We don't respect the politicians we elect every two years. Even as we reelect them.
The approval rating for Congress last year fell to a historically low rating of just 9%. Indeed, as Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post notes, that’s below the approval ratings in Gallup and Rasmussen polls for Lawyers and The Airline Industry (both 29%), BP during the Oil Spill (16%) and the prospect of America going Communist (11%). That’s right – Americans prefer the idea of America going communist to our current Congress! While the individual approval ratings of Democrats (34%) and Republicans (23%) in Congress are somewhat higher, they’re both still below the IRS (40%).
This wasn’t always the case: as recently as September of 1998, 55% of Americans approved of the job congress was doing and the number averaged in the 40’s between 1998 and 2002, never dropping below 36%.
So what exactly got us to this point – where trust in our own elected government is at an historic low? Some observers point to increasing polarization in the Congress. After all, redistricting has made most House races one-party affairs that allow the most passionate voters to pick the candidate. That's how you end up with Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street-type candidates in office. But there are plenty of countries where a parliamentary system allows much more radical groups to routinely wield real power.
The real problem in America right now is simple: voters are routinely being lied to and they know it. Factcheck.org which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania collects and exposes campaign lies and distortions. Here are examples of distortions by a Democratic Senatorial candidate and a Republican congressman. Voters have a simple response to these tactics: they don’t trust either party or politicians in general. This makes elections more expensive and incumbency more perilous. It is a terrible waste of resources. So why do Democrats and Republicans knowingly fabricate things?
The answer can be found in game theory. The classic prisoner’s dilemma goes like this: two suspects are taken to interrogation rooms to be interviewed separately about a crime they’ve committed together. Each knows that if both refuse to talk, they are unlikely – but not guaranteed – to go free. Each suspect also knows that if he talks and the other suspect does not he will get guaranteed immunity from prosecution. On the other hand, if the suspect does not talk but his accomplice does, the suspect is certain to be found guilty while his accomplice goes free. If both men talk, both will go to jail, albeit for less time than if just one man talked. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, each suspect inevitably ends up talking to avoid the worst possibility – that he will take the long prison term while his accomplice goes free. However the net outcome is the second-worst outcome – because both men talk, both go to jail.
The problem with political advertising is that in the short-term, negative advertising works. If one campaign makes things up and paints the other candidate in a negative light they are likely to succeed if the other doesn’t respond. Just as in the prisoner’s dilemma, however, the third worst outcome – where everyone goes negative reducing the voters respect for both candidates – is the one that prevails. Of course, this is not limited to advertising. The entire politico-electoral complex is devoted to using diversion and illusion on both sides to mesmerize voters – from Fox News and MSNBC to the blogosphere. Pundits speak to voters like children. The problem is, of course, that even children don’t like to be talked down to, let alone adults. This continual stream of half-truths and misleading statistics leads to a breakdown of the central nervous system of our democracy. Voters wave their hands, take an antiacid after they hit the polls and say “they’re all a bunch of liars.” Which they are.
So why doesn’t this happen with consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi? For one thing, there are mechanisms in place to prevent false claims. When I was a brand manager, whenever a competitor made a false or misleading claim in advertising, we would send a letter to the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. It’s not a perfect system, and dietary supplements are notoriously ungoverned thanks to the DSHEA law, but it largely works. For this reason, when you hear “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” from Papa John’s you can believe that a court (actually the Supreme Court) has actually weighed that claim and found it true.
I don't expect that commercial advertising standards will soon be applied to political advertising, although that would be helpful. The Supreme Court takes a broad view of political speech, particularly since the verdict in Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2009 . Instead, I’m suggesting that both the Republican and Democratic parties ought to voluntarily clean up their acts and create internal enforcement to eliminate distortion and fabrications. I suggest that the parties confront this issue because it will never be in a politicians' short-term interest to unilaterally disarm. Candidates may not survive a lost election. Parties, on the other hand, have to deal with the long-term consequences of these distortions.
In the current climate, self regulation seems absurdly idealistic, but try for a second to imagine it in practice. Imagine that immediately after some Democratic congressman from California ran an attack ad with an untruth, the DNC issued a statement informing voters of the fabrication and denouncing it. Or if a superpac supporting a Republican Senator blitzed an ad with some mistruths about the Democratic opposition and the RNC enumerated and then denounced the lies. It would certainly hurt the party’s own candidate in each case – but wouldn’t the advertising and punditry shape up quickly? Moreover, how much credibility would this give to the parties?
Yes, it’s absolutely idealistic and incredibly unlikely. And there would still be lots of clashes on facts and differences of opinion. But it actually wouldn’t be that hard to implement. A negotiated settlement to a mutually destructive war always starts with a ceasefire. If both parties could police their candidates for a few weeks, it would go a long way to building trust. And it’s not unreasonable. This is the standard we expect of all advertising and all journalism – and it’s largely what we get outside of the political arena.
In the next seven months, voters will see more than two billion dollars in political advertising. Much of it will be inherently dishonest. So here’s a call to action for you: if you disagree or have a better plan, please say so. But if you’ve just read this and find yourself nodding, don’t just move on. Instead, please take a second and give me a one-word comment below: “YES” That’s democracy in action.