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27. Changing Policy As a Politician
Note: In this article, I will use the terms “libertarian,” “classical liberal,” and similar terms interchangeably to define someone who supports limited government.
Becoming an elected official may seem, to many, to be the most direct and efficient way to quickly move society in a pro-liberty direction. Politicians vote on laws and budgets and have access to media. They exercise these powers to direct resources and impact the direction of society. Politicians have been adept at diminishing our freedoms, so why shouldn’t pro-liberty individuals use those same advantages for the cause of liberty?
The answer is that elected officials can advance the cause of liberty, but libertarians are very rarely adept at success in this arena. Principled limited-government candidates rarely get elected, and the very few that do win elections are rarely actually effective in their positions at accomplishing pro-liberty results. Influential elected libertarians are so rare that most people can name only a few such politicians from the modern era. Why?
The primary reason that classical liberals fail as candidates for public office (whether they run as Republicans, Democrats, third-party, or independents) is that they fail to understand the job of a candidate. Liberty-advocates, by their nature, are principled individuals who are passionate about issues of right and wrong, economic policy, and social liberty. Many libertarians are so consumed with these policy and philosophic ideas that they become deluded into thinking that being “correct” on such matters is somehow an asset in running for public office. In fact, some feel so passionately about liberty that they feel a righteous obligation to advance freedom in the sphere of elective politics.
Armed with the smug determination that they are absolutely right on very important matters of principle and policy, these idealistic champions of freedom dutifully file for public office and then proceed to run campaigns that fail—usually miserably. The rare few that either possess adequate campaign skills or just somehow get lucky and win are often then ineffective in the political environment of elected officeholders. Odds are that these rare survivors either become frustrated loners in the legislative body they serve in or end up being captured by the political environment in which they are immersed.
Want to beat the odds?
Being a Candidate
The first thing libertarian candidates have to overcome is the fallacy that being “right on issues” is a ticket to winning elections. Being a good libertarian has nothing to do with being a good candidate. Being a good candidate requires learning a completely unique set of skills that require dedication and discipline to master.
Imagine if history’s greatest writers for liberty had such poor grammar skills that they were unable to construct a comprehensible sentence. These “writers” may have had great stories to tell and ambition to communicate them, but they would have been worthless failures without decent basic literary skills. Such is the libertarian “candidate” who hasn’t a clue how to target voters, allocate campaign resources, or raise money. Candidacy is a job with a very distinct set of skills. Mastering these skills has almost nothing to do with the candidate’s philosophy or ideas—it has to do with understanding campaign resource allocation and comprehending the intense level of commitment that a real campaign usually requires. Having inadequate knowledge of either usually dooms candidates.
Teaching campaign tactics falls outside the scope of this essay, so I would encourage potential candidates to take a very scientific approach to learning campaign skills. There are numerous campaign schools taught by political parties and interest groups where professionals share the secrets and science of winning elections. Many books, magazines, and published research also have exhaustive information on the subject of campaign science.
Future candidates for office should first gain on-the-ground, real-life experience by participating in a hotly contested political campaign or two as a volunteer or paid staffer. Because you have limited time, it is important that you select the campaign that you volunteer for by using the “Goldilocks approach”—the campaign must be big enough to employ sophisticated campaign strategies yet small enough that you will have opportunities to observe and participate in higher-level campaign operations.
Don’t waste time on a presidential or U.S. senate campaign. These campaigns are very exciting and high profile, but are such large operations that you will be relegated to the most insignificant envelope-stuffer or foot soldier. You will experience little or nothing when it comes to campaign strategy decisions or resource allocation. Also, don’t waste time by volunteering on a campaign for a candidate who faces nominal competition or who is running for an insignificant office. Campaigns for state legislature or county offices are frequently “just right” for learning how to be a candidate.
Note that I have said nothing about issues. The good news is that issues come naturally to classical liberals and policy ideas are abundantly researched. But issues have little to do with broad campaign strategy or campaign skills. Do not try to use a campaign to educate voters on issues. If your passion is educating citizens on libertarian ideas, then please choose to become a writer, teacher, or think tank communications specialist, not a candidate. Issues are very important to a campaign, but the campaign’s decisions are how to choose and present issues, not how to educate people on issues using extremely limited time and campaign resources.
The decision principled candidates must make is choosing which elements of their approach to public policy that they should feature in a campaign, and how to present those elements. Most voters agree with libertarians on many key issues and, at the same time, agree with statists on many key issues. In fact, voters seem perfectly capable of holding two contradictory views on any one issue, giving both libertarians and big-government collectivists opportunities to communicate well-crafted appeals to voters’ already conceived notions on those issues.
The job of the campaign is to pick issues that the candidate supports that will appeal best to voters, and to do a better job of delivering messages on those issues than opponents.
Being a Politician
Once you have become a highly skilled candidate and won public office, the next step is learning how to be an effective advocate for liberty as an elected official. First, the bad news: few of your fellow elected colleagues will care about public policy. Now the good news: few of your elected colleagues will care about public policy.
