Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, might be a moderate.

Politicians Always Disappoint Ideologues

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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At Bloomberg Politics, Dave Weigel reports on the latest stunt by conservative gadfly James O'Keefe, who specializes in sting operations designed to embarrass liberals. The targets this time are volunteers for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, who were secretly videotaped, and can be heard speculating that, if elected, Grimes might be more of a mainstream Democrat and less of a coal enthusiast than she has been as a candidate.

On Twitter, Nick Baumann suggested that not only would she govern as the moderate she is campaigning as, but that "Lefty volunteers are generally disappointed when they predict candidates are secretly more liberal."

Could this be an Iron Law of Politics? And if so, is it true of both parties, or does it apply only to liberals? The anecdotal evidence indicates that it was true of Barack Obama, much to the disappointment of many volunteers from 2008. Is it always true?

I suspect so. For one thing, most ideologically inclined volunteers probably tend to believe their policy positions are the only correct ones. Actually, we all probably believe that -- but ideology allows people to easily form positions on a host of public-policy issues. The non-ideological tend to feel strongly about only a handful of issues.

The ideologically minded also tend to see everyone as an ideologue, apart from sellouts and other corrupt actors. The idea that someone could sincerely hold a moderate position on one issue, a liberal position on another and a conservative view on something else may not make sense to them. Since few people support candidates whom they believe are corrupt or sellouts, it's easier for ideologues to believe that a candidate's otherwise inexplicable positions are really just campaign devices.

Moreover, the more ideologically extreme a volunteer is, the more he is likely to brand as a sellout any politician who combines general party loyalty with occasional crossover votes. So the disappointment isn't just about dashed expectations; it's about interpretation of governing behavior.

Contrast this with a candidate loyalist. A volunteer who really believes in a candidate is likely to adopt the candidate's positions, and will probably approve whatever the candidate does once elected.

So I'm inclined to declare this Iron Law of Politics: Ideological volunteers are always disappointed when they believe the candidate they're working for secretly shares their ideology. What do you think?

  1. Note: Iron Laws of Politics aren't technically laws and they may have exceptions, so they're not really iron, either. It's something I say, as in: Everyone believes the other side is better at the mechanics of politics. Iron Laws of Politics are, however, invariably correct.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net