So what actually 'does' work to get things done in government

In another thread people are debating if mass demonstrations actually get anything done in politics. So what do people feel actually works to get results in politics (assuming the nation is a democracy)?

Off the top of my head I’d say

  1. Voting. This is important (at least in a democracy). Voting in the primary and the general is one of the best ways to have an influence. If politicians are afraid of being voted out, they’ll change their behaviors.

  2. Courts. Filing suits can be highly effective to get things done (brown vs board of education for example).

  3. Money. Either funding for a political candidate, funding against a candidate, or lucrative jobs lined up for a politician after they leave office if they vote the way you want them to. This also works on the media, with activist groups calling for boycotts leading to the cancellation of shows like the O’Reilly factor.

  4. Prestigious positions. Some parties will use prestigious positions both during their time as a politicain (like the head of a committee) or some job after they leave office (like head of a university) as a way to ensure compliance with an electoral agenda. If you comply you get to head a committee while in politics, then a great job after you leave. If you don’t then you don’t.

  5. Tit for tat arrangements. I don’t know if this is still done, but it was labeled as ‘pork’. If you want a politician to vote for something you want, you’d find a pet cause they have or find a project for their district to. If politician X cares about mental health and you want them to sign onto a law, then you add an amendment for more funding for mental health. Or for a government project to get jobs in their district.

  6. Outrage. If something truly out of the ordinary happens, politicians might respond. 9/11 for example.

  7. upholding the Status Quo. Politicians generally don’t like radical agendas or agendas that anger the rich, powerful or influential. The more conservative (small c) the better. So more radical agendas (single payer) aren’t taken as seriously as more piecemeal reforms.

  8. Who is affected by problem X. Like it or not, society values some lives more than others. When poor blacks and immigrants are affected politicians may not care. But when the white middle class is affected, it can become a national issue. So juvenile violence may be a non issue when impoverished blacks suffer, but when middle class whites suffer it becomes a bigger issue.

The Eight Deadly Sins, that’s what. The eighth one (which really ought to be on the list, seriously) is Fear.

If you need to motivate a politician or group of politicians, you appeal to greed, pride, fear, gluttony (fundraising dinner anyone?), and so on.

I think we need to bring back earmarks. In today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, nobody is motivated to cross the aisle because there is nothing in it for them. Banning earmarks was a nice idea with terrible consequences.

I don’t live where you do.

It sounds to me as if the Republican party has (unilaterally and unofficially) suspended the former common practice of funnelling tax dollars to a particular district without a good reason (thus more or less bribing the voters). What was the good thing about it that’s been lost?

So why don’t they appeal to the virtues instead?

Charity, temperance, humility, etc…
In times of disasters, typically we see an appeal to charity. Rallying thousands of people to donate money to help others in need, that’s pretty powerful. Maybe not as powerful as telling people to be afraid of brown people who werent born here though.

  1. A foreign threat. Does this unify the people? Not really or at least not for long. There was plenty of fractiousness during the Cold War.

No, what a foreign threat does is persuade the elite to hand the reigns over to the technocrats. Because if they screw up, it’s a tsunami. Once the foreign threat is taken away, a portion of the elite shifts their focus on preying on the middle class via populist appeals or persuading themselves of their aristocratic excellence (libertarian in the current incarnation).

The Cold War applied this sort of discipline. The ruling elite felt inclined to buy off the working classes, lest they succumb to communism. Afterwards, that restraint was removed.

But there are other examples. Taiwan has a broad section of the country that yearns for formal independence from China, but the military threat keeps minds focused and mouths… circumspect. South Korea is one of the few countries that successfully used protectionism as a tool of industrial policy. They protected infant industries… and stopped protecting failing ones. The first is easy, the second very rare. They could do this because technocrats could impose their will. And technocrats could impose their will because the elites were and are afraid of screwing up and getting in a war with North Korea.

I think several of these factors are inextricably intertwined in various ways. Numbers 1, 3, 6, 7 and 8 most notably. Concentrated sources of money used for political purposes can spark outrage, which can motivate (or unmotivate, depending on circumstance) the vote and strengthen an upheaval of an otherwise ultimately toothless challenge of the status quo.

I’m only saying that there isnt a clear cut way of determining which factor is most important. They are elements of the same nasty beast.


