We have evolved a system of politics where incumbents can overwhelmingly win elections, yet we are continually dissatisfied with how they govern. How can this be so? Is this just one “bad batch” of politicians, or is there something systemic in our politics that dooms us to perpetuate this pattern? In this blog post we will discuss the disconnect between winning and governing.
Two Competing Ecosystems
Like many organizations, the United States political system has evolved a set of rules for retaining power. The system does this by winning elections for either the Republican eco-system or the Democratic ecosystem. These so called ecosystems consist of a set of national and state party organizations, candidates, think tanks, consultants, lobbyists, media outlets, aligned special interests, etc.
The tactics best suited to win elections differ markedly from the process needed to govern effectively. What does this look like in practice?
The Politics of Fear/The Role of “Show Votes”
President Donald Trump didn’t invent the politics of fear and division. The concept rests on the recognition that presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason and present a critical assessment of policies they might otherwise abhor.
When you are the minority party, you can pass “show votes” that put you on the record favoring all types of changes.
For example, between 2010- 2017, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted 70 times to “Repeal and Replace” Obamacare. They did this knowing President Obama would veto their efforts and they didn’t have the votes to override him.
The cynic’s perspective is that House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats can now send the Republican-controlled Senate every kind of progressive legislation, knowing it will never be enacted into law.
But it gets worse: When you are the minority party, you can do more than make empty gestures; you can actively obstruct as an essential element of your strategy.
In 1995, Newt Gingrich is credited with making minority-party obstructionism an explicit strategy. “The minority wins when congress accomplished less” he declared.
No one epitomizes obstructionism better than Senator Mitch McConnell. “I am a proud guardian of gridlock,” McConnell said during the Clinton presidency.
What about McConnell’s goals during the Obama Presidency? “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” McConnell said in 2010, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
What about Real Reform?
The Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is but one notable recent example of the systems bias toward tearing things down and the inability to provide positive solutions. This is not just a Republican issue. It’s systemic to the current structure of pseudo-competition and a failure of accountability.
Simpson Bowles’ inability to create a bipartisan proposal for a sustainable federal budget in 2010 under President Obama is another striking example of a failure to address national priorities. As reported by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter in their landmark research, “While there was bipartisan support [for Simpson-Bowles] from numerous legislators, this wasn’t enough. In practice, neither party was willing to go against its party orthodoxy, or give up or even compromise on any if its special interests.”
This System is Entrenched by a Set of Rules that Works for Politicians
This system is held in place by a set of rules/practices that both the RNC and DNC collude to maintain. The two major ecosystems protect their shared interests by perpetuating three prominent features of the business of politics.
Incumbents keep the system in place because it’s working for them (but not the country). As we have noted, one measure of success is the high reelection rates. Another measure is the amount of money pouring into the political system.
Unfreeze the System/Change the Rules
We at Change the Rules believe that the primary problems with the U.S. political system are structural. Given this, we believe the most powerful solutions involve changing this structure to create systematic accountability for results. Results that actually address our most important local, state and national problems.
We believe that structure largely determines behavior. In politics, we have a set of overwhelmingly well-intentioned people stuck in an interlocking set of institutionalized self-interests. It’s difficult to “repeal and replace” this system from within.
To learn more, go to www.changetherules.org