My Turn: Report provides a light at end of figurative Trump era tunnel

  • BOS

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

“How did we get into this mess?” is the question I hear most frequently these days referring, of course, to the dark and dangerous inhabitants of the political swamp that is the Trump administration. Some people believe that President Trump is “our last chance to salvage the mess our Congress has caused.”

Those believers are looking for a way to drain the swamp in all the wrong places. No single person, last and least of all, Donald Trump, is going to fix the system.

In two previous My Turn columns (from Nov. 6 and Jan. 4), I summarized the first three of 11 key findings by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter in an exhaustive report titled “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America” with the subtitle “A strategy for reinvigorating our democracy.”

Those first three findings are:

“The political system isn’t broken. It’s doing what it is designed to do.”

“The political system is a private industry that sets its own rules.”

“Citizens should expect four outcomes from a healthy political system — which currently delivers none of them.”

In this column, I write about key findings — “The structure of the politics industry has created unhealthy competition that fails to advance the public interest” — as well as “the politics industry.” You can receive the entire report by requesting it via the email below.

The politics industry, writes Gehl and Porter, “is a textbook example of a duopoly, an industry dominated by two entrenched players. Around the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans ... has arisen (is) what we call the ‘political industrial complex,’ an interconnected set of entities that support the duopoly.” For Gehl and Porter, these entities include special interests, donors (think “big money”), pollsters, consultants, partisan think tanks, the media, lobbyists and others. For these players, the political industrial complex is big business, a huge business for those players who will benefit enormously from the recent tax cut legislation. All these players are connected, in one way or the other, with the “right” or the “left.”

The report’s pro-business authors state, “In healthy competition, industry actors would be competing to deliver the desired outcomes for customers — fellow citizens — and be held accountable for results.” This means that if politicians failed to serve the public interest, they would be replaced by new “competitors” — new senators or representatives. We all know that does not often happen. The political industrial complex ensures politicians are “insulated from the pressures to serve customers better, and protected from new competition,” which means that incumbent office holders are difficult to dislodge, in part because of the enormous amount of money it takes to run for office. That is only one place that big money makes its influence known.

Gehl and Porter list four elements that define the structure of the politics industry:

“Who the duopoly serves.” The most powerful customers are “partisan primary voters, special interests and donors. Average voters and current nonvoters, the majority of citizens,” Gehl and Porter say, “have little or no influence on policy or outcomes.” Democrats and Republicans both “prioritize the customers that most advance their interests through the two currencies of politics: votes, money or both. The parties, the authors find, “do not compete for average voters by delivering outcomes for their benefit, but rather by seeking to be a little less disliked than — or slightly preferred to — the other party.” In other words, by convincing enough voters that they are the lesser of two evils.

Research in 2014 by Princeton and Northwestern universities underscores this Gehl/Porter statement. The research examined 1,779 policy issues and found that, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Is anyone shocked by these findings?

“Controlling the inputs to modern campaigning.” There are five key factors in contemporary political competition: the candidates, campaign management talent, voter research data, lobbyists, and what Gehl/Porter call “idea suppliers.” I think they mean someone like Steve Bannon. All of this ramps up tribal partisanship, which, Gehl/Porter say, “becomes a disadvantage for third-party candidates, independents and even moderates.” For evidence, one need only to look at the 2016 election.

“Co-opting channels for reaching voters.” The major parties increasingly control not only direct voter contact and political advertising, but have also co-opted both social and independent media. “Mainstream media,” the authors find, “are less and less independent and have aligned with the duopoly and reinforces partisan competition.” Think Fox “Noise” versus MSNBC.

“Erecting high and rising barriers to new competition.” Since the founding of the Republican Party in 1860, no new major party has emerged in the political industrial complex “despite widespread and growing public dissatisfaction with the existing parties, contemporary third parties and independent candidates continue to fare poorly.” The fact is that the duopoly has systemically disadvantaged candidates and elected officials who are not party members.

My purpose in laying out the key findings in the Gehl/Porter report is to provide a background for their recommended strategy for reforming the political industrial complex, and our responsibility as citizens. The growing public resistance to the sociopathic, economic and environmental legislative crimes being enacted by the Trump administration is heartening. But, we must be empowered by knowing what specific actions to press for beyond protesting one issue at a time. We need to shine the bright light of moral decency, compassion and strategic savvy at the end of the dark tunnel we find ourselves groping in.

John Bos lives in Shelburne Falls. You may email him at john01370@gmail.com for a copy of the Gehl/Porter report or with comments.