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There’s truth behind the unwieldy term, neoliberalism. In part, it’s when social aspects of life become market-related (just like a business) with buyers/sellers, competition, and money residing at the core. It’s where strategy and tactics are tied to things like ‘gaining market share,’ ‘beating the competition,’ ‘the bottom line,’ and ‘running things like a business.’

Corporate-style intrusion is another way of putting it. And intrude it does on matters well beyond the business world. My field of work (higher education) is predominantly neoliberal. A fair share of the nonprofit sector is, too. And politics in America…well…you bet it is. Politics in America is about winning, and the money it takes to ring the bell. Just last week, NPR reported that the two presidential campaigns have banked over $2 billion so far this cycle (yes, a ‘b’)—and the election is still more than a month away.

If you think that’s outrageous, it is. And that dollar amount doesn’t include all the fundraising associated with thousands of other political races, and the money associated with related industries that surround politics in America, including the broadcasting, advertising, political consulting, and marketing industries.

Is there a countervailing force? Yes. Strangely enough (given what I’ve just written), it’s the American electorate. Many voters have decided to refrain from taking sides, to be neither Democrat nor Republican. In the most recent Gallup national survey (late Aug-mid-Sept poll), 40% of those polled told Gallup they are not affiliated with either major political party. More respondents said ‘I’m Independent” than either Democrat (30%) or Republican (29%).

The percentage of Independents in the electorate is smaller, but still considerable, when you investigate voter registration rolls (that is, in states where voter registration requires a declaration of party affiliation/no party affiliation). For example, in Florida, as of August 31, 26% of the state’s electorate—3.6 million voters in total—are registered as ‘no party affiliation.’ And that category is the fastest-growing segment of Florida’s electorate. In California (as of September 4), the percentage of ‘no-party pref’ voter registrants was 23.7% (over 5 million voters)—nearly equivalent to those who had registered as Republican.

But Independents aren’t organized, either as a party or as a bloc. Those are two reasons why many political scientists label Independents ‘leaners.’ When it comes to casting ballots, 90%+ of Independents ‘lean’ either Democrat or Republican.

Certainly, there are party alternatives to ‘the big two’ (the Green Party, for example). But America doesn’t have a parliamentary system as does England and Canada, where multiple political parties come together to form a ruling majority. That means America’s politics—at least in the electoral sense for millions of voters—boils down to a binary choice, Dem or Repub.

America’s politics—at least in the electoral sense for millions of voters—boils down to a binary choice, Dem or Repub.

But does it have to be that way? Absolutely not say Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter in their new book, The Politics Industry (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020). As a Progressive Independent, I found the book to be well-conceived and expressed. Very importantly, it’s accessible reading, too. Gehl and Porter describe how politics has become an industry, discuss the negative consequences associated with making that transition, and recommend ways to change the status quo.

“Innovators” is the term the late Everett Rogers would use to categorize Gehl and Porter. Rogers was a trailblazer in a field called the adoption/diffusion of innovations. I doubt the authors would disagree with that appellation, either, considering the book’s subtitle: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.

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While reading the book, I thought a lot about Rogers and political innovation. Two groups of people stand out in that regard. First, there are activists. They are the ones who run with new ideas, take leadership, and do the heavy lifting to make things possible. Second, there are advocates. Advocates believe in and support the work, aiding it in some way, such as contributing money and endorsing ideas with family and friends. Any activist will tell you that advocates are the lifeblood of change. In the scheme of change, activists are small in number, but advocates can (and need to) proliferate.

Activists and advocates flip roles frequently, too. I’ve played both roles, and odds are you have as well. But no matter the issue, there are always relatively few activists involved, there are many more advocates playing support roles, and (truth be told) there are a ton of uninvolved people sitting on the sidelines.

Because that’s always the case, change is a challenging proposition. It’s even more complicated when two other factors come into play—as they do in this case. The first is when you seek to change something that has become ‘industrialized.’ Many actors have a stake in the industry that exists, and that means they have a lot to lose should the industry change how it does business. The second factor is when the change you propose conflicts with a dimension of personal identity.

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter

Gehl and Porter make a strong case why politics is an industry—a private industry at that. That said, the assertion carries considerable weight because of something that always happens when change is proposed to industry actors: they will resist. In this case, Republicans and Democrats will team up to oppose just about any political innovation/reform that impinges on the current party-centered model. In Florida, for example, both parties are opposed to Constitutional Amendment 3, a referendum that will appear on the November 3 ballot. If approved by 60% of Florida’s voters, C-3 would introduce a top-two, open primary system for electing candidates to statewide offices. It will replace the current party-primary system where Republicans vote in one primary, Democrats vote in another, and millions of unaffiliated, registered voters can’t vote at all. If C-3 is approved, future General Elections would be voter- and not party-centered. How so? The November ballot would be a result of a single, all-candidates primary where everybody votes and all candidates (irrespective of party) are on a single ballot. That means two members of the same party or two candidates without party affiliation could face off in for the same office.

On the personal identity dimension, think about all the people who do not believe there is a problem with the current Democrat/Republican-dominated system. They’ll likely share many reasons why, but I can guarantee you that one reason is their political affiliation. For many people I know, being a Republican or Democrat is a matter of personal identity and a public statement about personal values and beliefs. For people like that, the primary issue isn’t changing the system, it is helping ‘The Party’ win in the system that exists. The other party? It’s a force to be reckoned with and (hopefully) vanquished. Hyperbolic? I learned a long time ago that it’s anything but. And that’s why the 40% unaffiliated voters of America are so important when it comes to changing ‘the politics industry.’ As the old saying goes, they ‘don’t have a dog in the fight.’

None of what I’ve written is intended to detract from what Gehl and Porter offer. Hardly. It’s a great book, and I recommend it without reservation. The issue for me is climbing the hill to achieve the change they prefer. For that to happen (I would submit), we need more than political innovators and activists talking with each other, agreeing about what needs to be done and how. We need millions of American citizens to see the problematic nature of a profoundly party-centered system and to conclude that “It needs to change!”

With that in mind, I was drawn to a statement shared by Carrie Ann Rathbun Hawks (a Facebook friend) in response to last Tuesday’s debate:

“Can we eliminate the political parties, please? So many of our problems would go away at every level of government. It might even get back to ‘We the people’ instead of ‘We the Republicans’ or ‘We the Democrats.’ Shameful!”

Carrie’s words give hope that Gehl and Porter’s recommendations can become a reality. We just need millions like her. But, as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, there’s a formula for making that happen: “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” (italics added)

Political innovators and activists, take note.

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You can listen to this article on Anchor, Apple, Spotify and other podcast platforms. Tune to Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear. Participate in a Zoom conversation with co-author Katherine M. Gehl, sponsored by the Politics for the People book club. Get details here.

Frank Fear