Ethics@Work: Campaign promises: Who keeps them? Who breaks them?

Israeli politicians are structurally likely to have a low level of promise-keeping.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
The elections are now behind us, and the electorate is now wondering: Now that they are in office, will the candidates keep the promises that helped get them elected? Should they keep them? And why do candidates make promises in the first place? Quite a number of studies have been done abroad on the keeping of campaign promises. For example, a study by Michael Wagner at the University of Nebraska showed that recent US presidents have kept campaign promises, on average, about 70 percent of the time, and concluded that "presidents work very hard to keep their campaign promises." Evan Ringquist of the University of Indiana found that members of the US Congress typically keep about 60% of their campaign promises; the rate is higher for domestic issues and lower for foreign policy. He attributes the difference to the fact that local constituents care less about foreign policy and that representatives tend to keep promises their voters care most about. Nathan McCluskey of Canterbury University in New Zealand found that over a period of decades New Zealand governments kept about 75% of their promises, on average, with one government reaching 88% and another in the low 60s. Tracy Sulkin of the University of Illinois took a slightly different tack. After all, keeping a promise may have nothing to do with making it; perhaps what you promised just happens to be expedient most of the time. Sulkin checked if candidates who promised something did it more than those who didn't. Like the other researchers, she found that politicians seem to make an effort to keep promises. One finding that seems consistent, and logical, among the studies is that politicians keep more promises when they have more power to do so. For example, presidents and governments have more power than legislators, and legislators have more control over domestic policy than foreign policy. McCluskey also found that governments that are in power longer, who may be more entrenched, keep more promises. This finding also seems to reinforce the idea that politicians are endeavoring to keep their campaign promises. A point that seems significant for Israel is Sulkin's finding that incumbents who face little opposition keep promises more than those who are challenged. "[T]he relatively safe people actually seem to follow through on their promises more than the relatively vulnerable people." What does all this mean for Israel? It means that Israeli politicians are structurally likely to have a low level of promise-keeping. Ruling parties abroad who want to keep their promises face resistance from the opposition, but in Israel they are likely to face opposition even from within the governing coalition. (What coalition partner is likely to agree to advance the bizarre proposal to disenfranchise Israelis based on their political opinions?) Even when the entire government wants to do something, governments in Israel tend to be comparatively weak because of the powerful extra-parliamentary power centers our country has developed, partially in response to political instability. (I am referring to the extreme independence and activism of the judiciary and of Treasury bureaucrats.) Finally, given the very short life span of Israeli governments, all would be far along the "relatively vulnerable" end of Sulkin's scale. Even most Knesset members would have to consider their continued tenure tenuous. These are all structural factors, based on the assumption that politicians strive to keep their promises but find themselves unable to do so for substantive reasons (lack of power) or electoral ones (changing electorate wants something different). It does not account for cynical lies: that is, promises made in bad faith with no intention to carry them out. (A likely example would be Shaul Mofaz's promise to Likud members that he would stay in the party, a promise he broke in a matter of days, during which nothing substantive changed in the political environment.) I haven't seen any studies done in Israel, and I don't have any evidence that, in fact, Israeli parties or politicians renege on their promises any more than their counterparts abroad. Of course there are infamous about-faces here (e.g. Ariel Sharon's "Netzarim has the same status as Tel Aviv"), but these are found abroad as well (the first president Bush's famous promise: "Read my lips: no new taxes"). However, the structural problems that make promise-keeping difficult are themselves worrisome from an ethical point of view. There seems to be a built-in problem of political accountability. This just shows how closely ethics and governance are allied. So readers who hope for promises to be kept have reason to be worried, and those who fear they will be kept have reason for hope. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.