3

Consequences and Outcomes

The casualties of the unchecked and unbalanced politics industry are the health of our democracy, our long-term economic competitiveness, and our shared prosperity and social progress—three pillars of the American experiment. Looking carefully at these consequences connects the true nature of the politics industry to what it produces.

As you read this chapter, which is the darkest in the book, please allow yourself to feel frustrated anew about this decades-long decline—but trust that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. At the close of this chapter and later in the book, we will pivot from diagnosis and dire straits to the legacy and promise of political innovation that animates our purpose. We will guide you in converting frustrated energy into targeted personal agency as we explore the strategy that will break partisan gridlock and reverse this tragic trajectory.

Consequence: Democracy in Decline

Unhealthy competition in the politics industry has resulted in five horrifying consequences for our democracy. You’ll recognize these themes, as they have been explored or foreshadowed throughout the previous chapters.

Lack of Problem Solving

As we’ve established, there is virtually no intersection between elected officials’ acting in the public interest and the likelihood of their being reelected. In our current political system, doing your job as an elected official the way we need you to will actually increase the chances that you’ll lose your job. That’s a ridiculous design. But it gets even worse, because, in today’s system, there is actually an incentive not to solve problems. A true solution—with its attendant bipartisan compromises and required departures, however slight, from strict ideological purity—would no doubt disappoint some fervent supporters and reliable donors on both sides.

Conversely, keeping a problem or a divisive issue alive and festering is a proven method to attract and motivate partisan voters, special interests, and committed donors to each side, delivering both currencies—votes and money—in return. Why not solve those problems? Because the connected votes and money might disappear. Finally, even in areas where the sides agree, legislators sometimes fail to pass legislation that would represent progress. They hold out to deny the other side any claim of success before the next election.

In today’s political competition, then, serious legislation is often only passed under single party control. Landmark legislation used to pass with bipartisan support, as happened with social security, highways, and civil rights. Today, important legislation is passed only along partisan lines (figure 3-1). And when the other side retakes power, it focuses not on improving, but on repealing.

FIGURE 3-1

Declining Bipartisan Support of Landmark Legislation (1935–2017)

image

Note: The number of members of each party has fluctuated over time.

Source: GovTrack.com, accessed August 2017.

Party-line legislation dominates partly because there simply aren’t enough moderates remaining who can bridge the gap between the extremes of the two sides. The percentage of moderates in both the House and the Senate has declined precipitously over time—on both sides of the aisle (figure 3-2).1

FIGURE 3-2

Disappearing Moderates of the House and Senate (1951–2018)

image

Note: Moderates within each party are defined as −0.25 to +0.25 on a left-to-right (liberal [−1] to conservative [+1]) ideological spectrum. The black line represents number of Republican moderates, and the gray line Democratic.

Source: Data from Keith Poole, University of Georgia, voteview.com, accessed August 2017.

Instead of compromise and results, we have historically high levels of gridlock.2 Devastatingly, it’s gridlock on the most important issues (figure 3-3).

FIGURE 3-3

Skyrocketing Congressional Gridlock on Salient Issues (1947–2016)

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Note: Salient issues for each session of Congress based on the level of New York Times editorial attention. Deadlocked issues are those where Congress and the President did not take action during the session.

Source: Updated from Sarah Binder, “The Dysfunctional Congress,” Annual Review of Political Science (2015).

No Action without a Time-Sensitive Crisis and National Debt

Congress does take action on substantive issues but usually does so only under two coexisting conditions: the existence of a crisis, and the use of deficit financing. When a national security crisis occurs, a national disaster hits, or a government shutdown or debt downgrade looms, Congress does take action, sometimes even swift action. But the tradeoff is that the action is virtually never paid for with current funding. Instead, Congress uses deficit financing, which passes the cost of the bill on to future generations by adding the spending to the national debt. Consider what typically happens with omnibus spending bills that increase spending without providing for corresponding revenue increases. In order to get these deals done, the pot is sweetened for both sides as Republicans and Democrats tuck their preferred spending and tax adjustments into such bills to please their core constituencies, while tacitly agreeing to look the other way on what the other side gets. All the while, our national debt continues to grow. There is no party standing strongly for fiscal responsibility anymore; both Republicans and Democrats have realized that in the absence of a serious competitor raising the issue (as Perot did in 1992), there’s no political benefit to fiscal responsibility.

