Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy

Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy

by Jonathan Rauch

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Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy by Jonathan Rauch

A free eBook that asks hard questions about why politics once worked, and how today’s politics do not.

What if idealistic reform itself is a culprit?

In Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch argues that well-meaning efforts to stem corruption and increase participation have stripped political leaders and organizations of the tools they need to forge compromises and make them stick. Fortunately, he argues, much of the damage can be undone by rediscovering political realism. Instead of trying to
drive private money away out of politics, how about channeling it to strengthen parties and leaders? Instead of doubling down on direct democracy, how about giving political professionals more influence over candidate nominations? Rauch shows how a new generation of realist thinkers is using timetested truths about politics and government to build reforms for our time.

Rich with contrarian insights and fresh thinking, Political Realism is an eye-opening challenge to today’s conventional wisdom about what ails American government and politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815727392
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 36
Sales rank: 269,454
File size: 280 KB

About the Author

Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor with National Journal and The Atlantic, is the author of several books and many articles on public policy, culture, and government. He is winner of the 2005 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary and the 2010 National Headliner Award for magazine columns. His books include Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working (PublicAffairs, 1999) and Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books, 2004).

Read an Excerpt

Political Realism

How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy

By Jonathan Rauch

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2739-2


In December of 2014, progressives and Tea Partiers found common ground—not something that happens every day. Congressional leaders had attached to an omnibus spending bill a rider increasing by a factor of almost ten the amount that individuals could donate to the national parties for conventions and certain other purposes. Progressives denounced the measure as among "the most corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted," a gift to special interests and plutocrats. Tea Partiers denounced the measure as "a sneaky power grab by establishment Republicans designed to undermine outside conservative groups," a gift to incumbents and party insiders. For quite different reasons, it seems, these two antagonistic factions managed to agree that the flow of money to party professionals is a menace.

It was a small but telling instance of one of America's oddest but most consequential political phenomena: the continuous and systematic onslaught against political machines and insiders by progressivism, populism, and libertarianism—three very different political reform movements which nonetheless all regard transactional politics as at best a necessary evil and more often as corrupt and illegitimate. This attack, though well intentioned, has badly damaged the country's governability, a predictable result (and one accurately predicted more than fifty years ago). Fortunately, much of the damage can be undone by rediscovering political realism.

The politicos of our grandparents' generation did a pretty good job of governing the country, despite living in a world of bosses and back rooms and unlimited donations, and many of them understood some home truths which today's political reformers have too often overlooked or suppressed. In particular, they understood that transactional politics—the everyday give-and-take of dickering and compromise—is the essential work of governing and that government, and thus democracy, won't work if leaders can't make deals and make them stick. They would have looked with bafflement and dismay upon a world where even deals that command majority support within both political parties—something as basic as keeping the government or the Homeland Security Department open—set off intraparty confrontations and governmental crises instead of being worked out among responsible adults. Not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.

Today, a growing number of scholars and practitioners are bringing new sophistication to our grandparents' realism. Though they use diverse approaches and vocabularies, they can be meaningfully regarded as an emerging school, one characterized by respect for grubby but indispensable transactional politics and by skepticism toward purism, amateurism, and idealistic political reforms. This essay builds on their work. In particular, it argues that

—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 insiders' control of money, nominations, negotiations, and other essential tools of political leadership.

—reformers' fixations on corruption and participation, although perhaps appropriate a long time ago, have become destabilizing and counterproductive, contributing to the rise of privatized pseudo-machines that make governing more difficult and politics less accountable.

—although no one wants to or could bring back the likes of Tammany Hall, much can be done to restore a more sensible balance by removing impediments which reforms have placed in the way of transactional politics and machine-building.

—political realism, while coming in many flavors, is emerging as a coherent school of analysis and offers new directions for a reform conversation which has run aground on outdated and unrealistic assumptions.

And where better to begin than with Tammany Hall?

