Duped by the Duopoly

Are you looking forward to the 50 days between now and Election Day? How about the 111 until the new Congress convenes on January 3, 2021 or the 128 until the new President is inaugurated?

These dates and the time periods they bound will resonate differently for domestic and overseas readers. Here in the United States, we will experience whatever is in store for us on a daily basis. Overseas, it will be experienced as amazement at what might happen next and how much worse it might get. There will be head shaking.

Wretched as the next 50 days are likely to be, it seems a long odds bet that Election Day will end it. Only a landslide would do that. The late-night national catharsis of watching the results come in followed by banner headlines on November 4 announcing the winner will more likely be replaced by “too close to call” followed by rounds of rancor and litigation in every available forum.

Virtually every American voter has made up his mind about Joe Biden versus Donald Trump. The mission of the two campaigns is solely to get their voters to show up and keep the others from doing so. The customary election strategy of tacking back to the middle after pandering to the extremes during the primary season “need not apply” in 2020. Expect vicious partisanship from now on.

About five months ago, I wrote a story called World War Three at a Time. It was also the subject of a podcast with Frazer Rice.  In both, I predicted that managing an epidemic, an economy and an election at the same time (or a pandemic, prosperity and politics, because I was being cute) would prove more than the system could bear. I did not foresee a race war. My bad.

Frightening as the situation is in the United States, can you imagine anyone rubbing his hands with glee at today’s state of play? Wouldn’t it require a sociopath to feel that way?

Nope. The election industry is having one of its best years ever, topping out at $16 billion over the last election cycle, according to The Economist, and the endless fund-raising promises to line the pockets of strategists, consultants and, during the post to election battling, lawyers alike.

While ill-informed Americans armed with unverified propaganda destroy relationships and communities, the real war — Washington versus the rest of us — stays conveniently (and intentionally) out of the spotlight.

“Oh Haven, do stop banging on about this and get off your one trick pony.” Point fairly made and well taken.

The trouble is that others — most far more credible than me — are now joining in.

The July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review included in article titled Fixing U.S. Politics. It previewed a book that has now been published and its authors are everywhere on the promotion circuit.

Katherine M. Gehl is the former CEO of Gehl Foods and the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation.

Michael E. Porter is a University Professor at Harvard, based at the Harvard Business School.

Together they are co-authors of The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save our Democracy.

Here, according to their summary, is a statement of their thesis.

Amid the unprecedented partisanship and gridlock in Washington, DC, Congress appears locked in a permanent battle, incapable of delivering results. It seems to many Americans—and to the rest of the world—that our political system is so irrational and dysfunctional that it’s beyond repair.

True, Republicans and Democrats recently passed major legislation aimed at stabilizing an economy ravaged by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But this should not be mistaken for an encouraging sign about the political system itself. In fact, it reflects a familiar pattern: A semblance of bipartisanship emerges in a national crisis, when the two parties fear mutual-assured electoral destruction if they don’t get something done. They agree on an emergency response and publicly tout their success even as they quietly agree to pass the cost on to future generations. When today’s crisis subsides, Congress will return to business-as-usual political brinksmanship that fails to solve our many other current challenges and prevent future crises.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Powerful solutions—ones you may not be familiar with—exist and can be implemented within years, not decades. In our new book, The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy, we discard the conventional understanding of U.S. politics. The problem is not specifically a politician problem, a policy problem, or a polarization problem: It is a systems problem. Far from being “broken,” our political system is doing precisely what it’s designed to do. It wasn’t built to deliver results in the public interest or to foster policy innovation, nor does it demand accountability for failure to do so. Instead, most of the rules that shape day-to-day behavior and outcomes have been perversely optimized—or even expressly created—by and for the benefit of the entrenched duopoly at the center of our political system: the Democrats and the Republicans (and the actors surrounding them), what collectively we call the political-industrial complex.

Drawing on Katherine’s groundbreaking development of politics industry theory and decades of business leadership, and Michael’s seminal scholarship on competition, we’ve reached five key conclusions about the nature of U.S. politics and remedies for its dysfunctions:

Although people tend to think of the American political system as a public institution based on high-minded principles and impartial structures and practices derived from the Constitution, it’s not. Politics behaves according to the same kinds of incentives and forces that shape competition in any private industry.

The dysfunctions of the politics industry are perpetuated by unhealthy competition and barriers to entry that secure the duopoly’s position regardless of results.

Our political system will not correct itself. There are no countervailing forces or independent and empowered regulators to restore healthy competition.

Certain strategic changes to the rules of the game in elections and legislating would alter incentives in ways that create healthy competition, innovation, and accountability.

Business, in pursuing its short-term interests, has become a major participant in the political-industrial complex, exacerbating its dysfunction. The business community must reexamine its engagement model and throw its weight behind structural political innovation that would benefit both business and society in the long term.

