Recent high-profile failures by the Secret Service and at the Veterans Health Administration have given plenty of ammunition to late-night comedians and conservative talk-show hosts who delight in riffing on the federal government’s stumbles. Less dramatic, but just as troubling to anyone who cares about effective government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided much more systematic and telling evidence of federal management malpractice in a report to Congress last month: “Managing For Results: Agencies’ Trends in the Use of Performance Information to Make Decisions.”
GAO’s report shows that when it comes to federal agencies using performance information to manage their work more effectively, things are not getting better—in fact if anything they are getting worse. Comparing 2007 and 2013 surveys of 4,400 federal managers across the 24 largest federal agencies regarding the use of performance information in their work, GAO found that “that most agencies showed no statistically significant change in use during this period….only two agencies experienced a statistically significant improvement in the use of performance information. During the same period, four agencies experienced a statistically significant decline in the use of performance information.” (It’s worth noting that one of the regressing agencies was the Department of Veterans Affairs.)
Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? It is tempting to point the finger squarely at the President. After all, he runs the executive branch, and the buck stops there, right? Certainly a big part of it does. And, as the botched healthcare.gov rollout showed, this administration has stumbled on the implementation of even some of its most important priorities.
But Congress is also to blame. GAO, the independent and scrupulously non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, has been observing and reporting shortcomings in how federal agencies use (or fail to use) basic performance information for years. In 1993, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which required that federal agencies for the first time engage in the basic disciplines of goal setting, performance measurement, and reporting. In 2010, Congress passed another law modernizing GPRA. A major thrust of both pieces of legislation was to ensure Congress has better information about executive branch performance to inform its own deliberations.
A wag might suggest that GAO should survey members of Congress and their staffs to ascertain just how much information about agency performance really matters to them when they are authorizing and appropriating funds for the work of these agencies. My strong hypothesis would be that such information is even less relevant in Congress than it is in the executive branch.
How can Congress better focus on and use agency performance information in its own decision-making? The problem here is that this requires qualities that are in increasingly short supply on Capitol Hill: deep policy expertise, inquiring minds, a functional committee system, a determination not just to surface problems but solve them, and—not least—a willingness to work with people with whom one disagrees.
We have been told by several observers and allies that these attributes are those of a bygone Congress, and that productive legislative oversight of the executive branch is dead in a polarized age. But we are not ready to write it off. It’s hard for us to see how we can have effective government, problem-solving in Congress, or representative democracy, for that matter, without it.
The Madison Initiative has thus made a set of grants to explore whether it might be possible to improve congressional oversight and the broader nexus between Congress and the executive branch. We are supporting a revitalization of the Project on Government Oversight’s well-regarded bipartisan Congressional Oversight Training for staff and committees. We are also funding the Partnership for Public Service to assess where and how executive branch dysfunction could be reduced by improving how Congress functions, and what it would take to bring this about. We will keep you posted on what we are learning through the work of these grantees.
How can foundations help grantees measure and improve their performance? This is a tough question for philanthropy, and we have wrestled with it in the Madison Initiative. While foundations routinely express their determination to drive outcomes and impact, too often their interactions with grantees on issues of performance measurement are counter-productive. The more insistent foundations are on accountability for results from those they fund, the greater the temptation grantees face to show how well they are doing and how much impact they are having—imperatives that tend to undermine the sustained patterns of measurement, reflection, and learning that are needed for ongoing improvement in outcomes. I have taken to calling this dynamic the performance measurement trap.
With the advice of our developmental evaluators at the Center for Evaluation Innovation, we recently refined our grant application forms in an effort to break out of this trap. The rest of this post is a verbatim excerpt of what we are now asking of prospective grantees with respect to performance measurement. We’d welcome your feedback so we can continue to fine tune our approach:
One of our most important goals in supporting your organization is to help you measure, reflect on, and learn from your results so that you can continue to focus and improve your impact. Insofar as our grantees are able to do this, so can we. But this requires a different approach to measurement and reporting than is typical for foundations and grantees. In this alternative approach, the primary constituency is your organization, not ours. The primary purpose is supporting your improvement in the future, not reporting to us on your performance in the past. The primary disposition is a spirit of inquiry and openness, not of advocating for your organization and trying to put your best foot forward.
