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.

Progressivism, 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 to 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 the policies they support.

 

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 for each issue. 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 would all be 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 for many people. 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 budget our nation’s last 10 million dollars on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will always be a political decision and a 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 analysis. 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 recommendations 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.

Creating Racial Resentment

Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow argues that racial caste systems have been maintained in the United States by stoking up racial attitudes to create a racial hierarchy that distracts us from economic hierarchies. She suggests that white people who have benefitted from racial caste systems in our country are less likely to take action to reverse the situation because of the social benefits of not being black or brown and not living in our country’s lowest social class. She focuses on how political support for African American’s in our country has been diminished to prevent low socioeconomic status (SES) black and white people from joining together and creating a coalition.

Early in her book she writes, “Time and again the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.”

I have come across this theory in other books, podcasts, and mediums and I believe that it is accurate. We support policies in this country that appear to be race neutral at face value,  but have disparate impacts on African American and Latino populations in the Untied States. Policies that have been suggested to reduce these disparate impacts will often times improve the SES of not just black and brown people, but of low SES white people as well. However, these measures often don’t find much political support from white members of groups that would benefit from them. Alexander argues that this is a reflection of the fact that white people will lose status relative to black people if we achieve more racial parity, and to prevent this loss of status white people will vote against legislation and will not support policies that reduce inequality and improve their economic outlook.

The main reason I think Alexander’s claim is an accurate description of our politics is because I see identity, as opposed to economics or ideology, as the main driver of political behaviors. During his campaign and throughout his time in office President Trump capitalized on his ability to represent a certain American identity that is distinctly non-black or brown. He does not have any consistent ideologies or economic policy preferences,  but he does express a consistent white identity and has enjoyed overwhelming support from white demographics across the board including low SES white groups as well as higher SES white groups. Low SES white people would have likely seen greater benefits from a candidate who expressed more equitable political and economic ideologies, but such policies would not have appealed to their identity and would have diminished the small but real status advantage that white people have over black people at all SES levels in America.

I think my position is supported and can be demonstrated by the reality that most American’s don’t have consistent and intelligible policy ideologies, even those who are well informed. By policy ideologies I do not mean liberal or conservative, but rather policy ideologies formed by specific policy evaluations. Few people truly understand what any given policy does and fewer understand the research and data behind a policy and the specifics of a given policy’s implementation plan. What we do understand, are the signals provided when leaders and officials discuss policy. When looking at such policy discussions abandoning the pretense that we are actually discussing policy specifics, one can see that we are more often signaling to each other what groups and what identities should support a policy. We are voting based on identity, but telling ourselves that we are voting based on ideology. Political game theory and identity are better predictors at this point of human voting preference and behavior than self reported ideology or what we have come to describe as liberal and conservative.

Post Racial

The conclusion of Michael Tesler and David Sears’ book Obama’s Race, sums up the authors thoughts about President Obama’s election after their extensive review of voting patterns in the 2008 election and social surveys through the campaign and President Obama’s first year in office. As a candidate, Obama did not need to emphasize race for race to be an important factor. Neither John McCain nor Obama focused their campaign on race, but it was nevertheless an important element in the election. Candidate Obama wanted to transcend race in his campaign, but Tesler and Sears find that he was not able to do so successfully. To close out their book, the authors write,

 

“Regardless of what the future holds, we can say with a great deal of confidence that the election of our first black president was not a post-racial moment. Rather, racial attitudes were heavily implicated in every aspect of Barack Obama’s quest for the White House. From Americans’ earliest evaluations of Candidate Obama to their primary voting to their general election vote choice, Obama was heavily judged in terms of his racial background. Racial attitudes were strongly associated with both support for and opposition to Obama throughout the election year. With these positive and negative effects largely canceling themselves out in Obama’s aggregate vote tallies, many mistakenly took his victory as a sign that race no longer mattered in American politics. Behind such success in the primaries and general election, however, lay perhaps the most racialized presidential voting patterns in American history.”