Origins: J. Q. Wilson's Prophetic Critique of Amateurism

What I'm calling political realism (and will define more specifically in the next section) has roots as deep as Aristotle, Thucydides, and Machiavelli. In more modern times, it found a colorful exponent in the person of George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924), a Tammany Hall functionary who held forth on the virtues of patronage employment (at one point he simultaneously held four government jobs, drawing salaries for three of them) and "honest graft," by which he meant insider deals rewarding political loyalists and which he distinguished from purely personal corruption. "The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin' his organization or his city," Plunkitt said. "The politician looks after his own interests, the organization's interests, and the city's interests all at the same time." Reformers who ignored the distinction and tried to stamp out honest graft, he believed, courted anarchy. "First, this great and glorious country was built up by political parties; second, parties can't hold together if their workers don't get the offices when they win; third, if the parties go to pieces, the government they built up must go to pieces, too; fourth, then there'll be h— to pay."

Plunkitt, of course, lost the argument about patronage jobs; the civil service was professionalized, and we are all glad of it. In the twentieth century, politicians found ways to do business without recourse to no-show jobs, featherbedding, kickbacks, and insider dealing. But Plunkitt remains relevant: he reminds us that governments, or at least well-functioning governments, rely not merely on formal legal mechanisms but also on informal political structures and intricate systems of incentives. No informal structures and incentives? No governance.

For all his charm, Plunkitt lacked the sophistication of James Q. Wilson, whose 1962 book, The Amateur Democrat, eminently deserves rediscovery today. Wilson, then beginning a great career in political science, looked in detail at power struggles involving Democratic Party political clubs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The book is a masterpiece of qualitative research, and I won't attempt to do justice to its fine-textured rendering of mid-century American micro-politics. It is also, however, rich with observations and insights which are as pertinent today as when they were first published and which are foundational to my understanding of political realism.

Wilson mapped conflicts between what he called amateurs (today we might call them activists) and political professionals (to day's "political class") over control of local political organizations. The two groups despised each other, despite being nominally on the same side (all Democrats). "A keen antipathy inevitably develops between the new and the conventional politicians. The former accuse the latter of being at best 'hacks' and 'organization men' and at worst 'bosses' and 'machine leaders.' The latter retort by describing the former as 'dilettantes,' 'crackpots,' 'outsiders,' and 'hypocritical do-gooders.'"

Like Plunkitt, Wilson sees parties, incentive structures, and political hierarchies as essential not just to electioneering but also to governing. Parties, he says, have at least three functions in democratic government: "they recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government." He emphasizes the importance of the last function: "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." Tension between professionals and amateurs inevitably arises because "all three party functions will in some degree be performed differently by amateur as contrasted to professional politicians."

Professionals are repeat players. They work the system for a living and are accountable for electoral victory and sustainable power arrangements; otherwise, they are out of a job. Thus they think in terms of the realities of power and they "develop a certain detachment towards politics and a certain immunity to its excitement and its outcomes." To appearances, and indeed often enough in reality, professionals are calculating, even cynical: all the more so in that the professional "is preoccupied with the outcome of politics in terms of winning or losing. Politics, to him, consists of concrete questions and specific persons who must be dealt with in a manner that will 'keep everybody happy' and thus minimize the possibility of defeat at the next election.... Although he is not oblivious to the ends implied by political outcomes, he sees ... the good of society as the by-product of efforts that are aimed, not at producing the good society, but at gaining power and place for one's self and one's party."

Professionals prefer to traffic in interests, not ideas. They feel more at ease with transaction and negotiation than with the politics of issues. "Issues will be avoided except in the most general terms or if the party is confident that a majority supports its position." Professionals are not oblivious to ideology or principle, but they tend to be in politics for extrinsic rewards like power, status, sociability, the fun of the game, and tangible benefits, including pecuniary ones. Being loyal, paying dues, and respecting the system matter. Hierarchy matters. The system matters. Writing contemporaneously with Wilson about the struggle between Democratic party regulars and reformers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the regulars with characteristic vividness: In their world, politics "is a decent, quiet, family affair, and the highest priority is assigned to those things which keep it so: patronage, small and not-so-small favors, the strict observance of the complex prerogatives of party members on various levels. The Democratic Party is the life of men such as [state party chairman Mike] Prendergast, and ... they have a sharp dislike for those who disrupt its orderly, hierarchical functions." As for issues, those "are viewed as essentially divisive influences that one would hope to do without." (Moynihan, being Moynihan, can't resist adding puckishly: "In the regular party, conferences on issues are regarded as women's work.")