We appreciate grantees that approach their work with the understanding that things don’t always work out as planned, and that their grasp on the circumstances they are trying to change in the world is inevitably imperfect and in need of adjustment. Conversely, we will be inclined toward skepticism with grantees whose worldview and strategy holds up year after year, for whom everything is materializing as they had intended, and who only have success stories to share.
To help establish the right learning dynamics, we would like you to situate what you will be measuring and how you will be measuring it in the context of the hypotheses your work is in effect testing. Whatever your strategies or plans, you are no doubt working on one or more hypotheses through which you are seeking to bring about positive change(s) in the world. You are essentially saying, ‘if we do XX, then YY will happen.’
Two friends of the Madison Initiative have just written books that defend the importance of spirited partisanship for a healthy democracy, cutting against the grain of conventional wisdom. Let me give you a sampling of their arguments in the hope that it will convince you to read these timely contributions in their entirety.
Russ Muirhead is a political theorist at Dartmouth College and the author of The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age. In his preface, Muirhead argues that, “Rather than expect that partisanship can be overcome, or transcended, or simply turned off in those places where its presence would be corrupting, it is better—more true to the real possibilities for democratic politics—to differentiate between more elevated and more base expressions of party spirit…what politics needs is not less partisanship, but better partisanship.” In the rest of the book Muirhead defends “a kind of party spirit that is worn lightly, one that is open to facts and revision, and tolerant of—even appreciative of—opponents.”
Muirhead acknowledges that his fellow democratic theorists have not as a rule looked favorably on partisanship, viewing it as a partial conception or distortion of the common good. But he highlights two vital roles that parties play in democratic politics.
First, the ideal of equality underpinning democracy presumes the essential morality of majority rule. Political parties are what enable such majorities to be established; they thereby give democratic politics its legitimacy. Muirhead notes that partisans have to balance what they will stand for with who it will lead them to stand with (and vice versa) in their quest for a majority. This is a morally fraught but unavoidable judgment for those seeking to form democratically legitimate majorities.
Second, Muirhead, invoking John Stuart Mill, argues that, given human psychology and the limits of reason, democratic politics needs the clarifying contest of opposing truths, of “standing antagonisms” between those who emphasize tradition or progress, freedom or equality. Parties are the institutions that form around and defend their versions of these truths, and per Mill, “No whole truth is possible but by combining the points of view of all the fractional truths.”
Jason Grumet, President of the Bipartisan Policy Center, underscores this point in City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy. “Ideologically driven institutions serve an essential role in the political process. Our democracy depends on the collision between different interests and political parties.” Grumet goes on to observe, however, that “in a divided nation, ‘all or nothing’ politics have an all but certain outcome—and rarely is it ‘all.’” The better alternative is what Grumet terms “constructive partisanship,” which rests on personal relationships among partisans prepared to practice “the dark art of principled compromise.”
It is tempting to think that in our current age the political debate has finally raged out of control (mea culpa), but Grumet rightly points out that American history has long been characterized by extreme conflict. “What has changed of late is that the essential tension between partisanship and familiarity has fallen out of balance. The challenge for us, moving forward, is to rediscover that equilibrium.”
The way forward, Grumet argues, is decidedly not the reformers’ well-trodden path of more transparency, campaign finance reform, new ethics laws, etc., which he argues convincingly have produced much of the dysfunction we are trying now to unravel.
Grumet’s alternative solution is almost homely in its simplicity. Leaders need to take the risk, not insubstantial in the current environment, of investing in and restoring the mutual understanding and personal connections that used to enable the policy-making process to more or less function. It is easy to scoff at this, but harder to disagree with the basic truth that “whether a condominium board, a university, or a national legislature, human relationships form the core of our institutions.”
