Frustrated About Politics?: Thank the Framers of the Constitution


When I first started teaching, I asked my class if anyone could give me a definition of politics. After a few moments, an eccentric looking student raised her hand and took a stab at it. "Poly means many and ticks are blood sucking animals, so politics consists of many blood sucking animals." While I was hoping someone would say something along the lines of "the authoritative allocation of values" or that politics is about "who gets what, when, and how," her definition captures what many people truly think of politics.

The success of outsider candidates in this election cycle suggests a desire to evade those blood sucking animals known as career politicians. The "Outsider Candidate" sounds like a fantastic refrain. We hear it virtually every four years. "It's time to change Washington." "I'm not a career politician." "Nobody owns me." "Elect me and I'll clean up the bums in Washington." It is not uncommon to hear candidates rail against the status quo and suggest that change from the outside is necessary to bring the government closer to the people.

Yet, it is rare in any field to select someone with limited experience for a leadership position. While the temptation to throw the bums out may be strong and in many ways warranted, replacing "bums" with those who have no idea what they are doing does not sound like a strategy you would use in any job field. This is especially the case given the plethora of issues, policies, procedures, and demands placed upon government. Indeed, it would seem that this is one field you would absolutely want someone to have experience. Absent experience, you would minimally want someone who demonstrates a firm grasp of relevant issues the occupant of the White House will be facing.

Jeb Bush has said that Donald Trump was not a serious candidate and was uninformed. Mitt Romney's pleas to Republican voters to rebuke Trump seem to have done little to affect the race. Among the final three standing, John Kasich has chastised his Republican brethren for making the arguments of children. The Democratic establishment has also taken its lumps as Hillary Clinton has done little to shake the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

Trump boasts about his successful business acumen and how he would take those same principles and apply them as President of the United States. However, being President is qualitatively different than being a CEO. Years ago, Paul Appleby argued that "government is different" than the private sector. He was not very optimistic about the transference of business acumen to the political sphere. He opined that "the most capable business executive in the country might be a most dismal failure in government."

Years later, Graham Allison asked if public and private management were "fundamentally alike in all unimportant ways." Specifically, he suggests that relative to the private sector, government must be responsive to the public, has shorter time frames to work with, has much greater public scrutiny, and has great difficulty in determining the bottom-line. Government is not about turning profits, but about making sound public policy in concert with the citizenry. And it must do so in an environment designed to introduce obstacles to policy-making every step of the way.

From the outset, the American political system was created to be relatively inefficient. Checks and balances and our separated system largely ensure a lack of quick, decisive action while at the same time requiring action to be moderated through multiple channels (i.e., local, state, federal, and legislative, executive, and judicial). The separated system has been established to slow processes down, force compromise and negotiation, and acquire consensus among varied parties. Conversely, in the world of business, many decisions are made out of the public's eye, with responsibility to shareholders, not the Constitution. Likewise, private management is geared toward efficiency, rather than deliberation. Moreover, public servants have more protections than do those in the private sector. Most important, the breadth of corporate organizations cannot match the breadth of government responsibilities.

Paul Light has pointed out an irony in the Presidency. Presidents have their greatest capital at the beginning of their terms. They typically enjoy their highest approval ratings during their honeymoon. The problem is that during this time period they are least prepared to do something with that capital. It is not until they have been in the position for some time that they begin to understand the various levers of power in the office. By the time they figure it out, their political capital is already spent.

At some level then, no experience can prepare you for the presidency. To think someone with no governmental experience whatsoever would be able to change the political system is a bit naïve. This is especially true given the numerous obstacles to change inherent to the system.

It is understandable that so many Americans pine for something fresh and untainted by the political machine. Yet, a lesson in civics reminds us that our system is designed to prevent too much power from being concentrated in government. Separation of powers and checks and balances work to prevent this from occurring. Gridlock and inefficiency are among the consequences of our constitutional design. Only a massive wave where all branches are controlled by one party or amending the Constitution itself would create the type of change many who are frustrated with Washington seek.

John Kennedy once said that "the powers of the presidency are often described. Its limitations should sometimes be remembered." It would behoove us to consider Appleby's claim that "government is different because government is politics." If this is the case, it stands to reason that those frustrated with politics will continue to be frustrated with government, regardless of the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.