The vast majority of individuals that choose to seek public office are motivated by their egos and not by a set of ideas or principles. That’s not to say they don’t have ideas or principles—only that those notions are not the motivation for most people who seek public office. People who decide to run for office are usually motivated by their highly competitive nature and their desire to be recognized and acclaimed as valuable and respected. In short, ego drives most people who seek personal validation in elections. Public policy ideas are like “things” these egoists encounter in their quest for public office—sometimes these idea “things” are useful to these candidates as tools to help their quests, and sometimes policy ideas are impediments in their endeavors. But for most politicians, public policy ideas are monitored for election and career-maintenance uses, but otherwise ignored.
This limited interest in policy is frustrating to many first-time elected libertarians who assume that politicians either truly seek to solve societal problems or are somehow motivated by policy ideas. These frustrated individuals must immediately learn the basics of public choice theory. In fact, no libertarian should ever consider running for office or even being involved with any politician until he or she has a complete and full understanding of public choice theory. This must be said one last time: read and understand public choice theory.
After aspiring libertarian candidates understand public choice theory, they need to recognize that only 20 percent of elected officials are truly ideological. Most politicians will position themselves ideologically in order to fit their districts, but such positioning is for show. The 20 percent of politicians who are actually ideological are potential allies and potential enemies in the libertarian’s quest to advance pro-freedom policies and (much more often) stop bad legislation that expands government. But understanding these 20 percent of politicians is the easiest part of understanding the political landscape, because they usually wear their ideology on their sleeves and are simply either with or against you, depending on how your ideas fit their ideology. The secret to being an effective libertarian in the environment of elected office is not really focusing on the ideological 20 percent of the legislative body—it is understanding the remaining 80 percent.
The remaining 80 percent of politicians have two things that are very well-known to every lobbyist: a vote and a desire to be reelected. Good lobbyists try to get the vote they desire out of politicians by marketing their desired agenda as the best way to get reelected. Sometimes they do this by dangling financial campaign support in front of the politician, and sometimes they dangle blocks of votes. Sometimes they imply that opposing a particular agenda of a lobbyist will result in campaign support going to a politician’s opponents. To be successful in public office, one must think like the lobbyists by understanding and playing to the motivations of the 80 percent.
A good liberty-loving politician wastes little time trying to appeal to philosophy, economics or ethics with the 80 percent. Instead he or she markets policy ideas as the best way to gain support and win elections. When Texas congressman Ron Paul tries to reason with his congressional colleagues, they ignore or humor him. When Paul raises a substantial sum of campaign cash with a “money bomb,” those same colleagues become more and more interested in what he has to say.
A good libertarian elected official will work hard to present his or her views on issues as important for the reelection chances of his or her colleagues. This official must become a lobbyist—pointing out polls that show people support positions of limited government and free markets, talking about appealing to campaign donors that support those positions, and making the case that “freedom is popular.”
Of course, the elected freedom-fighter rarely has good opportunities to sell his or her entire philosophy to colleagues. Instead, he or she grabs the libertarian position on issues that are most politically salient at the time: taxes, spending, debt, the drug war, whatever. A libertarian who becomes a good lobbyist by convincing colleagues that a vote on an issue will be in their interest is an effective player in a political body.
There is one other thing that an effective libertarian officeholder should learn from lobbyists: to socialize with fellow lawmakers. Politicians are usually very social and also want to be the center of attention.
That’s why lobbyists laugh at every politician’s joke and express keen interest in politicians’ family, friends, and hobbies. It is amazing what a person can learn about a politician’s ideas, thoughts, concerns, and challenges over a few drinks. If one genuinely learns to enjoy the company of one’s elected colleagues, it will be noticed and appreciated. The libertarian shouldn’t be fake about this—a true effort to get to know colleagues as fellow human beings should be made. Politicians are not stupid—they will listen to someone that they sense cares about them as a person and who has some genuine thoughts on how ideas can advance their careers.
Before any classical liberal decides to try to effect change through elective office, he or she needs to understand that a liberty-advancing politician has three jobs and not one.
The first job is to be a good libertarian—understand philosophy, economics, morality, history, and all the components of liberty. This is the fun job, and it is mastered in the head, heart, and soul. And a libertarian will need all the strength of his or her head and heart in order to protect the soul in the political environment.
The other two jobs are being a great candidate and being a great politician. Those jobs are accomplished with the brain, of course, but mastering them is akin to acquiring legs in politics: you need both of them working in unison to get anywhere.
I am firmly convinced that being an effective politician for liberty is harder than being an effective think tank careerist, journalist, lawyer, or educator for liberty. Good libertarian politicians are very few and far between, because few principled people are willing to master the needed skills to survive the journey through the campaigns and flourish in a legislative body while maintaining their principles.
The journey is not for everyone.
Leon Drolet is the founder and chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. From 2000 to 2006, Drolet served in the Michigan House of Representatives. Drolet also served as a Macomb County, Mich., county commissioner from 1999 to 2000 and from 2006 to 2008.In the 2006 election he acted as statewide chair of the successful Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which placed a state constitutional amendment before voters that prohibits governments in Michigan from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any citizen on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin. The amendment was approved by 58 percent of voters despite the fact that proponents were heavily outspent. Drolet also co-authored a state constitutional amendment that prohibited eminent domain abuse in Michigan. In 2008, Drolet served as treasurer of Michigan Recalls and was successful at obtaining the needed signatures to force a recall election against the Speaker of the Michigan House, though court battles delayed the approval of the signatures and prevented the recall from reaching the ballot in time.
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