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How American Politics Went Insane

Jonathan Rauch joins us for a discussion on the current political landscape in America. Why are we seeing so many renegade political actors these days?

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How did everything get so crazy in American politics? Are political renegades like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders the new norm?

Are political machines, pork-barrel spending, logrolling, and professional politicians necessary for our democracy to work? Are they necessary for political coordination and cooperation? What does Rauch mean by “political realism”?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Rauch’s study on this topic, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy is available as a .pdf or a free ebook.

Rauch also wrote the cover article of the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane.”


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Writer for the National Journal Magazine of Washington and a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His recent short essay is Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, which ties in nicely with a recent Atlantic piece called How American Politics Went Insane.

Now we are recording this on the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland of 2016, the Trump coronation or – that’s what he would like it to be. So this is particularly timely. I just say, “How did everything get so crazy?” But I think I will start a little bit back in just with the title of your short essay or your longest essay. What is political realism and how is that related to how we got to where we are today?

Jonathan Rauch: Well, thank you for having me Trevor.

Trevor Burrus: Thank you.

Jonathan Rauch: Political realism starts with the idea that governing is really hard and politics is necessary in order to do it. Then in order to do it, you have to have things that look like political machines and hacks and professionals and pork barrel spending and log rolling and money that feeds into the system and sloshes around. The reason you have to have all those things is that so politicians can organize their world because there’s nothing in the constitution about that, that do that. So every day they have to wake up and they have to try to get other politicians to follow.

So in order not to have complete chaos, you need some incentives like anywhere else in life. You guys at Cato know all about incentives and that means, OK, if I need your vote or your support, I’m going to give you a little money or how about a post office in your district or maybe I’m going to endorse you next time around.

So that’s how these guys built alliances. So that’s political realism. Its intention with political idealism which is that politics should be conducted in a pure manner without any taint of personal interest should all be in the public interest. I’m arguing that forgetting about realism and going with idealism got us into this mess.

Aaron Ross Powell: As you described it, what’s the difference between these parts of political realism, the – I’m going to give you campaign contributions or I’m going to give you a post office or the other sort of support and a system based on bribery.

Jonathan Rauch: Well, that’s a good question because a lot of both progressives and libertarians have spent the last 40 and 50 years demolishing that system on the ground, so it was akin to bribery. Progressives will tell you campaign contributions are nothing but legalized bribery, so we should get rid of them. Jay Cost, who’s a libertarian, wrote a book saying that congressional log rolling, pork barreling is a form of bribery.

So like the Supreme Court, I believe there is a very important difference between bribery that enriches one’s self personally and on the other hand what the great Tammany Hall sage George Washington Plunkitt called “honest graft”. You guys know Plunkitt?

Trevor Burrus: Oh, yes. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.

Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, you want to get him in here on this podcast.

Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, that would be great. When did that come out?

Jonathan Rauch: So can I say a word about who he was?

Trevor Burrus: Please, please.

Jonathan Rauch: So back in the 1890s, this Tammany Hall midlevel boss functionary named George Washington Plunkitt used to hold fourth on the steps of the court house in Manhattan kind of Tammany headquarters and a reporter would take down these lectures he would give on how politics needs to work.

One of his lectures, the most famous, was honest graft. He has this distinction. Dishonest graft is what people do just to feather their own nest, just to get rich, make themselves more independent and more wealthy at the expense of the party.

Honest graft is graft that loyal partisans do in order to make politics work, to grease the wheels a little bit, to build up loyalty to the party. Without honest graft, he said the system won’t function. It will fall apart and it turns out there’s a lot of political science that backs this up right up to the present day.

The right amount of corruption in a political system is greater than zero. Well, a lot of reformers came along and said, well, it’s all graft. We don’t need it. We’re going to vote for these guys. They’re all going to do the right thing and then good policy will result.

So one by one, we began systematically dismantling all of the systems that we used to make deals like pork barrel spending and smoke-filled rooms, otherwise known as private negotiations. Campaign money became very heavily regulated, much harder for the parties to use and I could go on. But maybe the most important was it became very difficult for parties to influence their own nominees and that’s the mess we’re in this year.

Trevor Burrus: I mean today, if you – you can use the word “Tammany Hall” as essentially a synonym for corruption, which is maybe you’re saying it shouldn’t be.

Jonathan Rauch: It should not be.

Trevor Burrus: But are you just actually supporting Tammany Hall in the sense of like that’s how things should work? We should go back to a system that is – because there were a lot of problems with Tammany Hall.

