David Dayen: 'What's Wrong With Pandering?'
Credit: World Resources
October 12, 2015

I used to be in sales, where we were trained to find the customer's pain point and find a solution. So when Hillary Clinton changes her positions to meet popular demand, I shrug in amazement at the response. Why is that bad? The whole "Bernie supported that first!" argument just reminds me of far too many "Oh yeah? Well, I liked that band before they were cool!" late-night discussions in bars.

Apparently David Dayen thinks the same way:

But the bigger issue is this: What’s wrong with pandering? Our system of government, as it has evolved, offers precious few opportunities for ordinary people to get into the national conversation. Big Money has a tight grip on governance through insistent lobbying, and for the most part they fund national elections.

For once, the Democratic nominating fight, and the emergence of Bernie Sanders, has given public interest groups a voice, a rare channel to impact the political system. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at that; we should respect it. National leaders should have to listen to their constituents and earn their support. Primaries are one of the only moments that allow such an opportunity.

The thing about outside leverage on politics is that it’s not static. It can change, and leaders can drop their panders when it suits them politically. Public interest groups and ordinary citizens must not take anything for granted and remain insistent. They are correct to look at this skeptically.

But here’s what we know from political science, a point made most eloquently by the same Ezra Klein who is so unnerved by Clinton’s position-taking: Politicians typically keep their campaign promises. Presidents may not fulfill them, but that has more to do with Congressional obstruction than a flip-flop.

In other words, locking in a particular endorsement in a primary has real lingering effects. That makes the process some call pandering, which I would call paying attention to your political base, all the more important. If you can move a candidate on an issue you care about, you can keep them in that position for a long time.

This isn’t always the case, and if Clinton won the election, went into office and subsequently started whipping votes for the same trade deal she now decries, I wouldn’t exactly be surprised. But the point is that that would be an unusual circumstance.

Even if it transpired, Clinton’s opposition today has real meaning. TPP will get a vote within the next six months, and with so many problems on the left and right, I’d doubt it would pass in the House if the vote were held today. The Clinton announcement only strengthens that likelihood, and January 2017, when the next president is sworn in, is a long way away. The whole agreement could collapse by then. Opposition now holds incredible value for the coalition against TPP, even with the potential of support later.

More important, opposition allows the popular will to be spread through politicians who may not even share opponents’ goals. While one poll shows amorphous support for “expanding trade deals,” others clearly display broad opposition to the types of policies embedded in TPP. Clinton cannot simultaneously be obsessively poll-driven and oppose TPP against her personal interest. Presumably she knows at least something about where the electorate sits on this issue. In a Washington wired for a pro-trade consensus, that perspective usually doesn’t get expressed — unless there’s an election, and a politician fighting for votes and willing to express it.

Washington types love politicians who make “tough choices” against the public’s wishes. And they don’t like pandering. Another way to put this is that they don’t like the unwashed masses getting their noses involved in the choices our government makes. I would rather that regular citizens take advantage of the leverage afforded in opportune moments to obtain the power not already sucked up by the wealthy and large corporations. We shouldn’t react cynically, but happily, that there’s still a role in our allegedly broken system for the voice of the common man.

Can you help us out?

For nearly 20 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.