Think about these words quoted above and let them wash over you.

The problem is not specifically a politician problem, a policy problem, or a polarization problem: It is a systems problem. Far from being “broken,” our political system is doing precisely what it’s designed to do. It wasn’t built to deliver results in the public interest or to foster policy innovation, nor does it demand accountability for failure to do so. Instead, most of the rules that shape day-to-day behavior and outcomes have been perversely optimized—or even expressly created—by and for the benefit of the entrenched duopoly at the center of our political system: the Democrats and the Republicans (and the actors surrounding them), what collectively we call the political-industrial complex.

Since the partisan stupidity has driven me away from day-to-day stories, to the extent I write about politics during the next four months, expect the stories to be from this perspective.

8 Responses to “Duped by the Duopoly”

Garrard Glenn, September 14, 2020 at 6:49 pm said:

The duopoly didn’t work too badly starting in the mid 1800s until the 1960s. During the ’60s various left wing protests to the status quo emerged, both politically and culturally. Now, those left wing protests and indeed obstructions have reared their ugly head once again, except the ugliness is worse this time.

It is somewhat surprising to me that moderate Democrats, a community that until recently was not small, seem to allow if not encourage all the inanity and dysfunction fomented by Nancy Pelosi and her goad to the left AOC. Do they no longer exist? Are they now ghosts? I have no idea, and no one in the national press seems to report on this failure of the Moderates.

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Haven Pell, September 15, 2020 at 3:36 pm said:

I suspect the same observation could be made about moderate Republicans.

As to the duopoly working better in the past, that was before $16 billion dollar spending per election cycle.

Several Washington area universities now have graduate programs (like business school) for campaign management. No political science or government, campaign management.

That might suggest the existence of a business.

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Dick Friend, September 15, 2020 at 4:09 am said:

Australians are largely puzzled by how drawn out is your Presidential election campaign process, and that you vote for an Electoral College rather than directly – with sometimes bizarre results!
Why not vote directly for your preferred candidates, and all on the same day (or by post or electronically)?
Wouldn’t that reduce the power of lobby groups (Trump’s swamp)?
The world would love to see the US have an exemplar democracy, but we struggle to see it. Our system is also a bad duopoly, where the ruling Liberal coalition’s semi-permanent partner (the Nationals) is supported by 4.5% of voters and have 10 seats in national House of Assembly, while a third party such as the Greens are supported by 10% of voters, yet get just 1 seat in the House. While the Nationals are stronger in country or “bush” seats, it’s unjustifiable they have 20 times the voting power over another minor party. New ideas are quashed by the resources given by the taxpayers to the incumbents… but you also have that problem.
New Zealand have an improved system. For a start they have no states or territories to divide and confuse responsibilities and just one house of parliament (so no duck-shoving of responsibilities). Electors vote for a party with a second vote for their preferred candidate in their electorate: then it gets interesting. If, say, a party wins 30% of the party vote, it will get 30% of the 120 seats in Parliament (roughly 36 seats), and they’ll go to their candidates who were best supported iover all the electorates. The so-called MMP (multi-member proportional representation) system has a few wrinkles, but is the best & fairest I know.
Meanwhile, good luck in the next 50 days, and hope voters are not disillusioned by the complexity and fail to vote.

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Haven Pell, September 15, 2020 at 3:43 pm said:

The process is too drawn out but the longer it is, the better it is for the industry. More money to be made.

The electoral college was a solution to two problems: (1) th small states not wanting to be dominated by the big ones in the late 1700s; and (2) communication challenges that prevailed until the 20th century. It was not possible for voters to know about the candidates so each locality sent theoretically its best and brightest to deliberate and decide for them.

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Jake McCray, September 15, 2020 at 6:23 am said:

“We are happy with our system that doesn’t work”

The definition of “we” and “works” both being a moving target.

Waiting with baited breath for the dialogue from your all-star audience…..

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Haven Pell, September 15, 2020 at 3:46 pm said:

We are off to a good start on the comments, and you should also expect more stories soon this theme. There was a lot more to the article that I did not quote and the rest will be the subject of other stories. Today, I hope readers will recognize that there is a problem.

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Livingston Miller, September 15, 2020 at 10:08 am said:

For the life of me, I don’t understand why a centrist 3rd party is a non-starter. It would seem easy for a coalition of Dems of the Joe Mancin-ilk and Republicans of the Mitt Romney-ilk to get together and blow the doors off this thing. Such a political thing would have great appeal to just about everyone I know on both sides. Sigh, guess I’m wrong.

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Haven Pell, September 15, 2020 at 3:50 pm said:

One center party would destroy the party on either side and there would be no need for $16 billion election cycles. People would be happy, they could pay far less attention to politics than they do now, the government would probably work better all at the terrible intolerable cost of destroying the election industry. How sad would that be?

But if you get to write the laws you get to preserve your industry.

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