I learned to share and cooperate in kindergarten but we seem to have leaders who never mastered that…

Foreign threat = Fear. Already covered. And a disproportionately huge force in current and recent US politics, not at all limited to the Cold War. Without the fear of a foreign threat (a “foreign threat” actually faked by domestic sources, as it turns out), the US wouldn’t have created the second Gulf War. Fears of other potential foreign threats (some of which might be real, some others certainly manufactured) are big drivers of today’s policies and arguments.

Try using them, the next time there’s an emergency session called to approve a declaration of war.

1b. Getting other people to vote. Pushing people to register. Pushing people to cast a vote. Calling attention to the issues. Educating people. Threaten to spank people.

Not quite. We certainly have fear, but Al Queda never posed an existential threat to the US, and readers of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal knew it.

  1. Fear. This one is asymmetrical: fear triggers support for militarism and conservatism.

Voter suppression among those who oppose you. A Supreme Court that will pass down decisions that favor you in a close 2000 Presidential election, decisions that dubiously claim they leave no precedent. Gerrymandering. Gaming the census to undercount your opponents. Staffing the Supreme Court with friendly judges that struggle at math, to support your gerrymandering and believe that anonymous funding of attack ads (on subjects the donors are largely unfamiliar with) is free speech.

The people (including powerful politicians) who responded in fear to create a war, didn’t know it. Either they didn’t read that material, or they did read it but chose to believe something else. Fear will do that to a person. Massive stupidity will do it too, but between the two, I hope it was fear.

The filibuster needs to go. As long as 41 Senators can block anything from becoming law, it’ll only be possible to pass meaningful legislation under rare and exceptional circumstances.

This is covered by your entry #1 - voting. Immigrants are not usually citizens so do not have a vote. And poor people - regardless of colour - can find it difficult to vote.

I disagree, but this is taking us somewhat off-thread.

Pause a minute though. The New York Times bases its reporting mostly on its contacts in Washington. That Al Qaeda didn’t pose an existential threat to the US was understood. But to a politician, the prospect of semi-annual terrorist incidents are sufficient to put a stop to training camps in Afghanistan.

As for Iraq, see the account by Richard Clarke: 911 was used as a political mechanism for a pre-conceived plan to invade Iraq. Richard A. Clarke - Wikipedia

We debated the Iraq War on this message board. I vacillated on the subject, meaning I advocated it for a while based upon this book. Big mistake. Some posters who are still around pushed hard for invasion, and the arguments didn’t typically revolve around 911 (and when they did, the anti-war side dominated).

ETA: 2003 thread on pre-invasion predictions: The Middle East Prediction Thread - Great Debates - Straight Dope Message Board


In the case of Iraq we watched as fear was weaponized.

Ollie North weekly claims of WMD finds (that were all false), Condi Rice and her mushroom clouds (when we already knew Iraq hadn’t had a nuclear program for years), Bolton (yes, THIS\ Bolton) being Bolton. Promotion of the idea that Islam is accurately represented by 911 criminals. Etc.

So, we know that fear works. But, I don’t know of ANY case where fear caused our government to do something that was later seen to have made sense.
Today, we’re seeing the same use of fear. Immigrants/border wall - where there isn’t even an attempt at justification. Iran. Anyone from the ME who isn’t Jewish or Saudi. We’re even promoting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes in West Bank - something no other nation supports.

When we see fear being projected, we need to start doing some very careful questioning.

I want to say I agree with this take. Fear is a useful tool for politicians with their own agenda. I think it disproportionately helps the GOP, but it’s not entirely useless for the Dems either.

I don’t think in this case that policy makers were substantially swayed by fear though. There was a lot of bad faith behind the decision to invade Iraq. The neo-cons pushed for military action years prior to September 2001.

OK. And, I certainly agree with the right wing/neocon influence here.

But, they carried out their agenda through a program of fear. They created a climate where it was very difficult to oppose the joint resolution used by Bush to make his decision to invade Iraq.

Congressmen faced the barrage of fear coming from the executive branch, the RNC, Fox (and similar) opinion outlets, right wing policy houses, private well connected organizations such as the Project for a New American Century, etc., directed at them and their constituencies.

Democratic and Republican representation definitely faced a serious risk if they opposed the war - which was the largest mistake in US history.

That hits me as a prime example of weaponizing fear to impose an agenda that had no adequate justification. Fear was explicitly engineered to dominate logic.

Earmarks are corruption though. I don’t think making legislation easier to pass is an end worth increasing corruption for.