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Very recent example: Macron bypassed parliament to enact French retirement bill amid protests against the bill.

There are several pedestrian explanations I can think of:

  1. The decision makers believe it will ultimately result in the best outcome for their country, so they are willing to go against the will of the people and gamble their career for the benefit of the people.
  2. The decision makers think that not adopting the policies will result in even more disastrous decrease for their electability in the long term.
  3. Business lobbyists paid the decision makers. So the decision makers are willing to gamble their career for a huge monetary payoff.
  4. An organized shadow government holds actual political power that drives key decisions for their benefit.

Are any of those positions supported by political theory? Is there something more to be said about them? Are there other explanations? Are there studied examples to pinpoint?

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    France is just an example to clarify what I mean by democracy, unpopular, policy, decision makers. Mar 16, 2023 at 20:20
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  • By “shadow government”, what do you mean?
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 19, 2023 at 14:29
  • @wizzwizz4 I believe it means the country is not actually governed by who you think it is. But still, the people who you think are governing are the ones who have to vote to make something a law, and they must have a reason to agree with the shadow government, so it's really just a catchy name for number 3. Mar 20, 2023 at 1:34
  • @user253751 There are multiple senses of the phrase, many of which are actual (even formal) parts of the political process. It's listed as a separate point to #3, so I'm leaning towards the idea that OP might mean one of those others. When we find out, it would be good to edit the question.
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 20, 2023 at 1:39

9 Answers 9

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The people are not required to have a consistent set of policies. Neither are the government and the parliament. But the government usually has to be more consistent than the people.

If you ask "the people" if they want low taxes, balanced budgets, and state-subsidized pensions, the answer is often a triple yes. A government or a parliamentary majority proposing a budget might also want a yes to all three questions, but they cannot have them. At least one priority has to budge. So a political negotiating process begins where various sides push for their favorite policies, trading their support for the final budget for the inclusion of items they really want in there. Legislators might end up voting against their publicly stated "first priorities" to get at least some of their platform through, because the alternative would get them none of their priorities.

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  • if you ask "the people" which 2 out of 3 they would like, you could get an answer. I doubt the country follows that answer. Mar 20, 2023 at 1:35
  • @user253751, depends on how one asks. "Tax hikes, inflation, longer work, pick two" might look different.
    – o.m.
    Mar 20, 2023 at 5:26
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Not every issue is equally hot-button.

Most laws and initiatives aren't put to a direct popular vote; voters are instead choosing people or parties to represent their interests. In choosing who to vote for, you're more likely to be guided by issues or traits that you consider more critical and let less critical ones slide. Maybe I'm concerned about government corruption and so I'll vote for a candidate who has a proven track record on stamping out graft even if they're less to my liking on fiscal policy, for instance.

From the point of view of the party, what they're concerned about is not whether a position is popular or not, but whether it brings in voters or not. Maybe most voters are vaguely against a political stance but don't consider it important, but a small group of hardcore supporters will instantly drop you if you abandon it. You can bring in the most votes by supporting that stance and relying on other planks in your party platform to make up for it among the majority. (Subsidies are often like this. The majority doesn't really care except for an abstract dislike of government waste, but for the people that get them, they're critical.)

An illustrative example from history is the 18th amendment to the US Constitution - Prohibition. The temperance movement was relatively small but very vocal and highly politically unified, whereas the majority was against Prohibition but had weaker sentiments and less organization. Legislators who opposed Prohibition would certainly lose "dry" voters, but those who backed it could still appeal to the majority on other issues.

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  • But if refering to situation in France, Macron has no majority in parliament.
    – convert
    Mar 16, 2023 at 22:07
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    @convert OP indicated that the French situation was only an example and they wanted to know about unpopular policies in general; this is one way a policy can command political support without actually being popular.
    – Cadence
    Mar 16, 2023 at 22:49
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    Also, it might be relevant which section of the electorate your policy is alienating. If your policy enrages people who would not have voted for you anyway, it is relatively "cost free", the only problem happens if it encourages them to vote for your opponent rather than abstaining. But if it enrages your voters and makes them abstain or vote for an opponent at the next election, it can be very costly.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:26
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    An illustrative modern example is basically the entire right-wing platform; they say the left is a movement (of random people who are not well organized) while the right is a business (efficiently run from the top down). Polls show the majority of USA voters even in heavily Republican states oppose things like abortion bans and drag queen bans, but they get passed anyway. Mar 17, 2023 at 9:37
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    A perfect example of this is capital punishment in the UK. The majority of people have supported it for the last 50 years, but we've have never had a party in leadership that's tried to reintroduce it.
    – Valorum
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:12
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One of the rationalizations for representative systems of governance is that representatives have more information, broader perspectives, and more time for conscious deliberation than members of the general public. A representative is supposed to balance what h'er constituents ask for against what h'er constituents don't know to ask for, and reach decisions that will ultimately benefit those constituents, whether they know it or not.

