Participation in Government

In America we are obsessed with being more democratic than any other nation. As the world’s oldest democracy, we have made changes to open government ever further and to be more democratic so as to show the world how great we are with our ever expanding participation in government. We love our democracy, and we constantly fight to make our democracy more representative, less driven by special interests and big money, and more accessible by the average citizen. These are all excellent goals for our country, but they contribute to what Richard Pildes has called Romanticizing Democracy. 

 

In his book Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch reviews the ideas of romanticizing democracy and thinks about political participation from a realistic and pragmatic point of view. What Rauch finds and what is important to remember is that more participation in government and more direct democracy does not necessarily translate into better outcomes. He writes, “The general assumption that politics will be more satisfying and government will work better if more people participate more directly is poorly supported and probably wrong.”

 

Rauch is not arguing that fewer people should vote in elections or be knowledgeable about issues, programs, and what is taking place in government, but that our country does not need to continually reshape systems and institutions to be ever more democratic simply because they could be more open. When we push government to rely on more direct democracy, then our systems require more input from a citizenry that is poorly informed of any given issue. Continually opening government or forcing government to rely on input from public constituents makes it more likely that issues will become polarized, leading to charged discussions driven by shadow actors. Rauch writes, “Where direct engagement with politics is concerned, the polarized and financially interested have an inherent advantage.”

 

Not everything in our system should be operated by and determined by the opinions of experts, technocrats, and academics, but at the same time not everything needs to be decided by direct referendum from the public. Some features of government should be opened to the public, but other aspects are poorly understood by the public and do not need to be completely open. On his podcast The Ezra Klein Show and on his media company’s show The Weeds, Ezra Klein has often remarked that congress (which we have made more democratic and transparent) has dismally low approval ratings while the Supreme Court (which is less democratic and less transparent than almost any other part of government) has very high approval ratings. More transparency and direct participation does not always mean better outcomes and a more satisfying democracy.

Governance Forgotten

I am currently studying for a masters in public administration at the University of Nevada, Reno. Last semester I took public policy class which included a comprehensive exam. The comp rounded out to just over 50 pages total, and of the prompts for the comp looked at the question, “is the bulk of public policy really just a question of policy implementation?”

 

I have thought deeply about the actual implementation of policy and what it looks like to design and create policy with implementation in mind. Focusing on implementation is important if one actually wants to achieve the stated objectives that form the base of a policy. We have to consider the goals, objectives, limitations, support, and objections of policy actors big and small, central and in the periphery, and those who are vocal or those who have their voices generally ignored. In one sense, good public policy is policy that can actually be implemented, and understanding the implementation challenges is central to designing policy that is actually capable of addressing the problems and issues that we face.

 

Implementation is active governance. A quick Google search defines governance simply as the action or manner of governing, and implementation is the most clear demonstration of governance. Good implementation should be a moderating force in politics. Good governance is capable of addressing issues and putting programs in place to address real problems and issues that impact people’s lives.

 

Our country, it unfortunately feels, has abandoned governance in favor of self-interest and tribal power. We have turned away from traditional political structures in favor of outsider organizations and groups. We are less likely to compromise on issues that most people only vaguely understand and have become more entrenched in ideologies that do not truly describe our beliefs, but do clearly signal our support for a specific political team. Jonathan Rauch is critical of this trend in American politics in his book Political Realism and writes about the organizations that have arisen to fuel our ideological battles at the expense of governance. He writes, “They are distinctly amateur (or activist) in the important … sense that their interest is in issues and purity, not in the messy and compromising work of governing.” Pure adherence to an ideology and our tend toward the rejection of traditional power structures is emotionally powerful, but it is an abandonment of governance.

 

Adherence to ideology ignores implementation and realistic constraints on public policy. What we really do when we support such activists is signal our tribal adherence in a political fashion and we simplify real issues in a way that puts us in the moral high ground from which we can use outrage to prop ourselves up. Good governance is flexible and does not adhere to strict ideological constraints. Policy implementation requires compromise and views other actors as legitimate, even if their beliefs and opinions differ from our own. Political activists view their opponents as enemies with illegitimate opinions. Traditional political forces make use of compromise and seek good governance where political amateurs adhere to political hard lines to demonstrate their support and alignment with a specific identity or tribe. As we have moved away from traditional structures in favor of outsiders and amateurs, we have forgotten governance and abandoned real issues and real public policy that could actually be implemented to address issues in American life.

Negotiations

In his book Political Realism Jonathan Rauch describes the importance of negotiations in politics. The act of negotiating is the act of coalition building, finding support for an idea, position, or program among legislators with varied interests. Negotiation needs to be creative, with all options on the board. Within a negotiation, difficult subjects and ideas are discussed to try to understand the benefits, the costs, the target populations, and issues of equality or inequality. The process is messy and like human speech, often disorganized and free flowing.

 

In the United States Federal Government, negotiations within the legislature are supposed to take place out in the open. Committee meetings and hearings are supposed to be public. Negotiations and advisory sessions are televised and open to journalists and interested citizens via the internet. The goal behind an open government is simple, let the people see and know what our leaders are up to. We want to be able to view the negotiations so that we can ensure big businesses are not running the show and to make sure our elected officials are not trading money and votes for projects and bills that we don’t like. Most of all, we want to make sure our legislators are acting ethically and not in their own self-interest.

 

This system sounds nice when we wear our moral philosopher hat, but when we put on our real world pragmatist hat we can see that our open government requirements are in a way breaking the legislative process. If we force negotiations to be public and always visible, then legislators are constrained in what can be said and considered in a negotiation. I mentioned earlier that negotiations are messy and creative, and this process involves talking through half formed ideas and as a group considering extreme ideas that an individual may not want to raise on their own. Doing this can be damaging for an individual if filmed and rebroadcast out of context, but in the moment it can help build creativity and allow decision-makers to better understand the full range of possible impacts.

