THE BLOG
12/31/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2016

Ignore Campaign Promises

EHStock via Getty Images

When Donald Trump promises to make American great again, the public should ignore him. When Hillary Clinton tells us she will rewrite the tax code to reward hard work and investments here at home, the public should raise a collective eyebrow. None of this is likely to happen.

Why? Because we live in a representative democracy in which policies and laws are created through debate, discussion, and compromise. Little a candidate promises is likely to ever become law, not because the candidate is lying, but because it is nearly impossible in our form of government to propose something that will not be subject to revision--usually significant revision--through the normal legislative process.

Campaign promises sound good and often tell us what the candidate would like to do, but they also are counterproductive because they inevitably lead to disappointment on the part of voters.

Both candidates and voters need to realize that "promises" are pointless. And members of the media need to stop describing the slogans and comments of candidates as promises. Instead, media, voters, and candidates alike should talk about ideas and proposals. Hillary Clinton may propose to change the tax code--that's fine. The real questions are: How will she do it? What will the new tax code look like? Is it a good change? And how open is she to compromise on her initial proposal? Because it's guaranteed that the end product will be different from anything she proposed during the election campaign.

Voters also need to recognize slogans like Trump's are meaningless. He may promise to make America great again, but it is not at all clear what that entails. To what point in our past are we returning when he refers to "again". Would that be the 1950s, when segregation characterized the South and the only career paths normally open to women were nursing or elementary school teaching? What does "greatness" mean? For Trump it seems to mean obstinacy and belligerence. That certainly is not what I see as greatness; greatness, in part, comes from openness to understanding other viewpoints and willingness to compromise. It also comes from equally administering justice and respecting the rights and beliefs of others. These are things America has long struggled with, so I'm not sure how we can return to greatness.

Trump's is an empty promise; but even if it weren't he couldn't deliver on that promise, because every policy he would attempt to enact would be debated and changed. In order to accomplish even part of his proposals, he would need to compromise.

In a representative government campaign promises can't actually be kept because disagreement and compromise are inevitable. When you look for candidates to support in the next election--regardless of your political proclivities--instead of worrying about their promises, look for candidates with concrete ideas about how to improve things and how to change our society. Candidates with empty slogans who make impossible promises will not make good leaders.

Ask if the candidate appears open to compromise and willing to work with others in his or her own party, as well as the opposition, to achieve reasonable goals that will make incremental improvements, while recognizing that we do not all agree on what constitutes an improvement. No change is going to happen overnight and no new policy will be perfect.

If a candidate looks simplistic, intransigent, irrational, or closed-minded, then he or she probably is all of those things. And that type of person will not make a good leader. To improve our society, Americans need to stop being so selfish and stubborn when it comes to politics and recognize that no one ever gets entirely what they want in politics (or anything else).

There also needs to be an awareness of the fact that our problems will not be "solved." New laws and policies will address perceived problems, but because we have different ideas and opinions, nothing ever really gets solved. This is fine and should not trouble people. We live in a changing world and the best way to navigate that world is to be open to change and willing to discuss ideas and compromise to temporarily address the current crop of issues that we face while recognizing that there will be a new crop in the future.

That's what a representative democracy is supposed to do, but ours is not working very well right now. And a large part of the reason it isn't working is because politicians keep promising things that cannot happen and voters keep being swayed by those empty promises. This is nothing new, but what does characterize the present is that at the same time, both voters and politicians selfishly adhere to their ideologies without accepting that nothing they actually want can or will happen exactly or even close to the way they hope. Compromise is a necessity in a democracy.