We have heard plenty of criticism of this particular line of our grant-making from those who argue that it reflects a quaint and even naïve view of partisan politics. We aren’t suggesting that the cultivation of cross-party relationships and dialog will be sufficient to address the pathologies of polarization, but we do regard it as a necessary part of the equation.
It’s safe to say that we can all remember where we happened to be on this day 13 years ago. For my part, I was in a non-descript hotel room in a non-descript corporate park in Thousand Oaks, California. I had flown to LAX the day before to meet with a client in the bio-tech industry. I got up very early that morning to do a conference call with two merchant energy traders based in Atlanta. I was hoping they would become my next clients. About halfway through the call, the trading floor they had dialed in from was taken over, first by pagers going off, then frantic shouts. They just said, “The floor is going nuts, we gotta go,” and hung up. Not quite sure what had happened, I clicked on the TV to find out, and so I saw the scenes that horrified and transfixed us all that September morning.
The violence of that day pushed my normal preoccupations with client work and commercial prospects into the background. I experienced, along with many others, unprecedented feelings of solidarity with my fellow citizens and a corresponding sense of patriotism. I received the kindness of strangers and sought in turn to share it with others. For all of the death and loss that 9/11 rained down, it felt like we were living in a different country, one that had painfully rediscovered some misplaced but vital truths.
The surge of connection and affiliation that we felt in the wake of 9/11 was mirrored in a sudden and dramatic increase in approval of Congress. As this Gallup chart shows, from 1974 through 1997, approval ratings for Congress fluctuated, but consistently stayed in the 20-40% range. Beginning in 1998, approval ratings had begun edging up and were oscillating between the low forties and high fifties. A poll conducted by Gallup days before the attack found that 42% of Americans approved of “the way Congress is doing its job.” One month after 9/11, Gallup found that Congress’s approval rating had doubled, to 84%.
In many respects this upsurge is not surprising. Americans were rallying around their government and its institutions in the aftermath of the attack by Al Qaeda. A Gallup survey tracking public trust in government also showed a sudden increase, peaking at 60% in October 2011.
Perhaps the sharp spike in the public’s approval of Congress was due in part to the fact that the divisiveness, partisanship, and frustration that tend to emanate from the institution faded into the background for a time, enabling many of us to appreciate anew the ideas and values that the institution was meant to embody. These ideas and values were suddenly under assault—literally so with the subsequent discovery of Anthrax-laden letters in the congressional mailroom. It was natural to approve of and thus affirm what Congress stood for in that moment.
But the chart also shows that, just as our newly felt social solidarity faded as the months stretched on after the attacks, so did congressional approval ratings. Within a year they had returned to pre-9/11 levels, and—with the exception of a brief uptick in the early days of the first Obama Administration—they have declined steadily ever since. For the last three years, less than one in five Americans have approved of Congress. At the height of last year’s government shut down, not even one in ten did.
The secular downward slope to the recent nadir raises questions about what will happen when future attacks or emergencies hit the country—as they surely will—in ways that put the resilience of representative democracy to the test. Will we be able to rally around our system of government in general and Congress in particular from such a low baseline of support? Will we be able to respond effectively as a nation if we cannot? Will Congress be able to act, and if it does will its actions have sufficient legitimacy? These are questions we should consider on this day, and in the days that lie ahead.
Five years ago my friends and Bridgespan Group colleagues Ann Goggins-Gregory and Don Howard coined a memorable phrase and plumbed a troublesome phenomenon in their essay, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.” It laid bare the challenge of supporting the organizational infrastructure that nonprofits need to function effectively. Yes, Goggins-Gregory and Howard were talking without shame about the “o” word, as in overhead. They noted that that the starvation cycle “starts with funders’ unrealistic expectations about how much running a nonprofit costs, and results in nonprofits misrepresenting their costs while skimping on vital systems—acts that feed funders skewed beliefs.” They went on to note that if the cycle is ever going to be broken, “funders must take the lead.”
