Last week I heard a radio commentator offer an interpretation of President Obama’s political agenda: Support gun control laws to appeal to women; support gay marriage to appeal to young people; support immigration reform to appeal to Latinos; and hope that these disparate efforts will garner sufficient support to elect a Democratic majority to Congress in 2014. Then he would be able to address broader issues.
I have no idea whether this formulation is an accurate assessment of White House strategy, but just hearing it articulated that way left me disheartened about our prospects for the future.
Part of politics must be forming coalitions of interest groups. And interest groups, by definition, are people who have made a decision on a particular issue, who have reached a conclusion, and who — at least on this one issue — have nothing else to learn.
“I will support you,” they say to the politician, “because, regardless of whatever else you may think and do about all other issues, on this one you will stand with me.”
Electoral success, therefore, requires the politician to win the support of interest groups with a sufficient number of members to provide at least a plurality of voters.
Former Sen. Snowe’s decision not to seek re-election last year set off a rush of such calculations, and speculation about next year’s race for governor has continued those efforts to estimate the potential groundswells of 2014.
Electoral success, however, does not — as has become increasingly evident — translate into programmatic success.
Getting elected, particularly by the increasingly tenuous majorities generated by interest group aggregation strategies, does not translate into ability to govern — to propose, enact and operate programs that directly address problems large majorities of people recognize are important and require public attention.
The central reason for this dilemma, the increasing disconnect between getting elected and getting anything done, between winning the people’s votes and doing the people’s business, is the complete absence of learning anywhere in the process.
The politics of interest aggregation begins and ends with people concerned not with learning but with counting.
Solving problems, on the other hand — as is increasingly evident in any serious examination of the issues of gun control, gay marriage and immigration — can occur only with learning.
And the first step in learning is acknowledging that there is a problem, that there are questions for which I don’t already have the answer.
Where, then, is the politics of learning to come from? Where, in a world increasingly dominated by vote counters obsessed with name recognition, daily polls and fundraising, is problem solving to occur?
The answer, I think, lies in the formation of new interest groups less focused on narrow (often worthy, noble, important, but of limited scope) topics.
The Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the Concord Coalition, the Kaufmann Foundation and its focus on entrepreneurship are several that have formed and operated with varying degrees of success.
But the success of such “good government,” “public interest” groups will depend on their ability to become true interest groups — member organizations populated not exclusively by policy wonks but by those who see their personal well-being as depending on sustainable economic growth, reform of demographically obsolete entitlement programs and the application of 21st century technologies to the task of making education, health care, transportation and other public services as productive as we need them to be.
If our government is to be of and for “the people,” it must “by” the people.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: