Could machine politics be the solution to Washington’s dysfunction?

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Protesters hold pro-gay-rights flags outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – You would think that in the week that the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could lead to the legalization of gay marriage across the country, Jonathan Rauch would be taking a victory lap of sorts.

Write some editorials. Do an extended “I told you so” jaunt around the cable TV networks. Et cetera.

Rauch, an author and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a veteran gay-marriage advocate who first wrote a book on the topic in 2005 and has worked as an out gay man in Washington, D.C., conservative circles for more than two decades.

But at a moment when gay rights appear triumphant in American culture, Rauch is turning his attention to a different cause. In an e-book essay out Friday morning, he argues that our politics need to become a little less democratic if our policies are to continue serving us all.

“It is time to acknowledge that … the romanticization of democracy — the unquestioning pursuit of ever more participation — needs re-examining,” Rauch writes.

The problem he is aiming at is a familiar one: government dysfunction. Washington is paralyzed. Thanks to partisanship and gridlock, Congress during the Obama years has been marked by an inability to solve problems: immigration, entitlements, even the annual process of passing a budget and keeping the government open.

Rauch also homes in on the problem of money in politics. Increasingly, Americans are concerned about the power and control the wealthiest individuals have on elections through super PACs.

Both of these problems, Rauch argues, are due — as much as anything — to the accumulation of reforms in politics and government since the Watergate era that have opened up the electoral process to more and more people, along with campaign finance reforms that have sought to take money out of politics.

All these reforms have weakened the political parties and inhibited the ability of political professionals to build “machines” that help them reward allies and punish opponents. And without machine politics and strong political parties, American politics has become chaotic and can no longer achieve results, Rauch argues.

“Show me a political system without machine politics, and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation and a drift toward ungovernable extremism,” Rauch writes. “Modern analysts miss something important when they assume that moderation comes from moderates; often, moderation comes from machines that force politicians toward compromise.”

Rauch says many of the laments about what ails American politics are misdiagnosing the problem.

“It’s often assumed that polarization is today’s foremost problem for governance. Maybe not,” he says. He quotes Richard Pildes, a New York University law professor, who says the bigger problem is “fragmentation.”

Fragmentation is “the external diffusion of political power away from the political parties as a whole and the internal diffusion of power away from the party leadership to individual party members and officeholders,” Pildes wrote in his 2014 paper “Romanticizing Democracy, Political Fragmentation, and the Decline of American Government.”

In other words, the struggles of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to lead his Republican majority over the past few years derive from the fact that he has no realpolitik way of controlling his members, thanks to such good-government reforms as doing away with earmarks.


The ideas of a noted gay-marriage advocate could make it easier for party leaders like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to drive their agendas. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Rauch’s recommendations go far beyond restoring earmarks, however. He also believes we should rethink the degree to which we have democratized our primary elections.

Most Americans under a certain age don’t even realize that up until the 1970s we elected presidents in a drastically different manner than we do now. The party primaries were insider-driven processes. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy received 2.9 million votes during the primaries. Bobby Kennedy got 2.3 million votes. But the nomination at the convention went to Hubert Humphrey, who had received only 166,000 votes in the primaries. Party insiders chose Humphrey as antiwar protests raged in the streets of Chicago.

The Democrats revamped their primary process following that year’s crushing general-election loss, and Republicans followed along behind them, on the wave of public sentiment that greater openness and accessibility were public goods. Rauch thinks this has been an error.

“The switch to direct voter nomination probably has been the modern political world’s most conspicuous example of unintended and perverse consequences,” he writes. “A crucial premise of populist reform, namely that most people want to participate more in politics, turns out to be wrong.”

Rauch does not believe the average American voter is too stupid or too uninformed to be trusted with the privilege of increasingly greater participation in politics, as some have argued. He makes a different argument: that the average American voter doesn’t have the time or the desire to be involved in the minutiae of politics. Voters want to elect people to public office who fix problems and keep the country running so that they don’t have to worry about it and can go on living their lives.

“Instead of opening decision-making to a broader, more diverse, and more representative spectrum than party hacks represented, primaries have skewed decision-making toward the notably narrow, ideologically extreme, and decidedly non-representative sliver of voters who turn out in primary elections,” Rauch writes.

He recommends increasing the number of “superdelegates” in primaries, those party insiders who are given automatic slots at national conventions. Democrats created them in 1984 when they decided they had democratized their primaries too much in 1972. And Rauch floats the idea of making it harder for candidates to get on a ballot without the approval of a political party.

Caps on donations to political parties, as well, have weakened them and empowered the more extreme elements of right and left, Rauch says. He suggests eliminating the caps and increasing the limits on what party leaders can raise for their leadership PACs.

On Capitol Hill, Rauch says, earmarks should be brought back and that committee chairmen should be re-empowered.

Meanwhile, transparency should be reined in. Transparency in government, while sometimes useful and positive, has too often been supported unthinkingly, making it exceedingly difficult for people in government to conduct negotiations on difficult issues.

Already, he says, he sees a movement beginning as thought leaders are beginning to make a case for what he calls “political realism.” He mentions Pildes, along with Thad Williamson at the University of Richmond, Terry Golway of Kean University, Raymond La Raja at the University of Massachusetts, Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, Frances E. Lee from the University of Maryland, Bruce Cain of Stanford, Nathaniel Persily of Stanford and Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Rauch told Yahoo News that this effort is, in his opinion, similar but not identical to his years-long attempts to persuade the public that gay marriage should be the law of the land.

“It takes time to introduce unorthodox ideas, though political realism is a lot less radical than gay marriage,” he said.


Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues for the return of earmarks and the elimination of caps on political donations. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Rauch)

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