Jonathan Rauch: Sure, yeah. Tammany gets a bum rap because history is written by the winners and Tammany was demolished by progressive reformers who hated the Irish, the working class Irish who ran Tammany.

Tammany was a mix. It did some bad things but it did a lot of very good things. It was effective. It created a kind of privatized social welfare network in New York. So we have a lot to learn from Tammany and the other machines in this era but no, we can’t reestablish them even if we wanted to.

What we can do is try to learn from what they were doing. Try to remember that our grandparents, great-grandparents who build these political systems were not all fools and crooks. They had some pretty smart ideas about politics and it worked better when they were able to execute those ideas. So the question that political realists like me are trying to figure out is, “How can we begin to restore some of the systems that are necessary in politics to get the basic organization down?” How can we learn from the past and extend it into the present instead of just looking for ways to demolish and demonize it?

Aaron Ross Powell: You’re pretty down in the book and the essay on the zero tolerance towards corruption beliefs of progressives and populists and libertarians. But two general characteristics of corruption is that first, the corrupter is always going to want more of it than the uncorrupt are going to want because they benefit from it and that corruption is – you can see some of it but it’s an iceberg thing. There’s going to be a lot of it that you can’t immediately see because the corrupt tend to hide a lot of the action.

So could the zero tolerance policy by prudent in the sense that if you aim for zero, you’re going to get non-zero or you’re going to get some amount more than zero? But if you aim for some middle ground, you aim for the right amount of corruption, you’re naturally just going to end up with substantially more than that aimed for right amount.

Jonathan Rauch: No, that’s the wrong answer and here at Cato, you guys would understand better than anyone else why. Someone says we can’t get rid of all drugs, but let’s have a zero tolerance policy because that will get us closer to getting it. You will say, well no, that’s a bad idea because the cost of the zero tolerance policy far exceeds the benefits of the marginal decrease.

Well, politics is also a market. Political realists believe that the heart of politics is what political science has called “transactional politics” and that’s give and take. I do something for you, you do something for me. Maybe we can cut a deal and redo Social Security. We will have to do it together. Otherwise, we won’t have the vote. So maybe I’m going to give you something. Maybe you’re going to give me something. It’s not going to line my personal pocket but maybe it’s going to be some pork from my district. Maybe it’s going to be an endorsement. Maybe you won’t send someone to run against me next time.

That stuff isn’t corrupt. That’s the day to day give and take of politics. The problem is some idealists came along including some libertarian idealists saying, well, anything that smacks a political horse trading is corrupt because it’s not public-interested or it’s not market-driven or it’s not the people speaking.

But that I think is wrong. I think that’s over-defining corruption to turn the political marketplace itself into a form of corruption and you guys know what happens when you try to regulate a market out of existence. It turns into a black market and that’s where we are right now, all this so-called dark money on the outside not accountable to voters. Very hard to know what’s going on, weakened the parties, made it much harder for politicians to get organized.

Trevor Burrus: Maybe we need to take a step back and look at this in a broader sense which is what does it mean for politics to work well? How do we know that something is doing a good job? You have to have some sort of end goal. It could be representation of the people. It could be getting – passing laws or whether that’s able to do – how do we know that it’s not working well now? Maybe it’s a better answer. Is there a gold standard you have of what it could do to work well?

Jonathan Rauch: Well, here’s where we get into a pretty interesting conversation between a realist and libertarian, at least a certain type of libertarian. I don’t know what you think Trevor or Aaron, but a lot of libertarians I know would say, well, you don’t want government to function well. You want it to do as little as possible. Gridlock, you know, good thing.

So let’s have bad government or let’s have non-government. I disagree for a few reasons. One is that from a realist point of view, a society where politics does not function and reconciliation doesn’t happen is a society where social pressures build and you can get a whole lot of serious dangerousness.

A second reason that’s more immediate and pragmatic in the United States, just in case you hadn’t noticed, most of government now is on autopilot. Most of the reforms that people want to do in this building require statutory changes and they’re hard changes. They’re like reducing entitlement programs, containing spending, stuff like that.

You can’t do that unless you have systems in congress that allows bills to get through for example. Just to cut spending, for example, if you want to do something about entitlements, you’re going to have to ask members of congress to take tough votes. You’re going to have to get people on both sides. You’re going to have to give them stuff. You’re going to have to have transactions going on and backroom negotiations.

Without that, you’re stuck with government that grows and grows and grows and grows and you know what the numbers look like. So all that is true.