Congress is ineffective in the face of “nonurgent” crises such as our failing infrastructure. The infrastructure crisis undoubtedly has long-term implications, but there is no hard deadline like the one that Congress faces with the expiration of the debt ceiling. Nor is there a clear requirement for immediate action such as what’s evident during a national security issue or natural disaster. Without a deadline forcing action, barely anything happens. Congress kicks the can down the road.

A Country More Divided

Competition is personal. It involves not only politicians, but also citizens. While party rivalry appears intense to the casual observer, it is nonetheless constrained because head-to-head competition for the middle is mutually destructive. Instead, the rivals increasingly seek to compete in ways that reinforce their differentiation and separation from one another. The political-industrial complex increasingly plays the identity-politics game, painting fellow citizens on the other side as enemies. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan addressed this phenomenon after he announced his retirement, describing a system that is “playing on people’s divisions and exploiting people’s frustrations and divisions with other people—dividing people for political gain to get a coalition that’s 50 (percent) plus one.”3

Political Disillusionment

The American public has never been more dissatisfied with the political system. Public trust in the federal government is hovering at a near sixty-year low. In 1958, three out of four Americans trusted the government.4 By 2017, just one in five did (figure 3-4). Congressional approval ratings, meanwhile, have averaged under 20 percent every year since 2010.5

FIGURE 3-4

Dwindling Public Trust in Federal Government (1964–2018)

image

Note: Data is a moving average of individual polls.

Source: Data from “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2019,” Pew Research Center, April 11, 2019, www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019.

While there is much finger-pointing at the other side, more and more Americans know that both parties are to blame. Half of citizens today take a dim view of both the Democrats and the Republicans, nearly equaling the record high in political disillusionment in the fallout of Watergate.6 A growing number of Americans have expressed this discontent by dropping their party label and declaring their political independence. The percentage self-identifying as independents is at a near all-time high—41 percent, versus 30 percent as Democrats and 28 percent as Republicans (figure 3-5).7 Nearly two-thirds of Americans think a third major party is necessary (figure 3-6).8 It’s an industry ripe for disruption—if only a candidate or party could get over the high barriers to entry.

FIGURE 3-5

Increasing Number of Independents (2004–2019)

image

Note: Figures are annual averages calculated from a Gallup poll on party affiliation. Numbers represent the percentage of respondents who answered “Republican,” “Democrat,” or “independent” to the question “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?”

Source: Data from Gallup, “Party Affiliation,” Gallup, Inc., https://news.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx, accessed November 2019.

FIGURE 3-6

Increasing Desire for a Third Major Party (2003–2018)

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Note: Circles correspond to the date of the survey. The first poll in which Gallup asked whether a third party is needed was October 10–12, 2003.

Source: Chart data from Gallup, “Majority in U.S. Still Say a Third Party Is Needed,” https://news.gallup.com/poll/244094/majority-say-third-party-needed.aspx, accessed July 2019.

With no other viable option, citizen discontent has been expressed through volatile swings of sentiment between the existing parties.9 Democrats were ascendant in 2006 but quickly fell to Republicans in 2010. After Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Democrats appeared to be back in the driver’s seat, but they lost the wheel again in 2014, when Republicans retook the Senate. After Trump won the White House in 2016, Republicans were in complete command of Washington. But unified government ended just two years later, when Democrats retook the House.

Many Americans have begun to lose faith in democracy as a system of government. Only one-third of millennials (i.e., those born between 1980 and 1996) report that it is essential to live in a country that is governed democratically. Support for authoritarianism is on the rise.10

Lack of Accountability

In any other industry this large—and thriving—with this much customer dissatisfaction and only two players, some entrepreneur would see it as a phenomenal business opportunity and create a new competitor responding to what the customers want. But that doesn’t happen in politics, because the duopoly works really well together in one particular way—to rig the rules of the game to protect themselves from new competition. The players have erected huge barriers to entry, and the other checks and balances in healthy competition have also been neutralized, as we saw in the Five Forces analysis.

In other industries, channels or suppliers apply pressure on industry rivals to serve customers better—or abandon them. New competitors or substitutes emerge. If all else fails, an independent regulator steps in to protect the consumer. But in politics, these forces have been co-opted or eliminated. Unlike a business cycle, our political system is not in a phase; it will not self-correct.

