How to Train a Political Animal to Restrain Itself

“There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between a Republican and a Democrat.”

This outcry typically comes from someone politically oriented on the far left or the far right.  From where the complainer stands on the political spectrum, both parties are visible in the same direction.  Today’s Democrats are a left-center party, and today’s Republicans are a right-center party.  So the distinctions between the parties seem miniscule when viewed from a political position far away from both parties.

But are the two major U.S. political parties really almost identical?  Unfortunately I can show you one way they are pretty similar.

For starters, here’s my cut at a short objective sentence describing the essence of each party’s vision.  These are clearly oversimplified, but I believe I’m at least being even-handed in my simplicity:

  • The Democrats generally believe in a relatively unconstrained government role that continuously evolves in response to current issues and the perceived urgent needs of the country.
  • Generally speaking, the Republicans believe in a relatively limited government role that is constrained fairly closely to the original intended scope of the Constitution.

So then why, since the end of the Eisenhower era, has federal spending grown steadily, regardless of which party controls the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the White House?  The rate of growth may vary, but the direction is always upward.

Look at the red line (federal spending) in this chart I have compiled (click on it to enlarge): 

(Click here, here, and here to see my data sources.)

Conservative politicians SAY they’re for limited government, but the chart doesn’t show much evidence they behave that way.  Even during times when the Republicans have controlled 2 or all 3 of the policy-making bodies, the red line never falls.

Why is this, and what should we start doing about it?

Please read on….

·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·

Ever stop and think what goes through the mind of a would-be politician at that instant they decide to leave their private world and become a candidate for their first election?  It’s probably something like this:

“I see a situation I think could be improved.  I think I’m uniquely qualified to make a difference, and I’m willing to give it a try.  If I get elected, I’ll do my absolute best to help the people I represent.”

In other words, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, politicians are a self-selected group of active thinkers who earnestly believe they have a unique plan of action for solving an issue or improving a situation.  They are activists by nature, or they wouldn’t have stepped into the elected public arena.  They want to achieve a successful outcome for large groups of people.

Because of this distinctive DNA strand they have, I am hereafter calling them Political Animals.

Next, stop and consider whether these Political Animals are really much different than any other thinking two-legged or four-legged animal.  For their efforts, do Political Animals want to receive criticism or praise?  They obviously know they’ll get both, but which do they PREFER?  Of course the answer is they yearn to be praised and appreciated.

If you’re a conservative voter and you’ve successfully elected your chosen Political Animal to public office, how should you go about training it to restrain itself?

My answer involves simple behavioral psychology, which I am applying to the real world of politics here.  Any thinking animal will consciously or subconsciously tend to continue doing whatever it receives praise and adulation for, and it will tend to stop doing whatever it receives criticism and disapproval for.  This is pure common sense.  Where I live we call it horse sense.

Conservative voters need to get smarter as political consumers, and learn to praise a Political Animal that has the guts to actually downsize government.  Cheerfully and publically say to it, with sincere happiness displayed on your face:  “Thank you sir/madam for passing legislation that does less for me.  In fact, please double down.  Next year, I want you to take it even further, and do even less for me.  Indeed, the less you do for me, the more I will vote for you.”

Obviously that was a tongue-in-cheek example…now here’s what I seriously mean:

If you’re a conservative voter, you have probably criticized your – or somebody else’s – Political Animal when it voted to enlarge the scope of government.  Great!  But that’s only half the job of training it.  That’s the stick.  What about the carrot?  When’s the last time you heaped praise and adulation on your Political Animal for doing little or nothing for you?  I say it’s high time you started.

And while you’re at it, your Political Animal appreciates a pat on the head and a scratch behind the ear too.

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control.
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13 Responses to How to Train a Political Animal to Restrain Itself

  1. Really good article Jeff. One of my dad’s favorite expressions is calling the two parties “two wings of the same bird of prey.” Or as one writer puts it, “one party wants welfare, the other wants war, so they compromise and do both.”

    My only objection is your interpretation of the thought process of the political animal:

    “I see a situation I think could be improved. I think I’m uniquely qualified to make a difference, and I’m willing to give it a try. If I get elected, I’ll do my absolute best to help the people I represent.”

