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by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future.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

Humble Teachers

Senator Corey Booker gives us an insight into the people he sees as mentors and role models in a brief paragraph in his book United. Throughout his book, Booker talks about the people who have made an impact in his life, and almost all of them were citizens trying to make a difference in their local community. These individuals were impactful not because they wanted power, control, or notoriety, but because they truly cared about their community and the people around them. Regarding the people Booker learned the most from, he writes, “you reap what you sow; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect. Humble people teach us this and more. They are great masters, the best of whom I have found are not on television, not at a university, and not elected to any office. They do not preach sermons, give lectures, or dispense orders. They do. Without fanfare, they do the best they can, with what they have, where they are.”

 

Booker’s message is one I think needs to be shared more broadly with people and youth in society. It is often easy to look at problems, think that someone should do something, and then sit back and make excuses for why we are not the people to try to make a difference. We don’t have much time. The problem is not really our responsibility. We don’t know who to talk to about the problem. And we don’t know what our first step would ever be.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems in tackling the problem, if we shared a community wide message of each of us doing the best that we can where we are, we could begin to make a difference. The perspective we usually take is that the issue is too big and our actions are too small to matter. This perspective can be shifted to say that we can start, we can try to do a little bit with what we know, and we can take action based on good intentions. Our efforts may not be perfect, but at least we can begin to move the ball and build momentum. Focusing locally can help us find new directions for improvement and can help us start to tackle the challenges that impact not just us, but everyone. We don’t need to do something with the intent of being noticed and appreciated. We can take action because we know it will make the world a better place.

 

If we look around and try to find people who are already doing this we can learn and find new ways that we can get involved and make a difference. These individuals can lead and mentor through their actions, and their focus and thought process can be absorbed to help us become better people and make positive impacts on our communities. Booker learned this by living with people in low income high rise communities and by working with local people trying to make a difference for the people where they lived. Great knowledge can be gained from professors and lecturers, but a certain wisdom can only be achieved by being active and surrounding oneself with people who truly care about making the world better.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.