Why you should care
Because we’re fed up with political inertia.
The crowds went wild for Neville Chamberlain just hours after he met Hitler and secured “peace for our time” in 1938. Fifty years later, cheers rang out as George H.W. Bush pledged, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” More recently, French President François Hollande’s been promising not to run again unless he lowers unemployment. But Hitler marched into Poland, Americans coughed up more to Uncle Sam and Hollande likely knows ça va pas.
Politicians win by promising big, and we voters are suckers for messages of peace, well-being and security, but few candidates live up to their campaign rhetoric. Surely in this Information Age — in which we’re held accountable for everything from overdue library books to social-media rants — it’s high time presidential and prime ministerial wannabes took a cue from Hollande and Co. and were held accountable to ONE measly promise. Or else! If Hillary Clinton promises equal pay for women, for example, she has to pack it up in four years if ladies aren’t making as much as men. Marine Le Pen might vow, distastefully playing to racist supporters, to rid France of Muslims. And the Donald? Well, he should have to pound sand if he fails to build that humongous wall at Mexico’s expense.
[Politicians] shouldn’t make promises they know are so unkeepable.
Promises with consequences would inject accountability — and realism — into campaign rhetoric. Promises themselves aren’t the problem, says Catherine Fieschi, founder of the London-based cultural strategy consultancy Counterpoint, but politicos “shouldn’t make promises they know are so unkeepable,” she says, pointing to Prime Minister David Cameron’s immigration targets. The British conservatives promised to bring net migration to below 100,000 — a failing that Brexit backer and London’s former mayor Boris Johnson is quite fond of pointing out. Such promises, says Fieschi, are like catnip to populists, who like offering simple solutions to complex political issues while appealing to a disgruntled voter base.
Hollande’s promise to reduce French chômage is similar. Unemployment rates in the land of Molière have hovered around 10 percent for years, affecting nearly a quarter of French millennials. The president’s brought in labor reforms, which have sparked widespread strikes and violence. There’s a speck of sunlight with recent data showing a slight boost in economic growth, but joblessness is unlikely to fall in any ballot-winning way before next year’s election.
One put-up-or-shut-up promise “would be a cool thing,” says Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science at the University of Mainz. “But it’s rarely going to happen because politicians are not stupid.” His assessment may be charitable, but it’s true that politicians may be wary to bet their livelihoods on one big-ticket item when factors out of their control — like global economics or refugee crises — might crop up, he says.
And yet, it’s that very riskiness that appeals to us — and perhaps to you too. If you’re dreading another presidential campaign bursting with lofty promises and hot air, only to see those colorful pledges burst a few years later, demand a single, solitary promise from your candidate. And if they fail to deliver, simply show them the door.