Today's post, Applause Lights was originally published on 11 September 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


Words like "Democracy" or "freedom" are applause lights - no one disapproves of them, so they can be used to signal conformity and hand-wave away difficult problems. If you hear people talking about the importance of "balancing risks and opportunities" or of solving problems "through a collaborative process" that aren't followed up by any specifics, then the words are applause lights, not real thoughts.

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Almost every political speech today has an abundance of these applause lights. It's quite incredible when listening to a state of union speech, for example, the number of times you hear the words "freedom", "democratic", "the American people", etc, etc. The extensive use of these applause lights may be the reason why the approval rating graphs of American presidents almost always have a negative slope; they truly have nothing to offer when it comes to substance and actual problem solving. All democracy has come to today is a contest between who can conjure the most touching applause lights (or rather fundraise the most money to promote those applause lights).

I agree on the ubiquity of applause light rhetoric, but disagree that this is the primary cause of the negative slope of approval ratings. A simpler hypothesis for the slope (which is not, AFAIK, limited to the United States) is that leaders begin with approval ratings sustantially higher than the proportion of the vote that they received, as many people who were not core supporters seek the status and warm fuzzies that come from being on the winning tribe. Even if the core supporters remained satisfied, the approval rating would naturally fall as the approval-based-on-status-seeking drifted away.

That being said, US campaign rhetoric is exceptionally awful, for institutional reasons. In parliamentary systems, the majority party implements its policies, while the minority party forms a shadow government and offers alternative policies. Voters can then vote according to whether they think the existing policies or the shadow alternative would be better.

In the US, by contrast, politics is a struggle in which the majority party tries to pass its policies while the minority party tries to obstruct implementation of those policies as much as possible. In this situation, politicians can make ridiculous campaign promises, and then claim that the reason they weren't implemented is obstruction by the minority. Since the minority party generally cannot do much in parliamentary systems, politicians in those systems don't have that excuse, and they have to moderate their promises more. (To the extent that approval ratings do fall further in the US, I would attribute some of that to low-information supporters of the majority party who are unaware just how many veto points the minority party has access to.)

I'm not satisfied with the clarity of my explanation there; a somewhat more lucid version of this argument can be found here .