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Why do Legislators Sell Out?

Understanding the unique influences on candidates and legislators (and how to counterbalance them) will help movement leaders build a path towards true representation

 · May 14, 2023
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(Editor’s note: A version of this essay originally appeared on Medium. Listen to Karl discuss it on a recent episode of the Highlands Bunker podcast.)

Disappointment is the defining emotion of the political idealist. When the world you‘re demanding seems so far away, it is easy to let a sense of dejection and betrayal take over your life. Failure becomes the baseline, not the result of any specific conditions or decisions. It’s just what happens when you try to do anything good.

Nowhere is this more felt than in electoral and legislative politics. If it’s not enough to see promising campaigns dashed against the rocks of corporate money and party insiders, organizers and community members find themselves constantly disappointed by the few people they do get into office. While efforts like (hashtag) Force the Vote in 2020 had questionable ties to actual movement politics, they do reflect a frustration people have with many movement politicians.

This frustration is centered around the feeling that movement leaders are selling out. Maybe they’re not literally being bribed, but they are no longer actively pushing for what they were elected to do. Something as superficial as a procedural vote can trigger this feeling, but it also stretches to the abandonment of important, concrete policy issues.

While the concerns of selling out are often overblown, the reality is that it is a very real phenomenon. If you follow politics at any level you’ve more than likely followed an elected official who has deeply disappointed you. Many firmly establishment politicians started out as dedicated members of movements who seemed to lose their conviction somewhere on the way to the top.

It is easy to blame individual politicians when that happens. After all, we are all responsible for the choices that we make. No matter the pressures that someone faces, they always have a choice to not give in. However, as left social movements begin to build more electoral success at the local and state levels, I believe that it is worth considering what structural challenges our elected officials face to truly make change. It is tempting to think that we have no power to fix this problem because it relieves us of the responsibility of having to do the hard work that true co-governance requires.

Over the last several years, I have had a unique opportunity and responsibility to do my part in trying to build governing power for working people in the state government. I’ve been involved in many campaigns and kept in touch with many elected officials as well as with others who work in various parts within state government and activism outside of it. I am still young, I am still inexperienced, and I certainly still have flaws in my reasoning, but I have seen enough to reflect seriously on the topic.

As Jonathan Smucker says in Hegemony How-To, the knowledge of what the problem is and the knowledge of how to fix it are two completely different things. However, knowledge of the second requires knowledge of the first. I will begin by laying out what I believe are some of the reasons that “selling out” happens in the first place, then moving on to what I believe we can do to address these issues.

The Filtering Process

On its merits, democracy seems like it should perpetuate itself fairly easily. If essentially anyone can run for office and essentially anyone can vote, it would make sense that the interests of the people are going to be represented fairly well. Of course, it has never been that simple.

Ever since we have had elections and governments, we have had forces that manipulate them. Everyone knows about the power of lobbyists, big corporations, and other forces that manipulate how the government works. But fewer are aware of how early the deck is stacked against the people. The process of running for office and then holding power in government has a habit of leading people to a certain set of behaviors, no matter how they started out. Legislators find themselves in a series of environments with certain incentives and sets of information. That is going to affect how they think about the world and make decisions.

The first steps to co-option are made well before anyone’s name appears on the ballot.

Who Runs for Office

Political campaigns have existed longer than America. Since at least the Boston Caucus in the early 1700s, campaigns have been at least somewhat professional affairs that require a lot of time and resources. For better or worse, that has always limited the type of people who can run for off

For decades, it was only wealthy white men who could run. However, even as the franchise was expanded to the propertyless, to women, and to non-white people, the majority of candidates still continued to be well-off white men. Why was this?

A large part of it is inertia. When all you know is white men running for office, it can be difficult to imagine anything different. People in politics are accustomed to looking for a certain type of candidate. But that is not the only reason. Groundbreaking figures like Joseph Rainey, Jeanette Rankin, and Shirley Chisolm broke barriers many years before Black and women candidates became a regular occurrence. Even now wealthy white candidates are still considered the norm in most places.

