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Do Politicians and Pledges Mix?

July 13, 2011

Something to think as we watch the debt-ceiling debate play out: do we want our politicians making pledges that can’t be broken?

Everybody knows that politicians aren’t good at keeping promises, especially the kind of promises one makes in wedding vows. They’re liars. They’re weasels. They’ll sell out their grandmothers to get reelected. Getting politicians to make promises and then holding them accountable seems like a good idea, right? I’m not so sure anymore. After reading about another stalled debt-ceiling negotiation, I’m beginning to think that maybe politicians shouldn’t make unbreakable vows.

The ongoing debate over deficit reduction and the impending deadline for raising the debt-ceiling debate is tied in a big way to the infamous “taxpayer protection pledge” signed by nearly every Congressional Republican. By signing, politicians commit themselves to opposing any and all tax increases that are not offset by tax cuts. The pledge is the ongoing work of Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Many have suggested that this pledge has played a huge role in stalling negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.

Then again, politicians often make promises during a debate from which they must later retreat. David Gergen pointed out recently that all three sides in this debate (Congressional Republicans, Congressional Democrats and the president) have painted themselves into separate corners by “pledging” not to do one thing or another.

I think one danger in a written, un-qualified pledge to absolutely and under no circumstances do something (especially something as basic to governance as increasing revenues) is that it turns platitudes into unbreakable vows. You take something general that everyone agrees to (e.g. a platitude like “tax increases are bad”) and, by making it into a pledge, turn it into something more specified and rigid like, “I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes for anyone ever.” Normally, I’m no fan of platitudes (especially “life isn’t fair”) but, as Karen Tracy points out, platitudes have an important function in democracy:

…platitudes are abstract, noncontentious value claims that do not engage with or specify particular persons, actions, or choices. One important function of platitudes is to create a sense that a group is largely in agreement. It has long been acknowledged that formulating a proposal abstractly will engender more agreement than putting the same proposal in concrete terms.

Platitudes gloss over disagreement. They allow us to agree to a statement such as “I like free speech” while holding hilariously different opinions on the value of outdoor advertising.

Glossing over disagreement isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you have to live with competing meanings of something like “tax loopholes” in order to move forward in a democracy. The danger of the no-tax-increases pledge is that, by signing it, politicians take a platitudinous position (“taxes = bleccch!”) and then agree to a technical, highly-specified definition of tax reform put forth and regulated by one man, Grover Norquist.

But then, the compromise-heavy nature of democracy can be frustrating. There’s a certain elegance to a no-tax-increases-ever pledge. What do you think? Should politicians be making unbreakable vows? Or, is that something best left to Harry Potter novels?

If you want to know more:

  • The excerpt on platitudes from above is taken from Karen Tracy’s book, Challenges of Ordinary Democracy: A Case Study in Deliberation and Dissent, page 122.
  • Be sure to read Matt Zebrowski’s analysis of the multiple and competing meanings of “tax loopholes” in the budget-ceiling debate.
  • NPR has suggested that subtle changes in wording may allow a compromise in the debt-ceiling debate where none now seems possible. Their analysis is one of the few that didn’t leave me wanting to take a Xanax and retreat to a quiet corner somewhere.
  • I think my least favorite platitude would have to be “fight fire with fire.” Not only is it banal and trite, it’s also extremely bad advice if you’re a firefighter. However, it can be humorous if it’s used properly.
  • Another pledge you might have heard about recently is the controversial “Marriage Vow,” signed by Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman. I’m planning on writing about this one as soon as the presidential campaign kicks into full gear.
One Comment leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 3:10 pm

    Thanks for the post and the interesting comments regarding platitudes, unbreakable vows, etc. Politicians seem to master the art of the “dodge,” (not very artfully, but nonetheless dodge), the modified ring narrative – where they start with A, say what they want to say B, then return to A as if somehow it followed from B and they had answered the question posed, the dogmatic pronouncement, what Daniel Dennett has called the Deepity, and of course various forms of apologia and revisionism,

    Perhaps you can post a catalog of such rhetorical stock modes of response (not long addresses — we’ll leave those aside for now).

    Thanks for the blog folks, quite nifty and cool.



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