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How to think about political reform past Clinton vs. Trump

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There are many unusual things about the 2016 election, but here are two that seem particularly telling about the anti-institutionalism of our current political moment.

First, for the first time in modern polling history we go into the general election with two candidates whose unfavorable ratings far exceed their favorable ratings.

Second, one of those candidates (Donald Trump) has never held elected office, and when asked to do standard candidate things (like, say, disclose his tax returns), his surrogates reasonably posit that "people are judging Donald Trump as to whether or not he's someone that's going to go to Washington and shake things up. And that's why he's doing so well."

This may or may not be a winning argument, but it does speak to our times. People are so fed up with the status quo that it is at least plausible.

This has been building for a while. For numerous reasons (some legitimate, some manufactured by fierce partisans), a lot of folks sure feel marginalized by the current political arrangements. By almost every metric, Americans are losing faith in the institutions of governance.

The obvious question is what to do about it. Electing Donald Trump president feels like throwing your computer against the wall on the thinking that that'll teach Microsoft Word to stop crashing unexpectedly. Electing Hillary Clinton feels like purchasing the latest Microsoft Office update knowing that you'll get the same buggy software but with slightly rearranged icons.

So for various reasons that underlie that metaphor, the presidential election is not going to immediately solve the current distemper. But historically, when these moments of distemper have occurred, they ultimately led to political reforms. This election is reshuffling the ideological deck in ways that I've argued are likely to realign the parties. As that realignment happens, the coalitions in both parties will become more heterogeneous, creating openings that could lead to space for reform. So getting the correct intellectual framework for political reform matters.

Thinking about reform in white papers

In February, I published a framework for reform in a New America white paper that I called "Political Dynamism: A New Approach to Making Government Work Again." In April, two new smart reform-minded white papers came out. The Brookings Institution's Philip Wallach published "The Administrative State's Legitimacy Crisis," and the Roosevelt Institute published K. Sabeel Rahman's "Rethinking Regulation: Preventing capture and pioneering democracy through regulatory reform." (Rahman is also a New America fellow, and a professor at Brooklyn Law School.)

Taken together, I think the three of us are all pushing in a similar direction, trying to rethink political reform. Though we approach reform in different ways, and with different emphases, I take away four basic shared perspectives:

1) We all want to put the politics back into politics. That is, we would like to see more adversarial competition among different interests and actors.

2) We put a strong emphasis on the importance of intermediaries, especially politicians and interest groups, not only to structure and aggregate diverse interests but also to explain, justify, and legitimate policies.

3) We reject both technocracy and populism as fundamentally flawed approaches to governance.

4) We recognize that there is no "one best solution" to any public policy problem. But process does matter. And on average, a process that is representative is going to be more legitimate, and generally produce better outcomes.

My paper mostly focuses on Congress. By contrast, both Rahman and Wallach focus first on the administrative state. For both, the important story of the 20th century was the rise of the great administrative state leviathan. Congress offloaded more and more policy responsibility to the alphabet soup of agencies that now do the preponderance of policymaking.

The results, however, have been perpetually dissatisfying. Government has grown bigger, more incomprehensible, and seemingly less responsive. Americans, in Wallach's analysis, "confront a tangled expanse of agencies and independent commissions with overlapping responsibilities, obscure funding sources, and large portions of government business contracted out in difficult-to-understand ways." As a result, they have come to dislike and distrust it.

Rahman's primary concern is about the distribution of power — that is, that an insular bureaucratic process often means that industry experts and industry lobbyists hash things out in wood-paneled Washington offices, while other potential stakeholders (say, banking customers affected by a new financial rule) don't really get consulted because they are not well-organized. Hence, the rules mostly wind up benefiting industry.

Wallach's primary concern is about legitimacy — that is, that when bureaucrats and a few lobbyists make decisions remotely, it becomes very easy for populists to contest them as illegitimate, given America's democratic creed and widespread distrust of experts.

Rahman's proposed solutions involve better stakeholder participation in agency rulemaking. He'd like to see a new executive order requiring more participatory regulation, which would mean that agencies would need to develop processes for ensuring potential stakeholders have a say, rather than just leaving it up to a whoever-shows-up mode of notice-and-comment rulemaking.

"The imperative to do so," writes Rahman, "is not just because of the intrinsic value of democratic participation; rather it is an urgent necessity to address both economic and political inequality."

