Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Politics should be more like business
At the bottom, not at the top
America has had two businessman-presidents. The first was Herbert Hoover, former mining engineer who became a watchword for ineffective leadership during the Great Depression. The second was Donald Trump, real-estate impresario who was impeached twice and indicted four times, so far.
Business leadership does not translate well to political leadership. Business chief executives can fire unsatisfactory subordinates; presidents have to put up with troublesome members of Congress and disappointing justices of the Supreme Court. Business bosses have a metric, the bottom line, for judging their performance; in politics there is no bottom line, just the vaguer measure of popularity we call elections.
Yet if business is not a promising recruiting ground for the top of the political system, its ethos and approach could improve our collective political performance at the bottom. The besetting sin of our politics these past few decades is its tendency to moralize issues. Since the 1990s, when the sifting from the civil rights revolution of the 1960s was completed, leaving the Republicans entirely conservative and the Democrats entirely liberal, each party has been driven by its most moralistic element. Primary voters, the most zealous bloc in each party, have been energized by claims that the other side isn't simply wrong but evil. Candidates respond to these cues, and politics becomes a Manichean battleground. Compromise is seen as consorting with the devil.
The beauty of business, by contrast, is that it is treated like, well, business. When I walk into a store, I don't act as though the proprietor and I are enemies. I don't think that if I pay the price he asks for his goods, I'm a moral failure. If I decide to sell my house, I assess what the market will bear and adjust my expectations accordingly. I don't say, This house means X much to me, and anyone who offers me less is a bad person.
Business is based on positive-sum transactions. I buy a car for $30,000 because the car is worth more to me at the moment than the $30,000. The car dealer sells me the car because the $30,000 is worth more to her at the moment than the car is. We both come out ahead. I would have preferred to pay less than $30,000, and the dealer would have preferred to receive more than $30,000, but the compromise we reach is one we both can live with.
Politics should be this way. Republicans don't like our current immigration system. Neither do Democrats. Both believe it can be improved. But our moralistic politics makes it impossible for either side to accept less than its optimal solution. A Republican who agrees to a compromise can expect to be outflanked on the right in the next primary. A Democratic compromiser will be primaried from the left. And because most congressional districts are safe for one party or the other, the primary elections are where the real decisions are made.
The substance of politics affects the material world. I pay higher or lower taxes. The streets get paved sooner or later. Social Security payments keep up with inflation or they don't.
The theater of politics is where the moralistic drama takes place. There's a substantial subset of the American population that revels in political drama. These are the fans of Fox News and MSNBC. They get their moral fix with their morning coffee or their evening cocktail.
The country would be better off if we paid more attention to the material aspect of politics and left the theatrics to the junkies. In political terms, it would be good business.