My Turn: A broken political system

  • BOS

Monday, November 06, 2017

Several years ago, I finally “got it” that both the Democrats and the Republicans constituted a duopoly entangled in a self-serving collusion that has stopped them from working for the people. I changed my voter registration from Democrat to Independent.

It would take me a couple dozen My Turn columns to write fully about what I am just now learning about the “political industrial complex” that is destroying our democracy. So I will attempt to summarize what authors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter have presented in their sobering report “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” You can download your own copy at: http://hbs.me/2xmWBnh. Or, if you would prefer to not read and digest the 76-page report, I would be happy to email you a pdf with the 9-page preface and executive summary.

Where to start? “Politics in America,” the authors write, “has become, over the last several decades, a major industry that works like other industries.” On the face of that statement, you might be tempted to say, “Wait a minute! The primary purpose of industry is to make a profit! That’s not what our government is about!” You would be right on your first point, but wrong on the second. Gehl and Porter bring the analytical lens of industry competition, used for decades to understand competition in other industries, to shed “new light on the failure of politics in America” to serve its citizens, its customers, if you will.

In their preface, the authors write, “The problem is not Democrats or Republicans or the existence of parties per se. The problem is not individual politicians.” They include Donald Trump in that last statement; “Has the election of Donald Trump changed the structure of our political system, or our analysis, conclusions, or recommendations?” they ask rhetorically. “On the contrary, it is a direct reflection of them. The Trump election and presidency only reinforce our conclusion that political competition is dysfunctional, and fails to deliver the outcomes that advance the public interest.” They underscore what most of us already understand, that public dissatisfaction with the political status quo prompted voters to elect someone from outside the political industrial complex to bust things up.

Following are the first two of 11 key findings in the executive summary:

“The political system isn’t broken. It’s doing what it is designed to do. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industrial allies.”

“By nearly every measure, the industry of politics, itself, is thriving. There’s just one problem,” Gehl and Porter write. “The people whom the politics industry is supposed to serve have never been more dissatisfied. Public trust in the Federal is hovering at a near 60-year low.”

“The parties compete on ideology and unrealistic promises, not on action and results. The parties compete to divide voters and serve special interests, rather than weigh and balance the interests of all citizens and find common ground to move the country forward. And,” charge the authors, “there is no accountability for results. Those who fail the average citizen year after year remain in control.”

The report lists the “culprits” commonly blamed for our political problems, such as the role of “big money,” special interests, the lack of bipartisanship, a polarized public and the proliferation of fake news. But, the authors believe, these are just symptoms. “The underlying root cause is the kind of political competition that the parties have created, including their insulation from new competition that would better serve the public interest.” Think third party or Bernie Sanders.

A second key finding is: “The political system is a private industry that sets its own rules. Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so” state Gehl and Porter. “Politics is, in fact, an industry — most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations.” This industry, the authors say, “competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest.”

And here’s the kicker for me. The report asserts, “It’s important to recognize that much of what constitutes today’s political system has no basis in the Constitution.”

“As our system evolved, the parties — and a larger political industrial complex that surrounds them — established and optimized a set of rules and practices that enhanced their power and diminished our democracy. These changes,” which Gehl and Porter document later in their report, “often created behind closed doors and largely invisible to the average citizen — continue to take their toll at both the Federal and state levels.”

I am now at the space limit permitted for My Turn essays and have yet to list the remaining nine key findings, much less how we, as American citizens can reform the system by changing the political industry structure and the rules than underpin it — shifting the very nature of political competition. Stay tuned!

John Bos is a resident of Shelburne Falls. His father was a Republican, his mother a Democrat and his grandfather, who lived with the family, a Socialist. He remembers their bipartisan concern for “the people.” He invites your thoughts at john01370@gmail.com.