    I think most politicians are much less altruistic than you have depicted them here.

    Keep writing Jeff. Its worth the time.



  2. libertyandbagels says:

    I think giving a Political Animal praise is a good idea, but I wouldn’t neglect disincentives. Grover Norquist and his tax pledge has shown how much influence an organization can have if it threatens politicians’ re-election chances. I wish there was an organization that would threaten politicians with a primary challenger if they didn’t support, vote for, submit or pass a balanced budget.

    I’m guilty of saying there isn’t a dimes bit of difference between the Rs and Ds. Obviously, that isn’t true across the board. The issue of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Gay Marriage. They’re slightly different on Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But not the issues I find to be monumental: debt, deficit, foreign policy, health care, the economy, civil liberties and corruption.

    Keep up the writing, I enjoy reading someone who isn’t a knee-jerk Chicken Littler like myself.


  3. davidwithastick says:

    A big part of the issue is that we elect our representatives to act as legislators. They take that seriously, meaning that they see themselves as people who make laws. We even label them as Lawmakers. Thus to be successful, they must make laws. It is anathema to the nature of someone who has the motivation and wherewithal to successfully wage an election campaign to then simply do nothing.

    These legislators must have something to do, and that something must be to constrain government, rather than constraining individuals. I imagine, as you do, that most aspiring politicians-to-be see themselves as having a mission to fix something, and I believe that many younger Tea Party- or Libertarian-minded individuals (and thankfully many young Republicans) view the government as the broken entity.

    Two things happen, though, when they get to office. First, they begin to associate with MANY others who are there because they believe society must be fixed or engineered in some way. Which leads to the clarity of their mission fading as they become involved in the activity of making laws and working within the long-established power structure of government.

    I agree with your point. But lots of the animals are deaf. The people we most need to concentrate on are those who are most likely to hear our praise. That’s not going to be any career political animal focused on meddling in our lives. It’s the newly or recently elected animals who still remember what it was like on the outside, and who still remember why they campaigned for election in the first place.

    Our responsibility as voters is to continue to nominate and elect this non-mutated animal, and make sure he (or she) leaves office before the inevitable turn to the dark side happens.


    • David, your last sentence brings several things to mind:

      1) I have attended more than half of the available opportunities for town hall meetings with my U.S. Representative in the last 3 years, and I’ve exchanged emails with him. I suggest that everyone do this. It’s not hard to subscribe to your Rep’s e-newsletter, and watch for nearby town hall meetings, usually quarterly.

      2) Like many Americans, I feel that MY representative is not the problem — it’s all the other politicians that are the problem. “Throw all the bums out, except for my guy.”

      3) Increasingly, individual Americans are getting involved in the elections of other districts and even other states — anything to help ensure their chosen party stays in the majority in Congress. It’s becoming more frequent that a given Representative or Senator or Governor will receive campaign donations on his/her website from somebody living in a completely different part of the country. This happened a lot with the Wisconsin recall elections.

      4) Regarding the getting rid of politicians before they become too comfortable and turn to “the dark side” … There are several moderates who have been primaried this year and lost. Most of them are rather bitter and outspoken about it. Examples: Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Cliff Stearns (R-Florida), Kristin Jacobs (D-Florida), Hansen Clark (D-Michigan), John Sullivan (R-Oklahoma), others. My new article about Dysfunctional Government happens to relate to this.

      – Jeff


  4. Good article. I too have been trying to get more involved with my local politicians by emailing, etc. I don’t have much confidence in having an effect, living in the state I do. It doesn’t take long to drive around and see a Jill Stein sign in a front yard, and Elizabeth Warren signs are EVERYWHERE.

    On the Democrat vs. Republican thing, from my perspective there isn’t really a difference between them, other than their rhetoric. Some Republicans may actually want to reduce the scope of government, but I think mostly they’re concerned about the next election and what they can do to get elected again. I tend to think of the political spectrum with two axes, similar to the Advocates quiz ( I think its a little more accurate, because there are some (though few) Democrats that are concerned about overbearing government, usually in regards to civil liberties. It also helps to break the false “right wing = small government, left wing = big government” dichotomy and point out to some people that they’re not really for as small of a government as they think they are.

