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.

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 you believe about the world. Machines were impenetrable monoliths controlling politics without giving ordinary people a voice and for this reason Americans reacted in a way that injected the system with more power and more direct democratic structures.

 

Unfortunately, our system is now missing 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 do end up running also tend to be very focused on an issue and not their own career, which also 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 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 in politics and know what special words to say and what beliefs to hold when we play for our team. Political parties and machines however, 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 can support.

Political Machines

Recently (though challenged by the current presidential administration), in the United States, our trend has been toward ever increasing democracy. We have more participation in our elections, more direct election of representatives, and we all expect to have more of a voice in the political process. Along the way we have focused on high minded ideals such as transparency, direct public decision-making, and increased platforms for voicing opinions. However, as Max Weber predicted, government, organizations, and society have become and continue to grow more and more complex. Human nature, however, has not changed.

 

Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute argues in his book, Political Realism, that we have made changes to our system, our government oversight, and to the political arena that are intended to bring positive consequences, but have also brought confusion and gridlock. Our efforts to fight every appearance of corruption has made it challenging to build strong parties. Our efforts to limit the influence of money in legislative voting has eliminated quid-pro-quo trades for votes between legislators. Transparency into government decisions and deliberations has combined with social media to give us great insight into the decisions and beliefs of legislators, keeping their actions under a microscope. Each of these changes sounds like a good thing, but in the end, they create a system that is almost unworkable, where participants cannot be fully human.

 

Regarding the changes we have made, Rauch writes, “government cannot govern unless political machines or something like them exist and work, because machines are uniquely willing and able to negotiate compromises and make them stick. —progressive, populist, and libertarian reformers have joined forces to wage a decades-long war against machine politics by weakening political insider’s control of money, nominations, negotiations, and other essential tools of political leadership.” Rauch is highlighting the fact that machines can build coalitions, can link together like-minded individuals on certain issues, encourage them to commit to support other issues, create safe places for debate, and break through gridlock. Our transparency in politics has limited the effectiveness of machines by broadcasting discussions. Our democratic grabs at political primaries has limited parties from directing candidate selection, and has left us vulnerable to demagogues and celebrities with unsound political beliefs.

 

I would not argue that we should try to undue all the changes we have made to our political system, and I don’t think Rauch would argue for such dramatic changes either. But what we can do, is create some spaces and institutions that operate with a greater focus on the long-term continuous political process and not on winning short term political games. One can easily argue that our system of primaries is less democratic now, because only the most ideologically extreme participate in parties, leading to the selection of candidates that do not match the public. Wrestling control of party nominations away from the public may give us more moderate and representative candidates, who actually better represent the people who are supposedly electing them in a democratic fashion. Allowing for backroom discussions within politics can also help our representatives move forward with more legislation. Forcing each candidate to openly voice their arguments for or against a bill can put legislators in a catch-22 situation, a bill must pass on a national level, but may be politically toxic on a local level. We should expect that priorities, even on small local levels, will conflict, and expecting a perfect answer from each politician for each vote is unrealistic and potentially damaging to the over all process. These are the arguments that Rauch presents throughout his book, which is designed to start a conversation around how we govern ourselves and relate to our political process. Striving for more fair, more understandable, and better democratic systems is always a good goal, but sometimes our virtues trip up the system because we are political animals who need to negotiate challenging deals, build teams and coalitions, and make sacrifices to compromise on important issues for people at local, state, and national levels.