Choosing Not to Solve Problems:
The Case of Immigration

To appreciate the full suite of unhealthy competition at work, consider the contentious issue of immigration. In the past, both parties compromised on immigration to deliver real solutions and to refine immigration policies over time. In 1965, the two sides eliminated a discriminatory quota system.11 In 1996, they returned to the table to write a bill that enhanced enforcement.12 These actions are far from how immigration policy is made today.

Even in today’s contentious times, all sides recognize that immigration policy revolves around the same clear set of issues—improving enforcement, addressing those here illegally, and refining the legal immigration system.13 Yet, comprehensive immigration reform still appears to be a fantasy.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the door seemed open for a bipartisan deal.14 A bill cosponsored by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy passed in the Senate in 2006 with the backing of almost every Democrat and nearly half of the Republicans.15 Unfortunately, it died in the House when Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert invoked his Hastert Rule, refusing to hold a vote on the bill—already passed by the Senate—out of fear that compromising would taint the Republicans’ ideological purity, disappoint their partisan and special interest bases, and reduce their chances in the midterms.16

Later that year when the Democrats captured Congress anyway, hope was renewed that progress could be made on immigration. The Senate took up a retooled version of the McCain-Kennedy bill in early 2007, but the proposed legislation involved compromises that upset some of each side’s core constituents. Conservative radio was outraged over “amnesty” for “illegals,” while the AFL-CIO protested guest-worker programs. To make it through the Senate, the bill needed to avoid amendments championed by the disgruntled groups (i.e., remain similar to what had passed only months earlier). The inclusion of these so-called poison pills would ultimately kill the bill.17

When the bill came to the Senate floor in June, one such poison-pill amendment was offered by then freshman Senator Obama, who had months earlier launched his campaign for president. Fortunately, the amendment was rejected.18 But Obama quickly backed another poison pill supported by organized labor to sunset a popular Republican idea to expand the guest-worker program.19 The amendment ultimately passed—by just one vote.20

Immigration reform was dead. Both parties had killed it.

While it was a major defeat for the country, the failure of immigration reform was a tactical win for Obama. In today’s politics, taking ideological stands at the expense of actual legislative action can be smart strategy. Obama pandered to his Democratic base, blocked a major legislative victory for future opponent McCain, and kept a highly partisan wedge issue on the table to rally support for the elections.

Obama campaigned on a commitment to deal with immigration in his first year. Despite a Democratic supermajority in Congress during his first term, there was no action.21 By the time the Democrats attempted immigration reform in 2013 in the Senate, the Republicans had retaken control of the House and blocked it. The Republicans followed the successful Democratic tactic employed in Bush’s final years: wait for the next president, avoid compromise, and run out the clock.22

The duopoly has continued to fail to solve this critical issue facing the country. Today, in 2020, after more than a decade, there is still no comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, the only steps taken have been partisan decisions by executive action that are challenged by the other side in the courts. Judges have, predictably, ruled in favor of the party that appointed them.23

The duopoly has succeeded, however, in protecting and expanding the value of immigration as a wedge issue. A decade ago, the average Democrat and Republican reported similar feelings about whether immigrants strengthen the country. Today, their opinions wildly diverge.24 Immigration has been politically weaponized, a surefire means to induce polarization and stir up rabid supporters. Absent the threat of new competition, there’s little reason for the duopoly to aspire to consensus and problem solving.

But while the duopoly has been able to ride the waves of polarization—and even thrive—many Americans have not. Let’s look at what we face.

Consequence: Deteriorating Economic Competitiveness

Competitiveness is central to the welfare of every nation. A nation is competitive if it creates the conditions for two things to occur simultaneously: businesses operating in the nation (1) compete successfully in global markets while (2) lifting the wages and living standards of the average citizen. When these occur together the nation prospers. The definition makes clear that a hallmark of any truly competitive nation is shared prosperity. A nation in which businesses thrive but most citizens struggle is not competitive. Nor is a country that pays its citizens well while its businesses fail in the marketplace. Neither of those are desirable or sustainable.

