Why Democracy Doesn’t Work, Evidence #1,083

Over at Ezra Klein’s place, Dylan Matthews points to the fact that elections are driven by the economy (and in some years, by war). And that George McGovern, who died yesterday, gets a bit of a bad rap based on the fact that he was up against an incumbent President presiding over a rapidly-expanding economy and a major drop in Vietnam casualties during his first term.

He points to a model from political scientist Douglas Hibbs, called the “Bread & Peace” model. And uses this chart as a telling guide:

Seems pretty clear to me. When the economy is doing well, the incumbents do well. When the economy is in the crapper, the incumbents get tossed out.

That makes perfect sense if we assume that the incumbent party (Congress or the President) has a big impact on the performance of the national economy. But I don’t think there’s any evidence to support this. Business cycles tend to occur in many ways orthogonal to political cycles. Policy tends to have long-running effects on the economy, but it’s measured in decades, not electoral cycles.

It’s pretty clear that voters are not really answering the question of “who is more qualified to lead us?”, or even “who has better policies?” The question they’re answering is merely “am I doing good right now? If not, whoever is in charge is obviously to blame!” Which causes me to ask a question (one Dylan Matthews doesn’t think to ask): if elections are driven by factors often widely outside the realm of short-term election cycles, why exactly do we think that elections are a good way to decide who to put into power?

About the only acceptable answer to that question that I can find is “it’s a better system than any others we’ve tried.” Frankly, such an answer doesn’t inspire confidence.

And further, when elections are driven by forces outside the candidates’ control, how exactly can we sit idly by and let politicians claim a mandate for their policies based upon the fact that they’ve won office? Voters don’t know what will fix the economy (nor do most politicians, frankly). But I guarantee that if Romney wins, it will be claimed as a mandate that the policies of Obama are to blame for our failure to generate an economic recovery, and that Romney’s policies are much better for all of us*.

Every four years, America goes through a big circle jerk to congratulate ourselves for “freedom” and representative democracy. After all, we get to choose who represents us in Washington and we have an inherent assumption that the fact that we’ve voted for them indicates that we have given them a vote of confidence. Yet we have a Congress with a approval rate in the teens and a re-election rate usually well above 90%, and we have Presidential contests that are usually decided based upon the growth of the economy rather than the qualities of the individual candidates.

But when I point out that we, as a people, don’t do a very good job deciding who to send to Washington, so just maybe we should limit the amount of power they’re allowed to wield, I’m suddenly a libertarian extremist?

* This might be true. However, anyone who agrees with this would undoubtedly disagree that the anemic growth of the Ford administration was evidence that we should try Jimmy Carter’s economic policies. The point about electoral fickleness transcends the question today over whether Obama is a bad President with bad policies and whether Romney would be better on either or both fronts.

  • MingoV

    I agree that Congress and the President have had very little effect on traditional business cycles. I disagree about effects on the national economy.

    I don’t know what history and economics you’ve been reading, but there is plenty of evidence that the President and Congress can affect the economy. Almost all such affects have been negative.

    The evidence is strong that:

    1. Every implementation of high tariffs hurt consumers and the economy.*

    2. Roosevelt’s policies worsened and extended the Great Depression.*

    3. Rationing and manufacturing wage freezes during World War II adversely affected the economy. The latter resulted in workplaces introducing non-wage benefits such as health insurance (which paved the way for Medicaid and Medicare two decades later).*

    4. Johnson’s “Great Society” put us on the road towards a social welfare state that is bankrupting us today.

    5. Nixon’s wage and price controls had adverse affects on the economy.*

    6. Clinton’s establishment of quasi-governmental organizations designed to promote home purchases among those with marginal credit contributed to the housing bubble. We’re still feeling the effects of that burst bubble.

    7. Bush’s expansion of Medicare worsened current and future federal deficits.

    8. Bush’s and Obama’s bailouts of banks, financial institutions, auto makers, etc. were detrimental to the economy and set bad precedents.*

    9. ObamaCare, EPA regulations gone wild, artificial lowering of interest rates, a plethora of new regulations and restrictions on many types of businesses, big increases in unemployment taxes, etc. have prevented an economic recovery and contribute to high unemployment because businesses are afraid to expand and hire.*

    * These actions rapidly generated adverse affects.

    I’m not a single-issue voter. However, all other things being equal, I would not vote for politicians who supported actions that harmed the economy.

    On the issue of democracy, I agree that it is a mediocre system of government. My dream government would have a libertarian constitution and be headed by a benevolent dictator (who could be removed by a super-majority of voters) with a very restricted budget.

  • http://sprachkursenglisch.com Whitley Bedenfield

    “Reagan won because he ran against Jimmy Carter. If he ran unopposed he would have lost.”