    My fear is that there simply isn’t enough voters that truly want to reduce the scope of government, and so there will simply be more of a reward for the politicians to continue doing business as usual rather than actually doing the work to secure liberty. The Republicans that I know are actually very economically oppressive and side with the Republicans because of social issues.


    • Good evening, EC…welcome back. I ascertain you live in or around East Falmouth in the old MA-10 congressional district, now MA-9 with Bill Keating as your rep. Some research I’ve been doing for Part 2 of my “Dysfunctional Gov’t” topic tells me that your district has had Democratic representattion since ’82. My sympathies. How long have you lived there? Will you even bother voting in the primary on Sept 6th? Are there even any Republicans registered for a primary? If not, is there at least a more “moderate” Democrat to vote for in the primary, just as a courageous gesture of franchise involvement?

      At least you have one Republican senator right now…so that’s a worthy email recipient for you.

      I’ll try to reply to your actual comment soon.
      – Jeff


    • Interesting quiz…but it’s a bit too brief for me. I have lots of nuances living in my brain that “Agree / Maybe / Disagree” are inadequate to capture. I especially don’t like the last question about cutting taxes & gov’t spending by 50%. I think we need to target about a 20% reduction (from 25% of GDP to 20% of GDP), so my only choice is to answer “maybe” on that question. Anyway, the quiz pegged me on the border between Centrist and Libertarian, which I guess I won’t object to.

      In most of my writing here, I have attempted (and will continue) to use the terms “unconstrained” and “constrained” instead of liberal/progressive/Democrat and conservative/Republican. I have read and greatly learned from Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.” I will get to writing about some of that book’s concepts soon.

      I hope you’ll visit often. I can tell you’re a thinker, which is what I’m trying to elicit here. There’s plenty of other places to indulge in knee-jerk, reactionary political hardball. Figuring out one’s underlying philosophy about human nature, and what that means about your position on public policy and the balance between gov’t and private enterprise is where the real benefit is, in my opinion. Reading your article “What is Government’s Role” reveals to me that you’re pretty well read and grounded in “constrained” realism and the inherently good (usually) invisible hand of free will and free markets. We’re on the same wavelength.
      – Jeff


      • The quiz is short, but I appreciate the two axis graph that it plots political philosophy on. Myself, I am very much a libertarian; the cutting spending question may be somewhat loaded, but I think it conveys the neccesary information in order to asses someone’s feelings on the subject.

        As far as nomenclature, I generally try to avoid labels and instead focus on ideas. Historically, “liberal” meant something different than it does now, and was different from the “progressive” vision. Because of some of those idiosyncrasies, I feel that it’s clearer to convey ideas, and hopefully promotes less tribalism. Time will tell if my inkling is correct or if readers simply think I’m being vauge.

        I’m engaged. I’ll stick around.


  5. Today I found a great Op-Ed piece by syndicated conservative columnist George Will entitled Seeds of Our Dysfunction. It first appeared in papers nationwide on Oct 20th.

    While I recommend you read the whole piece, it contains a great passage that’s related to our discussion here:

    “Barack Obama’s risible solution is to add 4.6 points to the tax rate for less than 3 percent of Americans. Some conservatives have the audacity of hope — expecting 5 percent economic growth (the post-1945 average: 2.9 percent) and planning to continue financing the debt by borrowing at negative interest rates. Of our long slide into financial decrepitude, Greve says: ‘The rate of deterioration does not correlate in any obvious way with political control over the presidency and Congress.’ “

    That’s the same conclusion I reached after compiling the graph in this article. Our government spends too much, no matter which party is in control.

    – Jeff


  6. bullright says:

    Yea, give them a pat and ascratch behind the ears. It should be funny. But they really don’t follow instrunctions too well …hard to train and all. Obstinate creatures by nature, and I don’t mean Irish Setters. (ha ha)

    Just a quick thought came to mind while I’m reading. On the right, we constantly here lib-progs accuse Republicans of selfish greed and that it drives the party and corporate America, and corporatists toward Republican Party. That’s the accusation. But when you start looking closely at the left , it is built on need, greed, selfishness, self-interest and then self-promotion in politics. And their Party serves as the central power to extort any and all it can, for what they can, namely political power. As Goldwater said, (Roughly) ‘The shoe is precisely on the other foot; it is the socialism [the left] that is based on materialism.’ IOW, little or no value is placed on the individual or real freedoms.


