Governance Forgotten

I am currently studying for a masters in public administration at the University of Nevada, Reno. Last semester I took public policy class which included a comprehensive exam. The comp rounded out to just over 50 pages total, and one of the prompts for the exam looked at the question, “is the bulk of public policy really just a question of policy implementation?”

 

I have thought deeply about the actual implementation of policy and what it looks like to design and create policy with implementation in mind. Focusing on implementation is important if one actually wants to achieve the stated objectives that form the base of a policy. We have to consider the goals, objectives, limitations, support, and objections of policy actors big and small, central and in the periphery, and those who are vocal or those who have their voices generally ignored. Good public policy is policy that can actually be implemented, and understanding the implementation challenges is central to designing policy that is actually capable of addressing the problems and issues that we face.

 

Implementation is active governance. A quick Google search defines governance simply as the action or manner of governing, and implementation is the most clear demonstration of governance. Good implementation should be a moderating force in politics. Good governance is capable of addressing issues and putting programs in place to address real problems and issues that impact people’s real lives.

 

Our country, unfortunately, has abandoned governance in favor of self-interest and tribal power. We have turned away from traditional political structures in favor of outsider organizations and groups. We are less likely to compromise on issues that most people only vaguely understand and have become more entrenched in ideologies that do not truly describe our beliefs, but do clearly signal our support for a specific political team. Jonathan Rauch is critical of this trend in American politics in his book Political Realism and writes about the organizations that have arisen to fuel our ideological battles at the expense of governance. He writes, “They are distinctly amateur (or activist) in the important … sense that their interest is in issues and purity, not in the messy and compromising work of governing.” Pure adherence to an ideology and our trend toward the rejection of traditional power structures is emotionally powerful, but it is an abandonment of governance.

 

Adherence to ideology ignores implementation and realistic constraints on public policy. What we really do when we support such activists is signal our tribal adherence in a political fashion and we simplify real issues in a way that puts us in the moral high ground from which we can use outrage to prop ourselves up. Good governance is flexible and does not adhere to strict ideological constraints. Policy implementation requires compromise and views other actors as legitimate, even if their beliefs and opinions differ from our own. Political activists view their opponents as enemies with illegitimate opinions. Traditional political forces make use of compromise and seek good governance where political amateurs adhere to political ideologies to demonstrate their support and alignment with a specific identity or tribe. As we have moved away from traditional structures in favor of outsiders and amateurs, we have forgotten governance and abandoned real issues and real public policy that could actually be implemented to address issues in American life.
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Negotiations

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 for at least consideration or evaluation. Within a negotiation difficult subject 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 throwing out half formed ideas and considering wildly extreme views as a group. Doing this can be damaging for an individual if filmed and rebroadcasted 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 of what needs to be done.

Participation in Primary Elections

In the United States, out primary elections process 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 otherwise elect. Rather than putting forward a middle of the road candidate, 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 opened up their primary system with the intent of creating a more democratic system with broader participation from the general public. The problem, however, is that the system created does not actually allow most people to 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 voters 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.

 

I also want to focus on the fact that open primaries take away from the strategic thinking and planning that parties try to do in order to position themselves for the future. Thinking strategically is different than thinking tactically, which is a focus on the short term wins and the objectives of “right now”. A large political voting mass is more of a tactical thermometer than a rationally coherent group. When a political party is thinking about who to put forward as a candidate, they can be strategic and nominate someone who has reasonable views that align with party ideology on issues that the country currently faces and will face in the future. When a narrowly interested voting block selects a nomination, their short term desire for a win against the other side and their often unreliable sense about current economic conditions drive the nomination with little real concern about what would be good in the long term.

The Solution to Non-Functioning Politics

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 have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. And 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.  One way to increase participation and expand democracy is to increase voter turnout and make it easier for people to vote. Another strategy we have pushed for has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and to support their candidacies through individual donations and through our actual votes. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. Changing the mix of people participating in governance may chance some of the optics and signal something different to our population, but it does not necessarily address the problems and challenges that people dislike about our government.

 

Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians in his book Political Realism. 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.

 

This does not give us a perfect solution, but it is clear that simply encouraging more people to vote and encouraging more political amateurs with strong political opinions to run for office won’t solve how we distribute and organize power in government. It is important that people recognize that more passion and energy is not necessarily the answer they want. Unfortunately, however, I think we may be stuck with this increasingly angry and outsider political ethos for some time. Very few of us have coherent political ideologies about many issues, but all of us are good at analyzing identities and finding where we fit. Once we have staked our identity claim, we learn what ideologies to support and begin to push toward greater participation among people who share our identities and use the right ideological words to signal their faithfulness to our identity. Breaking this system seems to me to be the place to start to change government as opposed to trying to break the participation structures we dislike inside government.