That being said, representatives are not all cut from the same cloth. Some earnestly try to represent their constituents, though that doesn't always make their constituents happy. Others are greedy, or selfish, or power-hungry, with predictably corrupt results. Others factionalize to increase their collective power, usually at the expense of their constituents' interests. Unpopular policies can arise from good intentions or bad.

Just so it's said, the 'shadow government' meme is generally promoted by factions that want to take absolute power for themselves. It's a tool to generate distrust, because distrust of others is an easy and effective way to ensure blind loyalty. There is only one reason to assert the existence of a vast, secret, powerful nemesis: to excuse and justify whatever evil one wants to carry out on one's own. Best to keep that in mind...

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6

Assuming good faith and no nefarious intent, this could very well be an issue of temporal disconnect. Policies that are, arguably *, beneficial in the long term may very well go against rational short term voter preferences.

For example, a strong policy against climate change risk (let's assume we have no freerider issues across nations) may introduce a very high carbon tax on consumers (say $300-500/ton).

This would be utterly unpopular to voters short term. Yet, long term analysis of the issue may lead a government to lead such a policy, judging that this is in the best interests of their citizens, long term.

For example, Gerhard Schröders (Hartz IV) labor reforms in Germany in 2003 were quite unpopular at the time but also led to (arguably) fairly beneficial longer term results.

Another example would be a prescient Greek politician who in 2000 would have forced through a reform of some of the bigger problems with Greek economic policies. That would have been utterly unpopular as well, but it would have saved much misery to Greek citizens over the years, as savvy financial experts may have been able to forecast.

Since I am well aware that this might be presented as shilling for the right, let me give a counter example. The constant tax cuts in the US are enacted for precisely the same reasons, preferring short term political gains over long term outcomes for society as a whole.

* I am not interested in debating whether the Macron reforms are beneficial or not. They only need to be genuinely considered as beneficial by Macron and his government for the purposes of this answer.

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3 and 4 are close to complotism theory and I will not support them.

1 and 2 are closer than the question suggests they are. Political leaders who only care for the next election try hard not displease their electorate. I cannot imagine how a political leader could expect that going against people majority could positively affect their re-election.

But always following the general opinion is just demagogy. There are times where the parliament and the government have no choice than displeasing people, because they know (or believe...) that some decisions have to be taken. We have examples in French recent history:

  • in 1962 General de Gaulle decided to stop the Algery war, against its majority. Historians now agree that it was the best possible decision. But a part of his electorate was upset enough to vote against him at a referendum in 1969
  • in 1975 Giscard d'Estaing legalized abortion against its own party and the majority of the French people (most surveys agreed on that point). Few people now would like to go back. But it lost next election in 1981...
  • in 1981 François Mitterand abolished the death penalty. His party supported that, but again most surveys showed that the majority of the people disagreed. Again this is now generaly seen as a good decision
  • more recently the European constitution was rejected by referendum in France before being later validated by the parliement

Here, I think that president Macron and his supports sincerely believe that this reform is better for the country, because French social protection is generaly seen as very protective but very expensive too. Whether they are right or wrong would be a plain different question, and whether this reform was correctely presented and discussed would still be another question...