  7. Good post although you make a number of assumptions. Firstly, are voters rational? Not according to Bryan Caplan.

    Secondly, do Republicans want a smaller government or do they want government to take a smaller role in domestic affairs while maintaining and growing the defence sector both here and overseas?


    • Welcome, Malcolm. Thanks for the comments.

      The book looks interesting. If you already own it, perhaps you could provide a pertinent quote or two here. For now, though, I will operate from the summary of the book on that Amazon page you referenced.

      I agree that one of the problems with America’s political economy, ever since FDR steered it drastically leftwards (“Never let a serious crisis go to waste!” started in the 1930’s), is that many U.S. voters are economically illiterate and just vote for what they superficially feel will help them the most personally — ignorant of the long term consequences for the future fiscal environment. So they’re being “short-term rational” for themselves, but not “long-term rational” for their children, grandchildren, and beyond. Pile those voters on top of the 25-30% or so that truly do want socialism no matter the consequences, and you end up right around the 50-55% mark as shown in last November’s election. Conservatism faces a helluva headwind nowadays, Malcolm.

      This “Political Animal” article was directed at the 40-45% of conservative voters who know they want Congress to cut spending, but they don’t give their elected representatives enough positive feedback to say, not at all sarcastically, “Thanks for doing so little for me, because I prefer to be allowed to keep more of my money and take care of myself and my family, and I prefer to give whatever I can afford to help my own neighbors when they’re in need so they too can be less dependent on government.” Conservatives naturally tend to mind their own business, because that’s what they expect society to do for them, mostly. In modern times, though, this conservative trait is not serving us well. I’m trying to persuade conservatives to become more active and vocal — but constructively.

      On your final point (about Republican views on the size of gov’t), one of my main observations in the article is that many so-called “conservative” Republicans unfortunately do NOT seem to believe in smaller government. I described my theory why: That even conservative politicians have the political strand of DNA that makes them tend to want to help – help – help the citizens, since that is what the superficial voters say they want (and what tends to get politicians of all stripes re-elected easier).

      Regarding defense spending, my personal feeling is that America’s economic strength is significantly dependent upon America’s ability to project a strong-but-pragmatic political presence worldwide, motivated by our belief in the inalienable virtue of freedom granted by God, and only by God (not by governments). In many parts of the world, military strength is needed to “encourage” other countries’ leaders to respect our moral strength. I don’t feel the Republicans need to push for growth in the defense sector beyond where it was when Obama took office. I do feel the Republicans should resist strongly the urge to raid our military strength in order to further increase our unreformed entitlement spending.

      I note that you spelled defense with a c. Are you originally from the U.K. or Australia, Malcolm? Whether you are or aren’t, I’m interested in hearing your perspective on Europe’s and Australia’s views of American “defence” spending. I recently saw a report that Germany and Italy are concerned about the Democrats’ intent to cut spending on missile defense systems. Could it be a disguised admission from these European countries that they actually realize how dependent they are upon America’s protective umbrella which has allowed Europe to grossly underspend on their own defense ever since WW2, and they don’t want their “Trans-Atlantic Entitlement Program” to end?

      I hope you participate often here, Malcolm. And feel free to go into a bit of depth.

      Best wishes,
      – Jeff


  8. The Ed says:

    I am a constitutionalist by nature. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions our representatives are not. When asked what the authority in the constitution was for Obamacare, most could not say. The few that “could” used the elastic clause to justify it, They have rendered the tenth amendment ” The powers not delegated to the United States by the
    Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to
    the States respectively, or to the people.” meaningless.
    Every one of them has sworn an oath to uphold the constitution. When they vote for a bill and they don’t even know what is in it I can’t see how they can say that they are living up to what they were sworn to do.
    Shame on them for violating their oaths and shame on us for voting them back into office.


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