As mentioned earlier, running for office generally will require a lot of time and money. If you are someone who works for a living, it is very difficult to generate the resources or commit the time that you will need to successfully run for office. Even at the local level, running for office often costs tens of thousands of dollars and dozens of hours a week. That effectively disqualifies a huge swath of the population: caretakers, the working poor, people with 2–3 jobs, and many others who often have the most to gain from a government that truly represents them.

Even so, most of these people can still vote. That gives the incentive for candidates, even those from well-off backgrounds, to appeal to the issues that matter for these voters. How this exactly plays out is determined by a lot of different things, from partisanship to disenfranchisement, but the result is usually the same. Most candidates play themselves up as more populist than they actually are.

Sometimes this works well. There are still plenty of well-off people who sincerely care about the issues of working people, and the independence and security that comes with those resources can often be a boon. But you’re still going to end up with a lot of people who don’t sincerely believe what they’re saying and will find ways to not move the ball forward.

All that being said, working people and minorities are not literally disenfranchised from running for office. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that many poor people, many Black and Brown people, and many other marginalized communities actually do run for and hold elected office in the United States. In fact, many of them are running for office to sincerely better their communities. For those who are able to take that step, we must next look at the campaign process itself.

The Campaigns That Get Run

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We’ve established the fact that campaigns are very time and resource intensive. This is more and more true the higher and higher up you move in our electoral system. What this means is that people who get into politics, even for the right reasons, begin to experience a set of incentives and pressures that warp how they think about the work they do.

For most campaigns, the two biggest things they worry about are communications and raising the money required to do as much communication as possible. Most candidates don’t have a great deal of experience in running campaigns and most candidates don’t have millions of dollars lying around, so eventually they need to surround themselves with people who have a lot of experience and a lot of money.

The people with money are the more notorious actors in this system. In order to raise the money to run functional campaigns, most candidates have to spend hours and hours of their week doing “call time.” They call people and ask them to donate. Sometimes this is people they already know well, but more often it’s people who have given a lot of money to other candidates. Call time tends to skew candidates’ day-to-day conversations towards the interests and concerns of the wealthy and privileged. This means they’re often hearing sets of issues and concerns that are totally alien from the interests of everyday people.

While donors are important, it is campaign teams that can have the crucial impact on the trajectory of candidates’ priorities. Campaign staffers, like donors, are a very different set of people than the population as a whole. Given the insularity of the campaign professional world, most staffers tend to be extremely well-connected and come from a background well-off enough to have worked hundreds of unpaid hours in order to get their foot in the door. As Daniel Laurison notes in Producing Politics, these staffers do deeply care about issues and policy, but their day-to-day priorities tend to be separated from the actual voters.

Rather than prioritizing face-to-face contact and local issues, campaign staffers often prefer sexier areas like large-scale communications and media or event scheduling and advance work. The disparity can be seen in most campaign budgets, which spend exorbitantly on communications and media but skimp out on field and volunteer support.

When these are the priorities of the people helping them win, a candidates’ view of the politics can change fairly drastically. This is when many future elected officials start to see politics as a game of numbers: favorability, polling, and media hits. They may still meet plenty of voters, but they do so in the same shallow and efficient way a cashier might meet customers. After all, you need to make sure you have time to call some potential donors.

Luckily, not all campaigns are run this way. Low-level campaigns tend to be much more focused on field and person-to-person contact. Some high-level campaigns have learned how to reduce the influence of big donors, staff themselves with everyday people, and sincerely keep the candidate engaged with the community. Some of them have even figured out how to do all that and still win. So what happens when those people actually get elected?

The Realities of Being In Office

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If entering the campaign world is like traveling to another country, entering the legislature is like traveling to another planet. To get a sense of why so many elected officials seem to suddenly become neurotic after gaining power, it is important to understand the actual experience of taking that leap. I’ll use the example of a state legislature as it is what I am the most familiar with.

The legislature is not a place for normal people. It is populated by lawmakers, lobbyists, cranks, activists, bureaucrats and the media. These are the people who spend a disproportionate amount of time in the halls of government day in and day out. Many of them are perfectly fine and lovely people, many are not. More importantly, they tend to each have a very specific set of personalities and priorities that have an undue amount of influence on what happens in government. Through finesse or sheer will, they are the ones in the room.