Trevor Burrus: So what do libertarians do in that situations? I mean I agree. But there’s another view of politics which – I mean libertarians are averse to which is that – the representatives must represent the people. If the people become polarized and become highly unable to compromise, then maybe their representatives should also be unable to compromise too and that sort of factor, you’re talking about when Ted Cruz comes in and tries to blow up the government. If he’s representing his constituents or maybe more specifically house members representing their constituents, should we be complaining about that? Is that well-functioning politics?

Jonathan Rauch: Well, this gets to a third thing I often tell my libertarian friends which is I’m setting the bar pretty low these days. It would be nice to do a big entitlement reform.

Trevor Burrus: Or pass a budget.

Jonathan Rauch: But how about not defaulting on the national debt, which we’ve come close to doing? How about just being able to keep the government open? You know, shutting it down and reopening it costs $4 billion every time you do that. Just the basics of moving appropriations bills through doing the basic job of what congress needs to do has been fundamentally weakened and that stuff matters to.

That’s the stuff by which we just keep the trains running. So in a polarized environment, it’s harder to do stuff. But more importantly, you can get consensus to do something like an immigration reform for example or a tax reform, both of which might actually happen.

It’s important that you be able to organize the votes behind that and then not have small groups of fringe activists able to veto that stuff. Problem right now is it’s very hard for Paul Ryan to prevent these small veto groups from paralyzing him and his caucus.

Trevor Burrus: So what sort of things happened before now? If you can get into the nitty-gritty. So the machines and other things that we can discuss helped make politics more transactional but you also say it kind of makes it more professional as opposed to having amateur politicians coming in and just throwing bonds for no good reason. How was that done before?

Aaron Ross Powell: And maybe start with – so we talked about political realism and as politicians trading favors, scratching each other’s backs. But that could happen in the absence of organizations. Like you can just – you have a bunch of people in the room and they make favors and they remember them and pay them back.

But what’s the difference? What are specifically the machines historically and like what they would look like today if they were still around? Before we get into the – how they changed.

Jonathan Rauch: By the way, they’re not by any means completely gone. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, is a machine politician par excellence and he has built a pretty good reelection machine in the senate protecting his people, his loyalists from tea party attacks.

Trevor Burrus: I think Harry Reid kind of started as a – didn’t he start as the Nevada game commissioner too?

Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, and places like Illinois where you have a very badly functioning machine. In New Jersey where you have better functioning machines, except when Chris Christie and his aids get up to bridge hijinks. So machines aren’t a thing of the past. In fact, if you leave politicians alone, if you stop regulating them to death, they will naturally form these alliances and networks that we call machines. That’s what they do.

The problem is that we very frequently stop them from doing that. OK. So there are two real keys to understanding how these systems work. One is professionalism. You need people who are durably there, who are careerists. I know careerists have a terrible reputation inside this building but they have an important role because they’re around to pay for the consequences of their decisions. So they’re watching the brand of the party for example or if the policy is going to be a complete failure in the medium to long term, they will pay the price for it.

They can’t just engage in protest and walk away the way amateurs with day jobs can. So, it’s very important to have these repeat players in the system and that’s what hacks do, professionals.

Then the other concept is that of the political machine and what machines do that’s really important is create coalitions. They take a diverse group of people who may not agree on all that much and say, “OK. If you get this and you get this and we do this for that person, maybe we can all agree on this agenda.”

So they create internal brokering and then they turn and face the outside world, the other party, and say, “OK, here’s where we are.” So the constitution doesn’t provide for any of that, right? It’s just 537 independently-elected officials. There’s no reason for them to cooperate. What the machines do is create incentive systems for cooperation. They’re like corporations actually. They organize a lot of individual talents and do a larger effort, where people kind of work for the benefit of each other.

Trevor Burrus: So this seems sort of – if we compare this to like a parliamentary system and some of my British friends, Matthew Feeney who occasionally co-hosts here, has talked about how – because of the constraints within the parliamentary system in the UK, there’s no way that Trump could ever come along and bomb that because you have to pay – you have this party machine that gets elected and you have to rise up in an organized way. So they have more professional politics. The machines kind of take a place that we didn’t have with the parliamentary system when they were …

Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, Trevor. That puts it very, very well. The constitution is a great document. I’m second to none in my worship with James Madison, but they left something very important out. They created a system that’s really good on accountability of politicians to the public. That’s elections. They created no mechanisms for accountability of politicians to each other.

