Generally, candidates for any election in the United States do quite a bit of pandering. And generally, the pandering they do is a wholly illegitimate take on a given issue. One such issue that strikes me in particular is free trade. Politicians regularly attack free trade by claiming that trade takes away jobs from Americans, and that it is bad for the country, etcetera. They do so even though virtually 100% of economists agree that free trade helps a lot more than it hurts. Yet, somehow, politicians get votes by bashing free trade.
My question is: how in the world is this strategy successful? For instance, during the nasty Obama-Clinton primary debates, both candidates continually tried to one-up each other by bashing free trade. Obama is now backpedaling on that issue for the general election, which indicates he was probably just trying to pander during the primary. If that is the case, then why would he not respond to Clinton’s anti-free-trade rhetoric with: “Your assertions are wrong. All economists disagree with you. Economists are trained to know whether free trade is good or bad. Would you want a professional bowler to act as your doctor when a doctor says the bowler is wrong? No. Would you want a doctor doing your taxes when a tax professional says the doctor is wrong? No. Would you want Joe Schmo down the street telling you how to set trade policy when all economists say he is wrong? Hell no.”
Or, better yet, he could explain why economists think trade is so great. He could explain that, yes, indeed, there are some downsides to trade, but the upsides are much greater. He could explain the concept of comparative advantage once explained by David Ricardo and the basic idea of the source of wealth from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It would be a glorious moment for Mr. Obama and the entire country. It would be a rare occasion when a politician actually explained the pros and cons of an issue in a debate, and then explained why his side prevailed. It would not be the generic politician’s response to a question: say something incomprehensible and then throw as many buzz words and campaign slogans out to the crowd as possible. And significantly, it would require the opposing candidate to respond in a substantive manner.
How would someone respond to a clear argument about the benefits of free trade, an argument supported by an entire profession, followed by the question: if you disagree, please explain why?
If two candidates were in a debate, with one candidate pro-trade and the other anti-trade, and the pro-trade candidate explained the benefits of trade and uttered the “explain why” question, it would be a glorious moment of awakening in this country for several reasons. First, everyone watching the debate would learn about free trade – a topic most Americans are ignorant about. Secondly, it would be a rare occasion when a politicians in a major election actually debated the pros and cons of an issue rather than uttering buzz words and catch phrases to pander to whom he or she hopes is the majority voter. Finally, the candidate willing to actually debate the facts of an issue would likely be one of the smartest, most candid, and best candidates the country has seen for a long time.
The cynic in me says this would never work. The cynic in me says that Americans are too stupid to listen to real pros and cons of issues and figure out their own opinions – that is why buzz words and catch phrases at debates work so well. The cynic in me says that Americans would rather hear “I’ll get the government out of your pockets” than “A study by this prominent professor shows that tax structure X is better than tax structure Y.”
But I believe that this country is smart enough for real facts to come to surface in major political debates. Back in the revolutionary era, our founding fathers had nowhere near the kind of education that Americans have today. Even the worst educational systems in America today are miles ahead of anything our founding fathers had. Yet our founding fathers debated serious issues in politics, and people were very interested in knowing the cold hard facts. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that politicians in those days treated the voters with respect. They didn’t try to pander the way politicians do today – they debated the theories of Locke and Montesquieu and argued passionately and intelligently. Regular citizens regularly read what the prominent politicians had to say and often wrote to the papers to voice their opinions. There are plenty of people out there today that would do the same, if today’s politicians would treat them like adults and argue the issues, rather than trying to argue using empty dialect.
This article is not an endorsement of either Barack Obama or John McCain.