“Answer the questions you want to answer, not the questions you are asked,” is advice that has been offered to interviewees for years. It is sage wisdom that resonates well throughout the world of business and politics. The objective is to avoid questions one cannot answer well and seize control of the conversation by offering information one wants to be the focus of the conversation. In a job interview, such wisdom allows candidates to avoid their shortcomings and emphasize their strengths. Unfortunately, avoiding tough issues and awkward subjects is also a great way to avoid problems and the solutions needed to solve those problems, which is why this prevailing wisdom is not good for our political system.
Political candidates essentially undertake a series of job interviews when they campaign. Like all good interviewees, they seek to control the “message” and frame elections around the positions that will help them attract a critical mass of voters in order to achieve victory. In doing so, politicians make the election process about themselves, instead of the issues that affect their constituents. By asking and answering the questions that the political figures want to ask and answer, the questions and concerns of voters are pushed to the back-burner. Instead of tackling the issues that voters need addressed, elected officials, in turn, pursue their political agendas and public policy priories.
The strength of democracy is rooted in the ability of a democratic government to address the interests of the governed. The election process allows voters to choose public officials who are more likely to respond to their needs. Clearly, voting is only the beginning of civil engagement in a democracy, but the reality that politicians are only willing to answer their own questions and address their own priorities short-circuits the democratic process. Whenever the choices of voters are constrained by politicians, who are only interested in their own priorities, democracy cannot yield responsive and representative government.
Furthermore, those who run as the nominees of major political parties, such as the Democrats and Republicans, are selected by recruiters based on their ability to win and their close adherence to the views of the political establishment. Obviously, voters eventually approve of nominees with a primary or caucus, but recruitment plays a major role in who will be an option for voters. Not only are voter choices constrained by the political establishment, those who pay for campaigns and other special interests influences exert influence over who is running for office and what issues they are running on. As such, political candidates are discouraged from asking and answering questions that might threaten the interests of their donors and special interests groups.
Consequently, the political system offers “perverse” incentives for candidates to ignore voter concerns in order to sell themselves as the better choice. The solution to this lack of responsiveness is for voters to stop buying the song and dance of political candidates. A wise hiring manager will maintain control over interviews by allowing interviewees to express their views while pressing for answers when interviewees avoid important questions. The American People need to do the same with their politicians. Instead of just learning what candidates want voters to hear, voters need to listen to what candidates are not saying. It is, after all, precisely the answers politicians want to avoid that voters need to hear the most.
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