We demand quality in every aspect of life, from the food we eat to the cars we drive. We demand quality in government as well. But quality in government is not the same as quality in politics. What do we want in politics, and in political parties, and how do we get it?
By Mark Harris
Quality is the ultimate reason for existence in any organization. It doesn’t matter how many patients a hospital sees, how many widgets a manufacturer makes, or how many planes an airline owns if the patients get sicker, the widgets break, and the planes can’t fly. Doing one task well will get a man a job. Doing 1,000 tasks poorly will not.
Politics is one area in which we probably don’t think enough about quality. What is a quality candidate? What are quality elections? What is the best process to choose between candidates? What should a high-quality campaign look like? Who decides? This article will delve into quality and politics, in the hopes of increasing the quality of our political system.
Indicators and Quality
Indicators reveal how well an organization is producing quality outcomes in sufficient numbers to reach their goals. Indicators can be leading or lagging. Leading indicators predict a change in some desired outcome. Lagging indicators move only after the desired outcome has already begun to change. Leading indicators look forward, while lagging indicators look back. For example, if a pianist wants the outcome of being awarded a music scholarship, a leading indicator is how much he practices, since more practice is generally associated with better musical performance. A lagging indicator is how well he performs at the scholarship audition. In politics, money and poll positions are leading indicators, while election results are lagging ones.
Three kinds of measures indicate how well a group is achieving its goals: outcome, process, and structure. Outcome measures evaluate how the organization is doing in achieving what it really wants. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) is a common outcome measure for businesses. Process measures indicate how well a group is achieving intermediate goals that should lead to the overall goal. In medicine, avoiding diabetes is a final outcome measure, blood sugar level is an intermediate outcome measure, and correct dosing of insulin is a process measure. Structure measures assess the capacity of an organization to perform the processes that lead to the outcomes of interest (W Richard Scott & Davis, 2017). In a school, having trained teachers is a structure measure, teaching with top quality materials is a process measure, and producing educated students is the final outcome measure.
What are political parties good for?
I served as the State Chairman for the West Virginia Republican Party from 2021-2022. In so doing, I encountered legions who discounted the need and effectiveness of political parties. They were not alone. No less a personage than George Washington disparaged political parties. He said:
“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.”
“It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.” (Washington, 1796)
Washington was right about many dangers inherent in having a political system with political parties. Nonetheless, in the modern world, political parties can be useful:
- They accommodate and align various interests within the party.
- They reach a compromise between the parties.
- They get out the vote and educate voters.
- They recruit, educate, and support candidates, like a personnel department for elected office. (Hamilton, 2018)
Washington notwithstanding, political parties play a major role in our attempts to improve quality in politics. Political parties are a central and some may argue defining institution in democracy (Siavelis, 2020). They are, however, poorly studied from an organizational standpoint.
Quality in the Political Realm
Some would argue that politics is one of the most important things that people do in the 21st century. Insofar as this argument is true, it was not always so. Smaller governments are less intrusive in the lives of their people. Technology has allowed us to quantify everything and identify disparities that we then define as problems. One study indicated that cell phone use decreases sleep duration in adolescents (Tashjian et al., 2019). Is that a problem? If so, should the government (federal, state, or local) do anything about it? If so, what? Is it a violation of privacy that the government even knows about sleep deprivation and cell phone use in teens? Should individuals, families, and communities improve their sleep problems without the intervention of government?
Technology has not helped us prioritize problems. For example, COVID mortality is greater among black and Hispanic people than among white people (Golestaneh, 2020). This fact begs several questions. The first is “why”. How much of which populations should American researchers study to understand this problem? Once we know the reasons for the disparities, how many resources should be applied to each population to improve the problem? Who should decide, and on what basis? Should the poorest population get the most resources, or should the largest population get them? Where should these resources come from? How should resources be extracted from one group and given to another? What should the government do, and also, what should the individuals and groups affected do? Are communities helpless in the face of the COVID juggernaut, or can they act to decrease their own vulnerability? Sometimes the best response of government is to do, but sometimes the best response is to do less.
Defining quality from a political perspective is a Herculean task because people differ widely on how they understand the nature of the problems, how to frame them, what to do about them, and in what priority to assign resources. Decreasing health disparities between races is an outcome measure, and when outcome measures are hard to determine or use, organizations turn to process measures.
For example, suppose that House of Delegates Candidate A wants to spend $50 million reducing health disparities and Candidate B only $30 million. Electing Candidate A, therefore, will theoretically make it more likely to reduce health disparities than electing Candidate B will. People for whom health disparities are a major concern will try to elect Candidate A, not because his election is the outcome of interest but rather because they hope that his election will reduce health disparities. Candidate A’s election is a process measure.