My brief time as a grantmaker has only served to validate the extent of this problem and the reinforcing dynamics of the starvation cycle. I have been struck by the number of peers at other foundations who have told me without batting an eye that they don’t fund overhead, or that they only do so using (arbitrary and undoubtedly low) cut-off points, like five or ten percent. Ironically, it is often the foundations endowed by very successful business people (who presumably should know better) that are most insistent on paying no or low overhead. If you sense some frustration on my part, it is because these funders are in effect free-riding on those of us prepared to underwrite our mutual grantees’ essential infrastructure.
But I have also been struck by how otherwise thoughtful and bold grantee leaders are inclined to dissemble on the issue of overhead. When I asked one recently what his overhead rate was—truly wanting to know so we could budget accordingly—he replied “In my experience our overhead rate is whatever a funder tells us it is.” Time and again I have seen low-balled and suspiciously round overhead rates of ten percent that, after further probing, turn out to be more like eighteen or twenty-three percent.
Thus both grantees and funders are implicated in the starvation cycle. If I were to take any issue with the argument Goggins-Gregory and Howard made in their highly original assessment, it is that both parties—not just funders—need to take the initiative to break the cycle.
At the Madison Initiative we are trying to do our part by providing general support whenever possible so that our grantees can incur costs and allocate resources to cover them as they best see fit. Two-thirds of the $11 million we have granted so far this year has been for general support. When circumstances require a more focused project grant geared to specific outcomes, we encourage our grantees to identify their actual overhead costs, not those that they speculate we would be willing to support.
To end this cycle, we will need our grantees to do their part. They should start by identifying their true costs. It is always surprising and a little disheartening to learn how many organizations don’t know these essential numbers. As a nonprofit CFO once told me in a lament that was at once sad and funny, “in this organization, the past is more uncertain than the future!” (Bridgespan, by the way, has a very helpful and freely accessible online tool kit to help you sort all this cost data out.)
Once nonprofit leaders have assessed their cost structure, what they really need to do is to be candid with funders in their moment of truth. Tell us what your costs to deliver really are, and ask us to fund them fully. If, as is often the case, your funder has a fixed amount to devote to a project grant, revisit your investment in the deliverables and work products with them to see if you can identify an alternative plan in which there is enough left over to amply support your infrastructure.
I’m not suggesting that such candor is easy to muster. But effective leaders need to be willing to take the risk of saying something that a funder might not want to hear when their organization’s long run effectiveness is at stake. If they are not, then shame on them. Funders, for our part, should fund the full cost of the work we are asking our grantees to undertake in a way that leaves their overall organization and its finances whole; if we don’t, then shame on us!
The recently completed World Cup reminded us again that soccer, played at the highest level, really is a beautiful game. However, those of us gearing up to coach our children in youth leagues this fall appreciate that the beautiful game can get ugly very quickly. No matter how many times during practice that you tell Ava she will be playing left striker or Isabelle that she is right middie, once the game starts on Saturday all bets are off. You quickly have a mob of pig-tailed, eye-blacked fourth graders clumped up and flailing away at the beleaguered ball like it was the devil himself. Then some poor girl takes a cleat on the ankle and starts howling, at which point the ref blows her whistle, gets both sides sorted out, and the madness starts all over again. I try not to over-coach during games, so I bite my tongue when all this is playing out, but in my head I’m shouting to myself: “FOR GOD’S SAKE LADIES, SPREAD OUT! PLAY YOUR ROLES LIKE WE TALKED ABOUT IN PRACTICE!! STAY IN YOUR LANES!!!”
