Stabilization Machines

When thinking about political machines in the United States, it is easy to return to black and white video of campaign marches, party conventions, and visions of hotel room shoe boxes full of bribe money. Machines have been viewed as corrupt political forces where who you know and rub elbows with is more important than what you know and what you believe about the world. Machines were impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice and for this reason Americans reacted in a way that injected the system with more power and more direct democratic structures.

 

Unfortunately, our system is now missing some of the benefits of political machines. In changing laws and the way our system works, little thought was given to the benefits of machines. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at machines from a different vantage point and explores the benefits they bring to a political system. They stabilize thought and actors, reduce polarization, and push populations and political actors toward moderation. Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine politics and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift toward ungovernable extremism.”

 

When we do not have machines in politics, we have more political amateur participation. On the surface this seems like a good thing. It seems like we would want more “average Joes” involved in government. Those who do end up running also tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which also seems like a plus. The downside however, is that these individuals often lack the ability to build coalitions and support for their policies and ideas. They tend to be more extreme, especially on their pet issue, and less likely to compromise. Additionally, political amateurs lack historical knowledge of programs and policies that have been tried in the past, leading to policies that ignore historical successes or failures. For all these reasons, political amateurs make the process of governing and the quality of legislation a little worse.

 

Ruach writes, “Machines tend to be a force for moderation,” describing the ways in which machines favor policies that are acceptable and within the ideals of a majority of people. They put forward and advance candidates who are more mainstream and less likely to advance policy that only a minority favor. Rauch also writes, “States in which a larger share of political money flows through parties have less polarized legislatures, because the parties, desiring to win, press legislators and candidates toward the center.” Most American’s are actually pretty moderate and are not well defined by the terms liberal or conservative. But we understand the zero-sum game taking place in politics and know what special words to say and what beliefs to hold when we play for our team. Political parties and machines however, try to cut across these teams and put forward candidates who can gain broad support from most people, as opposed to candidates who intentionally stoke the flames of passion from one side. A legislature that is less polarized in this way is more likely to be able to work together and advance real legislation that most people in society can support.

Privacy In Politics

The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued today. We live in an age where everything can potentially be captured on camera or shared across the country for anyone to view. In the United States we have passed laws opening up the legislative process, freeing up information and communications, and bringing transparency to the political process. Doing this however, has made the actual process of governing and reaching legislative decisions nearly impossible.

Jonathan Rauch writes about this reality in his book Political Realism and he argues that there are some things in government that have bad optics, but are necessary for a functioning political system. He writes, “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” In order to build a coalition, leaders and individuals need to be able to bargain and compromise. A bill that may be incredibly beneficial for one group of people or for a certain state could be completely unfavorable for a different group of people or for individuals in a different jurisdiction than the target population. Anyone representing the group that does not get anything will be politically pressured to oppose the new legislation, even if it makes a huge difference for a politically sympathetic group someplace else. Deal-making, compromise, and making trades allows coalitions to be built in these situations, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous.

Politics requires a delicate balance between transparency and privacy. Too much privacy and we risk corruption, but too much transparency and we risk unending political fights with no path forward for even sensible legislation. In the United States Congress is one of the most open institutions. Congressional emails are saved, debates and meetings are televised, and reporters swarm the capital every day. As a result, our representatives must be open about their processes, goals, and deal-making activities. What we ultimately see, is a branch of government that cannot move forward with major pieces of legislation and has incredibly low favorability.

In contrast, out nation’s Supreme Court is relatively well liked. It is closed from the public and allowed, even expected to have, deliberations in back rooms and behind closed doors. Decisions must be made and when they are, they are usually well accepted. I don’t think congress should operate like the Supreme Court, but I think Rauch’s argument should be taken seriously. We should find ways to allow political decisions to be private and safe for legislators, so deals can be made that help our nation move forward, even if they are politically toxic for some members who must go along with the rest of congress.

Political Monopolies

Throughout his book Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that our government needs a little less sunlight and transparency to allow for good governance. His ideas are that too many rules and restrictions, too many provisions for transparency and clearness, and too many changes to make our system more democratic have led to a point where necessary parts of politics cannot take place, and as a result, our government cannot function effectively. Politics (thinking about human behavior dating back to our first human ancestors) is about coalition building, creating alliances, and cooperating for safety, growth, and group survival. When a government’s political activities have to be entirely out in the open these types of activities are hindered, and as a result, we get showmanship and political battles as acts of public coalition building. Real governance, compromise, and negotiation become impossible.

While Rauch thinks that we need more of a cover in our system for these political behaviors, he does understand how we got to this point and he does examine some of the shortcomings of our old political system which compelled people to impose such restrictions on modern day politics. When looking at political machines specifically, Rauch highlights some of the negative aspects of organized political coalitions. He writes,

“Machines seek monopolies. In order to preserve power, they will seek to manipulate rules and rule-making (redistricting, voting rules, and the like) to shape the political battlefield in their favor—often with the goal of raising barriers to entry for would-be political competitors. They also will try to get their hands on as many formal levers of power as they can, using each to reinforce the others.”

This description of political machines reminds me of modern day corporations. Rather than simply looking to out-compete and out-innovate their sector and competitors, many firms today seem to prefer gaming the system and industry to limit competition. Often corporations will argue for increased regulation and requirements because it makes it harder for new firms to enter the market and disrupt current markets. Firms also look to build monopolies and diversify across different sectors to capture markets and establish a status quo that favors their bottom line rather than the interests of society or the furthering of new products and technology. Rauch argues that the danger of our old political system of machine politics mirrors the danger of modern markets. The political landscape in one sense becomes an economic landscape, with different political coalitions competing for greater market-share (vote share) and influence.

What I find interesting and revelatory about this point of view is that ideology and beliefs take a back seat to group dominance and interests. When we operate in machines, what we favor is the preservation of our coalition, not necessarily any specific ideology. Just like in a market we may prefer a specific brand and gravitate continuously toward that brand even if competitor brands introduce better products. Often we will stick with our familiar brand and highlight the good things about the brand we like while downplaying the shortcomings. Rauch’s demonstration of machine politics reveals that we do this in our political alliances as well, favoring rules and power grabs that help our side while remaining critical and opposed to any actions taken by our competitors.

What Rauch highlights here is part of why we have implemented rules that make politics more transparent and clear. The political actions of machines are not about issues but rather power, and we are uncomfortable with that. Unfortunately however, we humans operate in this tribal manner, and without these political power games, we don’t seem to be able to coalesce around issues to foster good governance. Somewhere in the middle of where we are now and the machine politics of the past is where good governance can live and thrive, addressing our political issues while engaging the public and building teams to move government policy forward.

Centralization of Power

A political question attached to every decision and baked into every system of governance is the question of centrality. The center of the political system can be thought of as the legislative body that creates the laws or the administrative body that designs rules and regulations within the laws and is responsible for implementation. For every law and every program, fidelity to the intent of the decision-maker is important, but also in conflict with the ambiguity required to pass legislation and the flexibility needed by street level bureaucrats to implement policy. There is no one answer that tells us how centralized decision-making and implementation should be for any given issue or solution. Another factor that makes it difficult to determine the appropriate level of centralization is where power is located. Strong leaders may be able to demand more oversight and adherence to policy, while strong unions or popular street level agents may be able to shape policy from the periphery.

 

In Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the dynamics between centralization and power within congress and within our national political parties. Rauch is critical of some of the power grabs of congressional leaders and argues that increasing power through centralization does not always lead to improved governance. He writes,

 

“Similarly, centralizing a machine is not at all the same as strengthening it. A corporate CEO who concentrates decision-making in the C-suite while hollowing out the divisions might expand her authority at the expense of her effectiveness. In much the same way, House leader’s centralization of power over the past several decades and their weakening of the committee system and regular order seem to have diminished their governing capacity more than it increased their personal authority, weakening them on net.”

