Hello, readers. I’m Alex DeForge, a philosophy PhD student at Duke University. I’ve spent a number of years working with non-profits, legal advocacy groups, labour unions, and political parties, so I feel somewhat justified in subjecting you to my commentary on these matters. I’ll be posting here from time to time.
A disclaimer on the following post: I have never worked for a politician that I thought was a hack. Needless to say, I haven’t worked for many politicians.
“Who are all these fuckin’… who are these hacks man?”
— Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson,
City Council Meeting, July 8th, 2010
Yes, it was inappropriate for a Mayor to say this at a city council meeting, even if he didn’t realize his mike was still on. Robertson apologized. However, for those of us that are not elected officials, this is often the right question to be asking when assessing our politicians.
The urban dictionary says that a hack is “a person who is a professional at doing some sort of service, but does crappy work.” So, to determine if a politician is a hack, we have to determine what their job is and whether they are crappy at it.
In a democracy, politicians ply their trade in a deliberately adversarial arena. Joe Heath’s paper, an “An Adversarial Ethic for Business”, outlines how in adversarial institutions, we can distinguish competitors’ goals within the competition from the aims of the competition. Applied to elections, our politicians are supposed to campaign with the goal of winning enough votes to be elected to legislative assembly — even though democratic elections themselves aim to select the best representatives of our interests for the purpose of making good social policy. However, after elections, our politicians are supposed to actually govern, which is to do the job of representing their constituents’ interests to create policy and law to serves those interests.
Politicians are supposed to try to win elections and to make good legislation. But because they need to do the first to be selected to do the second, our democratic system can reward tactics that are great for winning elections and terrible for making just legislation. And there is nothing in the structure of our democratic elections that stops us from electing politicians who are just really good at campaigning but crappy at governing.
We see graphs like this that represent senators’ tendencies toward disagreement over legislation. Sure, it might be the case that they are simply representing constituents’ increasingly polarized interests. Regardless, this sort of disagreement makes it difficult to get bills passed. So, even if our elected officials were voting to represent constituents’ interests, they could still be doing a crappy job of creating social policy.
Maybe I have been a little hard on our politicians. Do I think that all politicians are hacks? No. Some of my favourite people are politicians.
But in all seriousness — a lot of them are hacks.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that all politicians are crappy at every aspect of their jobs. In fact, they seem to be very good at campaigning to win elections. What many of them are not good at, and maybe don’t even care about, is doing the “people’s work” that we supposedly elect them to do. It’s this failure that should lead us to ask, “who are these hacks man?”
Let’s revisit the Vancouver Mayor. Back in 2010, the Mayor’s center-left party, Vision, was part of an official coalition with the city’s far-left party, COPE. Vision realized that if they cooperated with the far-left in elections, they would gain the cooperation that they needed in post-election councils to get their municipal projects off the ground. This was a strategic move, too. By running a non-overlapping slate of candidates with COPE, Vision was able to gain the support and votes of Vancouver’s more liberal constituents.
COPE eventually decided to end the coalition in 2013.
This is an interesting case study because Vision was able to garner votes by taking actions that were prudent for governing. It seems rare these days to find a political climate that rewards behavior that is strategic to good governance, and not just strategic to winning campaigns.
We should worry that we are doing something wrong if we believe that our democratic elections are supposed to select for the best representatives for the purpose of governing — these days, it looks like we are selecting hacks.
- Alex DeForge