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What inhibits a winning candidate from doing exactly the opposite of what he promised?

One issue with many, if not most, electoral systems is that politicians do not have to keep campaign promises. Hence, the question is, should they be legally bound to keep campaign promises?

  • Bound how? Legally?
    – yannis
    Dec 16, 2012 at 8:16
  • 1
    I clarified, but I thought "bound" made it pretty clear Dec 16, 2012 at 8:19
  • 1
    Well, one could argue that politicians are already bound to keep campaign promises, albeit only ethically. Thanks for clarifying.
    – yannis
    Dec 16, 2012 at 8:20
  • @YannisRizos who cares about being "ethically bound", the whole point of this question is exactly the opposite.
    – o0'.
    Dec 16, 2012 at 10:05
  • @Lohoris Certainly, which is why I asked for clarifications. I kinda assumed legally was implied, but it should be clear in the question text itself, to keep answerers from concentrating on something that, ultimately, the question is not about.
    – yannis
    Dec 16, 2012 at 10:25

4 Answers 4


In short, you can't because the Supreme Court has recognized the Right to Lie.

At least in the United States, this wouldn't pass the free speech rulings of the Supreme Court.

The most likely precedent for such a law would be the Stolen Valor Act enacted by Congress in 2005. Here the Congress wanted to do something about people who made claims to certain military honors that in fact they didn't have. (Why this isn't simple fraud, I don't know.)

In 2012, the Supreme Court, however, decided that this law was unconstitutional, declaring in effect that people's free speech rights include the right to lie.

As such, I can find no way that politicians could be legally deprived of the right to lie.

Instead of legislating such a thing, however, many transparency groups simply publish the records of politicians. The idea is that good free speech can potentially drive out the bad.

  • I propose you add here that the answer applies only to the USA.
    – gerrit
    Dec 16, 2012 at 16:20
  • The SCOTUS has also ruled that exceptions are open when freedom of speech would place the nation in danger (like in debs v. US). Couldn't it be argued that lying to the public (which could cause riots) would also be dangerous? Dec 20, 2012 at 1:58

Since you cannot impose a politician to keep a promise without threatening him to revoke his status, what you're really asking for is the imperative mandate for the elected. You shouldn't because you can't. This practice is forbidden in several Representative democracies, starting from French Constitution of 1791 because it's a contradiction of the representative principle itself. As an example I can cite the article 67 of the Constitution of Italy:

Each Member of Parliament represents the Nation; members shall carry out their duties free from imperative mandate.

Nowadays, some parties like the Pirate Party use platform like Liquid feedback to enforce elector choices. Still, since these parties operate in a Representative democracy and not in a direct democracy, those are only suggestions that politicians can ignore. On the other hand, expulsion of an elected from a party cannot means expulsion from the Parliament, so usually the elected cannot be removed from his/her duties without a vote by the house where he/she was elected. Those cases are rare even in the US, 5 in history for the House of Representatives as of 2012.

Briefly: the only serious bond (removal, expulsion) applied to elected politicians would be usually unconstitutional in most of Representative democracies and shouldn't and cannot be applied.


As much as I'm for honesty, such a system would probably be untenable. What would qualify as a campaign promise? Would it have to be some kind of "ex cathedra" thing where a promise is a statement made in a certain way and documented in a certain place, or could it be ANYTHING that a candidate says at ANY time? When President-elect Obama banters with ESPN guys and says that he's going to throw his weight around a little to make a college football playoff system happen, is that now a promise that has to be kept? What kind of "weight" does he have to "throw around" to keep his promise?

More importantly, such a system would hinder the ability to compromise. President Obama really wanted a public option for his health care proposal and genuinely wanted to happen (I think so anyways), but he wanted some kind of health care reform to happen more, and he was willing to give some parts up to get a bill passed. If he's bound to a promise of a public option and Congressmen are bound to a promise of no public option, then stuff won't get done. It's the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge, except everywhere in government.

Besides, even if such a measure is passed, politicians will just hedge, right? It would be no longer "I promise to get a public option for healthcare," but it would be "I will try to get a public option." You do something that shows you tried, and then you're set.

For such a system to work, I think there'd have to be some "on-the-record" spot where promises would be made...not every stump speech and interview could be scrutinized. Promises would have to be to "try" and not to "guarantee" that something would happen, and I don't think you would be able to prosecute for not trying hard enough.

  • Also, most such promises can be weaseled out of or lawyered out of, due to vagueness of terms. Witness contortions of people who try to count (as many as possible) of campaign promises that Obama kept.
    – user4012
    Dec 16, 2012 at 15:48

In some political systems, this is simply impossible. In most European countries, it is impossible to keep campaign promises, because the system forces parties to cooperate. In this answer I'm writing a bit about parliamentary systems where governments are almost always coalitions between multiple parties, because no party gains more than 50% of the vote.

In the most recent Dutch elections, the two largest parties each gained about 30% of the vote, but had largely contradictory promises: Keep tax-deductability of X vs. Reduce tax-deductability of X, raise taxes for the rich vs. keep taxes for the rich the same, etc. etc. The election result virtually forced the two to cooperate; any other majority coalition would have required a large number of parties (less stable) with ideas that vary no less than the ones of the two largest. Therefore, they were forced to surrender some of their promises. In the negotiations, usual results are either an exchange of subjects (party A gets their way on X, party B on Y), or meeting mid-way.

A very famous example of such an exchange in Dutch politics is the school struggle, which was finally resolved in 1917. The liberal parties wanted to introduce universal suffrage, which the religious parties opposed. The religious parties wanted to introduce the freedom of education (basically the freedom af any group to start a tax-funded school based on their ideas), which the liberal parties didn't want. Finally, they exchanged it: the liberal parties accepted the introduction of tax-funded religious-based schools, whereas the religious parties accepted universal suffrage. This is called the [pacification of 1917]( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacification_of_1917). It has a profound influence on The Netherlands to this date.

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