American politics has been ‘reformed to death’

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump has bashed “rigged” elections. Bernie Sanders has denounced superdelegates.

Populist sentiment is running strong in both political parties. But our primary nominating system is the most open and democratic it’s ever been. And there is a growing sense among some that the political reforms of the last 50 years — which made the system more open — might have actually made it harder for our politicians to govern and to actually solve problems once they’re elected.

Jonathan Rauch makes this argument in the cover story of the current Atlantic magazine, out this week. Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes of the American political system: “We reformed it to death.”

“For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick,” Rauch writes.

And as a movement to stop Trump at the Republican convention grows, with hundreds of delegates reportedly saying they will vote against their own party’s nominee next month in Cleveland, Yahoo News asked Rauch for his thoughts on why and how such a movement might succeed. He spoke with Jon Ward in our New York studio. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

Jon Ward: What are the key changes that have been made over the last few decades and why did they have a negative impact, in your view?

Jonathan Rauch: Government and politics are hugely complicated, and they take thousands of politicians and activists to organize and millions of voters to organize, and that doesn’t happen automatically. You need systems like political machines and bargains and deals and incentives to make all that stuff work every day. Otherwise it’s just complete chaos. We had a lot of those systems. They took many decades to build up, but a lot of us — including me in earlier points — didn’t like them. They seemed like they were unfair and undemocratic and untransparent. But they were things like smoke-filled rooms, private negotiations where people could go and try to work stuff out. We opened those up. It became much more difficult to work things out. Pork-barrel spending.


Earmarks were part of that. Pork-barrel spending turned out to be a very inexpensive way to get compromises done. You know, if I give you this airport for your district, will you vote to cut the budget for this big entitlement program?

The civil rights bill, Lyndon Johnson.

The civil rights bill, 1964. That was an important incentive to get followers to follow leaders. That’s much harder now. Campaign money. People thought that was corrupt. They thought it was payoff and payola, so they made fundraising much harder to do. There were two bad consequences of that. One is the money goes outside politics to these outside groups. Totally unaccountable. And the other is that it’s much harder for me as a party leader to use funding to incentivize you to take a tough vote on a debt limit.

And then the biggest one of all was switching to direct primaries. They have their pros and their cons, but one of the things politicians used to be able to do to incentivize people to follow was, ‘You know, if you’ll help me on this tough vote, and I really need you to pass this debt-limit bill, you know I’m going to help you win this nomination, and I’m in a position to do that, because the party has some say over that.’ When I lost the ability to protect you in a tough vote, you were off for the hills. You become an unaccountable, in many cases, renegade politician. And when you add all this stuff up, it’s very hard for leaders to lead. I like to say we have a problem: It’s not a leadership crisis in government, it’s a followership crisis.

When you talk about direct primaries, you’re talking about the reforms that happened starting around 1972, after the 1968 convention in Chicago?

Well, they really go back more than a century. But it really starts taking effect in the ’70s.

Right, because you had Teddy Roosevelt, and they started primaries in the early 20th century, and then after the ’68 convention, they started going to the more open primaries and caucuses.

Right, and [the primary vote] became binding, so a lot of the insiders essentially lost their voice.

And so we’re having a lot of debate over delegates. Donald Trump is criticizing that they even exist. In the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders is criticizing the idea of superdelegates. They have a lot of support, a lot of popular support, these ideas. I want to talk about these cultural attitudes. Let’s look at some poll numbers: 53 percent of Americans say the Democrats’ use of superdelegates is a bad idea, 17 percent say it’s a good idea. Among Democrats, 46 percent say superdelegates are a bad idea, and only 25 percent of Democrats say it’s a good idea. And here’s some quotes from people who were interviewed by the [Associated Press]. “The common man needs to be included more,” said one woman. Another guy said, “It’s supposed to be one man, one vote. That’s the way it should be.”

What’s underneath these quotes and these numbers? What is it that you think is driving these perceptions of how politics should work, and why do you feel that they’re wrong?

A few things. One is populism, which has a long tradition in America. It goes back to Andrew Jackson. Another is distrust of the establishment, a sense that these people have not done a very good job. And all of that is understandable. I would argue that a lot of what’s gone wrong in the last 30 or 40 years, when people have been much less happy about politics over time, is actually the disempowering of these intermediaries, who are able to, say, look at the voters, not just the small minority of voters who vote in primaries, who are not even representative of their own party but who control the process for the rest of us. They also look at the general electorate, the people who are going to come out on Election Day, and they try to think, what about those people? What do they want? What about people who may not go to the polls most years at all? So they’re thinking about this. They’re thinking about the long term interests of the party and the process. They’re thinking about governing. They know they have to pass bills on the next day. So it’s very important that these institutional people also have a voice. No one is saying they should have the only voice. But the system works best when it’s a mixed system, when you’ve got some input from voters, and you’ve got some input from professionals and parties and they’re working in harmony and in balance. That’s more what the Founders intended and it’s probably a better system.

