When I picked up The Quartet by Joseph Ellis I was not surprised that the book focused on George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, three giants in the world of American history. I was surprised, however, with the fourth member of the quartet that Ellis suggested had the greatest impact on American nationhood and the shaping of our Constitution, John Jay. Ellis describes Jay as the man who, “almost singlehandedly wrote the New York constitution,” and as an eloquent leader who learned the value of a strong executive and a strong central government for maintaining cohesion and unity within a political boundary. His political experience leading New York and serving as president to the Continental Congress shaped his views on early governance in America and allied Jay with Washington, Hamilton, and Madison who believed and advocated for a new government to replace the Articles of Confederation which served as a compact to unite the newly independent states following the Revolutionary War.
Jay’s alignment with Washington, Hamilton, and Madison furthered the cause for a new American government thanks to his ability to win allies and influence people. Ellis describes Jay by writing, “Permanently poised, always the calm center of the storm, when a controversial issue arose, he always seemed to have thought it through more clearly and deeply than anyone else, so that his opinion had a matter-of-fact quality that made dissent seem impolite.” Ellis also describes the how his commitment to an effective central government arose, writing about his time as the leader of the provisional government of New York and of the New York constitution (that he wrote) which vested an expansive authority within the executive branch:
“Jay was also showing his true colors as a conservative revolutionary, a rare hybrid that simultaneously embraced American independence and endorsed political structures that filtered popular opinion through several layers of institutionalized deliberation before it became the law of the land.”
What I learned about John Jay while reading The Quartet served as a reminder to me of just how little I truly knew about our nation’s founding. It is commonplace for people to refer back to great moments of importance in human history, such as the World Wars, the American Revolution, or any other point in time that had a great impact on the future of a country, society, or on humanity as a whole and ascribe a certain meaning to that time. What happens when we do this, however, is that we make assumptions and leave out key actors and perspectives. Jay had a first row seat to the founding of America and played a huge role in shaping the direction of New York and of our current Constitution, yet his name and the lessons he learned are largely unknown to most American’s. Jay’s story has lessons of political deal-making and influence, of learning from experience and translating personal lessons into movements to benefit the whole of society. Ellis does an excellent job in his book helping us better understood this forgotten giant of the American Revolution.
Joseph Ellis’ book, The Quartet has an interesting subtitle: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The small details of the history of our nation’s founding are easily forgotten, but after the American revolution, the colonies existed as mostly independent entities bound by the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, which still governs our land, was not adopted at the time of the Revolutionary War, and Ellis calls its adoption The Second American Revolution.
Ellis describes the two revolutions at the start of our Nation’s independent history this way, “The first American Revolution Achieved Independence. … The Second American Revolution modified the republican framework existent in the states in order to create a nation sized republic.” The story of the adoption of our constitution is a story of viewing political power and American nationhood in a new light. It required shifting people’s views of the possible and convincing the citizens of each state that they would be better off with a stronger national government to support the independent state governments. At a time when everyone thought of politics as local politics, barely extending beyond the state capital, the Second Revolution was an attempt to convince all of the former British Colonies that they should consider what took place in other colonies as relevant to their own political lives and allow a national government to have sovereignty over their local governments.
Ellis continues, “The first phase of the American Revolution was about the rejection of political power; the second phase was about controlling it.” Bringing about the second revolution was not an easy task. American’s had just revolted against a strong central government led by a powerful leader. Convincing the citizens of Maine or Georgia that a political power located far away should have influence and say over the direction of the state was reminiscent of the type of power and government they had recently rejected. The thinking involved in bringing the American Constitution into being was truly revolutionary, and required skillful politics, careful persuasion, and dynamic leadership from a handful of America’s most beloved founding fathers to change the minds and opinions of a diverse group of citizens across the new nation.
In his book Political Realism Jonathan Rauch describes the importance of negotiations in politics. The act of negotiating is the act of coalition building, finding support for an idea, position, or program among legislators with varied interests. Negotiation needs to be creative, with all options on the board. Within a negotiation, difficult subjects and ideas are discussed to try to understand the benefits, the costs, the target populations, and issues of equality or inequality. The process is messy and like human speech, often disorganized and free flowing.
