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by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future.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.

Privacy in Politics

The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued. 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. We do this in the name of democracy, however, this trend has made the actual process of governing and coming to 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. 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, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous for more than just someone’s political career.

 

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 gridlock 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 on C-Span, 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 semi-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.

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.