The Politics Industry: A book review by Bob Morris

The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy
Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter
Harvard Business Review Press (June 2020)

“A republic — if you can keep it.”  Benjamin Franklin

That was Franklin’s response when asked in 1789 if the new nation would be a republic or a monarchy.  Until reading this book by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, I assumed that the American political system has been working as it was originally designed (true) and that its primary purpose is to serve the best interests of the general public (false).

In fact, Gehl and Porter assert, “Today, the problem is [begin italics] the nature of competition [end italics] between the [two major political] parties and politicians, as well as the surrounding industry actors and organizations. The American political system is perfectly designed to serve the private interests of this political-industrial complex: to grow its power and revenues and to protect itself from threats. It’s not designed so well to serve citizens — those who should, by rights, be the most important customers of the industry.” They then add, “The business of politics is not a public institution. It is a bona fide multibillion-dollar private industry [begin italics] within [end italics] a public institution.”

“Welcome to the politics industry, where party primaries and plurality voting machines combine to punish the public interest. There are few incentives to solve problems. There is little accountability for results. And there are no countervailing forces to restore healthy competition…yet.”

Of special interest to me is how skillfully Gehl and Porter integrate her research and insights with regard to  the American political system within the framework of his original Five-Forces framework:

1. the nature of rivalry
2. the power of buyers (channels and customers)
3. the power of suppliers
4. the threat of substitutes
5 the threat of new entrants

They introduce a term, “duoply,” that refers to the two political parties that now dominate the American political system. “Applying the Five Forces to politics for the first time was illuminating and it showed how American politics is an industrial-strength, nation-crippling perversion of competition.” Here is the structure of the politics industry:

1. Suppliers (candidates and their campaigns)
2. Substitutes (Independents)
3. Rivalry of existing competitors (Democrats and Republicans)
4. New Entrants (new political party)
5. Buyers (channels and voters)

All this is discussed thoroughly in Chapter 1 and there are frequent cross-references throughout the narrative in succeeding chapters.

As this book’s subtitled suggests, Gehl and Porter believe that political innovation can break partisan gridlock and thereby save democracy from becoming an even more dominant political-industrial complex. Innovations must begin with the elections machinery. “Pass Final-Five Voting in every state…Next, we must reinvent from scratch a healthy, nonpartisan congressional legislative system —  a model, modern legislature —  that advances compromise and problem solving.  Together, these political innovations will return healthy competition and compromise to politics, realign our system with democratic principles, and unlock the critical outcomes we all desperately need.” In other words, Gehl and Porter envision “free-market politics.”

Their concluding thoughts include this observation by a Progressive Era reformer, Robert La Follette (1855-1925): “America is not made but in the making. There is an unending struggle to make and keep government representative. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.”

Consider these comments within the context of what Benjamin Franklin had to say in his highly publicized speech closing the Constitutional Convention in 1789. He drew upon his lifelong belief that had guided his political career. The success of any government, he reminded everyone, rests “on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors.”

I cannot recall a prior time — in my lifetime — when more people had less confidence in the U.S. government than they do today. Elections this November will determine who will be selected to lead at all levels into an uncertain future. I hope every candidate reads The Politics Industry and, if elected, re-reads it. All or at least much of what Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter advocate can be accomplished but only if (HUGE “if”) there is a collaboration of citizens who are determined to “realign our system with democratic principles, and unlock the critical outcomes we all desperately need.”

In this context, I am again reminded of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Here’s a book that explains HOW we can do that. Channeling (perhaps) Hillel the Elder, I presume to ask, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”



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1 Comment

  1. Gloria Badell on August 23, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    If we can pull this off as a society it has the potential to change everything for the people

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