Jonathan Rauch On Congress and Chaos
The Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch has an article garnering much attention: “How American Politics Went Insane” (The Atlantic, July/August 2016). He writes:
“Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.”
Rauch’s article proffers explanations as to how this state of affairs came to be:
“Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick. The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base.”
What is to be done?
“Although returning parties and middlemen to anything like their 19th-century glory is not conceivable—or, in today’s America, even desirable—strengthening parties and middlemen is very doable. Restrictions inhibiting the parties from coordinating with their own candidates serve to encourage political wildcatting, so repeal them. Limits on donations to the parties drive money to unaccountable outsiders, so lift them. Restoring the earmarks that help grease legislative success requires nothing more than a change in congressional rules. And there are all kinds of ways the parties could move insiders back to the center of the nomination process. If they wanted to, they could require would-be candidates to get petition signatures from elected officials and county party chairs, or they could send unbound delegates to their conventions (as several state parties are doing this year), or they could enhance the role of middlemen in a host of other ways. Building party machines and political networks is what career politicians naturally do, if they’re allowed to do it. So let them.”
Rauch wrote at greater length on this topic in “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy,” which elicited many responses, including this lengthy one from Thomas Mann and E.J. Dionne, Jr.