I have come to appreciate that the role confusion and cluster-kicking that is part and parcel of pee wee soccer can be an apt metaphor for a set of temptations facing philanthropic foundations. The growing norm of actively collaborating with other funders in order to achieve “collective impact”– and perhaps the desire not to go out on a limb by ourselves – can leave us feeling compelled to fund whatever grantees and issue areas our foundation partners are supporting, and for them to do likewise with us. Our commitment to supporting grantees can lead us to gloss over the complications of the power relationship that inevitably exists between funders and recipients. In the name of being helpful, we help ourselves to a seat at a grantee’s table, and we then proceed to get into their business at a level of detail at which we have no business doing. Our determination to bring about systems changes or advance justice as we happen to define it can find us plotting campaign strategies almost as if we were working in a political party’s war room instead of funding tax-exempt, charitable activities.
What is lost if we succumb to these variants of the pee wee soccer phenomenon are the unique contributions that philanthropy and individual foundations can and should be making in a free society – e.g., supporting the development of ideas and approaches that may not have wide adherence at present (and indeed may even be unpopular); equipping promising leaders and their charitable organizations with the resources and degrees of freedom they need to bring their work to fruition; and cultivating vantage points that may enable society to see issues that currently vex and divide us in a better light. In philanthropy, as in soccer, things work better when we remember our roles and stay in our lanes.
In the run up to next week’s annual American Political Science Association meeting in Washington, we have several conversations teed up with our academic partners about the current state of affairs and what, if anything, the Madison Initiative can do to help improve it. To prime the pump for these discussions, we have shared three big—and in our minds truly open—questions with colleagues who will be in attendance. I thought it would be a good idea to share these same questions with readers of this blog, in what I will confess is a shameless request for help in the form of extended comments and / or guest posts with your answers to them. So here goes:
First, our modern parties—well-sorted, ideologically coherent, and politically divergent—seem increasingly at odds with the core constitutional features of our system of government (separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism). Those features presume the need for compromise and appeared to be much better adapted to the pragmatic, catch-all parties of yore. Where do we go from here if the goal is to support government that can actually solve problems? We aren’t presuming we can revert back to the golden age of the mid-20th Century (if in fact it was that golden). But what are the alternative models for how our system of government could function reasonably effectively? Are there any relevant lessons from comparative politics or American history that would suggest a path forward?
Second, we have also been struck by the growing body of literature that is reconceiving parties as networks anchored in, and animated by, elites and well-organized interests acting as “long coalitions” of “intense policy demanders.” We appreciate that, insofar as it reflects the evolving reality, this conception of parties calls into question a number of assumptions, about the electorate’s role in our political system, the accountability of parties, and the ability of the system to force recalcitrant partisans back to the center. What should we make of this alternative view of party politics? If it holds up, what does it imply for our goal of alleviating the impact of polarization?
Finally, are there any structural reforms to our electoral system and processes (e.g., primaries, redistricting, campaign finance, voter registration and election administration, etc.) that you believe should be a central focus of our grantmaking? We went into this work expecting that these types of reforms would be very important, but the more we sift the evidence about their potential impact and consider the challenges and opportunities for making them happen on a state-by-state basis, there don’t appear to be any “slam dunks” in this area. Are we missing anything?
Thanks in advance for any guidance you have on one or more of these questions! Again, please feel free to comment below or propose a longer form guest blog in response.
What are the patterns of civic engagement that we need for a healthy representative democracy? What is required of the citizens represented—individually and collectively—for it to be successful? What, if anything, can philanthropy do to help cultivate this kind of citizenship, when by its nature it is diffuse and subject to myriad social factors that encourage or work to undermine it?
We have been wrestling with these questions from the outset of the Madison Initiative. Last week they were again brought to my attention as I read Marc Dunkelman’s compelling new book, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.
I won’t be able do justice here to the full sweep of Dunkelman’s creative synthesis, in which he brings together many varied strands of wisdom— from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy to Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort and Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, to sample just a few. All the while Dunkelman is weaving in his own powerful insights.
At the heart of Dunkelman’s argument is the importance of what he terms “middle ring” relationships. These can be defined in part by what they are not —neither the “inner ring” relationships of one’s nuclear family and close friends, nor the “outer ring” relationships that are “passing to transactional,” a result of “a single shared interest or experience.” By this he means professional acquaintances, but also social media connections with far flung people who happen to share your passion for, say, Patsy Cline, the Detroit Tigers, Friedrich Hayek, or unstinting environmentalism.