Wallach, relatedly, wants "agencies to seek out their own critics and confront them directly, and not just on the agency's own turf." He also wants agencies to do a better job of explaining themselves: "At the bare minimum, this should mean presenting concise, plainly written explanations for how the agency came to exercise its current function."

Responsiveness and legitimacy are, of course, related. Most evidence suggests that if public policy produced more equitable economic policy, there'd be less anger and distrust of government. But for most agencies, the path of least resistance is insulation and industry consultation.

The role of Congress

Rahman doesn't discuss Congress, the first branch of government, which is a limitation of his paper (though understandable, given his focus). But Wallach does. In fact, he sees Congress as a crucial intermediary, and views the dysfunction of Congress as directly related to the legitimacy crisis of the administrative state.

In Wallach's view, members of Congress could do a much better job actively overseeing the executive branch in a way that better represents constituent concerns and connects the rarefied technocrats in the administrative branch to the world beyond Washington and academe. They could also do far more to explain and legitimate policy.

By contrast, the role that Congress generally plays now (and has for decades) is to delegate a bunch of politically difficult choices to administrative agencies and then engage in random drive-by bureaucracy bashing and show hearings when it's politically expedient, usually in a deeply partisan way.

So we certainly could imagine a Congress that plays a more constructive role in the administrative state. But decades of political science research and thinking have all pointed out that given the incentives and pressures members of Congress face, particularly in a highly polarized, industry-dominant fundraising and lobbying environment, members of Congress are unlikely to play the role of responsible, legitimating intermediaries. So incentives, pressures, and environments would need to change.

How accountability and transparency as reform paradigm have backfired

For the past several decades, the dominant theory of reform, especially on the political left, though increasingly now on the right, has been transparency and accountability. It goes something like this: We need to hold our elected leaders accountable. Therefore everything government does needs to be entirely transparent. Once the People can find out what is going on, they will hold their leaders accountable and demand something better. Government should serve the People, and the People alone.

Such thinking assumes 1) that the natural tendency of government is to screw the people, and 2) if only the processes of government were made accessible and transparent, the People would be smart enough to figure it out for themselves.

This appears to have backfired in four respects.

1) It has fostered a deep antagonism toward government. Since the operating reform narrative has been that government has a natural tendency toward corruption and bribery, it's no wonder most people now think this is indeed the case. This has been especially bad for Democrats, who are supposed to be the party of competent government. But even establishment Republicans are now feeling the backlash they courted by using government-is-corrupt narratives.

2) This antagonism has made those who do work in the government incredibly cautious and tentative, knowing that anything they do might be misinterpreted or create ammunition for opponents who could easily take things out of context. This kind of extensive caution has made government work much less creative, more risk-averse, and less well-paying compared with other options. It has also made government work generally more unpleasant, which may be one of many reasons fewer and fewer people want to go into government work in the first place.

3) The endless review processes that come with all the added accountability just create more and more opportunities for opponents to gum up the works of policymaking, further contributing to the reality of a government that just can't get anything done.

4) These measures have forced the brave technocrats who still believe in government to retreat deeper and deeper into their distrust of democracy, which has led them to further insulate themselves (an irony Wallach notes). But like a Chinese finger trap, even more insular political decision-making only makes things worse, fueling the distrustful populism, until ... Donald Trump!

The basic problem with pure let-the-people-rule populism is that as much as we value the collective wisdom of the citizenry, very few citizens have the time or interest in politics as hard work toward rational decision-making. The most engaged citizens tend to be intense partisans, who treat political participation as a form of emotional self-expression.

This is why we need political intermediaries — politicians, interest groups, even political parties. They're the tension rods that hold democracy together by channeling, organizing, and ultimately counterbalancing otherwise chaotic and inchoate citizen demands.

For too long, the standard reform move has been to treat these intermediaries with skepticism and distrust, thus constraining them: Get money out of politics! Ban the special interests! Stop the bribery and the corruption!

My argument in "Political Dynamism" (my white paper) is that we ought to empower these actors to be more creative. But we ought to do so in a way that thinks about their incentives and tries to channel their energies. Men are not angels, as James Madison helpfully reminded us in the Federalist Papers. But their ambitions can be harnessed for good. As I write in my paper:

The appropriate question is not how to constrain politicians and interests to take the politics out of politics. The appropriate question is how to empower politicians to act as policy entrepreneurs, putting forward new and innovative ideas to improve the general welfare, and how to bring citizens into the process in ways that strengthen, rather than undermine, their collective capacity.