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    They may sincerely believe that; but can we speak of a "meta-sincerity" where there are certain forces (mostly billionaires) trying to install politicians whose sincere beliefs about what is good for the country just happen to also be good for the billionaires? In that sense, they do sincerely believe they are doing good but only because that belief was insincerely selected for. Mar 17, 2023 at 15:03
  • @user253751: forces installing politicians is close to complotism IMO. Of course billionaires support liberal politicians over communist ones! And most press owners will again support more actively liberal opinions.But on a simple efficiency question, it is much better to support a politician close to your opinions, than to build ab initio a straw man and pay them to defend your interests: the risk would be much higher is it were disclosed. The only correct use case for that latter way would be if you could find nobody close to your opinions, and it is not a problem for (ultra-)liberalism. Mar 17, 2023 at 15:31
  • @user253751: If you just mean that there are bonds between press owners, financial world and some politician parties, then I shall agree with you. And I shall even say that those bonds sometimes go beyond what law accept, because scandals do occur here and there. What I mean is that billionaires need not install politicians to support their interests, they can just help those that they feel closest. Mar 17, 2023 at 15:50
  • "install" is a generic term. Mostly they spread propaganda and fund their campaigns so that gullible voters will vote for them. They may also fund the most unelectable opposition so that you have no better choice than the one they want (you choose between Macron or Le Pen) Mar 17, 2023 at 15:51
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    @user253751: then I do agree with you. I reacted because too many people actually think that all politicians are nothing beyond straw men and that because of that elections are useless. While I believe that democracy is still the best form of government. Or to quote Winston Churchill Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time... Mar 17, 2023 at 15:57
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In countries where many important decisions are made by referendum, the common argumentation in favor of the "unpopular" alternative is that the proposed populist proposal will not work as expected and any benefits will be more than offset by the negative side effects. Referenda like longer paid holidays or paying basic income for non working persons have not passed. Humans are not directed just by pink promises, it is possible to have the discussion that also reveals the negative sides.

3

In France, as in many modern democracies, there is a term limit for key government figures. Specifically, Macron is currently in his second presidential term, which means he will not participate in the next elections. This makes him substantially less sensitive to the impact on his immediate electability that unpopular decisions carry, and instead focus on long-term popularity of his party, or even on his personal place in French history.

Another possibility you didn't mention is that the law in question may not be as unpopular as it seems. Sure, there are opponents to any law, and those are exactly the people you see on the news. People who agree with the law won't organize a march or a strike to show their support (there's no point, they are already getting what they wanted), but they will be voting for the next president. And if the silent supporters actually outnumber the vocal protesters, Macron's party may actually be winning votes.

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    But the majority of politicians are not in their pre-determined final term, most politicians do want to be re-elected. This could only explain the behavior of a minority of individuals. I think what's going on is that incumbents have a huge advantage in elections - in the US, incumbents are re-elected >90% of the time. Sitting politicians are rather insensitive to immediate electability impact, not because they're not running again, but because they're going to be elected again almost no matter what they do. Mar 17, 2023 at 14:44
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Representative democracies have a combinatorial problem: a relatively small number of parties and elections, versus a relatively large number of issues.

Let's assume that party members at some level have some ideological closely-held beliefs that aren't easily swayed by popular opinion (or even simple inertia in beliefs or projects). Each party has a rather large number of positions that it will take a side on.

I'll briefly consider in the U.S., each of the Democratic and Republican party platforms from 2008 (picking a past year largely at random: in the last election cycle, 2020, the GOP declined to release a formal party platform).

  • The Democratic platform has around 96 sections and subsections, running between 1 and 20 paragraphs each, many with detailed sub-sub-sections.
  • The Republican platform has around 113 sections and subsections, running up to a dozen sub-sub-sections and bullet points each.

Granted all those details and policy points (planks), and the small number of viable parties (2), the chance that any individual agrees with everything in any platform is so low as to be negligible. Conversely, the chance that there is some detail in either platform that a majority of voters dislike is quite high. At some point the necessary "choosing the lesser of two evils" produces a result of at least one of those majority-disliked planks actually passing into law. There was simply no party available to vote for to avoid that.

One could postulate a non-representational regime where every bill was decided by referendum, which would possibly change this. But even there you have the case of large bills that again have some bullets people like and others people don't, and no matter which way it's decided there may be some bullet dislike by a majority. (I know in my local referendums this has happened for me: a large proposal where I like some bullets and not others; or even one so large the full details of the proposal are not laid out publicly in advance.)

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A 2 party system results in politicians that are more extreme then their constituents

This is only a partial answer as I support many of the other answers mentioned, in fact in practice this sort of is just a specific subset of the issue already mentioned by Cadence. Still it has statistically demonstrable effects worth discussing. For this question I'm going to use USA politics as an example, but most countries with a first-past-the-post voting system will result in similar problems.

