Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Purveyors of Unhappiness

It’s been election time south of the border again and that’s got me thinking about how parties go about trying to elected. I should be absolutely clear here – I don’t like political parties of any stripe. I have a hard time with any thing that encourages a group of people to stop thinking and just follow.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in Canada and the U.S. is the tone of the parties not in power. The tone has been the pretty similar, regardless of which group from whatever side of the political spectrum was in power or opposition. This got me to thinking. Is there something about how democracy works that creates some interesting incentives.

Let’s consider a basic voter who is going to making their voting decision based on who they believe will end up making them better off. Generally the party in power is going to try and convince people that things are pretty good and getting better – all pretty straight forward.

Things get really interesting when we start to look at the strategies available to the parties in opposition. One strategy would be acknowledging the achievements of the current government and then arguing that even more could be achieved under the party currently in opposition. Basically, this strategy amounts to saying things are pretty good but they could have been even better. Not very exciting.

The other possible strategy is not to acknowledge the successes of the incumbent and argue not just that things could have been better, but that things are currently bad. In order for political power to change hands a large number of voters have to be convinced that they are unhappy. Mad as hell and not going to take it any more (a la tea party) is best. What makes this really interesting is that we know that people respond more to potential loses than gains. This might be why the Republicans have managed to do so well this time around and the democrats before them.

So the nature of how parties in a democratic system compete for power may actually end up making people feel unhappy. Remember, the self proclaimed “happiest place on earth” (Disneyland) isn’t a democracy.


Mark A. McCutcheon said...

What about Obama's election campaign? It sure painted the prior administration in awful tones (not hard to do, IMHO) but it also could be seen to play to people's hopes and expectations for some pretty significant positive gains.

Then again, it could be the exception that proves the rule...

economistatlarge said...

The idea of hope only plays once you've convinced people that things currently suck. Obama may not have done that directly, but his party surely did.

Anonymous said...

parties seeking election, IMHO do not care what they do. They view the election as a stepping stone to establish fame, i use the word fame loosely. All elections have come to now is a slam campaign. I view the recent NB elections as a resume builder. Its kind of a joke i say, but the underlying idea is an argument worth having.

These, or for a more general term all, individuals in a position of power, i argue are competing for their own resume's. Think about it, the way Canada is being run, think of it either on a provincial or country scale, is terrible. beside one or two individuals, no one is even trying to fix our problems. Their just trying to pad their own personal resumes. "I did this, I did that". You will never hear a premier say, We, as in more than one party, achieved to clear this debt, or fundamentally changed this shortcoming.

When our two nations were created, i really believe it was a step in the right direction. Its apparent to me now, that we have taken ourselves on a tangent, i believe we have even erased the line we were following. You know its pretty bad when i hear stories from individuals telling me that their dyeing relatives are ashamed of this country, and if they knew this was going to be the future, they would never have fought for it.

Think about that this November 11th.


economistatlarge said...


Your point about building a resume is interesting. I'd like to see what happens to "former" politicians after they "serve" in NB, to find out if this sort of thing really helps.

As for your second, comment - I hope we aren't that far gone yet.

Anonymous said...


You know I am. As for my theory, think about it. Your previous occupation is not a slam dunk for your future. You get elected and screw up bad. How do you make a good thing out of a bad situation? Try to pull of a billion dollar deal. You dont really care that everyone says they dont want it. You think to yourself, at least if I can pull this off, I will have a proven track record for closing large financial deals. If he pulled it off and closed the deal, that’s all he would have needed.

If you were an employer that was in the league of million/billion dollar deals, you wouldn’t care that his deal was the worst ever, because he’s not coming up with the deals now. You are and you just want someone to bring it home.

If he would have finished the deal, he would be able to make it for any mid to large corporation in Canada.

I have a strong feeling that this mindset is the foundation to most of our political "innovations" that we see today.


economistatlarge said...

You likely have a point here. It would certainly explain the growth in the number of "young" politicians we're seeing lately. I'm going to try and come up with a list of "where are they now" of Canadian politicians who basically screwed up.
@ Mark - you forgot the other half of the slogan - change.