The Risks of Promising the Improbable

Candidates’ climate proposals are starkly unrealistic. That’s a problem.

As I wrote in a post last Thursday, there’s little prospect that anything like a Green New Deal could pass the Senate even assuming the filibuster is eliminated.  In the best case scenario, Democrats would have a one or two vote margin in the Senate. That’s a very slim margin for passing a trillion dollar program, especially since one of those Democratic Senators will be Joe Manchin from West Virginia. The election map will be better for Democrats in 2022, but even if they add to their majority, it’s very hard for a President to pass major legislation in the last two years of his or her term.  Moreover, Democrats will be trying to do other big things as well, like a big healthcare overhaul.

Putting big proposals on the table has some value even if the odds of enactment are low. They can inspire supporters, dramatize the seriousness of the problem, and set the bar higher for compromises.  But there are also some serious concerns to be considered — my topic for today.

One worry is that promising big things but failing to deliver can erode trust in the political process.  If big promises have little result, there’s a tendency to assume that either the process was corrupt, the evil political opposition engaged in sabotage, or that the existing legislative process is obsolete.  All this can help build support for populist leaders claiming they can fix all of our problems if only the courts, the media, Congress, and the bureaucracy can be bludgeoned into cooperation.   The risk, then, is that failure to deliver political miracles in Congress builds pressure for populist authoritarianism.

Another worry is backlash. Big promises may help build support for climate action.  On the other hand, some voters may view the alternatives as either a trillion dollars of spending or doing nothing — and may opt for doing nothing at all. Thus, political support for more realistic actions could actually be eroded in the center.  Meanwhile, politicians on the progressive wing may refuse to go along with anything less than their dream solution.  The result of making unrealistic promises could result in less progress rather than more.  Unrealistic promises may build polarization, as one side grows to see the other as increasingly radical.

Certainly, overpromising isn’t just a behavior of American Democrats.  Trump said trade wars were painless and easy to win.  He had an amazing replacement plan for Obamacare. He was going to return U.S. manufacturing to its glory days.  And across the ocean, Brexit advocates promised a painless separation from the EU that would free up billions of dollars for the National Health Service.  At least none of the Democratic candidates is promising that the Green New Deal would be free or that it would miraculously solve climate change all by itself.  By comparison with those  examples, they have been the soul of responsibility.  Still, there is reason to worry about the long-term repercussions of promising policies that are so far away from likely political realities.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “The Risks of Promising the Improbable”

  1. Hi Dan,

    I so often agree w so much of what you write, but here we part company. The history of civil rights legislation leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 64 is a record of one failure after another. Each one helped isolate the South and galvanize support elsewhere. Every year, beginning in 1968 and continuing until 1983, John Conyers introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. Nothing good comes from shying away from hard fights merely because they cannot yet be won.

    1. Hi Joe. I don’t entirely disagree. It’s fine to aim high. But I worry that the candidates are creating expectations they have no way of meeting, and thereby feed into a populist narrative like we’ve seen on the GOP side.

      1. The other problem with aspirational promises across a broad front of Democratic special interests is their sustainability in the American political process. The inevitable shifts of party-in-power during increased polarization have shortened the life of Democratic initiatives, under assault from FDR’s social security to the Obama administration’s well-planned ACA. .
        Responsible democracy must include mechanisms to ensure sustainability not only of the environment and economy but the state as well through partisan shifts.
        Nixon’s EPA is being taken down by Trump and a Republican Congress bolstered by a post-Citizens United fools of special influence money.
        Corporations may not walk as citizens, but money always talks. “I’ve got a plan for that” will fail if Citizens United remains and all stakeholders are not recognized in practical legislation backed by a strong majority of the public.

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About Dan

Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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