Because we have a 2 party system we end up with effectively two layers of voting, the obvious actual vote, but also an earlier vote where a political party has to decide which candidate they are going to support in the general election. In the USA the earlier vote where parties pick which candidate to back is referred to as primaries.

During primaries candidates must first convince their own party to vote for them. In these votes the opposite party, and often independents, are excluded in voting. Furthermore even most of those who favor a political party don't actually participate in primaries, you only get the most dedicated and committed voters for your party. In order for a candidate to win primaries, and thus have a chance at the general election, they must therefore sell themselves to this small majority of hard core party members.

The way to do this is often to toe the party line hard. You need to prove you are the most dedicated member of your political party you can be, that you care and are passionately going to fix the problems your party cares about. Politicians who have policies that seem too similar to the opposite parties platform are generally attacked for not being a true insert your political party here. The net result of all this is that primaries tend to only go to those who exposed the most hard core version of their own parties platform.

Then come the real elections, where you get independents, folks who are more laissez faire when it comes to their political party, and thus more willing to vote against it, and similarly less extreme voters. These voters may prefer a more centralist or bipartisan politician, one willing to work across the aisle to get stuff done and who will stick to the things that matter to them, but well they don't have that as an option. They have to pick between extreme left candidate and extreme right candidate picked by the primaries.

The net result is whoever ends up in office, they tend to be more extreme towards their parties side of the political spectrum, because the only way they could get past primaries was appealing to the most extreme members in their party.

Since any two party system tends to result with at least some of their platform being more extreme then the 'average' voter the net result is representatives that often feel more in favor for 'extreme' views then the average voter is and thus is going to fight for what they feel is important.

To give the best recent example to my mind (and speaking only about statistics support in population and asking us all to not get into a debate over rather the policy is right or wrong!!) the supreme court recently overturned the protection for abortion, followed by a number of republican representatives in various states pushing hard to add anti-abortion legislation despite the fact that 61% of the population is actually in favor of abortion being legal in most cases and these number still tending to be above a decent bit above 50% even in the more republican leaning states.

If you look closer at the same pew study above your see that 60% of republican leaning voters that considered themselves to be moderate also favored abortion, but whopping 72% of republicans that considered themselves more conservative were opposed to abortion. It was those more conservative republicans that usually showed up at primaries, and so that 72% that vehemently hated abortion were the ones picking the republican candidates. By the time a republican made it past primaries that candidate was likely one that was extremely anti-abortion because that's the only way they could get elected in primaries. By the time general election occurred the independent and undecided crowed was not really free to pick if they wanted an anti-abortion candidate, they could only pick if they wanted extreme democratic or extreme republican. In republican leaning states they general pick extreme republican even if on average they still are opposed to anti-abortion laws because they still consider that candidate the better of the two options available.

And while I called our republicans here since abortion is the current hot button issue to discuss polls show the average American believe representatives on both sides of the aisle are too extreme, so no this isn't a republican only problem.

I should also add that social media and the echo chamber effect is exasperating this affect, studies have shown politicians, and for that mater the voters themselves, are growing increasingly polarized and extreme and odds are echo chambers play a strong role in that trend. In a sense social media is forcing politicians to more strongly toe the party line to stand a chance in their primaries.

Various countries have different voting systems with various degree of support and power given to specific political parties which affect how extreme this tendency is. For example in the USA democrat's have the idea of superdelegates which are suppose to correct partially for this tendency (and no I don't want to debate rather or not they are effective at it). However in the end of the day the very nature of first-past-the-post voting system is that political parties will be developed and they will then push politicians to tow the line, even on wedge issues, of said party so this is effect is expected to occur to some degree in any first-past-the-post country.

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    But... France is most certainly not a 2 party system so what this answer does here is unclear. And also think it is fundamentally mis-characterizing this issue to be claiming that the French equivalent of primary voters in Macron's party are demanding this reform. This is a technocratic reform, not a grassroots campaign. There is a lot correct with your answer, in response to other questions. Not to this one. Mar 17, 2023 at 20:24
  • Both parties converge to the median voter, not the most extreme one. Mar 20, 2023 at 1:39

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