The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.

A Common View

Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in  their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”

The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.

This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.

I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect  political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.