Do you vote for a person or for their policies?

I’ve just watched an episode of Penn Point with Penn Jillette. In it he said something along these lines:

President Obama campaigned on certain policies regarding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. When he won the election and got into power, he was given additional secret information for the eyes of the President only. This secret information led him to change his mind about the best policies, so he didn’t do what he had promised.

Penn’s argument is that this negates all democracy. Following the argument through…

Any politician, once in power, will be given secret information they did not have before. This secret information could well persuade them to change their mind and go back on campaign promises. (Which raises the issue of the power that the unelected people have – those who collect and collate this secret information and present it to the new political leaders, but anyway…) So if this is allowed, then it means there is nothing the electorate can do to choose or even influence policy either at an election or afterwards because the power of the secret information will trump the electorate who can’t know the secrets. So we are left to choose a person we trust to change their mind in the best way on our behalf.

So then, what is the best way to choose a trustworthy person? Certainly not through traditional elections, which involve all the tricks of marketing, spin, and putting personalities on show to gain popularity. And elections don’t involve anything that might reveal the depths of someone’s character, their psychology, and inner motivation; I don’t think it’s possible to reveal these things, particularly in the context of an election when the person concerned would be inclined to hide their weaknesses.

So maybe Penn is correct, that all democracy is negated.

However, my answer is that continual involvement is necessary for true democracy. The problem only exists because the people are only encouraged to engage once every few years at an election, and then in between elections their influence is very weak.

Through continual involvement, using the tools and principles of Community Development, the people build a relationship with their leaders so they both get to influence the other. There needs to be a constitutional safeguard to balance the power of the government with the power of the people in between elections, as well as the existing safeguard of elections themselves. The constitutional safeguard I imagine is one that enshrines the existence of local Community Development workers, and the responsibility of government to respond comprehensively with the Community Development work undertaken on behalf of the people; something akin to the legal responsibility of MPs to reply to every letter from their constituents.

So then, if this system was in place…
A new leader, when elected, would be given the secret information and their minds would be changed about the best policies to implement. But they wouldn’t be able to get away with breaking their promises and continuing in power until the next election without consequence: they would have to engage with the people, and explain their decisions or explain why they couldn’t explain their decisions for secrecy’s sake. And in all areas they would have to involve the people in implementing their policies, and give evidence for how their decisions are developed from what the people tell them, and help the people who would be affected negatively by their policies. They couldn’t escape meeting people who they had disappointed; they would have to meet and engage with these people on other issues. The pressure would be very strong I believe.

Imagine our leaders having to help you sort out a dispute with your neighbour over your shared garden boundary wall, help you help them in their campaign for a new primary school, and at the same time deal with you demanding to know why they supported a war. At the moment, politicians can just walk away from these situations. But if they had to continually engage at this level with the people who disagree with them, they couldn’t stand the pressure not to break their own promises because they would be in relationships with the people who they would disappoint. It would work because ultimately politicians are human beings, and need to be liked.

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