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.

Privacy In Politics

The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued today. We live in an age where everything can potentially be captured on camera or shared across the country for anyone to view. In the United States we have passed laws opening up the legislative process, freeing up information and communications, and bringing transparency to the political process. Doing this however, has made the actual process of governing and reaching legislative decisions nearly impossible.

Jonathan Rauch writes about this reality in his book Political Realism and he argues that there are some things in government that have bad optics, but are necessary for a functioning political system. He writes, “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” In order to build a coalition, leaders and individuals need to be able to bargain and compromise. A bill that may be incredibly beneficial for one group of people or for a certain state could be completely unfavorable for a different group of people or for individuals in a different jurisdiction than the target population. Anyone representing the group that does not get anything will be politically pressured to oppose the new legislation, even if it makes a huge difference for a politically sympathetic group someplace else. Deal-making, compromise, and making trades allows coalitions to be built in these situations, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous.

Politics requires a delicate balance between transparency and privacy. Too much privacy and we risk corruption, but too much transparency and we risk unending political fights with no path forward for even sensible legislation. In the United States Congress is one of the most open institutions. Congressional emails are saved, debates and meetings are televised, and reporters swarm the capital every day. As a result, our representatives must be open about their processes, goals, and deal-making activities. What we ultimately see, is a branch of government that cannot move forward with major pieces of legislation and has incredibly low favorability.

In contrast, out nation’s Supreme Court is relatively well liked. It is closed from the public and allowed, even expected to have, deliberations in back rooms and behind closed doors. Decisions must be made and when they are, they are usually well accepted. I don’t think congress should operate like the Supreme Court, but I think Rauch’s argument should be taken seriously. We should find ways to allow political decisions to be private and safe for legislators, so deals can be made that help our nation move forward, even if they are politically toxic for some members who must go along with the rest of congress.

Political Monopolies

Throughout his book Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that our government needs a little less sunlight and transparency to allow for good governance. His ideas are that too many rules and restrictions, too many provisions for transparency and clearness, and too many changes to make our system more democratic have led to a point where necessary parts of politics cannot take place, and as a result, our government cannot function effectively. Politics (thinking about human behavior dating back to our first human ancestors) is about coalition building, creating alliances, and cooperating for safety, growth, and group survival. When a government’s political activities have to be entirely out in the open these types of activities are hindered, and as a result, we get showmanship and political battles as acts of public coalition building. Real governance, compromise, and negotiation become impossible.

While Rauch thinks that we need more of a cover in our system for these political behaviors, he does understand how we got to this point and he does examine some of the shortcomings of our old political system which compelled people to impose such restrictions on modern day politics. When looking at political machines specifically, Rauch highlights some of the negative aspects of organized political coalitions. He writes,

“Machines seek monopolies. In order to preserve power, they will seek to manipulate rules and rule-making (redistricting, voting rules, and the like) to shape the political battlefield in their favor—often with the goal of raising barriers to entry for would-be political competitors. They also will try to get their hands on as many formal levers of power as they can, using each to reinforce the others.”

This description of political machines reminds me of modern day corporations. Rather than simply looking to out-compete and out-innovate their sector and competitors, many firms today seem to prefer gaming the system and industry to limit competition. Often corporations will argue for increased regulation and requirements because it makes it harder for new firms to enter the market and disrupt current markets. Firms also look to build monopolies and diversify across different sectors to capture markets and establish a status quo that favors their bottom line rather than the interests of society or the furthering of new products and technology. Rauch argues that the danger of our old political system of machine politics mirrors the danger of modern markets. The political landscape in one sense becomes an economic landscape, with different political coalitions competing for greater market-share (vote share) and influence.

What I find interesting and revelatory about this point of view is that ideology and beliefs take a back seat to group dominance and interests. When we operate in machines, what we favor is the preservation of our coalition, not necessarily any specific ideology. Just like in a market we may prefer a specific brand and gravitate continuously toward that brand even if competitor brands introduce better products. Often we will stick with our familiar brand and highlight the good things about the brand we like while downplaying the shortcomings. Rauch’s demonstration of machine politics reveals that we do this in our political alliances as well, favoring rules and power grabs that help our side while remaining critical and opposed to any actions taken by our competitors.

What Rauch highlights here is part of why we have implemented rules that make politics more transparent and clear. The political actions of machines are not about issues but rather power, and we are uncomfortable with that. Unfortunately however, we humans operate in this tribal manner, and without these political power games, we don’t seem to be able to coalesce around issues to foster good governance. Somewhere in the middle of where we are now and the machine politics of the past is where good governance can live and thrive, addressing our political issues while engaging the public and building teams to move government policy forward.