 

Centralization, whether within government or within a corporate structure as Rauch demonstrated, has the appearance of bringing more power to the lead decision-makers, but may lead to less creative solutions, less productive and effective systems and organizations, and weaker long-term performance. Rauch would argue that political power and centralization are tools to use to set agendas and push forward the most important items, but should not be used for every decisions in every context. Taking authority away from those who are responsible for the bulk of policy implementation can weaken the system overall and demoralize those who can provide creative solutions, innovative and effective design, and do the tough implementation work. Our country often gets into arguments about centralization as if there was a clear answer, but the right level of centralization for any given issue is always fluid. The right level of centralization is contextual, with influence from who holds power to how the public thinks about a given issue and about government more broadly.

Machines Versus Partisianship

Political parties seem to have a problem today. Voters dislike being part of a political party and have choosen to register or refer to themselves as non-partisan in greater numbers today than in the past. Political parties have also lost control of their candidate nominations, and when a party makes a big push toward their preferred candidate, cries of corruption and system rigging erupt from the public.

However, at the same time, voters more consistently vote for a single party today than they did in the past. When we look at voters who register non-partisan and ask if they lean toward a particular party, we see that they overwhelmingly vote for members of that party in each election. Non-partisan voters who lean toward a party often end up voting along party lines at the same or higher rates as voters who are registered with a party. So while our parties seem to be loosing steam, partisanship seems to be growing.

Jonathan Rauch looks at this phenomenon from another perspective in his book Political Realism. He specifically looks at votes within congress and how congressional members seem to align within parties. Rauch writes,

“It’s often said that parties are stronger than ever because votes on Capitol Hill are so consistently partisan. But that can be (and usually is) because the majority party is allowing votes only when its factions agree, whereas machines facilitate decision-making when fellow partisans don’t agree. Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intra-party cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.”

What Rauch argues is that our parties need to find ways to create cohesion beyond ideology. Rather than relying on individual voter or policy maker issue stances to align, parties need to be able to bring different groups together within the political process. Parties which are only able to attract loosely committed voters fail to create a community of thoughtful and considerate political participants. The perspectives, views, and alternatives available to the party shrink, and in the public we see a fixation on a single issue from a single point of view, while in legislative bodies we see a limited number of votes on a limited number of partisan issues. This does not strengthen democracy, and easily breaks down, leading to the cynicism, criticism, and frustration that we see surrounding the American political system today.

I also think there is another phenomenon surrounding the abandonment of political parties and the staunch partisan voting pattern in the United States. Political identity is a powerful signal, indicating which group you are a part of and often influenced by both overt and hidden factors. In The Elephant and the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at our hidden agendas and our group signaling in politics. We often don’t want to admin when we align with a party out of self interest or out of group identification. We hide behind a veil claiming that it is specific issues that drive our political alignment, but studies frequently show that almost no one has a real grasp of any given issue or any given legislator’s stance on an issue. What we are really displaying today, at least in part, is an institutional distrust driving us away from the parties that we complain about, but an identity stronghold in the claimed political philosophy that we back. Simler and Hanson may better explain why we see this pattern and if Rauch is right, then we must hope that machines can be built to activate local public action before dangerous demagogues use this identity and signaling undercurrent to divide rather than unite local communities.

Transactional Politics

Jonathan Rauch argues that transactional politics is a sign of a well functioning political system in his book, Political Realism. In his eyes, transactional politics, or favor trading and an attitude of “I’ll support your policy here if you support my policy over there,” is key to how things actually get done in government. In his eyes, this mindset is not a dirty and evil nature of politics but more of a necessary ingredient to legislative functioning. Without transactional politics, coalitions cannot be built and finding support between legislators and across bills becomes nearly impossible. According to Rauch, steps that the United States has taken to reduce transactional politics have actually made governance more difficult, if not completely impossible.