If that was not bad enough, the members of the community that do occasionally get involved tend to not be very representative. The group of people who know who their state legislator is and have the time to get involved tends to be skewed in the same way as donors, campaign staff, and lobbyists. They are whiter, they are wealthier, and they are more worried about issues that affect people like them. As a legislator, you are much more likely to hear about the importance of proper drainage and low property taxes in a day than you are about affordable housing and police brutality.

None of this necessarily has to influence someone who got into office with a clear purpose. Most people-centered legislators who get elected have a strong sense of wanting to get good things done. But one person alone can not change the world, let alone pass a bill. Once you get down into the dirt, the warped office politics of the legislature suddenly becomes incredibly important to the actual political process. In order to reach the majority needed to pass anything substantial, the personal beefs, hazy priorities, and the conflicts of interest all become obstacles that need to be overcome.

Every governmental body is different, but what often lies right below all those complications are the institutional hierarchies that the left is fighting against. One or two people might have gotten elected without raising any corporate money, courting any police support, or making promises around cutting spending, but most people did not. Outside pressure from left allies can sometimes move some people, but most people enter office representing a completely different constituency. In practice, the dream of calling upon the masses to demand changes from their legislators is unfortunately rare. At this point, even more than any point during the electoral process, the deck is stacked in the favor of the establishment.

This is where compromise rears its ugly head. Unless one is particularly good at fooling people or incredibly persuasive, they are likely going to have to give a little to get a little. In order to avoid a life of perpetual impotence and frustration, many legislators find themselves turning to compromise more and more.

Compromise is an unavoidable part of politics, but when it happens behind closed doors it looks a lot like selling out. When these deals and compromises are made without the input and consent of the governed, it perpetuates a cycle that ends with people not even wanting to participate in government. The result of secret negotiations can look a lot like selling out.

How We Fix It

Obviously, there is nothing physically keeping legislators from going against the incentives mentioned above. Many movement legislators have an extraordinary amount of internal fortitude and integrity that allows them to pursue long-term and short-term change in a truly effective way. However, a movement can not be built on the expectation that every participant is able to show herculean strength and determination at every turn. Bucking the norms as an individual is much riskier than changing the rules of the game. We need to start altering the environments and incentives that elected officials find themselves facing to allow them to push for real change.

Find Candidates Rooted in their Communities

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As you might expect, who actually runs for office is a very important part of making sure there are better people in office. That is why one of the most important aspects of our work needs to be recruiting people who are deeply rooted in the communities they want to represent.

What this often looks like in establishment politics is tapping lawyers, realtors, retired cops, and business owners as candidates. While these people are often very well-known in their communities, they are not usually representative. In the case of lawyers and realtors, they are often most connected to the upper echelons of the community and know very little about the issues and concerns of people who are struggling. In the case of cops or business owners, they may very well be the sources of those issues and concerns.

Instead, it is necessary to look for people who are truly representative of their communities. In many places, this looks increasingly like service or care-oriented professions: teachers, nurses, social workers, food service workers, or gig economy workers. Some have incredibly stable, unionized jobs, and others are living much more precariously. The same goes for blue-collar work, those working in construction or other trades, landscaping, manufacturing, or operations and logistics. While these groups certainly contain  a decent number of conservatives, they are also populated by huge numbers of working-class people of color who often go completely unheard in our political conversation.

There is nothing wrong with looking for more traditionally white-collar workers as well, especially in areas that contain a good number of those types of jobs. However, it is going to be much easier to find those types of people, so it doesn’t usually need the same amount of effort.

However, the amount of effort required to find working class candidates, despite their prevalence in the community, is much higher than traditional candidates. There are many reasons for this: they tend to be more disengaged to the political process they often see as rigged, and they tend not to have as many resources needed to run for office. The latter we’ll talk about in the next section, but the former is a bit more tricky. This is why institutional development is more important than individual moxie. Finding potential candidates is not something bound by any single political cycle, it must be a constant process of engagement and alignment with organizations that already exist as well as efforts to get new people engaged.

Why is it worth this effort to find specific types of candidates? It comes down to mindset and network. In general, someone who has spent their life as a teacher or a warehouse worker likely has a completely different set of experiences and values than someone who spent their life as a lawyer or a business owner. Their perception of what is important or not important, what is fair or not fair, is within an entirely different context. Even through all the rough and tumble of the campaign and legislative processes, those distinctions matter.