Amateurs—"activists," as we now often call them—are very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics. "The amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action," Wilson writes. Far from taking a detached attitude, the amateur "sees each battle as a 'crisis,' and each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause." The choice of candidates and leaders, for the amateur, should be based on their commitment to principles and policies rather than on personal loyalty or party label or parochial advantage. Parties, rather than being "neutral agents" to mobilize majorities and gain power, should be "the sources of program and the agents of social change."

Amateurs not only love issues, they need them as a source of legitimacy and cohesion, and they will manufacture them if none are at hand: "Whereas professional politicians attempt to avoid issues because the loyalty of their workers is commanded by other means, amateurs generate issues because there seems to be no other way to command these loyalties." Because legitimacy comes from fighting for what's right, politicians who compromise for the sake of interest or power have sold their souls and lost their legitimacy. For amateurs, justice means not a transactional outcome but fidelity to an abstract ideal, like the public interest. They are suspicious of compromise, loyalty, insiders, inducements, deals. Being amateurs, they typically have jobs outside of politics or enter the political fray only temporarily, a fact which they will trumpet as a source of disinterest and political chastity. (In New York, Wilson notes, anti-Tammany reformers in the 1950s were heavily drawn from Protestant and Jewish middle-class young professionals.) Not being repeat players, they can afford to play single hands for high stakes, and they cannot easily be held accountable for losing.

It goes without saying that most real-life actors exhibit traits of both amateurs and professionals, and any system which excluded either type would be morally bankrupt and politically unsustainable. Wilson saw value in both kinds of politics. And he understood that the old-style city machines were finished, though the type of politics that they embodied survived in etiolated forms: "The ethic of the machine persists, in modified form, in the habits of professional politicians for whom the value of organization and leadership are indisputable [and] personal loyalties and commitments remain indispensable." He also saw, however, that amateurism was succeeding in stigmatizing professionalism as corrupt and professionals as hacks, a development that he looked upon with foreboding. As parties became more ideological, he foresaw, they would also become more oppositional. In a remarkably prescient passage, he says:

Most generally, the amateur believes that political parties ought to be programmatic, internally democratic, and largely or entirely free of a reliance on material incentives such as patronage. A programmatic party would offer a real policy alternative to the opposition party. A vote for the party would be as much, or more, a deliberate vote for a set of clear and specific proposals, linked by a common point of view or philosophy of government, as it would be a vote for a set of leaders. The programmatic basis of one party would, to some extent, compel an expression of purpose by the opposing party and thus lead toward the realignment of both parties nationally, with liberals in one and conservatives in the other.

Wilson made that prediction years before the great partisan realignment along ideological lines, before modern computerized gerrymandering, and certainly before the Tea Party. Even more eerily prescient was his prediction that issue-based politics would lead increasingly to gridlock:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one's party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party's ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

It is hard to imagine a better description of where we find ourselves today.

Wilson, as one of his students pointed out to me recently, did not, in his long career, circle back to the themes of The Amateur Democrat. One can imagine why. For all its prescience, the book has a valedictory air, as if observing the closing of an epoch in American politics or the turning of a page. In many ways today's world is transformed. The electorate is more polarized and ideological than in the early 1960s; when a politician says—as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did recently—that ideas and policy are what politics is "supposed to be all about," the statement is uncontroversial. Issue-free politics today is unthinkable; in that sense, we are all amateurs now. Interest groups are more numerous and professionalized today than in the early 1960s, which complicates governing and blurs the distinction that Wilson drew between the amateur and the professional. Activists and ideologues are commonly lifers, ensconced in durable organizations and career-long jobs: purists with paychecks. The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist exemplifies the phenomenon: he is simultaneously an outside agitator and a thirty-year Washington fixture. In that sense, it might be said that we are all professionals now. And the public's expectations for politics have changed. Gone is the trust that government will "do the right thing," replaced by an assumption that transactional politics is a rigged game played by and for special interests. For all those reasons and others besides, the space for transactional politics has shrunk since 1962.


Excerpted from Political Realism by Jonathan Rauch. Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
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