The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is akin to a gruesome Hollywood slasher movie. It is immensely entertaining but, at the same time, profoundly disturbing and episodically horrifying. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Washington to be born?
The irony is that many of those who are most appalled by the crude, anti-intellectual, lowest-common-denominator theater that will likely be on display during tonight’s GOP debate are the ones most responsible for giving it birth. That is the message delivered by Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Rauch in a (free) e-book he published last year titled Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy.
The nub of the problem, Rauch argues, is that well-intentioned reforms—designed to break the power of political machines like Tammany Hall to grease palms, roll logs, reward loyalists, control parties, and frustrate outsiders—have produced a total breakdown in the ability to govern.
If political actors cannot govern, then the public can be forgiven for thinking that the solution is to bring in non-political actors like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and pseudo-political actors like Ted Cruz who come not to govern, but to shock and awe. If insiders cannot deploy political power, then outsiders with 527 mega-operations will attempt to fill the void. And if establishment actors—or anyone else, for that matter—are prohibited from directing the switchyard, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see freight-trains of populist crazy barreling down the tracks.
Rauch draws on a growing body of academic literature to argue that governing is extremely difficult and politics is thus, by necessity, transactional. But deal-making and power-brokering do not happen by themselves. As James Q. Wilson notes, “If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great.”
That’s where the political machines of yesteryear came in. They were hierarchical organizations shorn of ideological principle that disciplined foes and rewarded friends to facilitate the maintenance of power. They favored insiders, prized professionalism, and served as monopoly gatekeepers between the public and the government in as many venues as possible. The machines prized longevity, so they had surprisingly long time horizons. They fostered cooperation via non-ideological transactions and found that opacity facilitated the complex deal-making necessary for its ends. It was sausage making at its finest … and ugliest.
For all of their warts, the political machines were necessary evils. “Show me a political system without machine politics,” says Rauch, “and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift toward ungovernable extremism.”
Ideological activists killed the machines by promoting the primary system (taking the power to nominate political leaders away from the machine), restricting the flow of money into party coffers (starving the machines of resources), preventing coordination between party organizations and candidates (denuding the ability of machine professionals to assist allies), dozens of transparency and disclosure laws (inhibiting machine-directed deal-making), killing Congressional seniority systems (destroying the machine’s ability to establish political boundaries and facilitate compromise), and eliminating earmarks and pork (stripping machines of the ability to buy support).
In their stead have come unconstrained private pseudo-machines. These ideologically driven operations have resources that dwarf those retained by what’s left of the establishment machines (if they can even be called that), and even those deployed by the political candidates themselves. Even so, they have far less power than the machines of old, because one does not need to go through them to enter politics or exercise power. They are also less concerned with holding political power for its own sake—which would entail compromise, moderation, and the like—and more concerned with remaking government in their own image.
Progressive reformers are not blind to this desultory state of affairs. Their remedies, however, would make it even harder for transactional politics to re-emerge. To do that, we must move in a very different direction. Alas, the policy options that might fit the bill are likely to make political idealists rather uncomfortable. They include:
- Lifting all restrictions, except disclosure requirements, on donations to political parties;
- Allowing Congressional leaders, committee chairs, and ranking members to raise unlimited donations for their leadership PACs;
- Eliminating restrictions preventing political parties from coordinating with candidates and outside groups;
- Making it more difficult to get on the ballot in party primaries and/or give political parties more control over ballot access;
- Removing the prohibition against Congressional earmarks; and
- Requiring that bills passed out of committee be automatically placed on a calendar that propels them to floor consideration without delay.
Even so, crusading idealists need a plausible avenue for political success. Otherwise, they’re simply wasting their time. Political rules that produce dysfunction and gridlock cripple the ability of idealists to deliver the reforms they seek.
Of course, if you believe that “governing” is a euphemism for expanding the state and deploying force to violate individual rights and liberties, then you’re likely happy with gridlock and dysfunction. But libertarians who instinctively feel this way should think again. Gridlock means the status quo, and libertarians are probably more unhappy with the status quo than most. If the libertarian project is simply about preventing further violations of rights and liberties, then granted, an inability to govern can be our friend. If the libertarian project is about delivering liberty-friendly reforms, however, then dysfunction is our enemy. Libertarians have a long list of extremely ambitious reforms they would dearly love to enact. How is that supposed to happen in a world in which governments can’t govern?
The same goes for machine efforts to marginalize political outsiders. Libertarians are probably the ultimate outsiders, so how can this be in their interest? Alas, the belief that opening up the system (whether via term limits, easy ballot access, direct primaries, or the like) will produce legions of libertarian Cincinnatuses has proven a fantasy. The voice of the people sounds a lot more like Donald Trump and Huey Long than it does Milton Friedman. Small political minorities have a better chance of exercising power in less democratic venues than by repairing to vox populi.
The fundamental challenge for those persuaded by Rauch is that the agenda that naturally follows cuts against the grain of democracy. His is an explicit call to take power from the people and give it to political insiders … and self-interested, self-aggrandizing insiders at that. That’s a pretty heavy lift in today’s political climate, where those very insiders are deemed the root of all evil.
Be that as it may, the consequences of stripping away the power of party insiders are hard to ignore. It will be in full view in South Carolina tonight.