The vast majority of discussion around selecting the next President of the United States is misplaced. Why? Because voters are focusing on promises instead of performance.
In democracy, governments respond to voters’ needs and interests because they are held accountable by the people through elections; accountability causes responsiveness. How then does accountability work?
The most powerful, and arguably only, mechanism of democratic accountability is ex-post accountability, that is, the retrospective punishing and rewarding of politicians based on their performance while in office. If politicians face no risk of punishment or promise of reward, then they would have no incentive to perform along basic social, economic, or environmental criteria. This raises the question, under what conditions does ex-post accountability function?
Accountability in a free and fair democracy breaks down in three cases:
1. People vote based on ideology- Millions of highly educated people say “I would never vote for a Democrat.” This essentially says, “Regardless of your performance, I will re-elect you if you are a Republican.” In this situation, politicians have no incentive to perform because they will be rewarded under any conditions. Ideological voting opposes democratic accountability.
2. People vote on future promises- People often vote based on a candidate’s vision for the future. While romantic, this does not incentivize performance. Instead it creates a system that rewards politicians for making lofty promises, not fulfilling them. If people continually vote based on promises and visions, then politicians never have to account for their past promises, they only need to make more. Voting on future promises (voting ex-ante) does not foster accountability.
3. Voters are not informed- If voters are not aware of what changed or who is responsible for those changes, governments can shirk responsibility because they know that voters cannot accurately measure their performance. According to one study by Adserá, Boix and Payne (2003), the presence of a well-informed electorate explains between one-half and two-thirds of the variance in the levels of governmental performance and corruption. Performance improves as citizens have more precise political knowledge. Weak political knowledge is opposed to accountability.
So what’s the point? This election is not about Barack Obama or John McCain, it’s about evaluating the economic, social, and environmental performance of our current leadership and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly. Ideally, we would have an incumbent candidate to reward or punish based on their performance. However, because of presidential term limits (to which I am largely opposed), we must evaluate the incumbent Party instead. Some argue that it is unfair to base one's judgment of John McCain solely on the performance of his Party; I disagree. The Republicans had six years of executive and legislative control and John McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time. It is plenty fair to vote for or against McCain based on the performance of the Party he represents and desires to lead.
Therefore, come November, we have two obligations to ourselves and to our system: 1) Be informed and 2) Vote according to the performance of those in power, not on the charm or promises of their challengers. Obama may be a better choice, but he should be elected because he represents, not promises, change.