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Op Eds

Herschel Walker Shows a Political Incentive Problem

By Lucas T. Gazianis, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

Last month, a Daily Beast report alleged that Herschel Walker, the Georgia football legend and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, encouraged and paid for his girlfriend’s abortion in 2009.

As far as explosive allegations go, this was — or should have been — meteoric. A staunchly pro-life candidate, who in the spring called for no exceptions to abortion bans for rape, incest, or the health of the mother (a position he later softened), was allegedly guilty of violating the most sacred of conservative bona fides.

And if it wasn’t stunning by itself, it was only the tip of the iceberg of Walker’s hypocrisy. A passionate opponent of absentee fatherhood throughout his campaign, Walker was forced to confirm that he is the absentee father of multiple children. A fierce advocate for family values, Walker had to weather a callout from his own son, a conservative activist who claimed that his father forced him and his mother “to move over 6 times in 6 months” to escape the threat of domestic violence.

If Walker were a vegan, he would be the carnivorous kind.

None of this has stopped the GOP from packaging Walker as a true conservative. He is the GOP’s Georgian darling, at least until the Dec. 6 runoff against Senator Raphael Warnock and possibly far longer.

In all likelihood, the Senate will be controlled by razor-thin margins, and Walker’s candidacy represents one of a few key prospects for Republicans to gain control. In this context, a vote for Walker needn’t actually be a vote for Walker. For most, it is wholly aimed at securing the votes he will deliver in the Senate. Conservative activist Dana Loesch was most succinct on this point: “I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate.”

Republicans in Georgia have no real candidate — only his positions — to cling to with excitement. But I bring Walker up not to further lambaste his stupefying hypocrisy or malign voters who support him. Instead, I aim to draw attention to a much larger incentive problem in our politics, one that is true for the Left, too: Voting for Walker and people like him is a perfectly rational choice for conservatives — arguably the only one.

I’ll easily grant that policy matters more than politicians. From any place on the political spectrum, a flawed messenger of a good idea is better than a pure messenger of a bad one. But it should raise eyebrows for all of us when conservatives who preach the sanctity of prenatal life and family cohesion are compelled by necessity to support candidates who utterly disregard their most cherished ideals.

It’s easy to extrapolate Walker’s insincerity to the voters who got him here — after all, this is a democracy — but this is vastly reductive, unfair, and useless. We won’t arrive at better political outcomes by belittling millions of people. And doing so would obscure the fact that the political system in which we operate consistently implores all of us, voters and leaders alike, to make poor choices.

Bad incentives lead to bad outcomes all across our electoral process. In single-party primaries, more extreme candidates often seek to prove their partisan purity and impress pundits and interest groups. And when extreme candidates are selected by their respective parties, the high stakes of a one-on-one race don’t allow for anything less than unequivocal support all the way up through the finish.

When parties must support their extreme nominees in lockstep, it sets a clear standard: even moderate politicians must toe the party line. There is little incentive to moderate or compromise, and dissenting can bear with it huge political costs. But political benefits can be found elsewhere. Instead, politicians are rewarded for flashy sound bites, appeasing party leadership, and pandering to prominent interest groups. The high visibility and concentration of lawmakers on platforms like Twitter further raise the cost of breaking ranks. So, too, does the top-down rule of party leadership in Congress, where that cost is removal from committees and stunted opportunities for advancement.

What does our vast incentive problem mean for Herschel Walker? Despite all my grievances, this is not really about him. He is a case study — a representation of one of the bad outcomes that occur everywhere in our political system. And though his hypocrisy is more overt and staggering than that of most politicians, his viable candidacy in many ways vividly illustrates how a well-intentioned political system can damage itself when weaknesses are left to ferment.

Like the rest of our bad outcomes, it’s generally neither fair nor productive to expend energy chastising the voters who chose Walker. Here at Harvard and beyond, we must encourage a shift in paradigm, looking beyond just our politicians and towards the much larger forces that select and debase them.

Don’t take Herschel Walker’s candidacy as a fundamental indictment of Republican voters or the state of Georgia. Instead, focus on the system that transformed an awful candidate into a legitimate and likely choice for the Senate.

Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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Op Eds