The perils of short-termism in politics

Victoria Watson 25 January 2008

Harold Wilson’s oft-quoted mantra that “a week is a long time in politics” is most commonly cited to account for a sudden change in the fortunes of a political party or an individual politician. The week beginning Saturday September 29th 2007 aptly demonstrates the continued resonance of Wilson’s wisdom. Buoyed by post-conference fever, Labour began the week eleven points ahead of the Tories with Brown summoning his troops in preparation for potential electoral onslaught.

However, just seven days later, it was back to barracks for Gordon’s guard as the Tories took a three-point lead and the Prime Minister was forced to surrender before even officially having declared war. Whilst Wilson’s maxim holds true in situations such as these, it is also insightful with regard to another political phenomena: something which I will term ‘short-termism’. In democratic politics, politicians are primarily concerned with short term goals to the extent that even a week can seem a “long time.”

Why is this the case? A common feature of modern liberal democracies is regular election. Take America, for example, where members of the House of Representatives face re-election every two years. No sooner have they been elected than they have they are back on the campaign trail. ‘Bringing back the bacon’, as it is termed in America, is essential as re-election is usually based upon the success of politicians in accruing some benefit for their states when in office. Not knowing whether or not they will be re-elected, the politician must focus on achieving short-term goals, with near immediate effects, rather than planning for the future.

This tendency is fuelled by the vulnerability of the politician’s position in a democracy, and the uncertainty regarding the longevity of their tenure. As much as politicians might desire to foster policies with results which might only be realised post-mortem, their immediate priority must always be on the short-term since it is on the basis of visible and quantifiable results that they will be judged at the ballot box.

It might be thought that fixed, one term, tenures for leaders would be a solution to ‘short-termism’. Surely such a position of freedom and lessened need to consider the consequences of actions would lead to politicians implementing a more long term vision? Yes and no. George Bush’s current position, and Tony Blair’s from the time of his announcement not to stand for re-election, can be seen as analogous to that which a leader with a fixed, one-term, tenancy would be in. It could be argued that Tony Blair would have exercised more caution in his last-minute negotiations over the EU Reform Treaty had he not had ‘carte blanche’ to act without personally being held to account for the consequences of his actions.

Legacies aside, however, it would be unnatural for a leader in such a position not to have some concern for his or her current popularity and it is unlikely that the party to which he or she belongs would accept the implementation of a purely personal vision, perhaps to the detriment of its future fortunes. The personal affront that George Bush received from voters in the 2006 mid-term elections, followed by continued slumps in the polls, has led him to introduce a number of policies aimed at short-term success, most recently embodied by his calling for $150 billion in tax rebates designed to be “a shot in the arm” for the economy. So whilst fixed, one term, tenures might reduce ‘short-termism’ somewhat, the increased tendency towards irresponsibility and lesser need to consider the consequences of actions would likely negate any positive impact that such a measure might otherwise have.

Most problematic is the lack of concern for issues which require a long-term solution and policies which might not prove effectual until many years after their execution, when their architect will likely be out of office. In the current political climate, this is most noticeable in the reluctance shown by many world leaders to take measures to combat global warming. George Bush has failed to submit the Kyoto Treaty for ratification because of the detrimental economic effects which he argues would result. Put simply, it would not be worth risking the support of almost the entire nation in order to become popular among a minority of environmentally conscious Americans.

This is not just a problem limited to politicians. Most people believe that they will not suffer from the effects of global warming in their lifetime and many are, therefore, reluctant to pay the price for dealing with something from which they will not be directly affected. Tony Blair saying, “This is not a science fiction future, this is happening now” can be seen as an attempt to appeal to ‘short-termist’ attitudes in order to increase support for action to be taken to tackle a long-term problem.

The political theorist Schumpeter claimed that, “Individual and party opinion is, more than anything else, sensitive to those factors in the political situation that directly affect the career or standing of the individual or party.” This might sound somewhat cynical, but it is indisputably compatible with the theory of ‘short-termism’ espoused here. Frequent election, as is the predominant feature of modern liberal democracies, creates a tendency for politicians to look for immediate return on their policies in order to enable themselves to present palpable achievements to the electorate and further their chances of re-election.

This is problematic when issues arise which require long-term solutions, as we are currently witnessing with the global warming debate. Ultimately we need to get away from the ‘here and now’ culture in which we find ourselves and take more responsibility for our future.

Victoria Watson