One thing I’ve noticed is when you have debates over these issues — let’s say the delegate issue that Trump raised — these issues, or these parts of the system get isolated so that people are talking about the use of delegates at the convention potentially to take the nomination away from Trump as if that’s the only part of our constitutional system, when in fact there are many different parts of our constitutional system, of the way that we get people elected, of the way we elect them to represent us.

That’s exactly right. We have checks and balances in the formal Constitution and we also need checks and balances in these informal political processes. You don’t want just one type of decision-making taking over the whole thing. And look at Trump. This is a guy who won the nomination in the crucial first 12 primaries with a plurality, not even a majority, of only 17 percent of the primary electorate, which is itself not representative of the general electorate. In other words, a minority of a minority picked this guy for the entire Republican Party and now he’s probably going to lose for them. It’s going to be a disaster for them.

And yet he did have the most votes of any Republican nominee in many, many years right? So that shows that there’s been very little participation in this process for a while.

There’s always, unfortunately, very little participation in primaries. And that’s an ongoing problem. But historically, the way we’ve dealt with that is add other voices who will think about the general election and unrepresented groups as well.

I hear this phrase “the will of the people.” What about that phrase? People say, “Well, the will of the people — even though it was a plurality and not a majority — Trump is representing the will of the people.”

Which people? It goes back to what I just said. Unfortunately, it is a reality that few Americans vote in these primary elections, so they tend to be dominated by special interests and extremists and people who will show up to vote for specific causes. And those are not necessarily speaking for the main bulk of Americans. Traditionally, one way we’ve dealt with that is having these institutions that tried to take a broader view, so all I’m saying is that both these things need a role. It’s not that voting is always the only thing that should be going on.

Yeah, I mean one thing I noticed when I went back and read the Federalist Papers this year is that the Founders were concerned about two things. They were wary of concentrated power at the top, of a person having too much power top down. They were also leery, sort of, of “the people” having too much of a say in the government. They wanted to mediate both ways.

That’s exactly right. The famous story is when Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “So Dr. Franklin, what have you given us, a republic or a monarchy?” He said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And what he had in mind by that is, notice he didn’t say a democracy. He said a republic: a mixed system of government. And he understood there would be threats to that from people who said we should always just have direct democracy all the time. So the Founders understood this problem.

The other irony is, in 2010 and 2011, when I covered the tea party, you heard a lot of people saying, “We have a republic, not a democracy.” But now there’s a lot of people saying, “We want direct democracy.”

And of course a lot of the people saying, “Let’s get rid of the superdelegates, let’s have direct voting,” are the people who think they would benefit from that. And if the tables were turned a lot of those people would be saying, “No, no, wait, wait a minute. Hang on. Superdelegates: good thing.” You know, it’s an irony that Bernie Sanders wants to win or did want to win by converting superdelegates in an undemocratic fashion. How many ways do you want it?

Well, there is a history of people going back and forth on this question. How would you change the primary nomination system? What changes would you make to it, specifically?

I would give the parties more of a role. I wouldn’t give them the only role. There are all kinds of ways to do that. The states are in charge of the primary process, and you’d have different things in different states. But for instance, I like the idea of indicating party support, for example, on the ballot, a way of saying, you know, “Jon Ward’s been loyal to the party.” People who care about that would know it. I like the idea of requiring to get on the ballot some petition signatures from party elected officials as well as the general public. It’s a way to show those people that you’re going to be a team player to some extent, or you’re at least thinking about it. Sending unbound delegates is another way to do it. Some states are doing it this year. And that means you send delegates and then you let them make a smart call at the convention on your behalf. Not everyone does it, but it’s more of a mixed system.

It seems to me that a big part of the problem we have now is that whoever’s fault this is, the public at large has no idea that the system works the way it does, and so when it turns out that the rules are explained, people say, “Well, the press has not covered it this way. We weren’t told that.”

Last question, what will and should happen at the Republican convention?

I can make you a confident prediction that my predictions will be wrong. I have misguessed this political season from the beginning. Good luck to you if you have done better. It looks to me like Trump is a massive, disastrous loser for the Republican Party in what might have been a winnable election. And they’d probably be better off with someone else. But at this point it’s hard to see a win-win solution for them. What do you think? Am I allowed to ask?

Yeah, sure. I think if the poll numbers over the next month continue to plummet for Trump, if you look at the three conventions since ’68, where a nominee has been challenged at the convention, hat challenge only went forward when there was a pretty strong public perception that this nominee was in trouble, and was not going to win in the fall. And so I think if his numbers continue to go way down below where Hillary Clinton is, there will be popular support for the idea of putting somebody else in there or having an open convention. But I think if that doesn’t happen — and I think him firing his campaign manager is a recognition of the fact that they kneed to get things back on track.

It’s tough for them this year. One of the things that party people and professionals and insiders have to think about is the long term. They can’t just afford to protest the way a lot of people can at the polls on one day every two years. And when they’re pushed aside, when they’re out of the picture, you can get in terrible binds, like this one, where you get a sure loser, or potentially a sure loser, and a big mess.

Yeah, I’m not going to predict he’s a loser yet, because as you said—

Yeah, I’ve been wrong about everything.