You always have to worry in politics about the reengage, the Trump figure or the Sanders figure, the person who owes nothing to anyone, who can’t govern if elected because they have no networks, no coattails, no loyalty; and the person who’s capable of all kinds of sociopathic political behavior as we see in Trump.

In the British system, which came after ours, they build in accountability, right? People vote for the party and then the party makes some decisions about who can run and who can lead based on their track record. We replicated that here using parties and political machines, the kind of privatized version of the same thing. If you wanted to run for office, you kind of had to prove yourself in the local party, work your way up through the state party. People would test you. They would find out if you were loyal. You would raise money for other candidates. You couldn’t be Donald Trump, just come in out of nowhere and hijack the party.

Well now you can because we’ve pretty much demolished all the structures that prevented it.

Trevor Burrus: So some of those things we can list off. You talk about what you’ve – we’ve changed political money. So you have a different take than a lot of people on the perversions of having money in politics, which of course we don’t here at Cato and we have episodes where we talk about it’s not that bad. But you say it actually has a purpose, party money and what we’ve done to money has been a big part of this.

Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. One of the things that almost everyone agrees on these days is that money in politics is bad. They disagree on whether to regulate it. Folks at Cato would say no and …

Trevor Burrus: I think money in politics is pretty good actually.

Jonathan Rauch: Do you?

Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

Jonathan Rauch: Really? Why?

Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that it – this is a definitional question of what is money in politics. But I think that it increases the amount of voter information for example. I think that independent spending increases voter information. I think it increases the amount of candidates who can get their ideas out there for good or for ill, to change things maybe even in the long run. As a general rule, like I don’t see corruption a ton in the quid pro quo sense. I see mostly people being upset that – the most reason people are upset about politics in my experience – or money in politics is because people might believe what the money is spent on to say and that’s what they’re really afraid of. So I think there should be more money in politics generally speaking though it’s being channeled in weird ways as you know.

Jonathan Rauch: Well, that’s right and channeled artificially because we’ve got a black market situation because of regulations. But yeah, I think money – even if you don’t like it, it’s always going to be there. So it’s like any other market. You need to channel it in ways that are reasonably transparent, reasonably accountable and reasonably functional and the best place for money to go is to political parties, which are like huge brokerages, which can collect large sums of money. They’re too big to buy. You can’t just bribe a political party to get something. It’s typically not how it works.

Well, we’ve weakened political parties by until very recently making them the most handicapped people in the whole system to raise money. A lot of that role has been outsourced to private entities. We demonize soft money. We said it’s a terrible thing if people come along and give $2 million or $3 million because they’re going to get special access. Well, they might get special access but these money transactions also help keep politicians and interest groups accountable to each other because they have to take into account how they feel about each other. When Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders boasts, “I don’t have to worry about what anyone says because I’m completely independent. I don’t have any backers,” to me that’s an alarm bell because you don’t want politicians who don’t feel accountable to anyone but themselves.

Aaron Ross Powell: In the market, when we have very large firms, a small number of very large firms, we tend to see little innovation. Like, there’s high degree of spaces and it’s the – the real innovation happens on the periphery and the small companies, the – to use god-awful Silicon Valley lingo, the disruptive stuff from start-ups. So does the system where we enable more money to flow to the parties, which is going to flow to the big parties largely, reinforce a similar a structure and so push out the ability for new ideas to get a foothold, that maybe – I mean there may be bad new ideas unquestionably. But there also may be very good new ideas.

So we end up with just a system of inertia and not really much policy change, whether good or bad.

Jonathan Rauch: So you want a mix, right? A political machine or monopoly can become too strong. Saddam Hussein, political machine or monopoly.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, not by voting but, yes, by force, yes.

Jonathan Rauch: Right? Using force. But lots of other things. He didn’t have to kill all that many people. He would buy and coop the rest. The point is you can have extremely over-centralized, over-consolidated machines and those are dysfunctional because they’re impervious to new ideas and change. You can have on the other hand anarchy and chaos, which is pretty much what the republican party, if it is a party, has right now, which is an inability to self-organize, to do almost anything, and complete permeability to outside forces, even hijackers.

The system works best when it’s mixed, when you have machines that are pretty good at keeping the system stable, but also pretty open to disruptors like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It’s interesting to know this, that Goldwater around in ’64, as an insurgent, took over the party, kind of a hijacking. But the party was able to absorb that. Goldwater was a good republican. He played by the rules and when the system works, the machine is able to absorb the insurgency and governed through it and that’s the key.