In the United States Federal Government, negotiations within the legislature are supposed to take place out in the open. Committee meetings and hearings are supposed to be public. Negotiations and advisory sessions are televised and open to journalists and interested citizens via the internet. The goal behind an open government is simple, let the people see and know what our leaders are up to. We want to be able to view the negotiations so that we can ensure big businesses are not running the show and to make sure our elected officials are not trading money and votes for projects and bills that we don’t like. Most of all, we want to make sure our legislators are acting ethically and not in their own self-interest.
This system sounds nice when we wear our moral philosopher hat, but when we put on our real world pragmatist hat we can see that our open government requirements are in a way breaking the legislative process. If we force negotiations to be public and always visible, then legislators are constrained in what can be said and considered in a negotiation. I mentioned earlier that negotiations are messy and creative, and this process involves talking through half formed ideas and as a group considering extreme ideas that an individual may not want to raise on their own. Doing this can be damaging for an individual if filmed and rebroadcast out of context, but in the moment it can help build creativity and allow decision-makers to better understand the full range of possible impacts.
Rauch writes the following regarding our constraints of negotiations, “If negotiations among leaders are a key to effective governance, particularly in polarized times, then we need a less moralistic, more realistic sense of the conditions under which negotiations effectively take place.” Sometimes the nation needs to move forward with legislation that is incredibly unpopular within a few legislative districts. Bills can be toxic for a given senator or member of congress, and if they cannot negotiate in the dark, then on legislation they know must move forward despite its unpopularity back home, the legislator must take a stand against the bill. In this way, a small minority becomes more powerful, and important legislation is stalled. Sunshine is great in theory, but in actual governance, sunshine can become sand in the gears.
In the United States, our process for primary elections is broken. Voting takes place in the middle of the week on a Tuesday with very low voter turnout. Within our primary system, the candidates who do the best often end up being more extreme than candidates who we would not otherwise elect. Rather than putting forward a middle of the road candidate that most people would be comfortable backing, most political primaries manage to put forward a candidate who excites the most devoted voters who usually end up being the most extreme in their views and opinions.
Our primary system used to be controlled by parties themselves, but both major parties have recently opened up their primary system with the intent of creating a more democracy with greater influence from the general public. The problem, however, is that most people don’t actually participate in political primaries. Jonathan Rauch explores the problems with our current system in his book Political Realism, “A crucial premise of populist reform, namely that most people want to participate more in politics, turns out to be wrong.” Most American’s do not know when the primary elections in their state are, especially during years when we are not electing a new president. In general, we usually do not want to think too hard about our politics and about our representatives. Most people are not well informed about issues and generally hold to a few assumptions about parties and political issues. Creating a system that requires more participation from the people sounds ideal, but in reality it is not what we want, and it does not seem to lead to the kinds of outcomes that would be best.
Rauch continues, “Instead of opening decision-making to a broader, more diverse, and more representative spectrum … primaries have skewed decision-making toward the notably narrow, ideologically extreme, and decidedly non representative sliver of voters who turn out in primary elections.” When control of primaries was taken away from political parties, strategic thinking, demographic changes, and consideration of broad concern for political issues went out the door. The people who participate in primaries don’t represent most of the people in the United States. Primary votes tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than most Americans, driving politics in a direction that is not favored by the majority. Our country claims to support ever greater democracy, but the outcomes that we receive are not always what we want and are sometimes worse than the original problem. It appears that parties should wrestle control of primaries back from the general public to put forward more representative and mainstream candidates.
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 and 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 their policies.
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 possible for each issue and question. 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 are all 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 in many ways. 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 use our nation’s last 10 million dollars in the budget on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will be a political decision and 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 analysts. 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 steps 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.
In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and to have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. Our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.
We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do. Increasing voter turnout and making it easier for people to vote is one solution we have pushed for in certain areas. Another strategy has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and for average voters to support candidates through individual donations. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. It is possible for us to address the challenges of government by evaluating and changing processes, rather than by changing the mix of people who participate.
Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”
Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.
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.