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The Agency Dilemma in American Politics

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Richard Cohen has a piece in the Washington Post about the insidious effect of Sarah Palin on the field of Republican presidential contenders:

Since Since Palin…ignorance has become more than bliss. It’s now an attribute, an entire platform: Vote for me, I know nothing and hate the same things you do…

So far, the Palin effect has been limited to the GOP. Surely, though, there lurks in the Democratic Party potential candidates who have seen Palin and taken note. Experience, knowledge, accomplishment — these no longer may matter. They will come roaring out of the left proclaiming a hatred of all things Washington, including compromise. The movie had it right. Sarah Palin changed the game.

Plenty of political scientists will tell you that political identification nowadays has a lot more to do with common dislikes than likes, and Sarah Palin is a great example. Her brand of politics centers on rejection — abortion, gay marriage, Washington elites, Barack Obama, basic understanding of facts, etc. — and lots of people evidently identify with that. Still, representative selection, as we’ve seen, becomes difficult with a field composed of candidates like this. At some point, Republican voters need to choose a nominee to face off against Barack Obama in November, and more broadly, to carry forth the ideals of the conservative movement, but it’s hard to identify the best individual to do that among a group of candidates who are all advancing the same wide-ranging view that everything needs to go.

As an analogy, if you are a shareholder of a company that is searching for a new CEO, and all the interviewees for the position talk only about what they hate about the company and the previous CEO, it becomes difficult to decide who the best person is for the job. Using stock as compensation is a common solution in that scenario, but it’s unclear how that would apply to representative selection in politics. Theoretically, the ideal scenario for Republican voters would be just the same: that they could offer their candidates stock in the conservative movement — however that is defined — such that whoever they chose would have to advance their agenda. But defining the agenda to be advanced is the tricky part. Mitt Romney is against taxes and healthcare reform, Rick Santorum is against abortion and gay marriage, Newt Gingrich is against taxes and healthcare reform, Ron Paul is against the Fed and monetary stimulus. Even if Republican voters could come to a consensus that the conservative movement is purely about repealing, who is going to decide exactly which policies need to be repealed?

Part of the problem here is with the institution of the presidency and the American style of democracy in general. We talk a lot about political identification — about how voters identify with this or that candidate — because voters don’t really have another way of doing things. Shareholders in a company simply want to choose the guy who says, “I’m going to make this company successful,” and it doesn’t matter what he looks like or how he talks or how blond his wife is. Politics in this country has become so much about personality that these kinds of issues often take precedence over the act of assessing who is going to make a particular movement or agenda successful. And it’s just as much a problem for Republican voters as for any other reasonably broad voting bloc.



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