Happily Ever After

The last time I babysat my younger grandchildren, we watched one of those age-appropriate Hollywood fairy tales where the good guy defeats the bad guy and then the story ends because—it is understood by all, even five-year olds—that everyone will now live happily ever after.

Too many students enter our classes believing a version of that simple fantasy: in order to make good public policy, we just need to elect the “good guy.” Once that happens—once the candidate with the good ideas wins—the story’s over. (If we elect the “bad guy,” the story’s still over, but with an unhappy ending.) This childlike belief explains much irrationality on both the right and left, and it complicates a public administration professor’s efforts to explain how a bill really becomes a law.  

 As I write this, tea party “patriots” and others on the right are screaming that health-care reform is a Nazi plot and Obama will single-handedly destroy America. At the same time, their left-wing counterparts are charging Obama with “selling out” to the power structure, and threatening to sit out the next election.

Our students are not immune to this superficial, bipolar approach to America’s policy processes.

Our job in the classroom is to explain that changing the course of institutions—particular large, entrenched ones—is extremely difficult. Systems matter, and they can favor or smother efforts to change direction for good or ill.  Constitutional constraints on government power are important in a nation that values the rule of law. As the old saying goes, one person’s accountability is another’s red tape. Achieving a workable balance is an ongoing challenge. But political systems also create roadblocks that are neither constitutionally required nor democratically sound.

 Let me offer a very few examples.

  •  Gerrymandering frustrates efforts to create a more competitive political playing field, and protects incumbents from constituents who want to retire them.
  • In the Senate, filibusters—as we have seen—allow legislative minorities to frustrate the efforts of majorities, even when those majorities represent overwhelming percentages of the population. Our system gives every state, no matter how thinly or densely populated, two Senators. You can argue the pros and cons of such a system, but love it or hate it, it’s the system we have. As a result, a couple hundred voters from Montana have the power to frustrate a million from California or Texas.
  • The Senate also observes quaint and arguably indefensible “traditions” like the one that allows any Senator to put a hold on any Presidential nomination for any reason. Recently, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl decided to show his displeasure with a delay in the enforcement of internet gambling prohibitions. So he put a hold on six of the Administration’s pending nominations to fill positions in the Treasury Department. No one has a problem with the people who’ve been nominated, mind you. But because Jon Kyl wants action on internet gambling, the Treasury Department is operating without needed management personnel during a global economic meltdown.

The moral of this story? Systems matter, and many of ours are broken.

Our job is to teach students how to fix those systems, without telling them fairy tales, or leading them to believe that the election of one or two “good guys” will usher in a future in which Americans live happily ever after.

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