How competitive is the United States today by these standards? There is extensive evidence that the US economy is fulfilling only one-half of the definition of competitiveness. Large and midsize companies in the United States are thriving and creating prosperity for those who found, run, and invest in them. But middle- and working-class Americans are struggling, as are many small businesses. The point is that despite our current situation—126th month of the longest nonstop economic expansion in America’s history with record high markets—our economy is not well positioned for the long term, and the ideal of shared prosperity is not our reality.25

America used to be one of the most competitive nations in the world. Our deep roster of productive, innovative, dynamic companies dominated global markets. At the same time, America boasted the best-trained workers, who commanded high and rising wages over time without undermining their companies’ performances. Many citizens could flourish and reach their full potential. With such a strong track record, we came to assume that our future prosperity was assured. Not so. Over the past several decades, this illusion has been shattered as our economic performance has deteriorated on multiple key dimensions.

Since the beginning of the new century, productivity growth has fallen behind historic trends, leading to a significant drop-off in economic output and a smaller pie to divide among the population. Established firms are investing less, and our economy is becoming less dynamic as the rate of new-businesses formation has slowed. Workers—our most valuable national asset—are underutilized. Recent job gains and headlines that tout a low unemployment rate hide the millions of Americans who have been forced into part-time jobs, are not earning a living wage, or have stopped searching for work all together.

After decades of steady gains, labor-force participation has shrunk since 2000 to levels not seen since the 1980s. This falloff reflects the fact that American companies are creating fewer jobs than before. The new jobs that are created are disproportionately concentrated in low-skill sectors shielded from international competition. All these forces have combined to depress wages. The average family makes little more than it did two decades ago. As a result, too many households find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, with no financial security. The American dream is under threat. What used to be a guarantee that American children would earn more than their parents did is now just a coin toss.26

The era of shared prosperity has ended. For the first half of the post–World War II era, all Americans—from the most affluent to the least advantaged—saw their fortunes rise with a growing economy. Today, while middle-class Americans struggle to compete with lower-paid workers in other countries, higher-skilled Americans benefit from global markets and technological advancement. Accordingly, recent gains have been concentrated at the top of the income distribution.

The fortunes of our communities are also diverging. Regions surrounding cities like San Francisco, Boston, and New York are booming with vibrant, knowledge-based clusters. Washington, D.C., the seat of the federal government, is doing better than ever. Yet even within these oceans of affluence sit islands of hardship, where average incomes have actually declined over the past two decades. Inequality is skyrocketing, corroding social solidarity and creating a destructive zero-sum competition that pits rich against poor, haves against have-nots, workers against business, and Wall Street against Main Street.

These disturbing economic outcomes are not the lingering effects of the Great Recession, as some believe. They have been emerging since the late 1990s and were sometimes in evidence even before then.

Since 2011, as part of an effort to better understand the root causes of these dismal results, the U.S. Competitiveness Project at Harvard Business School has conducted annual surveys of Harvard Business School alumni and the public.27 Figure 3-7 shows the results of the alumni survey from 2016. For each dimension of competitiveness, the horizontal axis represents the US position relative to other advanced economies, and the vertical axis represents whether our performance is improving or deteriorating relative to competition. Although the United States retains some formidable strengths such as world-class universities, deep capital markets, and high-quality firm management, we are also plagued by a growing array of competitive weaknesses found in the bottom left corner. We face an astronomically expensive and unequitable health-care system; onerous and costly regulatory and legal systems; a convoluted, loophole-filled tax code; a public education system that fails to equip our children with the skills needed in the new economy; crumbling highways, railroads, and airports that are a national embarrassment. And things are only getting worse.

FIGURE 3-7

Eroding US Competitiveness Compared with Other Advanced Economies

image

Note: Data from the 2019 survey of Harvard Business School alumni on the state of US competitiveness.

Source: Michael E. Porter et al., “A Recovery Squandered,” Harvard Business School, December 2019.

Tellingly, whereas our strengths are concentrated in areas driven by the private sector, our weaknesses tend to be in areas driven by state and federal policy. While other countries have been improving their business environments and raising the bar, our government has failed to make the necessary investments. It’s not that we don’t know which areas we need to address to unlock American competitiveness. We do. Nearly everyone both outside and inside Washington, D.C., agrees that we must improve our infrastructure, streamline regulations, address abuses in the international trading system, and balance the federal budget. There is a surprising amount of consensus—at least in off-the-record conversations. The problem is that consensus does not produce solutions.

In other words, it’s not a policy problem. It’s a politics problem. No wonder Harvard Business School alumni and the public consistently identified our political system as America’s single greatest competitive weakness (see figure 3-7).

Consequence: A Quality-of-Life Recession

A similar failure to make progress in economic competitiveness also afflicts our nation’s quality of life. Although America has finally climbed out of the depths of the Great Recession, we remain trapped in a far more serious quality-of-life recession.28

We increasingly understand that the well-being of citizens is integral to a nation’s competitiveness and economic opportunity. To take year-over-year stock of progress, the Social Progress Index tracks a wide range of important dimensions, including countries’ performances in meeting basic human needs like nutrition, health, education, personal safety, and environmental quality, as well as measurements of freedom and inclusivity such as personal rights, political rights, and religious tolerance. Recent results are shocking.

Most Americans assume that we are the world leader on social performance—and historically we have been. We pioneered universal public education, from the first public primary schools to land grant colleges, and we led the world in bringing electricity into every home. It was our collective mission to ensure that every child born in this country had the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. Today, however, we are falling well short of these goals. According to objective benchmarking, America has fallen to twenty-sixth place overall in social progress.29 This ranking places the United States behind far less advanced and affluent countries such as Portugal and Slovenia. Even more disturbing is that while other countries are improving, the United States is the only advanced country where social performance continues to decline.

Table 3-1 shows how the United States ranks among the thirty-six countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on a select group of key indicators. The OECD is comprised of advanced democratic nations with market economies like Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, but also countries that are not typically thought of as top-tier performers, like Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Mexico.

TABLE 3-1

Eroding US Social Performance, Compared with Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Countries

image

In secondary school enrollment, a mainspring for citizen opportunity, we are 22nd out of 36. Beyond the OECD, we’re on par with Serbia, which has one-quarter of America’s economic prosperity.

Despite spending far more than any other nation on its health-care system, the United States is 35th in maternal mortality and 33rd in child mortality. Beyond the OECD, overall health outcomes are comparable to Jordan or Panama, and our life expectancy has actually fallen in recent years.

Our homicide rate has skyrocketed to 35th, and we are a disturbing 26th in discrimination and violence against minorities in the OECD. American citizens often lack access to the most basic essentials— America ranks 31st on access to basic drinking water—and our communities are increasingly unsafe. Globally, in personal safety, we have fallen behind countries like Indonesia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.

Core rights enshrined in our Constitution are also under threat. Our performance has declined significantly since 2014. We now register a lowly 32nd out of 36 on political rights, 23rd on freedom of expression, 27th on access to justice, and 21st on religious freedom. Our inclusiveness is not far below Hungary, an OECD country whose leader, Viktor Orbán, has declared that he intends to build an “illiberal state.”30

We are no longer the country we like to think we are.

Our society is fracturing. Quality of life in America is declining for many. Key American accomplishments that were once thought to be rock-solid are now on shaky ground. As one casual observer once said to us, “It’s simple. We [our government] used to be able to solve problems, and now we can’t.” Meanwhile, the politics industry continues to grow and prosper—despite its dismal, even life-threatening results—outcomes that diverge dramatically from the public interest.

Modern Outcomes: What Our Democracy Must Deliver

As we have just seen, competition in our political system is delivering outcomes that diverge from the public interest. Before we consider the causes, we need clarity on what the desired outcomes look like. In business, the key desired outcomes are clear: profit and growth. But what essential outcomes should citizens expect from our elected officials?

Despite the fundamental importance of this question, there is surprisingly little discussion of outcomes in politics, much less any consensus on which outcomes we want. Instead, there is endless commentary on the drama of politics and who did what to whom. This lack of attention to outcomes has created a vacuum that has allowed political actors to define success in ways that fit their own purposes. To remedy this, we propose five key outcomes for a healthy democratic political system.

Solutions

Solutions are policies that address important problems or expand opportunities for citizens. A solution is a policy approach that actually works and makes things better in practice. While the importance of solutions seems obvious, solutions are almost nonexistent in America’s political system today. What do we know about the nature of effective policy solutions? Although there is no simple way to determine the best solution—and there are many opinions—a solution has essential characteristics.

