An honest politician is an oxymoron. (Mark Twain)
Trust in politicians seems to be in short supply. When the subject was raised in a leaders’ Q&A ahead of the 2019 UK general election, it prompted members of the TV audience to respond with derisive laughter. And a recent poll placed politicians at the bottom of the list when it comes to professional honesty.
Yet at the same time, studies show that voters appreciate honesty in the people that represent them. It seems strange then, that they end up voting seemingly dishonest politicians into office.
The potential for elections to select honest leaders ultimately depends on the quality of the candidates in the electoral race. So the idea that less honest people are more likely to stand as candidates for political office could provide an explanation.
In our new research, we used a game theory model (widely used to study strategic human interaction) and a laboratory experiment with participants to explore this question. We found that those who are more willing to renege on their campaign promises are more likely to make it into elected office.
The experiment looked at a two stage political process, which first involved a a first – familiar to the US primaries and UK elections – of individuals competing to win a party’s candidacy.
To do so, the “candidates” had to decide how much they would invest (on a points scale of one to 100) in order to measure how eager they were to gain selection in terms of the money, time and effort they would put in to get through the selection phase.
Those who invested the most had the highest probability of getting through to round two. If selected to stand for office, candidates then had to choose how much money they would promise to voters in an election, attempting to win over an undecided public.
Other participants in the experiment – representing the electorate – could see the different promises made by prospective candidates and were tasked with voting for just one of them. This required them to weigh up campaign promises against a candidate’s perceived credibility.
Finally, if elected, the “politicians” had to decide how to actually make decisions outside the election race, choosing how much of a given budget they would transfer to voters and whether to renege on promises. We found that once elected, those who were most eager to be selected as a candidate (who invested most in the first round) deviated most from what they promised in the election campaign.
In our study, this higher likelihood of a more dishonest individual making it into office made the voters on average around 10% worse off. (Of course, it is also true that honest individuals invest time and resources getting into office, but in our study they were unable to cut through in the same number as their more dishonest rivals.)
So should we just accept that in democracies we will occasionally end up with untrustworthy political leaders? Or can we find ways to restore trust in our political institutions?
Our study suggests that greater transparency can make a difference. While in a basic scenario the voters only knew the candidates’ campaign promises, we also considered a second scenario where the electorate were informed about their investments into being selected as their party’s candidate, that is, how keen a candidate was to stand for office. They could therefore make better judgements about a candidate’s credibility.
In this second scenario, with greater transparency, the correlation between the scale of politicians reneging on promises and their efforts to be selected disappears. This suggests that in order to improve trust, we need more robust fact checking, transparency and public scrutiny.
A real world problem
But even with the greatest possible transparency, a real world problem remains. Would a staunch Conservative voter, for example, knowing that the party candidate may not be trustworthy, vote for a Labour policy platform of a more honest candidate, and vice versa?
If the political platforms of the major parties are highly polarised, it is unlikely that dishonesty – even if transparent – would be severely punished by voting behaviour in elections.
To regain trust in political leaders, the question then arises of whether or not campaign promises can be made binding. Could we, say, introduce legally binding contracts on campaign promises?
Spending pledges and tax promises could certainly be specified in a contract and it would be possible to verify whether such promises had been honoured. We examined this idea before, and argued that if offered the chance to make campaign pledges legally binding, parties would use it as an opportunity to make their promises credible and win back trust from voters.
Those promises would likely be more moderate (as the parties would genuinely have to deliver) and voters would typically be better off. Augmenting democracy with such contracts is certainly an exciting option to restore trust in politics. If it could be introduced in the right way, it could be a great step forward.