While ostensibly a positive effort against corruption, the voluntary banning of pork-barrel spending has contributed to the erosion of American democracy by encouraging hyperpolarization on the elite level. By removing incentives for compromise, politicians on both sides of the aisle have increasingly polarized to the point that Mitch McConnel has since declared he “didn’t care” about the policy benefits of an Obama era proposal. In order to reverse or at least halt the progress of polarization on the elite(and hopefully the popular) level, Congress should take measures designed to re-instate pork-barrel spending. While it will contribute to increased perceptions of corruption in government, the resultant effect on decreasing elite polarization will have a positive effect on democratic health.
In the common understanding of politics and democratic erosion, most would argue that corruption usually erodes democratic norms and engenders mistrust in the federal government. In American politics, one of the chief symbols of corruption was the so-called “pork-barrel spending”, a term denoting the appropriation of governmental funds for local projects which would serve the interests of certain constituencies for chiefly political aims. During the early 2000s, two examples of pork-barrel spending, in particular, the ‘Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and “The Big Dig” in Boston, engendered widespread outrage against the practice and more generally governmental corruption. In March 2010, as a direct result of these projects and the outrage engendered against them, the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee, the center of pork-barrel spending in Washington, banned earmarks to for-profit companies. Shortly thereafter, House Republicans “responded with a voluntary, one-year ban on all earmarks.” Thus, the movement against pork-barrel spending quickly became a bipartisan venture that sharply reduced the number of earmarked projects by approximately 1/2 in the following year. Since these voluntary measures have been passed, little effort has been made to change them, whether to revoke them or codify them into formal law.
I argue that the originally bipartisan measure to restrict and ban pork-barrel spending resulted in increased polarization on the elite level with consequent damage to the health of American democracy and widened partisan divides among the wider populace. As Graham and Svolik argue, partisan polarization is the largest driver of resistance to punishing anti-democratic behavior of politicians by voters “A candidate who considers adopting an undemocratic position can expect to be punished by losing only about 11.7% of his overall vote share. When we restrict attention to candidate-choice scenarios with combinations of partisanship and policies that we typically see in real-world elections, this punishment drops to 3.5%.”(393) In addition to its effect on reducing voter willingness to punish anti-democratic behavior, increased polarization “can destroy democratic norms” and “toleration becomes harder to sustain”(178) which Levitsky and Ziblatt argue are key guardrails for American democracy. Thus, polarization, while sometimes healthy in democracies, becomes increasingly dangerous and a chief driver of democratic erosion. Therefore, efforts made to decrease partisan polarization are useful for preserving democratic health, and, thus we must reconsider the case of pork-barrel spending.
While pork-barrel spending, in many cases, can undoubtedly undermine voter confidence in government by making them associate government with corruption, its role as a possible curative for hyperpolarization seems to make it a net positive practice for preserving American democracy. Since many scholars argue that the number one goal of all politicians is to win re-election, removing incentives that assist that goal would consequently reduce the chances of politicians being willing to compromise. Therefore, when pork-barrel/earmark spending, a type of spending designed specifically for incumbents to boast of their legislative achievements on behalf of their constituents, is removed, politicians must turn to other methods to win and maintain the favor of their constituents to protect them from both primary and general election challenges. Since politicians can no longer appeal to their constituents’ material interests, they are driven to appeal to their social and ideological interests, reflected in the widespread embrace of Trump and his hyper-partisan rhetoric among Republican officeholders fearful of the power of his base and the threat of right-wing primary challengers. Compared to the local, bipartisan appeal of pork-barrel spending, these appeals to ideology create a feedback loop that increasingly drives polarization among voters of all ideological stripes on the national level, culminating in almost 70% of Republicans declaring the election of Joe Biden wasn’t free of fair and alleging a vast conspiracy aimed against Donald Trump. In this hyperpolarized and hyper national political environment, red-state democrats and blue-state republicans are unable to distinguish themselves from their national parties and are defeated in their efforts at winning their election and re-election, even if their opponents espoused anti-democratic rhetoric or engaged in notably corrupt practices while in power such as insider trading. Thus, American democracy is seriously under threat as centrist voters, who Graham and Svolik argue are the main roadblocks against anti-democratic behavior, are increasingly polarized and driven out of political relevance, and the bipartisan elite consensus increasingly comes under threat from hyperpolarization.
In conclusion, I argue that ending the voluntary ban on pork-barrel spending would reduce polarization on the elite level. By providing material benefits for politicians to compromise, they will be more willing to compromise and end the legislative gridlock in Congress which has increasingly led voters to perceive Congress as ineffective and corrupt, rarely approving of its performance by more than twenty percent to eighty percent opposed. In addition to encouraging politicians to compromise on legislative efforts, reintroducing pork-barrel spending will decrease the use of ideological and polarizing rhetoric by politicians to win the support of voters by allowing them to appeal to the material interests of their constituents. Finally, by encouraging the development of more moderate/willing to compromise legislators, it will de-nationalize many elections, allowing the election of politicians for reasons other than their partisan affiliation, helping to end the feedback loop of polarization on the state level. Thus, while efforts to reduce corruption are normally considered positive for democratic health, we must ever be mindful that anti-corruption measures are not a universal curative for democratic health, and we must carefully consider the reasons for ostensibly corrupt practices before decrying them as harmful to democratic health.
1: Graham, M., & Svolik, M. (2019). Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3354559
2: Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. New York: Broadway Books.
I really enjoyed this piece, Alex. I agree that pork-barrel and transactional politics offer a way for politicians, and people, to come together and seriously and actively address their issues while simultaneously offering a way forward. I also agree that it is an intuitive way to combat polarization through action.
Hi Alex, great post! I would have never thought of the link between pork barrel spending and polarization, but this is a fascinating idea that could have a great deal of potential. I think this is an intriguing solution to combat polarization by encouraging politicians to return to the issues that affect their constituents, rather than work to uphold a party agenda. I believe this could also have a more democratizing effect beyond reducing polarization as well: it could encourage politicians to pay more attention to their voters rather than donors and special interests by re-introducing a culture of working to bring benefits to politicians’ home-states. If politicians viewed their role not as instruments in party warfare but as public servants for the people, and were thus more accountable to their constituents’ needs, that would be greatly beneficial for democracy.
I also appreciated you mentioning that earmark spending could de-nationalize elections. I think this is an issue in politics today, where people do not pay attention to their local elections and only focus on the national picture, associating the candidates with the two parties rather than understanding what issues are at stake.
However, as you stated, pork barrel spending was sometimes seen as corrupt and used to benefit specific constituents rather than the majority of the voters in a politician’s state. Is there a way to prevent this while still preserving the positives that you posit could come from a restoration of pork barreling? I would argue that in order for bringing back earmark spending to help, not hurt democracy, there would need to be strict institutional barriers to prevent corruption. Clearly the old system of pork barreling did not work, hence its bipartisan removal, but re-introducing it with modifications to prevent abuse could provide new avenues to combat polarization.