Effective solutions address real problems, not ideology. Effective solutions rarely arise from applying stylized ideological principles; doing so can often make things worse. Effective solutions are seldom purely right or purely left. For example, the question is not “Big government or small government?” but how to strike the right balance across the various roles that government must play. Similarly, the issue is not “regulation or no regulation,” but how to create regulations that deliver the desired social or economic benefits (e.g., less pollution) without inflicting unnecessary cost on the stakeholders being regulated, or on citizens, who ultimately have to pay for it.

Practical and sustainable solutions are not unidimensional. They are nuanced and integrate the range of relevant and important considerations. These solutions must weigh and balance points of view across constituencies and make sound tradeoffs in integrating them. Solutions usually require compromise and bipartisanship.

Good solutions are fair and acceptable to the greatest number of people possible. The challenge is that not everyone can get everything they want from government, especially in a democracy. The tradeoffs involved in good solutions mean that some individuals or groups will benefit more than others from a given policy, and some will shoulder more (or less) of the cost. Yet the overall outcome needs to be perceived, over time, as balanced and fair. Good solutions are often achieved when no group or faction gets everything it wants.

Finally, good solutions make real progress, but rarely achieve everything at once. The key test is this: “Have we made things better?” Effective solutions often initially require partial steps in the right direction, with iterative improvements over time.

The Social Security Act is a textbook example of an effective solution. Before the program was created in 1935, retired Americans were forced to rely on family and friends for support. Yet as the economy modernized, more and more citizens lost their safety nets and struggled to support themselves in old age. This trend was only exacerbated by the Great Depression. Searching for an answer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Committee for Economic Security (CES), which brought together leaders in government, business, academia, and civil society to develop a plan that would balance the interests of all those affected. For six months, the CES studied pension systems around the world and engaged constituents to discover what would work best. Using these findings, Democrats and Republicans then worked together to create a social insurance program that continues to this day.31

That we should expect solutions to our nation’s most salient problems to be born from compromise seems almost painfully obvious. Yet many Americans have become so used to partisan ideology and political theater instead of real progress that we have altered our expectations of the kind of solutions our political system was intended to deliver.

Action

Our system today often delivers gridlock, not action. But we need our politicians to enact and implement substantive legislation. Yet politicians have little incentive to put the public interest first if they believe that blocking legislation is rewarded by their party and if inaction is not penalized by voters. Unrealistic promises and talk without action are worthless, but in today’s unhealthy system that’s what passes for progress.

At the signing of the Social Security Act, President Roosevelt acknowledged that “this law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”32 Since the law’s passage, presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan have worked to improve the program, expanding coverage, and scaling back costs when necessary.

Today’s political-industrial complex views action as a threat. What if a powerful customer base—say, a provoked special interest—reacts poorly? Or what if a key channel, like a partisan media outlet, penalizes the action in front of millions of viewers? The vast majority of promises made by candidates and political leaders on both sides never get acted on because the promises were unrealistic in the first place, and compromise, which would produce action, is vilified. As such, serious legislation is rarely advanced, much less passed and implemented.

Blocking, grandstanding, and making empty gestures are rewarded; action is avoided. Consider the Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed by the Senate in 2010 on a 60-to-39 vote.33 Every Democratic senator voted in favor of the bill, and every Republican senator voted against it. The process was so divisive that there was no subsequent desire to improve the bill. Instead, the Republicans spent the next seven years trying to kill the ACA, with more than fifty votes to repeal or eliminate key parts of the law rather than working with the Democrats to find common ground and improve it.34

Except they weren’t actually trying to kill the bill. The Republicans knew they could never repeal the ACA while Obama was in office. These were show votes to signal to their base that they were fighting the good fight.35 The display was a sham that did nothing but waste time.36 Once the sideshow was over and the Republicans regained unified control of Congress and the presidency in 2017, it became clear that they had no actual health-care agenda to implement. They couldn’t even muster enough votes to repeal the ACA, despite years of empty promises, drama, and meaningless votes.37 In commenting on the situation, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan remarked, “We were a 10-year opposition party. You just had to be against it. Now … we tried to go to a governing party where we actually had to get 216 people to agree with each other on how we do things.” To no one’s surprise, being a real “governing party” is more difficult than just being the party of no.38

Broad-Based Buy-in over Time

Good solutions should be able to gain, over time, reasonably broad-based acceptance and consensus across the population. While there will never be 100 percent support for any policy, true solutions, which most often involve bipartisanship, can be accepted by a range of constituents across the political spectrum. Citizens can accept a solution when political dialogue helps them understand the realities of policy options and the rational compromises needed for them to work.