Middle ring relationships, in contrast, are “familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.” Think here of the talkative neighbors who always buttonhole you when you are walking your dog, fellow members of the Kiwanis Club, the parents of your children’s classmates with whom you arrange the weekly carpool, the “regulars” you have lunch with in the cafeteria at work, the other members in your National Guard unit, and the guys who play in your standing Tuesday night pickup basketball game, etc.
If you’re having trouble identifying with these examples, you may be seeing Dunkelman’s point by now. Our middle ring relationships are atrophying, and the social consequences are profound. “Today, if you don’t know your neighbors—if you’ve transferred social capital away from the middle rings—your political frame of reference is limited both to the people you love most and the legions who, through outer-ring networks, share your point of view.”
The problem is that middle ring relationships have, from the era of Alexis de Tocqueville’s townships to that of Jane Jacob’s front stoops, formed the basis for our political community. Middle ring relationships are where we are most likely to rub elbows with people who may not always agree with us yet we cannot avoid, where we come to appreciate that at times you need to go along to get along, where we learn informally to lead—and to follow. These relationships are primary school for citizenship, and we’ve become truants.
Dunkelman connects the dots between the demise of the middle ring and the mounting problems of our nation’s politics. “Absent the fundamental ability to understand those on the other side of a cultural or political divide, it’s almost impossible to stomach the possibility that “our” representative in Washington might be the one collaborating with people who represent a different flavor of constituent.” The art of compromise—as essential to governing in the halls of Congress as it is in city halls in Paducah or Poughkeepsie —has thus become a dirty word. “The institutions that frame American society no longer line up with the routines of our daily lives.”
To his credit, Dunkelman doesn’t leave us with pat answers or solutions to this dilemma. He doesn’t suggest that we can somehow go back to the patterns of citizenship that Tocqueville or Jacobs observed and celebrated. Rather, he challenges us to adapt our institutions to the social changes that have been disrupting them, and to explore ways in which we can put our evolving networks and relationships in harness so that we can better govern ourselves. Friends, neighbors, citizens: We’ve got our work cut out for us!
The last couple of weeks have been less than auspicious for the first branch of government. Whatever your partisan views, you are likely to have been dismayed by the congressional response (or really, the lack thereof) on the child migrant issue in the run-up to the August recess. House GOP leaders, after suing President Obama for selectively enforcing provisions of the Affordable Care Act (provisions they had themselves opposed), effectively punted on the crisis on our southern border, arguing that the President could and should take unilateral action to address it.
In another telling commentary on inter-branch power dynamics, we also had confirmation the CIA has been spying on the Senate committee responsible for overseeing it—this despite the flat denials CIA Director John Brennan had previously offered. Yet Brennan has neither resigned nor been fired—indeed, President Obama has since declared that his CIA director has his full confidence.
Things have descended to the point where the New York Times felt obliged to run a multi-media feature, Measuring the 113th Congress’s Futility, that intermixes telling quotes from feuding partisans with “worst ever” data points on declining legislative productivity, worsening polarization, and plummeting public confidence.
However damning, the trend lines cited by the Times overlook perhaps the most damaging effects of hyper-partisanship and the congressional dysfunction it produces: the inadvertent but nonetheless steady ceding of power and authority from Congress to the executive. When Congress is so sharply and evenly divided, it cannot act effectively—whether it be to develop a needed legislative response to a pressing issue, to oversee the executive branch, or—not least—to ward off encroachments against its constitutional powers. All the while, and in stark contrast, the unitary executive has both the means and the motivation to press on.
