Top politicians are shrewd at marketing, but sometimes they act in ways that look awful to the public. The iron law of political optics can often explain these apparent blunders: If what they do looks terrible, it is because all the other alternatives are worse.
Politicians don’t mind telling the truth or supporting legislation that uplifts the nation if they benefit from it. More important, however, are the political optics. If it looks good to voters, truth and effectiveness don’t always rank as important. One example is to name a bill the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and then put mostly “pork” into it: that is, a lot of spending totally unrelated to infrastructure and jobs.
Voting against such a well-named bill is bad optics for a lawmaker. Although most Republicans railed against the excessive spending, only 30 of them voted against it. These had to endure negative media focus on how they had betrayed their constituents by saying no to billions of dollars that could have been earmarked for their states. Those who voted for the bill likely chose optics over their convictions.
The Iron Law
When politicians are so concerned with public perception, why have so many done things that degrade their reputation? Some, such as pundit Dr. Michael Hurd, think it is due to arrogance and being out of touch with reality. They believe they can get away with it, according to Hurd.
However, political commentator Bill Whittle has proposed a far more intriguing explanation, which he calls the iron law of political optics: Politicians choose bad optics when the alternatives are even worse.
One example is Hillary Clinton’s bit bleaching and physical destruction of computers containing sensitive information on her illegal email server. Such actions make her look guilty to the public, but Whittle argues that the alternative would be that the FBI could see what she had on her server, which would have landed her in a worse situation.
Another example is the 2014 scandal, where the public learned that the IRS targeted conservative non-profit organizations. A House committee requested to see the emails of the IRS employees responsible for this, including unit director Lois Lerner. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen sheepishly told the committee that two years of employee emails, including all the backups, were lost due to a computer glitch.
Koskinen’s testimony made the IRS sound either outlandishly incompetent or dishonest. According to Whittle’s iron law of political optics, Koskinen chose the best possible alternative because showing the content of the emails would have been worse.
The Ghost of Trump
A third example is Hunter Biden’s laptop. Fifty intelligence officers signed a letter stating that it was Russian disinformation. The iron law implies that they made a rational calculation to choose an option that made them look corrupt and incompetent since the alternative would have likely meant four more years of President Donald Trump.
This logic also can be applied to the Russia collusion hoax and possibly the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago. These actions may have had banana republic optics, but the alternative may have been worse. The actors involved may not be as amateurish as they appear; they may just have painted themselves into a corner with no better options.