Broken promises

10/16/2015 12:00:00 PM
A common trope in politics is the "broken promises" theme. Everyone thinks that politicians breaking promises are a ubiquitous feature of the political landscape. It's the theme of CNN's "keeping them honest" segment. Politifact devoted an entire -ometer to just Obama's promises. Underlying the trope is a basic, assumed narrative: a politician, angling to win cheap votes, promises stuff he doesn't have any intention of delivering, and then once in office turns his back on the voters and ignores those commitments.

The thing is, politicians actually don't actually do this.

Ok, sure say stuff like "As president, I will ___" and then, as president, that thing never actually happens. But then, that's just democracy--no individual is capable of delivering all, or even most, of what they want to do because others want to do different things. When a politician says "As president, I will ___" they don't mean they will seize the military and compel the nation at gun point to accept that thing. They mean that they will try to do that thing with in the political constraints of the democratic system.

Take Obama's promise to close Guantanamo. You can't claim he didn't actually support this policy or try to implement it. He drastically reduced the number of prisoners there, and did in fact implement a plan to move the remaining prisoners to the mainland US, and then close the base. But then in the face of strong political opposition Congress passed a law explicitly prohibiting him from carrying out the rest of that plan. In fact, rumor is that Obama is still working on an alternative solution to close Guantanamo in the face of this altered circumstance. This isn't what it looks like when someone breaks a promise; it's what it looks like when a politician goes about implementing the policies he advertised in his campaign.

You can also come up with lots of examples from President Bush. He "promised" to privatize social security but failed to marshal that policy into effect due to to the fact it was massively unpopular. But to say that he broke his promise to privatize social security is simply incorrect: it was a policy he earnestly supported and tried to enact.

My point here is that the central plank of the "broken promises" trope--that politicians cynically make promises they don't intend to honor just to win cheap votes--is not a very accurate description of US politics. For the most part, politicians earnestly believe what they're saying. For the most part, politicians actually do try to honor their promises. It is also true that in the US the vast majority of all policy efforts end in defeat. Our system has a lot of veto-points where policy ideas go to die: sub-committees, committees, the house, 100 filibustering Senators, the president's pen, the Supreme Court. Blaming a politician for breaking promises that he earnestly tried to keep only magnifies the power of those who actually killed the promise by penalizing those who propose ideas.

By ensnaring politicians who propose new ideas, the "broken promises" trope causes the very thing it chastises.