 

From the very beginning of his time in office, President Obama was viewed differently by people who were more likely to sympathize with racial minorities and people who were more likely to harbor resentment toward racial minorities. A Republican and Democrat polarization became worse at the national level as President Obama’s race made people think first about identity and second about traditional conservative or liberal ideology.

 

I don’t believe that the ideas wrapped up in conservatism or liberalism truly mean anything in the post 2008 election world. Libertarians may favor a very limited government based purely on the written role of government in the Constitution, but the average conservative seems to be more in tune with racial identity within our two party system than they are in tune with ideas of limited government and any specific policy goal. Similarly, the term Liberal seems to stand in for multicultural as opposed to representing ideas of big or progressive government. What both parties now seem to be split on is race, but the arguments and debates between the two parties exist in the shadow of ideology, never acknowledging racial motives and instead arguing about tax structure and healthcare despite the fact that very few truly understand the alternatives, choices, and impacts of the policies adopted by either side. What we do understand, are racial and identity signals that are hidden within our debates and policy arguments.

 

I do not know how we get both sides to recognize that their politics are based less on ideology and more on identity. I do not know what happens to the political system when we acknowledge that identity is the driving factor over ideology or policy. What I do know is that the Democrat party has adopted a view of multiculturalism which is able to talk about race and the challenges faced by racial minorities, while the Republican party has adopted a view that society has become equal in terms of race and that we are ready for a period of post-racialism if only the Democrats could move on. Sears and Tesler demonstrate that we never achieved a post-racial America, and  the failure of the Republican party, and white people in general, to acknowledge their racial biases has created a hurricane of racial tension in this country. Black people today are not allowed to call out the racialized environment since our politics are so evenly split between the Democrats who accept the danger of racial attitudes in our country today and the Republicans who claim that racial discrimination is no longer a barrier. If we cannot stand on equal ground between our two parties in terms of how we understand the influence of race and identity in our politics, we will constantly be shouting over each other’s heads and never addressing the question that matters most: Who is American and what does it mean to be American and be diverse?

Can We Change the Thoughts of Others?

A topic that has come up again and again for me since the November 2016 election is the idea that we may not be able to change anyones thinking through discussion, debate, or argument. People become so entrenched in beliefs, and are so reluctant to hearing information that does not support their opinion that we are not able to change anyone’s thought patterns besides our own. Author Ryan Holiday addresses this idea in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, by writing,

“You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.”

I think that Holiday is correct, but I think the real message from his quote above is the idea that you must find common ground with another before you look to change the way they think. People will discredit those who think differently from them and ignore information, even an Everest sized mountain of information indicating their views are incorrect. Speaking with people, listening to their views, understanding why they think a certain way, and offering our perspective are the only ways to honest communicate with others.

I recently listened to episode 174 of the podcast, Decode DC, and they brought on a guest to discuss this exact problem. The show features an interview with Canadian professor Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg who did a study of American’s and beliefs. He offered participants 10 dollars to read 8 statements disagreeing with their views, or 7 dollars to read 8 statements that were in line with their views. About 60 percent of people chose less money and read the statements that reinforced their views. In the episode, Dr. Frimer offers the same advice as Holiday, you must listen to the other person, understand their views, and identify your commonality before you can begin to discuss differences.

I believe we have begun to attach politics to our identify in a new way, and our social media infused world tells us that we should have a voice and opinion for any given situation. With political ideology being incorporated with our identity, political views seem to be coupled with who we are in a dangerous entrenched manner. We feel compelled to be resolute in our identity, and any information that does not align is a threat to our fundamental being. I don’t have fully developed thoughts and ideas on how social media and a pressure to build political ideology have become infused with our ideology, but if my ideas are correct, then the only way to have a civil discussion with someone is to follow the advice of Holiday and Frimer and disarm first ourselves when discussing our differences (especially political) with another person.