Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises

Sure, politicians shouldn't make promises they'll never keep. But citizens shouldn't ask more from them than they can provide.

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“Political Promises—What Do They Mean?” by David W. Lovell, in Quadrant (July–Aug. 2004), 437 Darling St., Balmain, New South Wales 2041 Australia.

As the hard-fought presidential election of 2004 nears its climax, the campaign prom­ises are piling up. Soon cynics will be toting up the winner’s unfulfilled pledges—a foolish exercise, in the view of Lovell, acting rector of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

It’s strange, he points out, that politicians are held to higher standards of promise-keeping than everyone else. The divorce statistics amply show how willing millions of people are to break what may well be the most solemn vows they will ever make.

Pragmatists hold that promises should be broken if the outcome of keeping them would, on balance, be worse. And what is politics but a pragmatic undertaking, in which outcomes count for more than purity of intention or consistency? But voters tend to forget that.

Promises serve a function beyond the mere harvesting of votes. “Making political promises in liberal democracies helps to provide governments with authority to act. Perceptions that promises are routinely broken—however inaccurate—diminish governmental authority.”

But political promises may not be broken as often as we think. A 1963 study of those made in 10 federal elections in Australia found that to be the case. It’s the ones that are not fulfilled, particularly those made in extravagant language, that feed “the public misperception that breaking political promises is routine.” Remember “read my lips”?

Some promises go unfulfilled because of obstacles beyond the politician’s control, such as gridlock or interest-group opposition. Some are deliberately broken because circumstances change—the money dries up or a disaster occurs.

Of course, some promises are broken because they’re “unachievable, irresponsible, or overly optimistic.” Prime Minister Bob Hawke of Australia was returned to office in 1987 after pledging that he would eliminate child poverty in three years. Politicians shouldn’t make such impossible promises, Lovell says. But there’s a corollary: Citizens shouldn’t ask of politics more than it can provide. No one is promising that citizens will lower their expectations anytime soon.

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