The Case For Back-Room Deals, Party Hacks & Unlimited Money in Politics

Jonathan Rauch's Political Realism argues that libertarians should embrace "transactional politics" if they want big changes.


HD Download

"Libertarians forget that the winds are generally—socially, economically—in their favor," says Jonathan Rauch, author of the new 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."

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.


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. 

Rauch: Well that's right, and the Republican party has been extraordinary to watch. Completely helpless to do anything about what amounts to an insurgency against the Republican brand by complete outsiders with a lot of money. By the way, it's not just Trump. One of the results of trying to get the politics out of politics and clean it up with all these rules and stuff is that we now so restricted how much money the parties can raise and spend and how they spend it, that you've got money flowing mostly to these outside political machines, which are not accountable to anybody. 

Reason:  Well they're not accountable to voters per se, but they're accountable to the people who are funding them, and that's the problem right? That in primaries, say if you have a PAC, a super PAC, that is funneling a lot of money and challenging people in primaries, they can get an extreme person on the ballot, who may not even represent the party whose name they're appearing next to. 

Rauch: Oh, often does not represent the party. We often don't know who they're accountable to because we often don't know who they actually are. But the other problem that people don't think about is while we're all focusing on where's the money going in the campaign is, what happens after the campaign? The other 364 days of the year you've gotta govern. What happens when John Boehner tries to get the votes together to keep the government open for example, or pass an immigration bill, which he would have like to have done, and he can't get anyone to do it because all his guys are more afraid of the shadow PACs, the super PACs, and the outside money than they are of him? 

Reason:  [One of the reasons] you argue why we need the political parties, why we need machines, why we need hacks, at a certain level, is to get stuff done, to get shit done, right? So what happened when the government suspended operations for a few days [back in 2013]? What is not getting done that needs to get done? 

Rauch: Sometimes things don't get done because there's no consensus and people don't know what to do. Fixing Medicare, that's really hard; no one knows what to do. The problem is when you have a consensus, when you have a plan, when both parties want to get the thing done, and despite the fact that a majority of members of both parties in Congress and the president want to get it done, it still doesn't get done. 

Reason:  Going back to 2000, we've had the Bush tax breaks, Medicare Part D, we've had The Patriot Act, two authorizations of use of military force, Sarbanes-Oxley, the Bush stimulus in 2008, TARP, the Obama stimulus, multiple debt limit increases, the expansion of TARP under Obama, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank… I mean it seems to me, we're getting a lot big stuff done, most of which I find contemptible, but that's getting done. And then the day-to-day stuff, what is it, something like 60 percent of federal spending and federal activities are effectively on autopilot because it's all debt and entitlements. What is the problem then? That John Boehner can't whip his people into shape? 

Rauch: First of all, some of the stuff you mentioned is really old, and this phenomenon as it's now unfolding is actually pretty new. The huge entry of the super PAC money has come in the last 4 or 5 years, and it's only as recently as 2012 that the super PACs began to outspend the mainstream political parties. 

And that's when you really get the situation where John Boehner doesn't really have the tools he needed. It's also very recently that you get rid of earmarks, which were one of the last available tools for incentivizing people to take hard votes. If you want to fix Medicare or Social Security, you're gonna give that Florida congressman something. Maybe he needs a post office, so that's one issue. Another is if you're the type of liberal that counts votes and looks at congressional productivity–I know you don't–but that looks terrible recently. It's fallen off a cliff. 

But what I worry about is every decade, once or twice in a decade, you get a chance to do a real reform. It should have been immigration reform. That Senate bill wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good and there was a majority of people in both chambers and both parties, and a president that wanted to get that done. It died because a minority of the Republican caucus would not be controlled by their own leadership, and the leadership had no ways to deal with that. That's a big missed opportunity. You also couldn't fund the Homeland Security Department, despite the fact that everyone wanted to do that. 

Let's set aside the policy, when the political system is not just failing to decide because it doesn't know what to do or it disagrees, but can't decide, even when it knows what it wants to do, that's a different kind of problem. 

