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The constituent as client

Mandos's picture

For better or for worse, we live in a world in which most "democratic" political systems are constructed on a basis of hierarchical tiers of representation. The higher the tier one reaches, the more one can accomplish. This effectively means that being a politician is a career. We do not live in the world in which leadership and representation is a duty one takes reluctantly, for maybe a year or two in addition to one's other life activities. I wish we did, but we don't.

Even the ideal politician who is a true public servant, competent and well-intentioned, is necessarily interested in sustaining his or her career---if for no other reason than to maximize the time to do good in the world. And therefore, less perfect people, likewise. In allegedly "democratic" systems (the representative variety), what sustains a politician in his or her position is the ability to get votes at the ballot box. In other words, the business of a politician becomes the business of sustaining a clientele (or more than one) of people willing to cast their ballot in that politician's direction. If it isn't, then said politician will not make it into office. Politics is therefore not merely a career, but a business.

Politicians are thus influenced by two forces:

  1. Forces that drive away potential clienteles.
  2. Forces that deliver clienteles to them.

As a constituent, you have the power to choose to be part of a clientele that supports a given politician, and influence others to be a part of that clientele. You also have the power to remove yourself from said clientele and to remove others. The manner and reasons for which you take one action or the other therefore influences the behaviour of the ideal politician and thus the less-than-ideal politician.

This becomes a pricing game. As a constituent/client, it becomes your job to assess the price at which a politician obtains your support. And the politician must ask himself or herself what price at which he or she would be willing to risk you walking away---and potentially taking a clientele with you. Adding to the complexity is the fact that different clienteles have competing interests, and hence a good price for one clientele will lose another. The politician must then choose which clientele he or she wishes to serve---or whether he or she should quit.

Traditionally, it is part of the definition of the political left that it opposes the expansion of the priveleges of the powerful. Consequently, the logical strategy of the political left has been to set its price high (influence #2), and then influence other clienteles to do so as well. When enough clienteles have a high price, politicians must pay attention. The conundrum that has hit the political left recently---and particularly since Reagan---is that its ability to affect other clienteles to raise their prices has diminished significantly. This has been particularly apparent from 1994 to 2006. The Nader phenomenon was a case in point.

What the latest episodes have highlighted, though, is the necessity of considering influence #1. Without completely giving up the strategy of raising prices, it must be considered that it is possible to raise the price so high that the politicians in question will seek other clienteles. In which case, you're left with nothing.

I recently said that I thought that Obama has been, so far, about 5-10% better than the alternative in the general election. To me, that's a significant number. That leaves about 90-95% scope for criticism, by the way, and puts me way out on the edge of the curve compared to most Democratic Americans, at the very least. Many people here wish to remain even more skeptical about than I about him, however. For those who do, I have a few questions:

  1. What is the price at which Obama can "buy" you?
  2. Do you think that Obama can pay or even offer that price without losing some other clientele that would be critical to his career or, for that matter, to his other policy objectives?
  3. If not, who else will pay that price who can move forward any part of your agenda?
  4. If no one, what is the next step in your plan?

I hope this clarifies the perspective that I'm coming from when I sometimes criticize the type of Obama criticism I see around here.

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Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

1. I think that one has been answered in a half-a-dozen different posts over the last few months. The questions your asking, though worded differently, here, is what would Obama have to push through for you to back off him, whether you want to believe that's the question or not.

2. This question, and the whole post, constantly assumes that the politician and clientele are equal in their power to influence the other in this relationship. It also assumes that a business relationship most accurately captures the voter-politician relationship, and I don't think it does. Because I don't believe that, I don't think it is the clientele's primary responsibility (if their responsibility, at all) to try and keep the politician viable. The politician, as the bigger more influential power in this relationship, has more than enough power to try keep him or herself viable. The burden of their viability is ultimately on themselves.

In the case of questions three and four, they always work themselves out because they must. They are essentially and simply asking if there is a Plan B, and there is always a Plan B if you want there to be one.

Mandos's picture
Submitted by Mandos on

Yes, the politician and the clientele are not in an equal position, but the relative power varies. For instance, the clientele might find a minor politician who is willing to "pay" a very high price to obtain that clientele---but have very little influence thereafter, and so on and so forth.

The point I want to emphasize, though, and may do so in a further post, is the need for the clientele (or the activist trying to work in the clientele's interest) to follow through. That is, not just to set a price, but to let the politician "take delivery" of the votes/support/etc. At some point the politician has to believe that she/he will be able to act in a way that obtains support. Follow through.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

To continue on the business meme, a politician can "take delivery" of the votes and support we've paid him when he attempts and completes the points of his contract. This is not an unconditional contract where we hand over to him all of his 'pay', at once. This is a conditional contract. He does get paid simply to remain the leader; he gets paid so long as he renders of the services we paid for.