 

Rauch writes the following regarding our constraints of negotiations, “If negotiations among leaders are a key to effective governance, particularly in polarized times, then we need a less moralistic, more realistic sense of the conditions under which negotiations effectively take place.” Sometimes the nation needs to move forward with legislation that is incredibly unpopular within a few legislative districts. Bills can be toxic for a given senator or member of congress, and if they cannot negotiate in the dark, then on legislation they know must move forward despite its unpopularity back home, the legislator must take a stand against the bill. In this way, a small minority becomes more powerful, and important legislation is stalled. Sunshine is great in theory, but in actual governance, sunshine can become sand in the gears.

Participation and Primary Elections

In the United States, our process for primary elections is broken. Voting takes place in the middle of the week on a Tuesday with very low voter turnout. Within our primary system, the candidates who do the best often end up being more extreme than candidates who we would not otherwise elect. Rather than putting forward a middle of the road candidate that most people would be comfortable backing, most political primaries manage to put forward a candidate who excites the most devoted voters who usually end up being the most extreme in their views and opinions.

 

Our primary system used to be controlled by parties themselves, but both major parties have recently opened up their primary system with the intent of creating a more democracy with greater influence from the general public. The problem, however, is that most people don’t actually participate in political primaries. Jonathan Rauch explores the problems with our current system in his book Political Realism, “A crucial premise of populist reform, namely that most people want to participate more in politics, turns out to be wrong.” Most American’s do not know when the primary elections in their state are, especially during years when we are not electing a new president. In general, we usually do not want to think too hard about our politics and about our representatives. Most people are not well informed about issues and generally hold to a few assumptions about parties and political issues. Creating a system that requires more participation from the people sounds ideal, but in reality it is not what we want, and it does not seem to lead to the kinds of outcomes that would be best.

 

Rauch continues, “Instead of opening decision-making to a broader, more diverse, and more representative spectrum … primaries have skewed decision-making toward the notably narrow, ideologically extreme, and decidedly non representative sliver of voters who turn out in primary elections.” When control of primaries was taken away from political parties, strategic thinking, demographic changes, and consideration of broad concern for political issues went out the door. The people who participate in primaries don’t represent most of the people in the United States. Primary votes tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than most Americans, driving politics in a direction that is not favored by the majority. Our country claims to support ever greater democracy, but the outcomes that we receive are not always what we want and are sometimes worse than the original problem. It appears that parties should wrestle control of primaries back from the general public to put forward more representative and mainstream candidates.

Progressiveness, Populism, and Stalled Politics

Jonathan Rauch is critical of moves that have been made by populists and progressives with the intent of making government more transparent and handing decision-making power back to citizens. Rauch is not critical of broad participation in government and transparency directly, but he challenges the idea that it is always better to have more transparency and more participation in the decision-making process. The argument that Rauch puts forward is that some of the things we constantly fight against are not as bad as they seem from the outside. Backroom deal-making seems shady and corrupt, but it is also necessary for legislators to have a safe space to discuss bills, goals, possible outcomes, and political considerations. Encouraging more political amateurs to run for office and replace career politicians also feels like a smart move, bringing good people to power and replacing politicians who just want to stay in power, but political outsiders often have trouble building coalitions and forming groups to move legislation and they tend to be more extreme in their policies.

 

Regarding recent trends, in his book Political Realism, Rauch writes, “Together, by fusing their ideologies, the progressive and populist reform movements have performed an impressive public relations feat: they have combined the intellectual prestige of meritocracy with the moral claims of democracy. Because participation improves decision-making, democracy and meritocracy are one and the same—and insider politics is the enemy of both.” In an ideal system, human beings could be completely rational actors. We would not allow ourselves to be biased by prior assumptions and we would work toward the most efficient and equitable decision possible for each issue and question. Within this system we truly could have greater participation in government from political outsiders and we could have more transparency and open discussion, because we are all focused on rational facts.

 

The reality, however, is that we are not purely rational machines moving through our lives and organizing society in the most perfect economic and efficient manner. As humans, we are not truly capable of being fully rational, and creating a system that was too rational would be objectionable in many ways. We simply cannot hold all alternatives and variables in our head at one time. We also can only bring rationality to the means of our politics, the ends are always going to be politically selected. Choosing to use our nation’s last 10 million dollars in the budget on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will be a political decision and value based judgement.

 

In a similar way, deciding that we need more political amateurs in our system is a politically selected end, not a rational conclusion of policy analysts. Deciding that our system needs ever more transparency and openness into the minds of decision-makers is a feel-good political outcome that we want, but it is not a rational process to improve government. Rauch’s views are technical and rational, and to most people are probably ridiculous and unwanted, but his steps to make government more functional by rolling back some of the steps we have made in service of positive outcomes is rational, focusing on the means of good governance.

The Organization of Effective Political Power

In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and to have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. Our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.

 

We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do.  Increasing voter turnout and making it easier for people to vote is one solution we have pushed for in certain areas. Another strategy has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and for average voters to support candidates through individual donations. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. It is possible for us to address the challenges of government by evaluating and changing processes, rather than by changing the mix of people who participate.

 

Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”

 

Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.

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 skills you have developed. In the past, machines have operated as impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice. For this reason Americans reacted against them in a way that injected the system with more power for individuals through more direct democratic structures.

Unfortunately, the attack on machines left our system without 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 run when the system is opened to amateurs tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which 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 a 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 and know what special words to say or beliefs to hold to play for our team. Political parties and machines 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 support.