Why don’t we have better politicians?

Do you approve of the political leader in your country? Are you happy and satisfied with the politicians your country has in general? Do you think your country doesn’t need better politicians? I’m going to guess that the answer to all these questions is no.

In all honesty, it’s not really much of a guess. It’s becoming increasingly rare for us to be satisfied with our politicians, rarer still that one has widespread public appeal. In Australia, national trust in politics is at an all-time low, while in the US it’s not far off. And in Europe, you can count the number of countries where over half of the population trusts their parliament on one hand.

“Imagine what the approval ratings must be like for those who didn’t get elected.”

Individual political leaders don’t fare much better. In a poll across 13 major countries that asked if residents approved of their political leader, no leader managed to crack the 50% approval rate. Half of the countries even had negative approval ratings for their leaders. Let that sink in for a second. What’s more, these are the officials that have actually been elected into office! Imagine what the approval ratings must be like for those who didn’t get elected.

What is going on here? Are we so inconsistent that we all collectively change our minds on who we do and don’t like after elections are over? Are politicians just incompetent? Or is there a more systematic problem going on here?

Under the microscope

To start, I’ll play devil’s advocate, and acknowledge that political leaders are subjected to far more scrutiny than most of us ever will be. They are constantly under the brightest of spotlights, and each decision they make is thoroughly probed and inspected. The slightest misstep is highlighted immediately, and often blown out of proportion by the media to boot. To an extent, this is to be expected. These people have enormous responsibilities, and the decisions they make can have massive ramifications. This means that they have little room for error, and the careful monitoring they are subjected to is not unjustified.

On top of that all that, political leaders also have to deal with the politicians and political parties who did not get elected and form part of the opposition. From a rational choice perspective, unelected politicians generally have one goal: to make sure they do get elected when the next opportunity arises.

Opposition parties could try to achieve this by developing a thorough and well substantiated campaign plan, lay out effective policies, and present a better alternative than the current party in power can deliver, or… they could just besmirch the name of the current leader, exaggerate any tiny mistake they make, and try to turn the public against them. And with social media and all our technological developments, this has become easier than ever before.

Smear campaigns work because they create discontent with the status quo. As we become subjected to negative press surrounding the party currently in charge, we’re likely to start demanding some type of change. When discontent grows large enough, almost any kind of change becomes preferable to the current conditions. As a result, simply politicking on the promise of something different can be sufficient grounds for political success, even when the proposed replacement policies are underdeveloped at best (such as when in 2017 Dutch politician Geert Wilders managed to realize significant results in the elections based on a policy program the size of one A4 sheet).

The price of success

Is the high level of scrutiny, combined with some incentive to see incumbent politicians fail, all there is to our discontent then? I’ve talked elsewhere about current issues with the contemporary media, and that we might be better off consuming less of it. But would paying less attention to negativity in the media also help solve our displeasure with our politicians? Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple

Read more about issues with the contemporary media

A far bigger issue within politics, is that politicians rarely make it to the top solely by themselves. The vast majority relies on some kind of external support network that enables and facilitates their political career trajectory. But those that are in a position to facilitate political success (such as political donors), rarely do so out of the goodness of their hearts. Those that help politicians rise to the top are usually going to want something in return. In many countries, the entire system is essentially based on an exchange of favors: “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.“.

“What happens all too often, is that the laws that are supposed to govern big corporations are being dictated by their own lobbyists.”

If you’re reading this, chances are slim that you are one of those people that can significantly impact election outcomes. CEOs of large organizations and political donors on the other hand, can make substantive financial contributions that do have a sizeable impact. Because they can just as easily withdraw their support in the future, the power and influence they wield can make politicians beholden to them when they win. At times large donors even support multiple, sometimes opposing candidates, in order to hedge their bets and ensure they will have a seat at the table no matter what.

In countries where election success is at least partially dependent on political donations (i.e. most democratic countries), bribery and corruption are the obvious results, although how overt this is can vary from country to country. Well-known examples include Australian politicians acting in the interests of mining companies, or the massive influence that the National Rifle Association has on US politics. But even countries where perceived levels of corruption are low, like Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, France, and Norway, aren’t fully free from it. What happens all too often, is that the laws that are supposed to govern big corporations are being dictated by their own lobbyists.