What you don’t want happening is insurgents who can come along and say, well, I’m going to shut down the government as a career move, something like what Ted Cruz does. When you get so out atomized that you’re incapable of keeping the government going and absorbing these new ideas, then you have too much of – you’ve got too much atomization.

I think American politics has been good for 150 years at striking a pretty decent balance. We had our first big political insurgency. Andrew Jackson in the 1820s absorbed it. That became the Democratic Party. We saw insurgency after insurgency. We would see the same pattern. They would absorb these new ideas. Reagan was one of them, the supply side movement. So we did that pretty well until we started dismantling. We put a heavy thumb on one side of the scale. We said machines, organizations, professionals, parties, money, pork, smoke-filled rooms, bad. Take it all away.

Trevor Burrus: The smoke-filled rooms point to another provocative point you make is transparency is not always good, that we also went to over-transparency which – another thing that everyone would say. Well, this is obviously OK. We need more transparency but you’re saying, oh, no, smoke-filled rooms and these are good things.

Jonathan Rauch: As Bill Galston of Brookings likes to quip, the only thing wrong with smoke-filled rooms it turns out was the smoke. Yeah, if you’ve got thousands of interest groups, and hundreds of coalition partners and hundreds of politicians and millions of voters, then you have to work out something like a budget or an entitlement reform. You’re going to have –just to scrape together a majority. It’s going to be damn near impossible and you’re going to have to make a lot of deals and fill a lot of trial balloons and nothing is finished until everything is finished, right?

Until everybody knows what the package looks like, they can’t sign on. If you expose that kind of negotiation to full public view, it falls apart because immediately, people start demagoguing to say, well, Trevor Burrus is up in arms because we cut his program. Then seeing Trevor Burrus up in arms, Aaron who’s in the competing industry says, “Well, cut his program. Don’t cut mine.” We’re off to the races.

So you’ve got to give these folks some space to do what they need to do, which is make some deals and then come out and say, “Here’s what we got,” and try to sell that to the voters.

Trevor Burrus: Now interestingly, the Constitutional Convention had a secrecy rule that – everyone agrees that it would have been impossible otherwise and there were people complaining at the time. But it would have been impossible and that’s probably true for similar reasons. They had to be able to have an open conversation and trade things back and forth. So I guess it has always been true and now …

Jonathan Rauch: It has always been true. It always will be true. People accuse me of wanting to go backward and I think, no, I’m just really reminding people of home truths, some things that will never change about how politics works.

Trevor Burrus: Well, here are some things that have changed though. How much – Aaron is going to have questions along these lines too. How much is this theory of politics – we can give the libertarian pushback which you’re well-aware. But how much is it – should it change or should it be related to the size of government for example?

I mean we have – we’re talking about transactional theory of politics and we have a government in Washington DC which is beyond the ability for anyone to pay much attention to. That’s very different than the government in 1870. Would anything about this change in terms of how much we can expect the political class to take care of the country and not take care of themselves? I mean that seems to be the huge concern that you don’t really get much into in your essay or in your Atlantic piece.

Jonathan Rauch: The assumption there is that they should not take care of themselves?

Trevor Burrus: Well, I mean again, we’re going back to the definition of what transactional politics is and what transaction should not be allowed. But if we throw in the fact that the more things are done in the shadows – I don’t mean the transparency thing. I mean the basic fact that there is a Southwestern Peanuts Grower Association that exists to regulate peanuts that did not exist in 1870 and one story I think I’ve told a few times on Free Thoughts is a story of a panel where the guy stands up. It’s a panel in agricultural policy and he stands up and he says, “There are two people in the world who know how peanut regulation works in the United States and my job is to keep it that way.”

The question of whether or not – this is a type of graft. We don’t need a southwestern peanuts association, but it will build these organizations in order to feed itself. It will create its own unnecessary, unneeded government organizations to – in name of transactional politics. It won’t go back. It will only go up. I mean maybe that’s OK. It’s not a libertarian. But that’s something that seems like libertarians should be pretty scared of.

Jonathan Rauch: Well, you will find no greater opponent than me of the peanut subsidy or the wool and mohair subsidy. I wrote a whole book …


Jonathan Rauch: … about how subsidies and special interests accumulate over time. But if you know your man Sir Olson, he’s the famous economist …

Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah. We …


Jonathan Rauch: … this is a social problem. This isn’t something that’s in the constitution or a parliamentary system. This is because stable societies over time organize into more and more of these coalitions for self-interested collective action and you can get rid of them by having a nuclear holocaust for example or a military coup …

Trevor Burrus: Seems suboptimal.