The final outcome is governance, which is not a political measure. Electing A does not guarantee that he will continue supporting large outlays to reduce health disparities. Large outlays do not guarantee that health disparities will be removed, or even improved. But often, politicians and citizens alike equate improving or even fixing a problem with throwing money at it. In the minds of many, more money = caring more about the problem and the people who have it, and less money = not caring.
Elections to the House of Delegates happen only every two years, so using election as an outcome measure is a rare and lagging indicator. Political operatives use the amount of money raised and polling data to indicate how elections are likely to turn out. They are leading process indicators of political goals, and as such, an indicator of quality. Fund raising and polling are related, with candidates who are better known more likely to raise more money (Swearingen, 2019).
Candidates make calls and attend events to raise money from large donors. Fundraising quality indicators include dollars per call, number of calls made, dollars per event, and number of events attended. Such information can be stratified by looking at calls and events with geographic and demographic categories.
What are some other quality measures in politics, particularly from the perspective of the people?
- A clean campaign – How many voters are disgusted by the pettiness and viciousness of modern politics? Why do politicians boast about their private parts? How many Americans are sick of lies, lies, and more lies?
- A thrifty campaign – Money does not grow on trees, and the richest person is not necessarily the best choice for a political office. Everyday Americans have to budget, so why shouldn’t our government and its leaders?
- A campaign focused on the people – Politics is not about personal ambition but about public service. Wise voters try to pick men and women who will do their best in an excellent but imperfect system to benefit all Americans in the medium and long term. Foolish voters elect people who will give more to them in the short term, and expect elected officials to operate perfectly in line with the foolish voters desires.
Too many Americans have checked out of the political system because they no longer believe that their voices and their votes count. Checking out is the worst possible solution, and it endangers the government of, by, and for the people. Politics today is a tower of lies resting on a foundation of mud while being buffeted by hurricane winds of an unstable world. But it can be better. Politicians, but also political parties, play a role in making it so.
Candidates and Political Parties
Much of the disgust that Americans have with politics centers around actions of the candidates. Representative George Santos (R-NY) spewed a river of lies in his 2022 election (Stieb & Hartmann, 2023). On the other side, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) found himself in a relationship with a woman who proved to be a Chinese spy (Concepcion, 2023). Story after story communicates politician’s (and mankind’s) unbounded ability to embarrass themselves and everyone around them. Time and time again we see people fighting as hard as they can to preserve the right to destroy themselves, because they refuse to see their looming destruction. Politicians are prime examples.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) recruit and fund candidates, so they are partially to blame when candidates turn out badly. Herschel Walker in Georgia in 2022 is a sad example. But parties cannot control candidates, especially under the stress of a political campaign, so most of the blame for poor quality sits squarely on the politicians themselves. In the supercharged and passionate environment of politics, sexual indiscretions are especially common.
Politicians bear the brunt of the blame or credit for the tone of their campaign. The RNC had no control when Trump and Rubio exchanged comments on their respective anatomy in a nationally televised presidential debate in 2016. The DNC did not make Hillary Clinton misuse classified documents, which impacted the same campaign.
Politicians choose whether to honestly focus on the needs of the people or on their own glory. Ronald Reagan always seemed to truly care for his countrymen, and Bill Clinton seemed to truly care only for Bill Clinton. The same could be said for Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, respectively. No wonder people tune out.
In the final analysis, political parties need candidates far more than candidates need their political party. People give to people they believe in, not to organizations that they distrust. Parties cannot prevent someone from running for office. They can influence, but cannot control, him if he is elected.
Centralization and the Quest for Quality
Centralized systems, those in which the power resides in one or a small group of people, can be efficient and align messaging. However, their capacity for action is limited by the paucity of their people. Adolf Hitler tried to run an empire and a war alone, and he failed miserably. Centralized systems are especially vulnerable to corruption, as fewer people have a major stake in the system. Decentralized systems can handle large tasks and better represent the people, but must be aligned by a common mission, vision, and techniques.
Centralization can hurt the central organization. The Republican National Committee (RNC) joined with the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of people identifying as homosexual who want to change the traditional marriage platform of the national party. The RNC did it in order to gain more money and voters (Singman, 2021). This RNC Pride Initiative, as it was called, was consummated without any feedback from any state parties or other stakeholders. Conservative state parties, especially in the South, hotly opposed RNC-Pride, and lambasted the Chairman of the RNC for proceeding without clearing it with the states. Christians and other religious conservatives form the GOP base, and any gain in the homosexual community resulting from RNC Pride was likely to be tiny compared to the loss in the base. RNC Pride was a major tactical error which had strategic significance. Had the RNC communicated ahead of time with their constituent units, a major misstep could have been avoided.
