Thursday, April 26 , 2018, 8:32 am | Fog/Mist 54º

 
 
 

Harris Sherline: Political Promises

Thirty years later, California Sen. H.L. 'Bill' Richardson's insights into our misconceptions of the political process still hold true.

Political promises are generally empty, meaningless gestures made by candidates when they are trolling for votes. “I will listen to all the people,” a candidate will say. Or, “I will protect the interests of all the people when I am in office.”

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Harris R. Sherline

Do you believe statements such as these when politicians make them? Or do you shrug them off with the thought in the back of your mind that it’s just more of the political baloney that goes with running for office, not really expecting anything except more self-serving actions once candidates are in office?

Thirty years ago, California state Sen. H.L. (Bill) Richardson wrote an interesting and insightful book with the intriguing title, “What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?” He offered a penetrating analysis of the fact that the so-called majority does not, in fact, elect public officials and made the point that politicians are obligated only to a very small percentage of the voters, and it is this minority they listen to.

Using the example of a district with a population of 525,000, he showed how the candidate who won was actually elected with a plurality of just 16,000 voters.

Sen. Richardson’s observation is something I believe most people know instinctively, that once elected, notwithstanding all their talk about “listening to the people,” politicians do what they want, not what their constituents, the people, want. Politicians generally don’t listen to anyone except the limited number of supporters who are directly involved in helping them get elected or who help them stay in office.

Selected quotes from Sen. Richardson’s book outline his conclusions:

» “In a democracy we ‘know’ the majority elects. Right? Wrong! Majorities rarely, if ever, elect” (page 112).

» “In a democracy, most politicians are inevitably influenced by public opinion. Right? Wrong again” (page 112). Note: We have seen some notable exceptions to this rule in recent years, specifically when large numbers of savvy Internet users overwhelm legislators with faxes, e-mail messages and telephone calls on certain hot-button issues, such as immigration, which can bring sufficient pressure to bear on office holders to induce them to change a particular position. The Internet, of course, was not available at the time Sen. Richardson was in office or wrote his book.

» “If we waited for majorities to elect, most of our legislative chambers would be empty. Obviously, only those who register can vote (or so we are told). This eliminates a sizable portion of the eligible voters at the very start. In fact, the very term ‘eligible’ voter tells us that there are those who are ineligible to vote. Among those are persons disenfranchised for reason of age, mental efficiency or insufficient length of residency” (page 112).

» “Since the contest almost inevitably comes down to Democrat vs. Republican, those who register as ‘independent’ or who ‘decline to state’ have little nothing to say in the primary elections. To have a meaningful voice, these independent and uncommitted voters must then choose between the two candidates fielded by the very political parties they have chosen not to join” (page 113).

» Commenting on the fact that less than 50 percent of the registered voters often turn out in a primary election, Sen. Richardson notes, “A vote delivers the power of the state into the hands of the elected official. A nonvote simply transfers the decision as to who shall hold this power into the hands of those who do vote. ... At this point, another factor comes into play — gerrymandering. Most political district lines are established by the party in power. ... A candidate with little chance of victory has even a smaller chance of attracting the necessary financial support. Money creates winners and winners attract money” (page 113).

» “Since the majority-party primary is usually crowded with a number of hopefuls, the primary winner is quite often nominated with a plurality of 25 percent, or even less. I know of one district that had a population of 525,000 persons. About 400,000 could have qualified to vote, but only 225,000 bothered to register. In the primary, slightly more than 50 percent of those registered turned out at the polls to vote — about 120,000 people altogether. The minority party garnered 50,000 votes of that total, split between two lackluster candidates. The majority party had eight candidates, of whom five were strong contenders. The remaining 70,000 votes were split among these eight candidates, and the victor won with 16,000. In the general election, this candidate easily defeated the minority-party nominee” (page 114).

After 30 years, Sen. Richardson’s book is still available, at Amazon.com. It’s an interesting and entertaining insight into the political process and confirms the fact that things really haven’t changed all that much since he was in office.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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