Jonathan Rauch: But those are suboptimal solutions and I continually tell my libertarian and conservative friends. In the world we actually live in, where it’s not 1870, if you actually want to do something about the steady accumulation of this stuff, you’re going to have to reform some things, right? You’re going to have to do some tax reforms. You’re going to have to change some spending programs. You’re going to have to pass some trade initiatives. I’ve argued that foreign trade is a good way to keep pressure on special interest. So I’m especially sad to see the Republican Party turn so hard against it.

In order to do any of those things, you’re going to have to be able to have people who go into rooms together and say, “OK, what do you need? What do you need?” and come out with something that seems to make sense, wisdom with tax reform, transportation reform, welfare reform. We almost got a big farm bill reform that could have worked in the 90s. That process has pretty much ground to a halt.

So now you really are stuck with the completely robotic, mindless accumulation every year of government size. Every program is simply there forever. It’s reauthorized in a brain-dead, automatic continuing resolution every year.

I keep telling my libertarian friends. The political process, if you have any hope, it has got to be in congress and revitalizing the political process. You’ve got to wade in and fix this and start doing it because sort of the imaginary alternative in your head of wishing it all away isn’t working.

Aaron Ross Powell: Just from a communication standpoint and a strategic standpoint. So there’s often this argument within – I mean it happens in libertarianism. It’s going to happen with any – within any radical political movement of idealism versus incrementalism and what should we aim for.

So we have a quite radical view of what the ideal government and state would look like compared to what we’ve got now.

Jonathan Rauch: We being?

Aaron Ross Powell: Libertarians. But again, this would apply to pretty much any group that’s outside of the middle of the road. It’s going to have something that looks quite different and given that a lot of these changes that you are arguing against came about because the people decided – they voted for people who were more extreme or less willing to compromise as they became more partisan or whatever the causes happen to be and then instituted these reforms that you say have broken things.

Does this mean that not only should we not be idealistic in the sense of we ourselves as individuals pushing for the kind of radical extreme change that’s going to result in this bad kind of gridlock, but also that we as policy elites, the people whose job it is to communicate policy ideas and influence the political views of the American electorate hopefully in a direction more aligned with our preferences should not communicate that idealism, that we shouldn’t – we should kind of mask how radical we are and only talk about wanting incremental change so as to keep them from running too far with things and breaking stuff?

Jonathan Rauch: I wouldn’t want you Aaron to mask how radical you are. I would want you to change how radical you are. I think the radicalism and idealism of the modern libertarian movement has become self-defeating. I think libertarians punish the people who try to help them in politics because when they see what actually can get done, which if you’re really lucky looks like Tax Reform 1986.

Trevor Burrus: That was a pretty good bill, yes.

Jonathan Rauch: It was a pretty good bill. But it was far from a clean, pristine tax code. If the answer to that one, a politician comes back and says, “Look what I was able to do with all this sweat and all this hard work and all this compromising and we got this,” and the answer is, well, that sucks. Government is still too big. I’m not voting for you. You’re a shameless compromiser.

What you do is punish the people who try to help you and put in people who won’t help you at all because they will go up there saying, “I’m going to fight, fight, fight, and if you vote for me, government is going to get smaller by magic.” Once you substitute the fantasy for the reality, then you’re playing into the hands of the other side, which is playing the transactional game. So I’m trying to get libertarians to be – can I use the term more politically realistic?

Aaron Ross Powell: Right. So I think that’s what I was trying to get because we can – so we all have – no matter our political views, we all have a vision of utopia potentially. Like if – in an ideal world, this is what it would look like. So is the argument then that even as – sticking with libertarians, if I think that the absolute ideal society is Nozickian minarchism say and – which is a long way off no matter how quickly we could move.

Jonathan Rauch: I don’t know what that is by the way.


Aaron Ross Powell: … but provide police protection basically. But that I should – when talking with anyone outside of my own head, I should act as if I only …

Jonathan Rauch: No, no, no. I want you to talk in your own head to yourself differently. I would like to persuade you that you’re utopianism is misguided. I would like you to engage in less of that because the founders for example and Hayek and Popper and most of the other greats or the Austrian School understood that utopianism is the enemy. As Popper said, efforts to create heaven on earth invariably create hell.

Aaron Ross Powell: Does this mean then that – so we can say like, look, we’ve got things – like the setup we’ve got today is relatively good and incremental change is all we should aim for. But you could have made that same argument in 14th century Europe and we wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to just stick with the status quo then.