Reason:  The government has not really passed a true budget in years, and the Senate under Democratic control actually went four years without even producing a document that they didn't vote on. They didn't even produce the document. Is that a systemic failure, or is that a failure of leadership? 

Rauch: I think it's looking in the wrong place, Nick. One of the things that a lot of libertarians and progressives share is looking with utter contempt and disdain on appropriations committees. 

Reason:  Mmhmm. 

Rauch: Liberals think they're closed, they're smoke-filled rooms. Libertarians think these are logrollers, this is pork at its worst. In fact, what appropriations committees did was fairly quiet meetings of grownups to apportion the budget, not perfectly, but they were actually a force for restraint. And when we blew them away and substituted entitlements, or chaos, which is what we've got now, we lost a lot of the control that we used to have over where the money went. And that's a challenge to people who think smoke-filled rooms are always the wrong answer. 

Reason:  I'm going to mispronounce his name, Moisés Naím, who a couple of years ago wrote a book called The End of Power, where he charted internationally many large organizations–he's talking about large corporations as well as central governments, churches, and religions in his book The End of Power–charted how it's harder and harder to actually centralize power and get things done because of a variety of technological changes and social changes. Power is leeching out of the system. Is what you're talking about basically… It's not that you're wrong in even saying the stuff should be done differently, but the fact is that [the age of top-down organization] has passed? 

Rauch: That age has definitely passed, you can't turn back the clock, you can't go back to Tammany Hall, even if you wanted to. I don't want to, but that argument's a bit of a straw man, because it forgets that although times have changed and we've got social media and lots of things are different, a lot of this, not all of it, but a significant part is a result of deliberate policy choices. We deliberately chose to get rid of earmarks. We deliberately chose to blow up the old seniority system and committee structures in congress. There was some bad in the system, but there was also a lot of good. We deliberately chose campaign finance laws that sharply limited the amount of money that parties could raise, and limited even more weirdly, their ability to spend it on their own candidates. 

Reason:  To talk about next steps. You're definitely not saying we need to go back to a preexisting era and just replicate that. [You're saying] we need to learn from the past, and one of the things that you talk about are campaign finance laws. Talk a little bit about what you mean. You're not saying we're not gonna get money out of politics, and money in politics is not necessarily a bad thing. But one of the policies you say that I think is pretty interesting is to say, Let people give as much money as they want—[let them give to] super PACs or directly to candidates or parties. How does that change the equation? 

Rauch: Basically what we've been trying to do for 40 years now is sequester politicians from money. The problem is you create a black market for money. That's an idea that any libertarian will be familiar with, and you simply drive the money outside accountable channels and into these shadow networks. It's now clear that even if the Supreme Court would let you ban outside money, there's no practical way to do it. The best answer, flawed, but better than any other, is to bring that money back inside the system, funnel it through the parties, which are very large organizations. You can't buy a whole political party, maybe you can buy a chunk of a congressman, but you can't buy a whole party. They're more accountable than anyone else, they can move that money around and begin to use it as an incentive. They can tell a member look, if you vote for this Medicare cut, we're gonna help you in your race and we have the money to do it. So there are a lot of people who are increasingly saying, Let's bring the money back in, instead of trying to drive it out. It's kind of like marijuana legalization, you know, it's just not working in the underground economy. 

Reason:  Give an example of where giving somebody a little earmark allowed for a much greater good to take place. 

Rauch: It used to happen all the time. People like Trent Lott, former Senate Majority Leader, are on record as having said that one of John Boehner's big problems is that he doesn't have any incentives any more. There's really nothing that he can give his members to give them for a vote. And that makes life just a whole lot more difficult when you're trying to do transactions. It wasn't the whole ball game. In some ways it was only a small piece of it, but it was something you could do to bring that reluctant person along. When you lost it, both because of procedural changes and because the Tea Party said we're gonna vote against people who take earmarks, it was kind of in some ways the straw that broke the camel's back. 

