Q: Is It Fear or Expedience That Separates Politician From Principle?


Posted by Bob Lord

A: It doesn't matter. Either way it's short-sighted and wrong.

It's not always clear what drives politicians to ditch their own principles when voting or taking a position on an issue. It often is fear of political repurcussions. That's what the apologists typically refer to when they defend a wandering pol. "just think how he/she would have been attacked if he'd voted for that bill!"  If anyone questions a rep's "independent" or "bi-partisan" votes, the apologists are quick to explain how these are "tough districts." Translation: You can't stick to your principles if you represent a tough district. What hogwash. Fear-based decision making doesn't play. Never has. Never will.

There really is truth to the old expression about voters wanting to elect someone they agree with most of the time, but respect all the time. So what happens when a rep fearfuly votes against his own principles in order to protect his right flank in the next election? His motivation is to make sure those voters in the center and on the right agree with him most of the time. He figures the voters on the left already are in good shape on that front. But what about the "respect all of the time" part of the formula? Certainly, he's lost the respect of the voters on the left. But he's pretty much lost the respect of those in the center and on the right as well. When you vote against your own principles, even those whose view your vote reflects lose respect. 

When pundits talk about how smart voters are they're generally either insincere or kidding themselves. Voters blow it all the time. But they're pretty good at sniffing out fearful politicians. And when reps vote for or against legislation not out of principle but to avoid offending voters, they reek of fear.

The other possible motivation is expedience. The pol senses opportunity to pick-up some extra support by taking a kind of, you know, mavericky position. 

Does voting against principle work better when the motivation is expedience rather than fear? Hardly.

In 2010, I was outraged when the Arizona Republic endorsed Ben Quayle over Jon Hulburd. Until I read the endorsement. They called Hulburd out for "mimicking Republican talking points." Jon even had gone so far as to voice support for SB1070. He had taken positions purely out of expedience, and transparently so. The Republic caught on, and they nailed him for it. It was a good call. 

There's a lesson our freshmen reps and their apologists can learn from that.

Acting out of expedience is not the excluslive domain of politicians. We all go there from time to time. It takes several forms, the most common of which is lying.

In that regard, we advise our children that if they live their lives like open books they don't have to worry about remembering their own statements incorrectly. Why? Because when you keep secrets (i.e., lie), you lose track of what you said. If you're truthful, it's really easy to remember what you said, because it's the same as what you did or what you saw. 

There's an analogous rule for politicians: Vote your principles, rather than out of expedience, and you won't have to worry about consistency. We saw Mitt Romney run afoul of this rule constantly. Romney lost for a lot of reasons, but right up at the top was that he didn't stand for anything. He always acted out of political expedience, and it caught up with him. Remember the 47% remarks? I think those remarks likely reflected his true feelings, but that's besides the point. He didn't make the remarks because he felt strongly about them. He made them because they suited his purpose at the time — to make the people in the room believe he shared their worldview. But those remarks came back to haunt him when a different audience — the population at large rather than a roomful of plutocrats — heard them. 

So, if a freshmen rep votes out of expedience a few months into his first term, how's that going to work the next year, when voting with his principles becomes the more expedient approach? Is he going to continue voting against principle, for sake of consistency? Or is he going to flip-flop? Not an "I changed my mind" flip-flop, mind you, but an "I'm a cynical politician" flip-flop.

Even if a fearful or cynical rep somehow gets past all these problems, there's the media. A conservative, politician has some room here. Folks like Hannity and Limbaugh don't mind cynicism. In fact, the more cynical a conservative politician is, the more some of the media types on right like it. But cynicism doesn't play well with media on the left, and cynicism from a progressive certainly doesn't play well with the conservative media.

The bottom line: Whatever the motivation, straying from principle doesn't play well in the long run. 

And when we apologize for newly-elected politicians who stray from principle, we're really not helping them.