Of further importance, someone who comes from a working class background is likely to have a social network that is much different than a traditional political candidate. While the environment of the campaign trail or the state house is an important element of how people act, it also matters who they come home to. A legislators’ family, friends, and co-workers provide a sense of intimate accountability that outside democratic pressure can’t quite replicate. It’s a lot harder to vote against universal health care when you have an uncle and a neighbor in severe medical debt.

Plainly stated, authentic connections to one’s community are the foundation of an authentic, community candidate. But it also helps to have them be involved in the political process in some way before they actually run for office. The gap between the real world and the political one is a wide one. Being able to experience the world of politics before committing their life to it can help a candidate understand who some of the players are before they’re whispering in their ear. Becoming a campaign team member, pushing for a policy change, or even just following along with local political news can help prepare someone for a future political run much better than building up their donor connections.

Run Grassroots Campaigns that Get People Involved

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Just as a traditional campaign can reinforce traditional ideas of politics, a grassroots campaign can reinforce a theory of change that is rooted in everyday people. This is something that needs to happen with the candidate themselves and with the campaign as a whole.

The realities of what a candidate is able to do depends quite a bit on what they’re running for. If you are running for president, it doesn’t make sense for you to spend a lot of your time knocking on doors. However, for people running for local or even state-level elections (depending on the state), it makes sense for a candidate to spend the bulk of their time knocking on doors. This is much different than going to events, especially political events. Political events have a self-selected audience of people who are generally already engaged. As great as they might be, their issues and concerns are not necessarily going to line up with those of the community as a whole. Door-knocking allows a candidate to get directly into communities and talk to people who would otherwise not ever get the chance to interact with the political process.

Of course, there’s still the issue of fundraising. Unfortunately there’s no way to get around it. Even if you’re running a grassroots campaign, you still need money. In recent times, many large campaigns have been able to develop a new model of grassroots fundraising that draws on thousands of small-dollar donors who can out-raise more traditionally funded campaigns. It’s a model that works great for large campaigns, but not always for smaller campaigns. Call time is sometimes unavoidable.

Call time does not have to reinforce a relationship with big money in the way it normally does. Just as the last several years have brought millions of small-dollar donors into the process, it has developed a lot of larger donors who don’t necessarily donate purely based on how it will affect their wallet. This can help supplement and build on small-dollar donors from a candidates’ friends, family, and community. By combining these groups, even traditionally poorer and less connected candidates can get the resources they need to run for office.

Focusing on direct voter contact and maintaining a healthy balance of donors can put candidates in a much better position, but the campaign around them still matters. Certain aspects of campaigns, from advertising to mailers, are going to be unavoidable in competitive elections, but that does not mean that they have to be the main focus of the campaign.

In a grassroots campaign, no matter how large, field work needs to be a crucial element. This means knocking on doors, calling phones, and otherwise getting in contact with people one on one to talk about why they should vote for a candidate. Most campaigns only use a small portion of their energy and a fraction of their time to engage in one of the building blocks of democratic elections. A grassroots campaign should greatly increase its investment in field work, but simply spending more time talking to more people is not enough.

Traditionally, field programs talk to a certain type of person and have a specific type of role for them. Most campaigns focus on targeting “super-voters”, or those who already regularly vote in elections. Mathematically, it’s a good use of your time, as every conversation you have is with someone who is likely already planning to vote. But it ends up leaving out those who don’t already participate in the process, and they’re the ones who are also most likely to have needs that aren’t being addressed by the current system.

Even when campaigns do talk to all the people, they often relegate it to just that: a conversation. In a grassroots campaign, voters should be encouraged to take a more active role: becoming a volunteer or a donor, getting a chance to meet the candidate regularly, or even to get more involved in their community outside the campaign. A grassroots campaign can be a great organizing opportunity if it is approached intentionally, strengthening both the campaign itself, the voters it comes into contact with, and any existing organizing efforts going on in the district.

Who is on the campaign team can also play a huge role in how the campaign gets run. Just as extra care must be taken to find candidates that are representative of their communities, the same must be done for campaign team members. This work must be proactive and emphasize the need for institutional development. It is not very efficient for every individual campaign to find and develop new staffers. But if they can be found and developed, these staffers are much more likely to base their work in the interests of their communities and not their careers.

