Jonathan Rauch on the uncomfortable necessity of middlemen in transactional politics

In his recent work Jonathan Rauch has been writing about what I’ve unwillingly concluded are some uncomfortable home truths about politics. In a lot of places, especially the U.S., politics is more counterproductively fraught and fractious than it has been in the past century. This is true despite a near century of Progressive and populist reforms intended to make political processes more efficient, transparent, and democratic. Rauch summarizes his argument in his headline cover article in the Atlantic this month, How American Politics Went Insane. He argues that these well-intended reforms have over-labeled too many actions in politics as corruption, have changed political processes in ways that make politicians less accountable to each other, and have reduced the ability of political parties to act as coordinating focal points (AKA “machines”) to bring about cooperative processes and outcomes. This article is based on a longer ebook, Political Realism: How hacks, machines, big money, and back-room deals can strengthen American democracy.

Rauch argues, from a perspective called political realism, that political power is valuable and that transactional politics is an inescapable reality in a functioning constitutional republic. Transactional politics means give-and-take, bargaining within the process, reciprocal back-scratching to achieve compromises among elected representatives with vastly different desired outcomes. Rauch argues that an unintended consequence of transparency and democracy reforms is that shedding sunlight on these processes actually means they don’t happen, leading to worse outcomes. He articulated this point extremely well in the Free Thoughts podcast a couple of weeks ago; if you want to consider Rauch’s ideas here this podcast is a must-listen (and I recommend Free Thoughts highly, it’s one of the 3-4 podcasts I listen to regularly).

I have a hard time accepting this, and you may also, but I have to admit grudgingly that he’s right and the reason he’s right is realism rather than idealism. Take as given that perfect foresight, Pareto improving policies (that make everyone better off and no one worse off), and perfectly efficient outcomes are impossible. That means it’s very likely that implementing Policy A will lead to good outcomes A+ and bad outcomes A-. If A+ was intended and the effect is big, then the policy has had its intended effect … but what if A- is large, and/or A- actually gets in the way of achieving A+? That’s how I interpret Rauch’s argument. Now apply that to a political process. Closed-door bipartisan meetings achieve negotiated compromise outcomes. No one’s happy from an idealist perspective, but everyone gets some of what they wanted, and in a complex and diverse society that is probably the best feasible outcome. Then implement policy reforms targeted at reducing corruption (which the closed-door process obscures) and increasing transparency. Those closed-door meetings happen less, and less substantive negotiation occurs, leading to less compromise. The partisan divide widens with no process for narrowing it.

Rauch argues that even if you are a libertarian who thinks politics is a dirty word (full disclosure: that would be me), moving from that idealist stance to a realist stance acknowledges that, as Mike Munger says, politics is unavoidable and an inherently human institution because there are situations in which we have to choose in groups and share the outcome of that choice. He contends that these reforms have made it harder for politicians to do the constructive parts of their jobs, the valuable uses of the political power we vest in them in a constitutional republic.

One thing I appreciate in particular is how Rauch pulls in intellectual and political history in his arguments. He says that no one has a greater appreciation of James Madison’s insights and accomplishments than he has, but that Madison and the other Federalists and framers did not consider the importance of institutions that make politicians accountable to each other. That’s his theory for why political parties emerge, to create institutions for intertemporal accountability of politicians to each other. He articulates this point very well in the podcast and both articles. He also discusses the history of Tammany Hall and the impetus to political reform to stem corruption.

What does Rauch recommend as a way forward?

Although returning parties and middlemen to anything like their 19th-century glory is not conceivable—or, in today’s America, even desirable—strengthening parties and middlemen is very doable. Restrictions inhibiting the parties from coordinating with their own candidates serve to encourage political wildcatting, so repeal them. Limits on donations to the parties drive money to unaccountable outsiders, so lift them. Restoring the earmarks that help grease legislative success requires nothing more than a change in congressional rules. And there are all kinds of ways the parties could move insiders back to the center of the nomination process. If they wanted to, they could require would-be candidates to get petition signatures from elected officials and county party chairs, or they could send unbound delegates to their conventions (as several state parties are doing this year), or they could enhance the role of middlemen in a host of other ways.

Building party machines and political networks is what career politicians naturally do, if they’re allowed to do it. So let them. I’m not talking about rigging the system to exclude challengers or prevent insurgencies. I’m talking about de-rigging the system to reduce its pervasive bias against middlemen. Then they can do their job, thereby making the world safe for challengers and insurgencies.

Unfortunately, although the mechanics of de-rigging are fairly straightforward, the politics of it are hard.

These are challenging, thought-provoking, contrarian ideas, worth considering.

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