Public Ignorance Highlights The Importance of Accountability

I’m never that upset about reports of Americans’ widespread civic ignorance. The nature of our party system means that a voter can really only express a very crude kind of thumbs up or thumbs down preference at the ballot box, so it’s not clear to me how a more nuanced understanding of the world would actually effectuate itself in terms of policy change. But this is one of the reasons why I worry about the lack of accountability in our system. The way the system works, when it does work, is basically that the voters choose to send a bunch of representatives to Washington. Those representatives, in collaboration with their staff and sundry advocates and interest groups, try to figure out what should be done about various issues. And if things go well, then at the margin this helps incumbents. If things go poorly, then at the margin this hurts incumbents. Consequently, incumbent legislators are well-motivated to try to make sure that things go well.

That’s not necessarily ideal (I won’t invoke the “best system except for all the others line about representative democracy, which I think is too lazy about the possibilities of beneficial reform”), but it seems workable and sustainable. What doesn’t seem sustainable to me is the system we’ve been evolving toward in which a legislative minority is able to block action and then reap the rewards of any policy failure that results. This feature of our institutional set-up, much more than public ignorance, threatens to wreck the “market” for sound public policy.