With a well-run campaign and a bit of luck, a good candidate should be able to get elected to office. It always takes a lot of work, and sometimes it takes multiple attempts, but it is possible. It happens more often than you might expect. But that is where the real work begins.

Continue to Support and Hold Elected Officials Accountable

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One of the biggest mistakes that campaigns make is that they end. Once a candidate gets elected, their team usually disbands and their volunteers mostly scatter to the wind. Sometimes they will maintain individual connections with some of their supporters, but normally the beginning of their term marks a clear break from the end of their campaign.

But this is when the newly elected legislators need the most support. Elections are important, but they are important because they determine who gets into power. Elected officials enter a completely new world when they cross into the halls of power, and just as a grassroots campaign is important to keep a candidates’ priorities grounded in their community and their values, an outside support system needs to accomplish the same goals in a harsher environment.

Some legislatures and government bodies allow people to hire their own staff, which can create a life raft within the broader institution that allows for a certain degree of trust and reliability. But not everyone gets that luxury. We often enter government the same way we enter the world: alone, afraid, and very confused.

Outside support becomes a necessary component to keeping good legislators sane. It also helps keep good legislators good. In the absence of strong grassroots support, there are plenty of unsavory figures that are very willing to fill the basic needs of new legislators.

What are those needs? A huge part of it is information. Legislatures process hundreds or thousands of bills each session, often with little discussion or context outside of some rigid committee meetings and passing conversations. Being able to aggregate this information, investigate the intentions and impacts, then let legislators know what is going on is a huge boon to people just getting their bearings. A huge number of long-time incumbents don’t read the vast majority of the bills they vote on. Someone challenging the status quo doesn’t have the same luxury.

While the campaign work mentioned earlier in this piece is relatively time-bound and metrics-driven, the legislative world is a bit more nebulous. Of course, the overall goal is still the same: to pass a good bill or stop a bad bill you need to win over a certain number of votes. But the process of getting there is not as simple as knocking a lot of doors and making a lot of phone calls. It involves a larger process of training up community members in the intricacies of the legislative process, bringing together networks of existing organizations and experts, and bridging that gap between those in the room and those outside of it. True representation requires this form of co-governance.

This is part of why the previous steps are so important. Co-governance requires those in power to have honest two-way conversations with those on the outside. If a legislator did not get to their position through the power of their community, then that trust has to be built from scratch. Even if that trust already exists, it must be reforged every single day given the immense pressure both sides find themselves under. Community members must be willing to lend that trust, but legislators must be willing to return the favor. If not, then they open themselves up to being tossed out by the very people who brought them in.

Build the Infrastructure

When challenging existing systems of power and influence, it is important to look at the concrete steps we can take to change things. All of the above suggestions are largely decisions made or actions that can be taken by a single person or a small group of people. The exercise of power is largely relational and based on real connections between people.

However, we also need to look at the broader institutions and systems and how they can be changed. Relationships are important, but the systems that reproduce and mediate those relationships are even more important. Some institutional change can happen via internal reform. In the electoral world, certain campaign finance reforms like contribution limits and democracy vouchers can help encourage and reward grassroots campaign tactics. In the legislative world, reforms pushing for more transparency, resources, and internal democracy can help legislatures open up to the community. Though internal reforms alone are not enough to maintain a system that keeps legislators honest to their constituents.

A strong democracy has always relied on a strong civil society. That means we need to build up institutions outside of the existing government. Establishing organizations that train people in grassroots campaign skills and find candidates who represent the interests of their community, or organizations that teach people the basics of the legislative process and facilitate communication. It can also mean building up labor and tenant unions, mutual aid groups, and other forms of collective power that help people get involved and push for their own interests.

In creating these institutions, we build power, but we also learn and develop the norms and processes that make up self-governance. The process of electing representatives and holding them accountable, while it involves a lot of personal work with those representatives, is not actually about them. It’s about creating a government that is actually by, and for, the people.

About the Author

Karl Stomberg is the Digital Editor of the Delaware Call. In the past he has served on multiple campaigns, and is currently an organizer for the Delaware Working Families Party. Read more from Karl Stomberg.