Political Realism

The last presidential election in the United States was undoubtedly an election unconstrained by political reality, feasibility, and truth. Both parties saw candidates from the outside make huge promises and sweeping generalizations during the campaign, with little or no consideration for how things could actually work in our political environment and economic system. President Trump outlandishly called for a wall along our southern border though few felt that it would be practical, possible, or effective, and Senator Sanders passionately announced his desire for a new healthcare system run entirely by the federal government, all the while downplaying the program’s costs, its political unfeasibility, and the fact that he did not have much of the implementation planned out.

 

Political realism operates in a different way than seems to be successful in our extravagant presidential elections. We prize bold energetic ideas and characters when electing a president, and realism is left to the side. To be a political realist, you have to be honest about the current situation, about how the status quo could change, and about what improvements or harms could possible arise. Observing that the status quo is not too bad and that there are may potentially worse situations that society could be facing does not win elections, but being more aware and asking these types of questions does help government improve.

 

Large grandiose plans and visions do not hold up over the long term. It is important for policy planners and decision-makers to think about political feasibility and to think about alternatives so that plans can be chosen that can actually be implemented and to meet the needs of society. We live in a world with limited resources like time and money, so we must think rationally and strategically about what we have. Large sweeping changes and plans are difficult because they must find a new way to rearrange the already limited resources we have.

 

Jonathan Rauch describes political realists in his book Political Realism by writing, “Always, the realists, asks: ‘Compared with what?’ Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives.” When we elect leaders based entirely on principle and charisma, and not based on an evaluation of alternatives, we end up in a place where good plans are abandoned for fantastic plans that could never truly be put in place, at least not in a good way. When our leaders are constrained to a limited set of principles, their policy options are limited and less imaginative, and as a result, good policy is thrown out. If we can’t meet all our principles in this model (our current model for politics) then we don’t take any action and we don’t improve the status quo in any meaningful way. Political realism isn’t sexy and doesn’t always win elections, but it does help society move forward with policy that can actually be implemented.

 

Today, as I reflect back on this quick post that I originally wrote in May of 2018, I can’t help but think about the power of signaling. At the end of the school semester I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and was captivated by a conversation that Hanson had with Tyler Cowen. Much of what we do in politics is signaling, and describing grandiose plans and visions signals your belief in the future prosperity of the country. Your huge plan is also a signal to voters that they should align with you because you think that what we need is the most scaled up version of what your co-partisans say is necessary. In a sense, politicians are signaling their loyalty and willingness to defend party ideas, even if those ideas are practically impossible. Political realism just can’t bring the same signaling firepower to the conversation, and may ultimately signal a betrayal of the party platform and a betrayal of a core group identity.

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.