Considering the Median Centrist Voter

This morning I was listening to a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show and Klein said something interesting in how we think about our politics. Our institutions have their own memories, which are formed and created often by the memories and available histories of the institutions members. In politics today, we have an institutional memory of a time roughly after World War II where a lot seemed to be accomplished and we seemed to be less polarized. This view is our baseline for evaluating political function (or dysfunction) and it includes an idea of a rational moderate voter with both parties trying to adjust their platforms to capture a greater marginal share of this undecided moderate electorate.

 

This institutional memory (whether it is correct/accurate or not) is not what we see in our political system today. We act as if it should be the norm, but it is long gone and we are left with complaints about the loss of this ideal system. Tyler Cowen writes the following about our electorate and perceptions of our electoral system in his book The Complacent Class,

 

“Core government programs are still backed by most voters, but political change at the margins seems to result from complex battles among lobbies, interest groups, financiers, political maneuvering, and who can win public relations campaigns fought in the media. The ideal of the perfectly centrist voter as the ultimate adjudicating force just doesn’t appear that relevant for thinking about a lot of those changes we do observe.”

 

I’m not sure why we still live in a world where we believe that politics should operate in the way we believe it operated almost 70 years ago. Popular media and civics classes present government as ideally functioning in a way that compromises and attempts to sway marginal centrist voters who have not made up their mind. These votes don’t exist, and likely never existed. Better models should be presented and discussed so that we can better evaluate our government and what is or is not taking place within our institutions. By having more honest and open conversations, we can better address the role that identity and policy play in politics (hint: identity is all there is, policy is just a rationalization). Median and moderate voters who have not made up their mind don’t exist in the way we think they used to. They might exist, but more as individuals with identities pulling them in different directions, not as rational voters who are trying to make a decision based on policy outcomes and preferences.

Implementation Matters

One party in the United States seems to continually chide any public sector misstep and only seems to be able to complain about the problems and waste of public sector projects and programs when discussing what the government actually does. While there are undoubtedly challenges and problems in public administration, continually complaining about and criticizing any public agency operation can have further costs to society. Good implementation in public policy matters, and one fear that seems reasonable to me, is that the constant denigration of public service will drive out creative and hard-working individuals, and worsen the very situations being criticized.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about the importance of implementation, and how they view it differently in their system of New Localism. They write,

 

“At a Brookings Institution forum in 2000, [Richard] Shatten stated that, ‘being right is irrelevant to the growth of cities and metropolitan areas. Good ideas are critical, but they have impact only when they are implemented thoughtfully and effectively. And sound implementation only happens when a community develops a civic, corporate, and political culture that can translate good ideas into action and execute with discipline and imagination.'”

 

Two things really stand out from this quote to me. The first is that good implementation is everything. Public agencies need to think about and study what will make the implementation of a program successful and need to be thoughtful of how they do the things they have been tasked with doing. Poor implementation of the perfect solution can ruin public support for that solution and can create even worse problems and greater barriers to achieving the outcomes society wants to see.

 

Second, good implementation relies on a strong political culture that accepts government action and helps align non-governmental actors to make implementation successful. It is not enough for private sector organizations and thought leaders to say that a policy needs to be put in place or run a certain way, they actually need to use their resources, skills, and expertise to be part of implementation. Good ideas require community efforts to become successful policy, and if a group simply stands apart, refuses to help, and cries foul at every opportunity, then implementation will of course fail, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineptitude. There is room for criticism of government and the failures of implementation should be discussed, but we should not hinder the implementation of a program out of a prejudice against public action. Ultimately, the public action on its own, as the quote suggests, is not enough. We can’t just criticize from the sidelines, we actually need to find ways for more organizations and groups to be involved in the implementation of new programs, specifically tailored to meet the local needs of populations, businesses, and environments. Standing apart and criticizing only snowballs problems. Collaboration and cooperation among civic, private, and public organizations is the only way governance and development will be possible in the future.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.

A Thought on Populism & Localism

Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning.  Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.

 

Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:

 

“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”

 

I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.

 

Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.

 

A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”

 

The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.

Signaling Loyalty

Politics is an interesting world. We all have strong opinions about how the world should operate, but in general, most of us don’t have much deep knowledge about any particular issue. We might understand the arguments about charter schools, about abortions, or about taxes, but very few of us have really studied any of these areas in considerable depth. Anyone with a career in a specific industry understands that there is a public perception of the industry and the deeper and more complex inner workings of the actual industry. But when we think about political decisions regarding any given industry and topic, we suddenly adopt easy surface level answers that barely skim the surface of these deep and complex inner dynamics.

 

If we all have strong opinions about politics without having strong knowledge about any of it, then we must ask ourselves if politics is really about policy at all? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that politics is generally about something other than policy. In The Elephant in the Brain they write, “Our hypothesis is that the political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to our side (whatever side that happens to be in a particular situation), rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.” 

 

If the main driver of politics was doing good in the world and reaching good outcomes for society, then we would likely be a much more hands-off, technocratic society. Instead, we have elected a president who doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of any major issues, but who does know how to stoke outrage and draw lines in the sand to differentiate each side. We generally look around and figure out which team we belong to based on our identity and self-interest, and separate into our camps with our distinct talking points. We don’t understand issues beyond these talking points, but we understand how they make our side look more virtuous.

 

I believe that people who are deeply religious are drawn toward the Republican Party which currently denies climate change partly because a society that has less emphasis on science is likely to be more favorable toward religious beliefs. The veracity of climate change and the complex science behind it is less important than simply being on a side that praises people for religious beliefs. Similarly, I believe that people with higher education degrees are more likely to align with the Democrat Party because, at the moment, it is a party that encourages scientific and technical thought. It is a party that socially rewards the appearance of critical thinking and praises people who have gone to school. Without needing to actually know anything specific, people with degrees who appear to think in a scientific method framework are elevated in the party where people with religious beliefs are disregarded. Both parties are operating in ways that signal who is valuable and who belongs on a particular side. Issues map onto these signals, but the issues and policies are not the main factors in choosing a side.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

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.

John Jay and America’s Founding

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.

Two Revolutions

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.