 

Rauch writes, “Transactional politics is not always appropriate or effective, but a political system which is not reliably capable of it is a system in a state of critical failure.” As much as we don’t like to believe it, our legislators and elected officials are humans. They have the same motivations and drives that the rest of us have, and therefore need a little extra help in building coalitions and creating groups to support political agendas. I am currently reading The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and the authors argue that the politics of coalition building is a necessary ingredient in human societies, and is literally one of the driving forces of human evolution that set us on a different course from the rest of the animal kingdom. If we take away a system that allows for trades and back-scratching, then we take away part of our human nature and we limit incentives for group bonding, cooperation, and legislative wheel greasing.

 

Transactional politics does look shady, and we would like our legislative motives to be pure rather than self-interested, or influenced by favors and favor repayments, or driven by the human desire to fit in with a group. Ultimately, however, stable political systems operate well when reacting to human nature in a more flexible manner. As long as the waste and excesses of transactional politics are small and can be generally viewed as serving the public interest, then transactional politics help create a stable system that is able to accomplish the will of the people. Abuse of the system and overtly political projects that violate the mirage of rational politics threaten the system and should be limited, but this is something that societies in the past have managed by grabbing the low hanging fruit of overt political waste or fraud. Without transactional politics however, we end up in a place where governance is impossible and the public becomes frustrated by entrenched ideology and political fighting. Coalitions become increasingly volatile as middle ground solutions are impossible to pursue, because coalitions cannot be built on trades and favors for legislative districts. When transactional politics is impossible, what becomes the main driving force of politics is not getting what you can from the political grab bag of goodies for your district, but instead is adherence to strict political and ideological values, making actual governance more challenging.

Political Realism

The last presidential election in the United States was undoubtedly an election unconstrained by political reality, feasibility, and truth. Both parties saw candidates from the outside make huge promises and sweeping generalizations during the campaign, with little or no consideration for how things could actually work in our political environment and economic system. President Trump outlandishly called for a wall along our southern border though few felt that it would be practical, possible, or effective, and Senator Sanders passionately announced his desire for a new healthcare system run entirely by the federal government, all the while downplaying the program’s costs, its political unfeasibility, and the fact that he did not have much of the implementation planned out.

 

Political realism operates in a different way than seems to be successful in our extravagant presidential elections. We prize bold energetic ideas and characters when electing a president, and realism is left to the side. To be a political realist, you have to be honest about the current situation, about how the status quo could change, and about what improvements or harms could possible arise. Observing that the status quo is not too bad and that there are may potentially worse situations that society could be facing does not win elections, but being more aware and asking these types of questions does help government improve.

 

Large grandiose plans and visions do not hold up over the long term. It is important for policy planners and decision-makers to think about political feasibility and to think about alternatives so that plans can be chosen that can actually be implemented and to meet the needs of society. We live in a world with limited resources like time and money, so we must think rationally and strategically about what we have. Large sweeping changes and plans are difficult because they must find a new way to rearrange the already limited resources we have.

 

Jonathan Rauch describes political realists in his book Political Realism by writing, “Always, the realists, asks: ‘Compared with what?’ Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives.” When we elect leaders based entirely on principle and charisma, and not based on an evaluation of alternatives, we end up in a place where good plans are abandoned for fantastic plans that could never truly be put in place, at least not in a good way. When our leaders are constrained to a limited set of principles, their policy options are limited and less imaginative, and as a result, good policy is thrown out. If we can’t meet all our principles in this model (our current model for politics) then we don’t take any action and we don’t improve the status quo in any meaningful way. Political realism isn’t sexy and doesn’t always win elections, but it does help society move forward with policy that can actually be implemented.

 

Today, as I reflect back on this quick post that I originally wrote in May of 2018, I can’t help but think about the power of signaling. At the end of the school semester I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and was captivated by a conversation that Hanson had with Tyler Cowen. Much of what we do in politics is signaling, and describing grandiose plans and visions signals your belief in the future prosperity of the country. Your huge plan is also a signal to voters that they should align with you because you think that what we need is the most scaled up version of what your co-partisans say is necessary. In a sense, politicians are signaling their loyalty and willingness to defend party ideas, even if those ideas are practically impossible. Political realism just can’t bring the same signaling firepower to the conversation, and may ultimately signal a betrayal of the party platform and a betrayal of a core group identity.