Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. "It is not in their interest to just obstruct on the grounds that everything gets worse if Congress does nothing. What really happens if Congress does nothing is power flows to the president, who does what he damn well pleases.""Libertarians forget that the winds are generally—socially, economically—in their favor," says Jonathan Rauch, author of the new
Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a message that idealistic libertarians, progressives, and populists don't want to hear. Appropriations committees are good for us. So are unlimited political contributions to political parties and individual candidates. So are earmarks and even political hacks of all persuasions. What manner of madness is this?!?!
A longtime political reporter at National Journal and The Atlantic and the author of a shelf's worth of important books on topics from free speech to gay marriage to special-interest politics, Rauch's latest book, available as a free download at Brookings' site and at Amazon.com, provocatively argues that back-room deals and what used to be called "honest graft" actually strengthen our democracy.
Such dealings, he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie, are more than just necessary evils that grease the rusty wheels of politics and allow politicians to enact more laws. They're a fundamental way that human beings communicate and negotiate in a functioning democracy. And in a country that tilts toward individual freedom and libertarian values, he says, that is a good thing.
About 18 minutes.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Vignettes by Joshua Swain.
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Reason: Hi, I’m Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and today we’re talking with Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Backroom Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. John, thanks for talking to us.
Jonathan Rauch: Nick, it’s always great to see you, and I’m glad to see you’ve changed to black today.
Reason: That’s right. This is the Frankenstein ensemble, with a jacket and everything.
Rauch: The new Gillespie Look.
Reason: Yes. This book is fascinating. It’s available for free at the Brookings Institution website and Amazon.
Rauch: It’s very short; only 16,000 words, so you can read it on your plane home.
Reason: It’s a particularly challenging document, I think, to libertarians, because what you’re saying is that there are problems with our political system and that libertarians, progressives, and populists are part of the problem here. That’s because as a general rule, we expect a kind of dogmatic allegiance to extreme ideological positions in the political realm. And that that crashes the system in a way that hurts everything.
Talk a little bit about political realism. What do you mean by that term? And then let’s talk about why machine politics weren’t as bad as they usually are perceived to be.
Rauch: So, the four-word bumper-sticker version of Political Realism is: “Let Politicians Be Politicians.”
The very slightly longer explanation is: In order to organize politics, and for anything to work, you need political machines, or things that function like political machines. These are informal hierarchies that make politicians accountable to each other, because in our system politicians cannot reward and punish each other directly. It’s not like Britain where you can basically be fired if you vote against the party. So you have to create these networks where they incentivize each other, so that followers will follow leaders and that requires stuff like pork barrel spending and political machines. It requires some control of the ballot, so you can protect your people and they can take a tough vote. The problem is that if you’re an idealist, those kinds of machines and structures don’t look really good when you hold them up to the light and say is this perfect, is it beautiful? So we spent the last 40 years demolishing all of that equipment, and libertarians have been a big part of that.
Reason: The 2016 presidential race is a kind of example of the breakdown of the system that you’re talking about. You wouldn’t have a Donald Trump or a Ben Carson, or arguably a Bernie Sanders, running if political machines and if political party hierarchies were still functioning in a meaningful way.