I didn’t sign up for this

And corruption is arguably not even the biggest issue with our politicians. An even greater problem is that the ingredients required to become a successful politician (lobbying skills, personal connections, perhaps some ruthlessness and a pinch of charisma) are vastly different from the skills required to effectively govern a country (or any other level of government for that matter). While there is no clear-cut definitive checklist, commonly found attributes of good leadership include empathy, honesty, genuineness, credibility, and the ability to communicate clearly. Notice how little overlap there is between these capabilities, and the ones needed to be successful in politics. In some cases they’re even mutually exclusive!

“Few politicians are actually well suited for their jobs, unless we assume their sole job is to get elected.”

It’s no wonder why politicians are so rarely suited for their job. In essence, what’s happening is that we’re selecting politicians based on the wrong criteria. The result is that few politicians are actually well suited for their job, unless we assume that their sole job is to get elected. The notion is about as absurd as it sounds. It would be similar to judging how good someone is at their job based solely on their ability to get hired. And yet it’s the main indicator we use to measure political success.

How to win at politics – the dark triad

So if it’s not necessarily people with leadership capabilities who rise to the top in politics, who does then? There is actually a well-known predictor of political success: All you need is the dark triad.

The dark triad is a concept from psychology that refers to the three primary malevolent attributes people can have: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. People that have these characteristics are disproportionally often found in politics, as it presents a natural environment for them to thrive.

Narcissism manifests as an excessive interest in oneself. Narcissists prioritize their own needs at the expense of others and often display grandiosity, either out of a belief of self-superiority, or to mask their own feelings of inferiority. Narcissism provides great incentives for a career in politics, because what better way to demonstrate your greatness then by having people vote for you?

Psychopaths frequently have traits of low empathy, cynicism, and callousness. Psychopaths can have a complete disregard for the wellbeing of others and are unlikely to feel guilt over their actions. Climbing the political ladder requires clawing your way to the top, and a lack of remorse over back-stabbing others and participating in corruption makes this path a lot more bearable mentally.

Machiavellianism is named after Niccolò Machiavelli, a famous 15th century Italian diplomat. In his book “The Prince”, he describes that the pathway to power lies through manipulation, duplicity, and deceit. Strategically and manipulatively using others to promote self-interest is therefore the prime hallmark of a Machiavellian personality. It just so happens that scheming your way to the top by any means necessary works exceptionally well in a political career.

Characteristics of the dark triad are unusually common in politicians.

The most striking example from recent memory that would be a good fit for these characteristics would undoubtedly be Donald Trump. While he is arguably not Machiavellian, many psychologists have diagnosed him with narcissism and psychopathy. From prominently attaching his name to any business property he owns, to almost compulsive lying and an apparent disregard for morality, Trump exhibits many personality traits that many would deem undesirable in politicians. And yet he managed to become arguably the most powerful politician in the world.

In short, people that have characteristics of the dark triad have the means (effective scheming from Machiavellianism), motive (desire for self-idolatry from narcissism), and opportunity (lack of remorse from psychopathy) that ideally prepare them to become politicians. A lack of morals also further increases the aforementioned problems with corruption, as a willingness to exchange favors provides them with a further advantage in climbing the political ladder.

It shouldn’t be a surprise therefore that people with these characteristics are well represented in politics. A disproportionate amount of our politicians care primarily about themselves, and got to their position by manipulating others in order to achieve their goals. Does that sound like ideal leadership material to you?

Washing politics clean

So how do we fix this situation, with corruption seemingly inescapable and the entire system seemingly rigged to favor suboptimal candidates? How can we get to a situation where we can restore our trust in politicians?

First of all, any noteworthy solution has to at least curtail the underlying issues conditions that facilitate corruption. While it would likely be very difficult to remove corruption in its entirety, making politicians less beholden to outside interests is crucial. Only when politicians are unburdened by a conflict of interest can they start acting on our behalf.

A good start would be to eliminate all financial donations to political campaigns (countries such as Belgium make a good start by already banning political donations from corporations. The whole premise is frankly absurd, and almost a direct invitation for corrupt behavior. While some might argue that banning outside donations would limit the domain of politics to those that are well off, it arguably already is. And limiting campaign financing to that which can be provided by public funding would solve the issue entirely.