Thus President Obama, who just last fall had forsworn unilateral action on the child migrant issue on the grounds that we are a nation of laws, is now preparing to take it. Progressives gleeful at the prospect of a President Obama having a free hand to selectively enforce and reset the nation’s immigration laws might ask themselves whether they would as pleased with the prospect of a different president, perhaps one with the last name of Romney or for that matter Cruz, having the same license. Dismissing this thought experiment as an unlikely hypothetical is to whistle past the constitutional graveyard. As Ross Douthat and the Washington Post have pointed out, we are fast approaching a dangerous crossroads. Careening through it in the way that seems likely to occur may yield short term political advantage to the President and his party, but at the expense of the long run health of the Constitution.
These developments brought to mind remarks I was privileged to hear three weeks ago from former Representative Lee Hamilton as he accepted a distinguished service award from the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. Acknowledging the current sorry state of the institution to which he had dedicated his career, Hamilton began by noting that “Congress needs help.” He went on to observe that “over the past several decades, the balance of power in our system is shifting decisively to the executive branch. One has to ask how far down that path we can go, and still have representative democracy.” In Hamilton’s view, “we should not give up on the separation of powers.” The goal should be “not to weaken the presidency, but to strengthen the Congress—and to get a better balance of government power. Our system functions best when we have a strong President and a strong Congress.”
The most striking part of Hamilton’s speech was his peroration, in which he argued that friends of representative democracy need to come to the defense of Congress. The president, the public, and the media certainly aren’t going to do it; nor are the members themselves, who notoriously have incentives to run against the body in which they serve. “We have to step up, to make clear the importance of the role of the Congress in a representative democracy…Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment. The country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Making this huge, diverse, complicated country work, resolving our differences, building a consensus behind a solution is tough going. Representative democracy is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. But no one ever said it was going to be easy.”
Indeed, it is inevitably messy, difficult, and at times maddening. But friends of representative democracy need to keep pointing out that, however inconvenient it may be in the short term, in the long run it beats the alternative. We also need to redouble our efforts to find ways in which Congress can carry out the central functions our system of government assigns to it. Congress needs our help.
In recent weeks Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution has been sending me quotes from James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book, The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities. And I in turn have been sending these missives on, like precious snippets of political science samizdat, to other friends and colleagues, noting that, when it comes to diagnosing the root causes of our current political quandaries, we are all struggling to climb the mountain, only to arrive at the peak and find a sign indicating that Wilson was here more than 50 years ago. Rather than keep circulating Wilson’s wisdom on the QT, I thought I’d share some telling pieces of it in this post so that we could all wrestle with its implications.
Wilson’s book looked at the contest between what he termed “amateur” Democratic Party reformers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and their rivals—the political professionals in the party machines from whom they were seeking to wrest power. What distinguished amateurs from professionals was not their relative seriousness or dedication but rather a reliance on what Wilson termed purposive incentives instead of the material interests that had long fueled American politics in the form of patronage jobs for the party faithful, pork barrel spending, and the perquisites of office.
“The amateur believes that political parties ought to be programmatic, internally democratic, and largely free of 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 clear and specific set of 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 to the realignment of both parties nationally, with liberals in one and conservatives in the other.”
While Wilson was writing in 1962 about amateur reformers in the Democratic Party, he was really writing about a new mode of politics cutting across parties. Indeed, as he acknowledged in his preface to subsequent editions of the book, the Goldwater campaign of 1964, with Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in the vanguard, marked “the greatest victory of the amateur spirit in recent American politics.”
The problem with the amateur spirit is that, for all of its moral clarity (if not superiority) relative to a world governed by cigar-chomping political bosses, its pervasive spread in the ensuing decades has created new and more intractable problems of governance in the United States. As Wilson prophesied all too well, with these developments “the need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines 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.”
The amateur spirit, and the disdain it has for compromise and trade-offs, is not a suitable approach for governance in a continental republic that intentionally encompasses a tremendous diversity of interests and whose core constitutional arrangements are designed to separate, check, balance, and decentralize power. But, for better or worse, we are all amateurs now; we certainly are governed by them. The question is, given where we are, what we can do about it? Sadly we don’t have James Q. Wilson with us today to help us sort this out. We all will need to figure this one out ourselves. We welcome your ideas!