practical, no-nonsense fashion, raising taxes and cutting spending. Voters wanted someone, anyone else, and wound up picking the candidate who (to put it nicely) had the most to offer the imagination.

This is the mistake pundits made when trying to generalize the California recall to the 2004 presidential election. When times are tough, people don't turn to Republicans or throw out the incumbent. They pick the candidate who appeals to their imagination, to their hope that tomorrow might be a better day. They pick Reagan over Carter, Clinton over George H.W. Bush, and (probably) W over Kerry. For the Democrats, picking Kerry over Dean or Edwards was an isolated blip, a moment of self-doubt and misguided Puritan moderation. In the name of electability, they picked a man who lacked the imaginative appeal to ever be elected.


Anonymous said...

Oh gawd, you're so right, and it's so scary. It's too bad cowboys are more appealing to the imagination than bookworms. (At least for most :P)


Gavin said...

Of course, Kerry's victory reflects the reality that primary elections and general elections are two very fifferent beasts. In the primary, Kerry's "electability" may well have been his defining virtue over Dean. Ironic, then, that Dean's appeal to a particular imagaination, and thus his "inelectability," may well have given him an edge over Bush that Kerry seems to lack.

I have not yet, however, given up all hope. Bush didn't win the last election. Perhaps he won't win this one either.