The Political Outcomes Citizens Want and Need
A Problem of Competition
As we have described, competition in our political system is delivering outcomes that diverge from the public interest. As one casual observer said to us, “It's simple. We [our government] used to be able to solve problems, and now we can’t.”
Why is this? Before we consider the causes, we need clarity on what the desired outcomes look like. In business, the key outcome is clear: profit. But what are the essential outcomes we citizens should expect from our elected officials?
Despite the fundamental importance of this question, there is surprisingly little discussion of outcomes in politics, much less consensus on which outcomes we want. Instead, there is endless commentary on the drama of politics and who did what to whom. This has created a vacuum that has allowed political actors to define success in ways that fit their own purposes, not the needs of citizens.
What we should want from our political system is simple. In a democracy, a healthy political system should deliver four key outcomes:
1. Practical and effective solutions to solve our nation's important problems and expand opportunity
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 non-existent in America’s political system today.
What do we know about the nature of effective policy solutions? While there is no simple way to determine the “best” solution, and there are many opinions, a solution has some essential characteristics.
Effective solutions address reality, not ideology. True solutions rarely arise from applying stylized ideological principles—that often makes things worse. Effective solutions are almost never 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 craft 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. Solutions weigh and balance points of view across constituencies and make sound tradeoffs in integrating them. Solutions almost always require compromise and bipartisanship.
Good solutions are fair and acceptable to the greatest number of people possible. The challenge is that everyone cannot 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 bear more (or less) of the cost. Yet the overall outcome needs to be perceived over time, as balanced and fair. Good solutions are achieved when no group or faction is promised or led to expect everything it might want, or think it wants, in every respect.
Finally, solutions make real progress, but rarely achieve everything at once. The key test, then, is: “Have we made things better?” Effective solutions often initially require partial steps in the right direction, with improvements over time.
The Simpson-Bowles plan to create a sustainable budget, discussed in Part I was a practical solution. However, our political system killed it.
Legislation and executive action that matters must be actually enacted and implemented. Our system today often delivers gridlock, not action. Politicians have little incentive to put the public interest first if they believe that blocking legislation is rewarded by their party and inaction is not penalized by voters.
The vast majority of promises made by candidates and political leaders in today’s system never get acted upon. Too often, not even an attempt is made to move a promise toward legislation with a chance of passage. Unrealistic promises and talk without action are worthless. They benefit only political actors, not citizens.
3. Reasonably broad-based buy-in by the citizenry 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% support for any policy, true solutions (which most often involve bipartisanship) can be accepted over time, by a range of constituents across the political spectrum.
This can occur when the political dialog helps citizens understand the facts and realities of policy options and the rational compromises needed for a solution 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 in order to move the country forward or to do “the right thing” (that’s why it’s called leadership). At its best, political competition educates, unites, and inspires citizens, rather than dividing them.
4. Respect the Constitution and the rights of all citizens
Finally, good solutions reflect the rights and interests of all Americans. Our constitution is designed to protect the rights of individuals and minorities, rather than for simplistic majority rule. Good political outcomes incorporate these principles and reflect the type of society America stands for, even though this can sometimes make achieving political solutions more complicated.
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What kind of political system is necessary to deliver these outcomes? How can political competition drive good outcomes? These are questions we turn to next.