After the last few presidential debates and, most recently, the mayhem surrounding the nomination of the next Supreme Court Justice, I can’t help but ask myself the following series of questions: What the heck is going on here? Is this how we do politics now? And finally: Has narrow-minded, inflamed, and partisan talk become the norm for American politics?
I am not the only one. Per Pew, 60 percent of Americans believe government is in need of serious reform. America's is a government for and by the people, so the simple fact that the majority of those people no longer trust in their government seems to suggest that Washington is a mess. Polarization is at a peak, as the parties are divided on pretty much every major issue out there. The result is chaos.
What does chaos look like? Populism is rising, and calls for a revolution—and the breaking up of the so-called Washington cartels and the “unholy alliance of career politicians in both parties and the lobbyists in this town”—are everywhere. And what does chaos sound like? Like the repeated chant that, if only we got money out of politics and got rid of lobbyists, then everything would fall into place, and American democracy would return to the ideal that our founding fathers had envisioned.
Most of us would immediately second the chaos and say: Yes, that’s it! Get the crooks out, and we can fix American democracy!
Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated.
In his latest paper, Lee Drutman explains that beating up on Washington can only take you so far. In fact, it's ultimately counterproductive. So is the vilification of the whole system, the treatment of politics as a dirty word. At the end of the day, everybody needs this town to work well. So, instead of pointing out everything that is wrong, we need a new vision of how politics can actually work.
In a conversation at New America with Melinda Henneberger, editor-in-chief of Roll Call, Drutman offered a roadmap for how we can improve our political system, drawing upon its existing strengths, and offering a positive vision of what Washington could look like under institutional choices that create a system that is open and fluid, where not only policymaking, but also policy experimentation are at the forefront. Drutman call this approach "political dynamism."
Political dynamism is a reformation, not a revolution. And it is an embrace, not abandonment, of American politics. In a perfect world, citizens would have the time and energy to be involved in government affairs every step of the way. We would read every bill, call our congressmen and women, and make sure that their votes reflected the will of the people. But ours is not that perfect world, and very few of us are super citizens. In fact, this was the very reason why our founding fathers knew that we needed representatives to make informed policy decisions on our behalf. James Madison reminds us that the purpose of government was to "to refine and enlarge the public views ... under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose."
What would a return to that good governance look like? Drutman focuses on four areas of reform that would make for a more dynamic political system:
How can we make campaigns more open? We empower small donors. How do we expand competition and party diversity? We create multi-member districts.
A campaign finance system free of big money donors would make it easier for potential policy entrepreneurs to get a start, and keep things moving in Congress. And while there have been efforts to overturn Citizens United, the odds that a constitutional amendment would ever pass are low; focusing on that is a counterproductive use of resources, according to Drutman. Instead of focusing on getting money out of politics, we should instead make sure that we increase political opportunity by making it easier for more people to participate in the political process, which has been argued previously by Mark Schmitt.
Empowering small donors would make citizens more relevant in helping candidates to run for office. New York and Seattle have experimented with models of small donor public funding systems. There is even a bill in Congress to do this: The Government by the People Act.
And multi-member districts? They would make more elections competitive, giving citizens more meaningful choices. FairVote has come up with examples of how we could create multi-member districts. They call it Fair Representation Voting, and it includes ideas like ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, limited voting, and Districts Plus, which would all make for more competitive elections.
How do we ensure that the big corporations, with the big dollars, are not the only ones driving policymaking? We expand general-interest lobbying organizations.
Say the word lobbying in a room full of people and you are, nine times out of 10, going to evoke some serious negative reactions. But lobbyists and lobbying organizations play important roles in policymaking. They provide expertise. They organize citizens. They help pass bills. Lobbying is important, and we actually don’t want to eliminate it altogether.
So what if we made lobbying more accessible, instead of defaming it as the cause of all evil in politics? Drutman suggests that we develop a matching system for a new class of "citizen lobbying" groups to organize and advocate on behalf of general interests. That way, all voices (and not only the loudest ones) would be heard.
How can we have the resources to actually enact policy entrepreneurship? We increase staff sizes and salaries in Congress.
In Henneberger’s opinion, this was the most interesting reform solution presented by Drutman. To say that we need more and better-paid Congressional staff members is to acknowledge the fact that representatives in Congress have limited staff and a never-ending spectrum of issues with which they have to deal and on which they need expertise. But the pay isn't great. The result? Congress is left with what outside lobbying groups can provide them. So we need more staff, and we need to pay them better. You might ask: But more money? To Congress? Are you insane?
But what you might not know is that Congress has been at the current staffing levels since the late 1970s. Actually, committee staff—the key policy positions—have been reduced since then. But the workload has soared. How do we expect members to engage in policy entrepreneurship if they can only be reactive because of their limited resources? So yes, we need to hire more people and pay more. We want people to want to have a career on the Hill, and not have Congress just be a farm for K St. lobbyists, where they go in, learn the system, and then leave to make more money somewhere else.
We have to stop doing Congress on the cheap. Right now, according to Drutman's estimate, the operating budget of the House and the Senate adds up to little more than $2 billion—about 0.06 percent of the total federal budget ($3.6 trillion), and less than the estimated $2.6 billion that business spends annually on reported lobbying. Congress needs to open its wallet if it wants to be able to do its job. Drutman asks: Policy is gonna be written. Who do you want to write it?
How do we prevent partisan leaders and economic winners from controlling the legislative process? We decentralize power in Congress by expanding the role of committees and subcommittees.
Congressional leadership has become increasingly centralized. Leaders of both parties have also used increasingly restrictive floor procedures, limiting opportunities for rank-and-file members to participate and further marginalizing committees. Subcommittees used to be a place where people worked across the aisle. Today, work hinges on whatever the party leadership wants, leaving almost no room for compromise, especially given that party leaders are concerned with partisan politics, and those partisan politics are at ideological extremes.
The solution? Expand committees and subcommittees. Give them more resources (like more staff) to get things done.
Politics is the way we resolve differences. That is not a dirty business—it is what makes America work. And as Aristotle once put it: Politics is a noble profession. And I think he was right.
Yes, our political system needs reforms. But reforms work best when they work with the grain of our political system, rather than against it. We need politics. And you know what else we need? Politicians.
This, of course, largely depends on the quality of the people in the Capitol. So yes, the cure to the ills of American democracy is politicians. And I know, considering the complete chaos with which we're living, this may sound like an odd recommendation, but bear with me.
We don't need just any politician (or any single politician—the answer here is not a silver bullet candidate). According to Drutman, we need politicians who are policy entrepreneurs: forces for positive, general-interest policy change. These are people who, yes, are career politicians, but are also ambitious and focused on relationship-building, making deals, and getting things done. And getting them done within a reformed, politically dynamic, and still all-American system.
Many politicians—and writers (see: the beginning of this piece)— would like to have us believe that all is doomed. The Washington, D.C., bashing by politicians could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But there are things that work. Someone needs to make an affirmative case for politics that works for the public good. And that is what Lee Drutman does with his model of political dynamism: he captures the spirit of innovation and ambition that incentivizes policy entrepreneurs to drive policy change.
The institutional choices that we make can make a huge difference. Henneberger asked: Is utopianism is setting us back? Is the dream of the perfect getting in the way of the good? Drutman's answer: Yes. What we really need is incremental change we can believe in. Political dynamism might be just the answer we are looking for.
This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.