Open mic night on the hustings

Jon Rauch, a very smart guy and really good writer, has — with his co-writer, Raymond J. La Raja —  an important op in the Times today, “Politics Shouldn’t Be Like Open Mic Night.”

Everyone should read it, especially political extremists, both right and left wing. Because it clearly understands and communicates how politics and political parties actually work.

A couple of Jon’s key points with which I heartily agree (some I’ve bolded):

Analysts and reformers obsess over who sends money into politics. Far more important, however, is who sends candidates. If reasonable candidates are lacking, then voters cannot make reasonable choices. For most of the country’s history, recruiting and vetting candidates was the job of political professionals: elected officials, party grandees and core constituencies such as unions and business organizations.

Jon describes this initial recruiting and vetting as an “invisible primary:”

The invisible primary had definite drawbacks — it overlooked too many qualified women, for example — but it also performed the single most essential function in politics: weeding out office seekers who are incompetent, extreme or sociopathic. Nothing worried the founders more than how to protect democracy from those with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers.

Political professionals. That’s really important to me, because I consider politics to be not a sideline thing someone with enough money can drop into, as a sort of hobby, but a profession. I want to vote for a professional who is, ideally, a lawyer (because that’s what government is about), and with solid experience in American government.

I’ve written about the awfulness of money in politics, along with the awful reality of money in politics. Until John Roberts expresses shame and writes a reversal of Citizens United, we’re stuck with money in politics.

The essay then talks about the alternative groups on the right (the Tea Party) and the left who are trying to replace or circumvent government professionals:

The groups scout for military veterans, Sandersistas and others. But we found that what they generally do not scout for is competence at governing. In fact, many shy away from experience in government, on the theory that careerists are impure and inauthentic. As a representative of Justice Democrats, a group organized by former Sanders supporters, told us, “We don’t want career politicians, period.”

Although winning public office will never be easy, the proliferation of candidate pipelines is already making it easier for aspirants to run — and for groups to grow their own politicians…[A] consultant made the point…piquantly: “It’s become like a clown car. Everyone thinks they’re qualified and everyone jumps in.”

Clown? Clown? Who might that consultant be think of when referring to “Clown”?

When we surveyed political consultants, they told us, by wide margins, that candidates in primary races are becoming more ideological and more inexperienced.

Which is precisely why I am unsuited to be a politician: I am ideological and utterly inexperienced in doing anything except tearing my ideological hair out at people even less experienced than I am, who run for office. (I am a proud professional at one political act: voting.)

To be effective at their jobs, politicians need know-how, connections and I.O.U.s, which take years to accumulate. 

Alas, reformers have been pushing to marginalize professionals still further. In the Democratic Party, so-called superdelegates — elected officials and party leaders empowered to vote as they wish at the presidential convention — will not and almost certainly cannot reject a popular victor, but they do encourage candidates to seek the advice and support of people they will be working with if elected. Reducing their role, as progressives have successfully campaigned to do through the Unity Reform Commission (created by the Democratic National Committee to examine the party’s nominating process), may appeal to the public’s populist instincts, but it is shortsighted for those who care about effective government.

Can I mention here that Trump got to be the GOP nominee because — despite that stage-filling group of professional politicians (no matter how individually repulsive) — the GOP does not have superdelegates? Aren’t you glad?

Jon’s big finish:

Maintaining a competent, responsive political class requires vetting candidates through both popular and professional filters. Neither works well without the other. Both parties stand to benefit from recruiting more broadly, and, up to a point, amateurism can refresh politics.

But when the country finds itself taking seriously the possibility of a presidential contest between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, the cult of amateurism needs rethinking.


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