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Friday, December 22, 2023

Economics Explains McConnell’s Low Approval Rating

Why party leaders will tend to have low approval.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia | CC BY SA 2.0

A recent poll out of Monmouth University shows what might be a shocking result to some. Mitch McConnell, the Republican US Senate Minority Leader, has an approval rating of a mere 6%.

McConnell himself being unpopular is likely no surprise at all. Most Americans know McConnell is disliked. What may be shocking, however, is that someone in such an important leadership position would be so disliked. How could this be? Wouldn’t we expect the most loved candidates to rise to leadership in a democracy?

To understand why this happens we have to contrast two different views of politics expounded upon by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan: the romantic view of politics vs. the view of politics as exchange.

Politics with Romance

First let’s consider what political leadership would look like according to the romantic view of politics. The romantic view of politics sees politicians as benevolent, omniscient actors who seek to maximize the welfare of their constituents.

In this world, we would expect politicians to have relatively high approval ratings. Imagine a world where politicians abstained from corruption and sought to serve their constituents.

In such a world, it’s still possible that politicians would have detractors. For example, what’s best for Kentuckians may not be what’s best for Iowans, so a representative from Kentucky may garner disapproval from citizens who are not his constituents.

However, we would expect that national leaders would have broad respect from being successful public servants.

And yet, this isn’t the world we see. McConnell, and leaders of the House and Senate in general, tend to have very low approval ratings. The romantic view of politics seems to be at odds with this fact. But what happens when we consider politics as an exchange?

Politics without Romance

Instead of the romantic view, let’s imagine that politicians are self-interested with limited knowledge. This view, rather than treating politics as a special realm where men are angels, treats it like any other organization. Individuals who make up the government have their own goals and will pursue them over the interests of others.

How would political leadership look in such a world? Well, one of the most important aspects of leadership is stability. If you want to get things done to improve your own situation, you don’t want to have to re-teach new leadership every cycle—even if that’s what voters would like.

So, if you want stability, which sort of leader should you pick? Well, it would make sense to choose someone whose situation makes him or her immune to swings in popular opinion. For example, Republicans would want to pick a leader in a more conservative state with a seat that challengers have historically been unable to take.

In other words, long-term leaders need to be immune to public opinion. Otherwise, they won’t be there long-term. Benevolent politicians would sacrifice their own leadership stability if it’s what the public wanted, but self-interested politicians have no such desire.

Similarly, self-interested politicians will occasionally pass policies which upset their constituents. For example, Republican voters might prefer lower taxes, but Republican politicians have access to more resources when taxes are higher. Raising taxes then will be unpopular, but will sometimes be in the self-interest of the politicians.

Consider another example. Republican senators may want more military spending which their voters are indifferent to, but the only way to get the necessary votes is to make a deal with Democrats. However, Republican voters dislike deals with Democrats.

When the interests of the voter and politician diverge, the view of politics as exchange says politicians will tend to pursue their own desires over those of the voters.

However, they have to be careful. If enough voters are annoyed, the senators could be voted out. So who should be made the spearhead of the unpopular deal? Who should be the leader? Again, it will need to be a senator who can survive the next election despite being unpopular with a significant number of constituents.

Obviously, no politician can get elected with 6% of the vote. However, when approval polls are taken, they are done so on a national level. And even if the “approval” is less than 50% within the state, not all of those who are polled bother to get out and vote on election day. Finally, among those who live in the state, choose to vote, and say they “disapprove,” it may be the case that they “disapprove” of the other candidate more.

Such a system enables high rates of dissatisfaction, because parties select their leaders in places where they can survive with maximum dissatisfaction.

Many see low approval ratings as evidence that our system isn’t working. But that isn’t exactly right. The system works as well as it can be expected to work given the limited knowledge and selfish incentives of politicians. There is no “re-structuring” the rules to undo human nature.

At best, humans can search for alternative institutions, like markets, which transform selfish motives into mutually beneficial exchanges.


  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.