How Can We Make Politicians Serve Country Over Party?

Republican democracy demands that we hold elected officials accountable as public servants. During the tenure of their office, leaders should put aside private interests and act responsibly in the public interest even at personal expense.

But perceived abuses by the political class have led to a deep distrust of government. Populist outcries argue that Washington, D.C. is “The Swamp” and that the legions of public officials (both elected and non-elected), lobbyists, lawyers, and other “Washington insiders” that inhabit this swampy environment act without any regard for what is good for the country as a whole.  Although such criticisms are often dismissed as reactionary and out-of-touch, outspoken condemnation of political elites is nothing new in American discourse; it has arguably held our government accountable when other measures failed—a final check and balance not outlined in the Constitution, which has remained consistent and recurrent across demographics, culture, parties, and historical moment for over two hundred years.

More empirically-minded academics have recently given credence to the popular outcry against the American political class from both sides of the aisle; they blame the dysfunction of our government on a “political industry.” The two-party system distributes power in a dysfunctional and perversely incentivizing way, argue Harvard Business School professors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter in a report entitled Two-Party Duopoly to Blame for Government Dysfunction. The Democrats and Republicans control and distribute power and benefits much like a traditional monopoly could and would in business. Accordingly, a “duopoly” of two major parties has little reason to reform a system that allocates power to their advantage; they play by the rules of the game as it is, a game which they know they can win, and which minimizes uncertainty and the need to reach more voters.

Politics has become its own industry, the authors contend—an industry controlled by just two players from the top down. Party leaders of the duopoly benefit enormously from the status quo. As such, they have zero incentive to change it, even if they might privately concede to themselves that reforms would benefit the nation. Their interests are not tied to citizens in general, but to a wide-reaching network of political beneficiaries, “most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations.” Note that Porter and Gehl do not limit that category to corporations or the wealthy. The private political industry controls our public election process. “Politicians have little incentive to put the public interest first,” write the authors, “if they believe that blocking legislation is rewarded by their party and inaction is not penalized by voters.”

Porter and Gehl are not alone. As a recent Politico report summarized, “Over the past decade, nearly each successive congress has taken the mantle of ‘least productive.’” In short, the two-party system reinforces non-competitive practices in our politics, from the presidential election down to ballots cast in state and local elections. So much for the founders’ ideals of serving the national interest.

So what is to be done? The best and quickest way to make our politics more representative and our politicians more authentic public servants is to redesign our presidential elections with common sense and good judgment. We must make our most powerful elected official accountable, and the first step must be reforming our presidential selection process. Every vote must hold equal weight; no votes should remain unaccounted for in the final decision of who takes office. Good government depends upon it. True competition is good for American democracy—so long as politicians are held accountable to their constituents. Two-party rule by a duopoly is not.

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