Jonathan Rauch: No one is talking about sticking with the status quo. We’re talking about can we move to a better world and the only way that it has ever been possible to do that in a stable political order – maybe your model here should be Lincoln. Is Lincoln in good order with libertarians?

Trevor Burrus: With us, yes. There are some people in Auburn who have a problem –

Jonathan Rauch: Lincoln was second to none in his deep opposition to slavery and in his commitment to equality. Lincoln was also by modern standards shockingly willing to compromise with racists and white supremacists in order to keep the union together. He actually offered in his first inaugural address to write slavery into the constitution which had never been done before in order to save the union.

Lincoln was trying to figure out how to get to a better world from where we actually are without a disruption which could itself be so dangerous, he could have lost the whole government. One of the things – utopian libertarianism is a luxury born of the fact that we had a very stable, pretty high-functioning political system for a long time. A realist looks at the world and sees Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, growing chaos here and the Republican Party and says governability should never be taken for granted.

Trevor Burrus: So here’s a version of libertarian political realism because one of the difficulties here is understanding the tendency as I – as my previous question of that political class. Of the people who can use government for graft and therefore subsist without competition –

Jonathan Rauch: Honest graft.

Trevor Burrus: I know the essay. I know the distinction but I’ve never been able to bring it up and hold it in my mind because we could say that the agricultural system is an honest graft system. The subsidy system is an honest graft system or giving away is an honest graft system. It’s really hard to draw this line. But one thing I do know as a realist is that – and this is relevant to what’s happening right now in the Republican Party—the average voter is pretty nationalist. Not libertarian much at all. A national socialist in like–in the–like, it’s split, not the Nazi but like in the words like Bryan Caplan, the average voter wants trade protection. He wants protection of his industry. They want protection for welfare. They want all these things that libertarians don’t want.

So we think that there would be a better – if these things did not exist even for them, but they don’t know it. So if we’re asked to compromise on something like hey, let’s say it’s the new deal and like we want to compromise on the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, is that kind of transactional politics that libertarians should be compromised on, knowing that it’s only going to grow, that it’s only going to multiply out and create a worse system and never stop and never be able to be repealed? Should we be making compromise when we know as realists that the people want it and that’s what’s going to happen?

Jonathan Rauch: Well, it depends on the compromise, right? I can’t tell you whether to favor any particular compromise. You will have to look at it and see if it’s any good. My beef is with people who say – as a lot of libertarians that I know do these days, never compromise because compromise only encourages the sons of bitches.

Well, when you say never compromise, you’re dismantling – I mean a lot of people start to do that and when they begin to vote against any member of congress, whoever compromises, then you’re removing the ability of the system to make compromises. The constitution is a compromise enforcing system. That’s what it is. That’s really all it does. It says anyone who wants to do anything has got to deal with other people who want other things. There’s no other path to power.

So if you disable the compromise system, you’re disabling the constitution which is the only way to get anywhere you want to go. So what I’m telling you is that your no compromise ever alternative, if that’s the alternative, isn’t an alternative. It’s total systemic breakdown.

Trevor Burrus: How about this is the alternative? I mean as a constitutional expert, the other problem here is that – and this is like the libertarian tail. I love your work and I think it’s very – I think it needs the libertarian tail which is a lot of different political systems that try to do a lot of things. Maybe you’re trying to do too much with too many disparate people and saying that we need to have politics that make – figures out how to make people from Massachusetts and Texas have the same healthcare program.

Well maybe the problem is that we’re actually having that conversation in the first place in contravention of at least my interpretation the constitution, that nothing in the constitution allowed for healthcare like is a good reason. So maybe we should not be encouraging politics that facilitates Massachusetts and Texas compromising on this thing that they should never be asked to compromise in the first place. We should be looking at the scope of politics too and then of political realism within politics. So we could actually have exit rather than voice. Your work seems to be about voice. But what about leaving a system that you don’t want to be a part of? That’s a …

Jonathan Rauch: Are we talking seasteading?

Trevor Burrus: No. I mean in a constitutional republic that I would envision, you would have the – Massachusetts could have the Affordable Care Act and Texas would not. So if you wanted to be in Massachusetts that you – or you could leave and go to Texas as opposed to the mass centralization of people who are very different. If you came to me and said we’re going to try to figure out how to make people in India, Hungary, England and Monaco live together and we need a good political system, I might say, well, maybe they shouldn’t be centralizing all their decisions together.

