Downward Spiral

The Warped Incentives of No Competition

In my previous newsletter, I explained that millions of Tennesseeans face no choice when it comes to who represents them in the state legislature, because so many of these elections are uncontested, year after year. That lack of competition, accountability and transparency drives so much of the (bad) behavior of the GOP Tennessee legislators we witnessed last week.


But as I explain above, the Tennessee situation is not unique. In state after state, we see dozens of districts and millions of Americans left out of elections due to uncontested races.

This lack of accountability across states does deep, permanent damage—in fact, it warps the very nature of these institutions such that they are no longer about public service at all.


Because once you have no accountability back to the people, all the incentives of holding these offices change. In fact, they flip on their head in deeply destructive ways.

Let me explain:

  1. In a competitive system, you have an incentive to improve public outcomes. That’s how you get yourself reelected (“I improved X, Y and Z.”). And if you deliver poor public outcomes, that’s how you lose. But once you have no real elections come November, that incentive to improve public outcomes disappears. Even if you are delivering terrible results for the communities and people you serve, you know you will get reelected. Far more important to your long-term fate in a system with no elections is keeping the private players who’ve captured these statehouses happy; they play decisive roles in your advancement. And if those private players are seeking public assets for their benefit (which they often are), your incentive is to do exactly that—because you keep them happy, and even if diminished public assets reduce outcomes back home, the public can’t do anything about it anyway. Bottom line: without contested elections, public service warps into a twisted form of private service, paid for by public resources and goods and resulting in worse public outcomes


  2. In a competitive system, you have an incentive to generally be mainstream—to support the things that are popular among those you represent, and more broadly. Being an extremist is a sure ticket to losing in a competitive system. But once you have no real elections come November, that incentive to be mainstream disappears. You can be as out of the mainstream as you like, and still get reelected. In fact, because you now only worry about your next primary—and the only way you lose a primary is that someone more extreme convinces voters you are too moderate (a “RINO”)—you actually have an incentive to be an extremist. (To return to Tennessee, you’re better off voting to oust the “Tennessee Three” than voting to keep them). Bottom line: without contested elections, the incentive to be in the mainstream flips into an incentive to be extreme.

  3. The third incentive that takes hold in these broken systems arises as a direct result of the first two. Once you’re in office and have pursued a course of 1) harming public outcomes to serve private interests (Incentive 1), and 2) becoming an extremist on issue after issue (Incentive 2), then one other reality becomes clear: if you ever found yourself in a competitive election in a fair district, you would surely lose. Your extremism and indefensible public outcomes would sink your candidacy. Knowing that, you now you have a very powerful incentive going forward—to keep yourself from facing that competitive election ever again. Bottom line: in a world without contested elections, the incentive is to continue to attack democracy.

Once you appreciate these three incentives, what’s happening in state after state becomes painfully clear: “Lawmaking” that always seems to be about giving public assets to private players, sometimes turning into outright corruption. Ever declining public outcomes, but nobody every losing office as a result. Extremism lurching further and further to the right. And never-ending attacks on democracy. It’s a disastrous downward spiral as each incentive fuels the next, with huge impacts on politics, policies and real lives. And there are no brakes.

By the way, have you ever noticed that the very policies that generate the poor public outcomes (eg. raiding public school dollars to benefit private companies) never stop? If the incentive and mission were to create strong public outcomes (better education), continuing policies that are clearly harming public outcomes would make no sense. But once you realize that the incentives in these states are not about public outcomes at all, but are about serving those private interests (Eg. for-profit schools), the continuation of those poor policies makes perfect sense. Because measured by the warped incentives these legislators are driven by, they are succeeding!

How do we fix this crisis?

Simple: we need to bring accountability and competition back at this level of politics, which will straighten out these warped incentives. That starts, of course, with ending gerrymandering wherever possible, since that is the root cause of all of this. And with cracking down on corruption whenever it occurs.

But it also means that Democrats have to run everywhere, and run in every district. Running alone adds critical accountability back into systems that no longer have any. In a world where democracy itself is under attack, running is itself a hugely important form of public service and patriotism. And the tougher the district, the more heroic the run turns out to be.

This is easy to say, and far harder to do. So I’ll have far more to say about how we create an infrastructure that supports and values running everywhere in coming newsletters. And in my next book (coming in May)…

To be continued…