Reason:  I'm thinking back to I guess was Ben Nelson in Nebraska. He basically won the tontine, he was the last holdout of Obamacare, so he got a bunch of stuff directed to Nebraska and to his constituents for that. I mean, that era has kind of ended? 

Rauch: Well I think if earmarks were allowed, that would be a good thing. I think it would help somewhat at the margins. People forget that by the time earmarks were abolished, they had already been reformed. They were transparent. They were all posted online. There were systems to get them. It was like applying for a grant, it wasn't the old backroom anymore. So I'd bring 'em back. I also wouldn't claim that it would change the world. What I'm really trying to do with this book and indeed this interview is get people to think differently, to begin to think about the importance of transactional politics and deal making as the only way to get anything other than chaos, which is what we increasingly have right now. And about all the tools the politicians need to do that. That's earmarks, that's money, it's control of the ballot, it's privacy, that is quiet meetings. 

Reason:  Political privacy, yeah? 

Rauch: Political privacy, which we've made much harder. 

Reason:  If you're trying to convince libertarians let me ask you: We've seen across the government, not so much in the federal government, but in past years we've seen gay marriage reform or [outright] legalization; we've seen pot, medical marijuana, and increasingly recreational pot go the right way, typically while being antagonized by the federal government. We've seen some reforms of The Patriot Act and surveillance. We've seen a new discussion about foreign policy starting to kind of filter through. What do we get [from your changes?] What do libertarians get if they sign on to this transactional idea, that politics is not about ideals or extremes, it's about incremental change in the right direction? 

Rauch: So I mentioned earlier, that if we're lucky we get one big reform in a decade. If you think about the direction of reform in the last few decades, [it went like this]: In the '70s, transportation deregulation, revolutionary, market people love it; in the '80s, tax reform, very big deal in its time, really helped for a while, market people love it, simpler, flatter, cleaner tax code; in the '90s it was welfare reform [and] it was also a new kind of farm bill, which was a step in the right direction [that] for unrelated reasons it didn't work out. In the 2000s it would have been Social Security reform, if we hadn't enter the zone of paralysis; and now it would have been immigration reform. 

The next one needs to be entitlement reform. Libertarians forget that the winds are generally—socially, economically—in their favor. 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.

Reason:  You also key in on a deal in Utah about gay marriage that kind of points to the type of positive outcomes that happen if people are adult enough to take transactional politics seriously. Talk a little bit about what happened there and why that's a model we should be looking at. 

Rauch: Utah had bunch of gay people who wanted a gay rights bill, discrimination protections, and it had a bunch of Mormon people who were not on board with, as they call it, the "gay lifestyle," but who decided that they were OK with anti-discrimination law if it included religious protections. What then happened is a process where some people went behind closed doors for a period of intense conversations, begun quietly over period of years. Then [the participants became] much more focused and came out with a deal. This would be, if not illegal, very difficult in many political environments today. Because it's what a lot of progressives hate; it's quiet, secret, negotiation. But it turns out if you want to get a bunch of people to really put their cards on the table and start saying, What do you need? What do I need? How do we move forward on this?–that's what you gotta be able to do. People forget, transactional politics isn't just logrolling; it's social conciliation. It's how we get along as a society, how we negotiate with each other as human beings in politics. 

Reason:  When you talk about the religious exemptions for anti-discrimination laws, you mean things what would allow businesses or people in Utah to be able to step out of a situation, like baking a cake for a gay marriage reception or something? 

Rauch: Because of the nature of their law, Utah didn't get into the specifics of what businesses have to do with customers. They don't have a public accommodations line in their law, but what it did mean is, for example, Brigham Young University will not be required to recognize gay couples for student housing, and there are lots of other exemptions like that that make it much easier for the Mormon Church to go on about its business. 

Reason:  The new book, which I highly recommend that everybody read–it's a quick read, a fast read, and a genuinely provocative and intriguing one–is Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Backroom Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. 

Rauch: And 100% free. 

Reason:  That's right. It's worth every penny too. Thank you Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution. For Reason TV, I'm Nick Gillespie.