This is not to say that elected officials should only respond to public opinion. Political leadership is required and must—at times—be ahead of popular opinion to move the country forward or to do the right thing (that’s why it’s called leadership).

Our nation’s history is replete with political leaders who have risen above political noise to actually advance the country—from James Madison convincing a young nation that a stronger constitution was needed, to Abraham Lincoln preaching unity and forgiveness after secession and bloodshed. True political leadership advances policies that reflect the overall public interest. It helps articulate the common interest and allows progress and policy continuity even when the balance of power shifts from party to party. At its healthiest, political competition should educate, unite, and inspire citizens.

A Balance of Short- and Long-Term Needs

Good outcomes also involve legislation that balances the needs and interests of both current and future generations. This balance makes solutions sustainable, rather than giving rise to future crises that ultimately require radical policy shifts and that penalize citizens who had little say in the original policies. When devising social security, Democrats and Republicans agreed that pensions had to be funded out of current payroll checks, not from the government’s general revenue or by taking on debt. This foresight has been essential to the program’s long-term viability.

Today’s story is markedly different. Simpson-Bowles, a bipartisan effort to create a sustainable federal budget, provides a telling example.39 In 2010, President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—most often referred to by the last names of its cochairs, former Senators Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. The product of their work was a sound report with a well-crafted compromise solution that balanced the interests of current and future citizens. The preamble to the report says: “The President and the leaders of both parties in both chambers of Congress asked us to address the nation’s fiscal challenges in this decade and beyond. We have worked to offer an aggressive, fair, balanced, and bipartisan proposal—a proposal as serious as the problems we face. None of us likes every element of our plan, and each of us had to tolerate provisions we previously or presently oppose in order to reach a principled compromise. We were willing to put our differences aside to forge a plan because our nation will certainly be lost without one.”40 But Simpson-Bowles was never enacted. Neither party was willing to go against its party orthodoxy or bite the hand of special interests. Instead, Simpson-Bowles died a bipartisan death.41 Representative Paul Ryan, who served on the commission, voted against it. President Obama, who created the commission, declined to forcefully support it. No other legislators jumped in to save it (though some from both parties were courageous enough to voice public support). Most legislators were unwilling to go against their party line and risk a primary challenge.

Simpson-Bowles also demonstrates another important reality: the duopoly controlling today’s political competition has no accountability for results. Neither Representative Ryan nor President Obama nor Congress paid a political price for failing to deliver a solution to this pressing national problem. President Obama won a second term, Representative Ryan became Speaker of the House, and the re-election rate in Congress was 90 percent.42

Instead of sustainability, our political leaders today regularly devise short-term measures that they themselves admit just kick the can down the road.

Fidelity to the Constitution

This last outcome, we realize, is quite basic. But it’s always worth coming back to—especially when we see elected officials tempted to push the boundaries of our framing document. The beautifully unique American commitment to a unifying framework of self-government, with all that it requires of us, will always be more important—and will unite us—more than any expeditious search for easy solutions.

From Unhealthy Competition to Political Innovation

A successful political system finds solutions, acts on and improves them, generates citizen buy-in over time, and balances the needs of current and future generations, all while honoring the Constitution. With healthy competition, these outcomes are possible.

You might still be skeptical. Maybe the important realities of the politics industry are now clear, but the prospect of fixing this system may feel as farfetched as it ever has. And that’s fair; the consequences of this work are too great to accept anything at face value. But this book isn’t an industry think tank in Washington, D.C.; we like to think it’s closer to Steve Jobs’s garage and we’re inviting you to come inside and review our blueprints. We are inviting you to think different.

If you need more inspiration or proof that political innovation is possible, consider this: America has done it before. As you’ll read in chapter 4, a little more than a century ago America was in a similar crisis. With a politics industry failing to deliver for its citizens, many Americans were left asking themselves, what has gone wrong? The answer they came to is the same answer for our questions today: it’s a systems problem.

A little more than a century ago, Americans saw the water. And they changed it.

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