Jonathan Rauch: Sure, Trevor. I couldn’t agree more. One of the strengths of our system is that it is multilevel and even as we’re seeing chaos descend on the Republican Party and in Washington. You’re seeing states make breakthroughs on drug policies. This is the biggest single reform of our time. Arguably, it’s what’s happening with marijuana at the state level. I argue in my book that decentralization is very helpful. So all for it but we’re back where we started.

Trevor Burrus: How do we go it?

Jonathan Rauch: How are you going to make decentralization happen? Well, you’re going to have to pass some legislation and that means you’re going to have to do some compromising and it won’t look perfect. But at the end of the day, if you have more room in there for say charter schools than you did before, if you have more discretion for states and building healthcare systems or making drug policy or even immigration policy – I’ve always wondered about the idea that I’ve heard around here of having states make immigration policy. I thought that was a great idea.

Anyway, for those things to happen or even to step toward those things to happen, we’ve got to get out of our heads the idea of some imaginary system where we get there by magic. You’re going to get part of the way there a little bit of the time through transactional politics and there is no other path.

Aaron Ross Powell: Then if we accept your story …


Aaron Ross Powell: … remain skeptical about parts of it. But we will set aside that skepticism for now. Like, let’s say that you’ve identified –

Trevor Burrus: I largely accept it.

Jonathan Rauch: You’re fired.


Aaron Ross Powell: You’ve identified genuine problems. These need to get addressed. We have to fix them and we have to fix them from within a political realist perspective.

Jonathan Rauch: And maybe not default on the national debt. Maybe pass appropriations bills…

Aaron Ross Powell: I mean figure out how to get us back to political realism because the way that you framed it in your arguments and the way we started this conversation was we’ve taken all these steps to get corruption out of politics. That has been the motive behind these reforms. But we’ve gone too far. We need to get corruption back into politics.

Jonathan Rauch: I would say we need to stop defining politics as corruption.

Aaron Ross Powell: Sure. But these things that have come to be defined as corruption in the public consciousness, like giving money, huge sums of money and pork and backroom deals. You can’t like run campaign ads saying what we need is more pork, more campaign contributions and more backroom deals because that’s going to be a non-starter.

So how do you go about moving in a realist direction when you’ve got a public that’s so turned off by the very thought of the things you’re asking for?

Jonathan Rauch: What an important question. Can I here insert a self-advertisement?

Trevor Burrus: Read your essay. I agree.

Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, there’s the Atlantic article which has a little bit on this. It’s on the newsstands right now. But take a look at this little ebook. It’s really a short monograph. It’s free. The price is zero. It’s on the Brookings website for Kindle or PDF or any other format. It’s called Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Politics.

One of the things it tries to do is bring together some of the thinkers and some of the reform ideas that are already out there and already getting traction. So I think that there’s good news and there’s bad news and you’ve already touched upon the bad news. But let’s start with the good news.

The good news is that you don’t have to ask how to turn back the clock. You just have to ask how do you make the grass grow again once you’ve paved it over. Well, you remove the asphalt and the grass will grow back and it turns out if we take our foot off the windpipe of the political system, with some intelligent deregulation, and allowing earmarks back into the system and restoring what was called regular order on Capitol Hill, which people are already trying to do, and by allowing party officials more say in the nominating process, which is important for all kinds of reasons, the lungs will re-inflate actually if you take the foot off – your foot off the windpipe.

People say the system is rigged. Well, it is rigged. It’s rigged against insiders and professionals and parties. It’s heavily rigged against them and all you need to do is de-rig it and those people will begin doing more of their job. It’s not a magic bullet solution. But it goes a long way. In some ways, it’s like deregulating anything else. It has been regulated in a bad way.

So that’s the good news. The mechanical stuff isn’t all that hard. The mental stuff, the attitudinal stuff, that is hard because people at places around Washington, the think tanks that we know and love, right and left, have spent the last 50 years persuading the public that transactional politics, compromise and give and take are corrupt.

That attitude needs to be changed. So I’m trying to change it by writing about it. I was a gay marriage advocate 20 years ago and that seemed completely crazy. Surprisingly, I’m getting a lot of positive reaction to this article. A lot of people kind of intuitively understand that politics is supposed to be about trading and making deals and they’re not really against that and they – so there’s an open door to push on here and finally, Trump has scared the heck out of a lot of people. They’re looking at the meltdown in the Republican Party and the rise of the demagogue and the near-rise of a demagogue on the other side and saying, “Wow, this is not what we had in mind.”

Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts is produced by Mark McDaniel and Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at