Politicians Lie to Us. Why? Because We Demand it: Denying the Limits of Executive Power

As the 2014 elections approach, my thoughts turn to the promises that politicians make. And thinking about their promises leads me to our collective disappointment when these promises are broken. And some – if not most – of them are bound to be broken.

Politicians lie to us. They say things that they know are not true. We denounce them because they won’t be honest with us. They won’t tell us the truth.

But what if they did? What if they told us the truth? They’d admit that they don’t have the power to bring about the results we expect. And especially if they are in the executive branch – mayors, governors, presidents – they are held captive by our expectations and their desire for power. We want them to be able to get results and they want to exercise power in the realm of public policy. So we ask the impossible of them, and they insist that they can deliver it.

At most levels of government there is a separation of powers that mirrors that of the federal government. There’s an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. The first two – the executive and legislative branches – are in perpetual competition for power over policies, programs, and resources. Executives may have plans and priorities, but legislatures have the power to pass laws that determine the sources and amounts of revenue that the government will receive, the policies and programs on which money will be spent, and how much money will be allocated to each executive agency to carry out its mandated programs. They establish requirements, prohibitions, and penalties that may or may not coincide with the priorities of the executive.

But executives have discretionary authority when it comes to implementing legislative mandates, and they generally use this authority as frequently and widely as possible, seeking to accumulate more power through the precedent set by their use of the power they have.  And in areas of government over which the executive has (or can claim) singular authority (for example, the President as Commander-in-Chief of the military or the governor as commander of the state’s civil defense resources) the executive can amass and exercise enormous power. If the public can be persuaded to elevate this area of government action (for example, a military operation or responding to a natural disaster) to a high priority, their support of the executive will increase and broken promises will lose their importance – at least for the duration of the current crisis.

So, candidates for executive office try to outdo each other in making purportedly credible promises to potential voters. But what promises are credible? Can a mayor, governor, or president create jobs, lower the unemployment rate, cut taxes, improve education, reduce crime, and attract businesses? These are the benefits we’re promised when politicians are after our votes. Sometimes they are asked the embarrassing question of how they will bring about these results. They enthusiastically describe the mechanics of implementing the policies they advocate. (They will invest in infrastructure, get rid of tax loopholes, raise academic standards, increase resources for local law enforcement, etc.) But they avoid discussing the politics of getting things done. What they don’t say is that they are very limited in what they can do. Legislatures make the laws that create policies and programs. Legislators can negotiate with the executive about the laws that will be passed (as is done in Illinois, despite the disproportionate power of the legislature). Or, they can simply refuse to engage with the executive’s agenda (as is the case with the House majority and filibustering Senate minority in relation to President Obama).

But we, the citizens, can only watch. The complexity of legislatures makes it impossible for us to focus in a meaningful way on the behaviors and goals of an amorphous and largely anonymous group of legislators. Other than our own senator or representative or alderman, we have no connection with the faceless thing that is the legislature.

So we focus on the executive, the individual in whom we can project our hopes and aspirations. We like to believe that the right person, in the right circumstances, can bring about the changes we want. And the person who seeks executive office must persuade himself or herself that, if elected, they will be able to achieve the goals they have set. To believe otherwise would dissuade any rational person from pursuing high office.

Thus we, the citizenry, engage with our elected officials in a conspiracy of deceit. And, absent an honest description of the dynamics of government action and the limits of executive power, we are condemned to frustration and bitterness in response to our politics. We lose our faith in politicians, descend into apathy, and withdraw from political engagement. But in the process of doing this, we also ignore our part in the failure of electoral politics. If our cynicism results in our choosing not to vote, we can rest assured that we will get the government that we bargained for.


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