The answer, in short, is more politics: a political system that is fluid and competitive; A system that leverages diversity and creates opportunity for experimentation and change; A political system that expands, not limits, the combinatorial possibilities of political innovation and deal-making; A political system that helps citizens to aggregate and realize their interests in the most efficacious ways, rather than simultaneously expecting them to be super-engaged and expert while giving them few meaningful choices.

I call this approach Political Dynamism. This paper makes the case for Political Dynamism as an affirmative vision of politics, and lays out specific reforms that would create the conditions for it.

One possible objection to my "open things up approach" is that it comes with a certain amount of potential chaos.

Kevin Kosar, the governance project director at the R Street Institute, for example, recently wrote a useful response to my paper.  "Does American national politics need more dynamism?" he asks. "I'm not so sure. I have not seen evidence that the annual crop of candidates for public office are too few or too conventional in their ideas. But I might simply have missed some research on this topic that proves otherwise."

Kosar notes that the US House is "a veritable cauldron of reform ideas." But ideas are one thing. He goes on: "Part of political dynamism, I would posit, is governance dynamism. That means moving ideas to action, which means contending with problems and allocating government resources to productive ends."

I'd see things slightly differently, and hopefully the distinction is useful. I think politics needs a healthy amount of constant chaos. The danger occurs when that chaos gets repressed for too long, and it boils over in the form of angry frustration. But a large and bubbling cauldron is always necessary.

In politics as in life and business, most new ideas are bad ideas. But close the cauldron, and you limit the potential for the few that are good. Like Madison, I see such limits as cures worse than the disease. I'm willing to trust the process, though with some appropriate guardrails.

This, of course, means making mistakes. But failure can be instructive, too (as is the fashion these days in both tech startups and child rearing). On this point, Wallach approvingly quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who writes, "Those I have respected most and most tried to emulate have not tried to think immensely far ahead, but only a little way ahead: their art is not that of prophesying, but of coping."

The relevant political science citation here is Charles Lindblom's idea of "muddling through" — that we never get it quite right, but a key to moving forward is to learn on the job and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And as long as competing interests are involved, the necessary jostling will keep things close enough to a reasonable consensus.

So competition and counterbalance is the key. And here is where Rahman, Wallach, and I are all just making variations on the same timeless argument that Madison made in the Federalist Papers, which is that our republican form of democracy exists as a tension between competing interests.

This is politics. There are no permanent solutions, only competing interests. Try to solve anything for good, and you disrupt the tension rods holding the edifice together.

The best we can hope for is to keep those interests competing with each other. Structure representation to encourage contestation, both between factions and between branches of government. And make sure everyone has a chance to make their best and most compelling case, and that all reasonable sides are represented. And if we can do that, then somehow we can muddle through.

A new pluralist reform framework?

Early last year, my colleague Mark Schmitt wrote an important piece in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, "Democratic Romanticism and Its Critics," pulling together an emerging school of thinking he called "reform skeptics." This consisted of mostly think tankers and academics who looked at the reforms of the past 40 years or so and decided that politics was better when it was far less regulated and, by modern lights, more corrupt: Bring back earmarks! Stop trying to regulate campaign finance! Let government do things in secret again!

Perhaps the strongest statement in this vein was the provocative white paper from Brookings's Jonathan Rauch, "Political realism: How hacks, machines, big money, and back-room deals can strengthen American democracy."

Schmitt dismissed much of this as over-romanticized nostalgia for an era that had had many problems. But building on insights particularly from Bruce Cain and Rick Pildes on the value of group conflict in politics, he asked the following important question:

How do we reform American politics so that their pluralistic vision—"imperfect but stable," messy, unromantic—might actually describe reality, rather than the conditions of another era? How do we make voters matter again, so that politicians and parties feel the obligation to respond to the average citizen, whether of their own districts or the whole nation? How do we ensure that the inequalities of political and economic power, which are unavoidable, are not continually reinforcing each other in a cycle that will lead to societal stagnation? These questions, informed and inspired by these thinkers, could lead to a new and far more productive era of political reform.

So let me suggest that we're now starting to see some of this new type of reform thinking that moves beyond previous reform era, with its obsessions of accountability and direct citizen watchdogging, and instead starts putting the politics back into politics. Instead of trying to constrain political activity, it tries to encourage countervailing forces to check each other. It treats politics as a dynamic and living system that depends on balance, and on competing interests and ambitions. Just like James Madison designed it.