Decentralization and the Quest for Quality
The RNC follows many indicators in its quest for quality, but its decentralized and largely volunteer nature add difficulty and complexity. The RNC lacks direct control over state Republican parties, and this has caused some embarrassment. Ron Weiser, the GOP chairman for Michigan faced backlash after calling three Democratic women “witches.” (CNN, 2021). Minnesota state chair Jennifer Carnahan resigned in August after being tied to a donor involved in sex trafficking (Minnesota Republicans elect Hann as their new party chair, 2021). Oklahoma GOP Chairman John Bennett came under fire for comparing Biden’s vaccine mandate to the Holocaust (State GOP Chairman doubles down on post comparing vaccine mandates to Holocaust, 2021). The media use such faux pas to attack Republican candidates and discredit conservatives.
In all these cases, a lack of transparency contributed to misunderstandings and feelings of betrayal. Secrecy builds or destroys identity within a group, not only because the secrets themselves are inherently valuable, but because secrets are not available to everyone. Those who know are insiders, and those who don’t are outsiders (Ringel, 2018). RNC state representatives were not privy to the RNC Pride discussion, thus feeling less identified with and less loyal to the mother organization.
Communication and education serve to minimize but cannot eliminate mistakes, which represent poor quality in the political world. The RNC meets with subordinate chairpersons biannually, conducts training annually, provides on-line assistance regularly, and often sponsors site visits to each state and territory. Regional subsections of the RNC (Midwest, Northeast, South, West) sponsor still more training biannually for states. State parties, in turn, sponsor biannual training for county parties, as well as providing online information, phone and email support, and attendance at events. Such extensive communication serves to minimize poor-quality words and actions so often seen in politics, despite the geographic disbursement and organizational decentralization.
The 2016 election is another example of decentralization vs centralization in political parties. The RNC was initially not enthused about Donald Trump as Presidential nominee. The DNC wanted Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders. The RNC didn’t have the internal controls to stop Trump, and so had to abide by the choice of the voters, which was Trump. The DNC had superdelegates who blocked Sanders and elevated Clinton, though the firebrand from Vermont could have beaten her in a fair contest. In the general election, the choice of the people beat the choice of the superdelegates.
Allocation of Financial Resources
The majority of RNC fund allocation goes to self-preservation, candidate support, and issue advancement. Other activities, such extensive training, visits, and other activities represent a significant contribution of financial resources. Ideology precedes party affiliation, and individual representatives, already volunteers, contribute more to the party because of the strength of their ideology. They serve under a “commitment without contract” paradigm, which is critical for all organizations in the modern day (Husted et al., 2021).
Financial resources are also allocated to improve the structure of the GOP. Outreach centers in black neighborhoods in major cities have opened to demonstrate the GOPs commitment to the black community. Similar centers have arisen in other communities. While these centers will likely lose money, they signal Republican interest in those areas and provide a locality for people to identify with the party. Hopefully, such centers are more than a signal but a long-term commitment by the GOP to pay closer attention to non-white voices. This may turn out to be more effective since Republicans are more prone to interact in groups than Democrats (Kranton & Sanders, 2017).
Americans want quality government, but we also want quality politics. The first task is to define quality in the political, and not just governmental, realm. The second task is to find truly good candidates, remembering always that candidates grow from the soil they are planted in. Populations with poor morals and poor behavior generally produce poor politicians. Swans don’t swim in sewers. The third task is to help good people get elected and then help them pass good legislation while they are in office. Finally, responsible elected officials put their reputations and riches in a pit of slime and stink for the benefit of their communities. They need voters to stick with them, protect them from the relentless attacks, hold them accountable for good behavior, and help heal them when the inevitable mistake happens.
The Republican National Committee (RNC), as well as the DNC, are unusual organizations in that they are not government entities but independent corporations. They manage hundreds of millions of dollars but are primarily staffed by volunteers. Both are decentralized, although the RNC is less hierarchical than the DNC. The RNC relies on training and support to maximize the effectiveness of its volunteers. Though I am less familiar with the DNC, it appears to be similar.
US political parties show no sign of going away, though prognosticators have proclaimed the death of one or the other for centuries. For example, since 1856, widespread distrust of political parties, the GOP has weathered the storms and served the American people. It seems unlikely that either party will enjoy the coveted “permanent majority.”
Of course, obtaining and holding power is not the goal of our political system. Rather, doing the most good possible for the most people (John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism) is what our leaders, our nation, and our people should aspire to. Quality in politics is not the same as quality in government, but high-quality politics should help produce high quality government. The political parties play a major role in political quality, but not as big as the role played by the candidates, and ultimately, the people. The system for governance in the US is sound – indeed, it is the best in the world. It is up to Americans to make it work. Though we have given our leaders far too much power, the United States still has a government of, by, and for the people. Our government can never be better than we are.
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