But we need to disrupt other exchanges of favors between politicians and outside interests as well. Giving politicians a life-long ban from sitting on corporate boards and vice versa should help to limit other types of kickbacks and to avoid conflating political and economic interests. Finally, increasing the transparency on any significant financial transactions that involve politicians would further discourage attempts at bribery.

The right (wo-)man for the job

Beyond dealing with corruption, another improvement would be higher levels of female participation in politics. On average, women tend to be more collectivistic than men, and score higher on characteristics that prioritize the well-being of society. There is evidence that women are more participative leaders, more sensitive to the needs of others, and more likely to provide social support. All are qualities that are beneficial in having leaders that care about more than just self-interest. While certainly not without her faults, Germany’s Angela Merkel provides a salient case of how to possibly implement a leadership style that’s less based on boastfulness and arrogance, and more on cooperation and participation.

Female politicians generally also tend to be less corrupt, and are also less likely to exhibit the characteristics of the dark triad. Unfortunately, less likely is not the same as absent, and corrupt or narcissistic female politicians do exist. On top of that, since these characteristics are predictors of political success, their lower incidence rate in women might partially explain why we don’t have more female politicians in the first place. Ironically it’s a lack of unwanted characteristics that lowers their chances of political success.

A square peg in a round hole

A structural solution for getting better politicians therefore inevitably has to address the selection effect that occurs in politics. But just like we can’t just wish corruption away, neither can we lower the amount of people in society that have characteristics of the dark triad. What we can do however, is try to redirect these people towards different career trajectories.

Much of human behavior comes about as the result of the (dis-)incentives that exist for our actions. We often do things because of the benefits we will gain, or avoid doing things because of the penalties we will receive. Our motivations can come from a variety of sources, both internally and externally. We might do a job because of the salary we get from it, or because we enjoy doing that type of work (or if you’re lucky, both!). We (generally) don’t kill people because we don’t find it morally just, or because we don’t want to end up in jail (or very likely, both).

“The important thing is that we need to make ‘being a politician’ just like any other job.”

The solution to getting better politicians, is therefore to lower the incentives for unsuitable people to enter politics, and create stronger disincentives for any unwanted behavior of those that do enter.

While those with characteristics of the dark triad are more likely to join politics out of ambition, not everyone goes into politics for the wrong reason. Many that do genuinely want to make a difference. Those are the kind of people who we’d generally want to participate, we’ve just got to make sure they make it to the top.

One ‘easy’ solution would be to make politics less glamorous. Lower the salaries of high-level politicians and bring them closer to national averages. Stop giving politicians as much airtime on TV, and primarily let spokespersons handle this job instead. Promote coalition-based government systems in countries that don’t yet have them, so that individual politicians and their parties have less power and need to compromise. Implement term-limits for all politicians, to limit how much power individuals can accumulate over time. The important thing is that we need to make politician just like any other job.

At the same time, we need stronger disincentives for unwanted behavior. Make lying in parliament a criminal offence. Increase the penalties for corruption of those who hold a public office. Create stronger independent watchdogs that scrutinize those in power. And prohibit politicians from using state-funds for their own legal defense when they are accused of crimes.

Who politicks the politicians?

Unfortunately, all of this is easier said than done. The biggest problem we face is that enacting political reform is usually done by incumbent politicians. But politicians have little to no incentive to change the systems that got them to their position in the first place.

The final step of the solution would therefore be to demand and implement referendums. Referendums are certainly not without issues, and we shouldn’t necessarily advocate for referendums on all major political decisions. But at the bare minimum we need referendums on laws that affect politicians themselves. Just like how we can’t decide our own salaries without consultation and agreement from employers, politicians need to be held similarly accountable. By removing the power of self-determination from politics, we limit how much politicians can exploit the system. And who knows, if we gain more influence over the well-being of politicians, they might even decide to do something nice for us in return.

Are you satisfied with the politicians in your country? Do you think there are other reasons why politicians in your country aren’t doing their job well? Or do you have examples of high-level politicians who are competent in spite of the odds? Let us know in the comments below!

Ron Maas
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