Review of The Politics Industry by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter

The Politics Industry

I don’t usually post stuff of a political nature here, but this is important.

The last decade or so, I’ve been increasingly disillusioned by the way major candidates are chosen in United States national elections. It seems no one has a chance of winning unless he/she is the nominee of the Republican or the Democratic party. And also the party promotes not the best candidate, but the one who has the best chance of beating his/her opponent.

Before the 2016 election, the Republicans had a huge field of candidates, all of whom bowed out under pressure from the party to defer to Trump (although several would have made a better president). Similarly, in 2020, numerous candidates for the Democrats were weeded out to promote Biden (though some might have been more effective as chief executive).

It feels like we hardly get a choice. Most often, we’re stuck voting for the lesser evil of two unfavorite nominees.

And each new Congress, instead of implementing and improving legislation, repeals and replaces the work of the last Congress, or worse—produces gridlock and inaction.

We’re stuck. How do we get out of this rut?

In The Politics Industry, which was published in 2020, Gehl and Porter promote two innovations that they believe will improve out elections system. They call the book “a road map for breaking partisan gridlock and saving our democracy.”

The first innovation involves primaries and is called Final-Five Voting. Instead of voting for one of your party’s pool of candidates, what if you got to consider everyone who’s running, regardless of party affiliation? Lots of Americans vote for candidates as opposed to party, meaning that they choose the person whom they feel will have the most positive impact on our country, regardless of whether they are blue, red, green, or whatever. Final-Five primaries are non-partisan open primaries that send the top five finishers to the general election.

Final-Five Voting nullifies both the spoiler effect and the wasted-vote argument that discourage competitors from within the major parties and outside of them from running. Five slots ensure a broader slate of candidates, allowing candidates typically eliminated upstream in party primaries to make their case to the general electorate. The media is motivated to cover all five candidates with all-important “earned media” because each candidate has a potential impact on the outcome.

The second innovation involves the general election and is called Ranked-Choice Voting. One of the problems with our current system is that the winner often has less than 50% of the popular vote. In ranked choice voting, the candidate must pass the 50% threshold. How can that happen, especially with five names on the ballot? With five candidates, it’s more likely that you will see one whom you can wholeheartedly support.

Under Ranked-Choice Voting, when you cast your ballot, you rank the five candidates, indicating your first choice, second choice etc. After the polls close, the first-place votes are counted. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the first-place votes (a true majority), the election is over. If no candidate gets a true majority (50% + 1), the candidate in last place is eliminated. But the votes cast for the last-place candidate get transferred to the voters’ second-choice candidates. And so on until a true majority winner is chosen.

States have the power to set their own election policies. In 2018, Maine became the first state in to adopt Ranked-Choice Voting for national elections. Alaska adopted it in 2020 and employed it in the 2022 midterm elections. Several cities, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, also use RCV for municipal elections.

Gehl and Porter predict that adoption of these two innovations will unlock “the forces of healthy competition in American politics to restore a system that fixes real problems in real people’s lives—more choice, more voice, better results.”

In The Politics Industry, Gehl and Porter discuss how the “duopoly” of our two-party system has in essence become a private industry devoted to eliminating fair competition for elected office. They talk about the two currencies of this industry, votes and money, and how they each manipulate the other.

The Politics Industry is well-written and well-notated. Gehl and Porter thoroughly discuss the problems of our present electoral system and give a history of American political innovations of the past. I won’t try to summarize the whole book, but I want to give you a few more nuggets to think about:

  • There are just six paragraphs in the Constitution about how the House and the Senate should work, but the House and the Senate rulebooks have multiple hundreds of pages each—and senators and congresspersons wrote them all.
  • Between 1985 and 2015, congressional committee staff who help research issues were cut by 35%, forcing Congress to rely on opportunistic suppliers of data, such as lobbyists.
  • Final-Five Voting increases the potential for innovative ideas to become part of the public debate.
  • A 2017 evaluation of seven US municipalities using RCV to elect city officials found that candidates focused on the issues of the campaign rather than on denigrating their opponents. (Wouldn’t that be a nice change for the US?)
  • There is no independent regulation of the politics industry.

I highly recommend The Politics Industry to every American citizen who is unhappy with the way our government operates. I leave you with one last quote from the book: “We citizens have the power to shift the nature of politics and shape the architecture of our democracy if we can create a widespread understanding of how our political system actually works and galvanize action accordingly.” Gehl and Porter have shown us in this book what ordinary citizens can do to accomplish this shift. Let’s get on with it.

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