The Politics Industry – A Politics for the People Conversation with Katherine Gehl

On Sunday, October 18th, people from across the country joined Politics for the People Host and Founder Cathy Stewart for a conversation with Katherine Gehl, coauthor of The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock.

If you’d like to jump right into the full conversation, you can watch the video below:

Watch Cathy’s introduction of Gehl and the book below:

Cathy kicks off the conversation by asking Gehl how her experience working in the Obama administration influenced her realization that we need political innovation.

…I know that you served in President Obama’s administration, and I wanted to especially ask you what that experience was like…and how that experience contributed to your coming to this realization of the need for political innovation.”

Gehl starts off by describing her nomination to the board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation under President Obama, and how that process ignited her critical observation of the political system:

There’s two insights for the purpose of this work. One, the senate confirmation process was a mess…my nomination, which was not at all an issue, got held up for political reasons for…about eight months, which meant that the board didn’t have the people that they needed to function optimally during that time, just for sort of political horse trading. But the other thing is that once I was on that board, I will tell you, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation was so phenomenally well run…and I felt, at the time, that it was really interesting, the disconnect between this high-delivery organization that was part of the government as compared to how we functioned in the political policy-making space.”

She then goes on to explain that her realization of the need for political innovation came more-so from development of business strategies and comparing how her business needed to function in service of her customers to how Congress functions in spite of the people’s disapproval:

…I originally developed politics industry theory, which is the basis for all this work, when I was doing my own company strategy back in 2013 and I was trying to figure out, essentially, ‘How do we sell more cheese sauce, how do I grow my company…how do I grow this company?’ And it told a story of ‘How do I make my customers happy?’ And while I was doing that, in the back of my mind…I was saying ‘Hey, how come for me to do well in my business, I have to serve my customers well, and the politics industry doesn’t?’ Meaning, Congress doesn’t have to make their customers happy – 90% of people are dissatisfied – but they seem to be doing better than ever in terms of power and revenue of their whole industry.’ And then second thing I said ‘And if I don’t do well by my customers, there’ll be new competition who will take my customers’ business from me…jeez, that never happens in politics – no matter how dissatisfied we are, we still have the same two competitors.’”

Watch Gehl’s whole answer in the video below:

Cathy frames her next question around Final-Five Voting, a reform that combines nonpartisan primaries that advance the top five vote getters to the general election with ranked choice voting in the general election.

Could you share with us the top-note reasons why you believe this is the star political innovation that could really move the needle in the way that you were just describing?”

To answer Cathy’s question, Gehl expands on the process of deciding what the most effective avenue for reform would be:

I don’t say other things aren’t important, what I say is ‘If we have to make the best choice of our time, resource, money, interest, evangelism, focus, organizing efforts, where are we going to get the most bang for the buck?’ That’s the main question. So I said ‘We don’t want to recommend out of our theory things that would be theoretically powerful, but we could never get them done.’ For example, we don’t recommend any constitutional amendments in our work. Now, certainly it’s still worth working on constitutional amendments because there will come a time when we can pass them…but it’s not the easiest path right now. So, we wanted to recommend things that were both really powerful and also really achievable, and specifically by powerful I mean what we want out of our work is that the things we change affect the likelihood that Congress will deliver legislation and policy that’s in the public interest.”

Watch Gehl’s full answer below:

Stewart and Gehl explore the role of independent voters, now 40% of the country’s electorate, when Stewart asks:

So, my question to you is to ask you how you see this community of voters as a force to drive political innovation in the country.”

Gehl responds by using the viewers on the call as an example:

What’s going to drive political innovation is people from outside the system…The innovation starts with people who choose to spend their Sunday night on a call like this thinking about how things could be different, and then a subset of these people will alter the way they spend their time in the next week, months and years. When enough people alter their time to be spending it on these innovations, which is to say getting Final-Five voting on the ballot or getting Final-Five voting in front of the state legislature, that’s how it adds up to that you win, and that the system is changed and that the results are changed.”

Watch Gehl’s full answer below:

I wanted to ask you whether you’re seeing a change in how the business community thinks about the political parties and the two-party system – what’s that looking like?”

Gehl responds:

What I think is interesting is that, at the same time as businesses and business leaders are grappling with their responsibility within capitalism to all stakeholders instead of just this traditional responsibility which has been to the bottom line – you know, shareholder financial responsibility – I think that that is opening up and sort of participating in their reawakening on what they may owe to the democracy, as well as their power there.”

Watch Gehl expand on her answer below:

The first Q&A question comes from Catana Barnes from Tennessee, who asks:

Given the severity of disunity in the United States created by the two-party voter-prison system – a.k.a. the duopoly – how do you propose creating unity without a unified local plus national effort approach to changing the rules of the game?”

Gehl responds:

…I would love to have the belief that a centrally organized, controlled, perfect organization could come together at the top, at a national level and really push this everywhere, but there are two reasons why that doesn’t happen, and the first is the nature of systems. So, if we just think of what comes first, chicken and egg…any system is just a larger version of ‘what comes first.’ So does the divisiveness come first or the parties come first or the divisiveness – and really they keep feeding back into each other. So, the rules of the game feed into the division and the division feeds into people willing to push those rules of the game even further and make them even more divisive and more unfair.”

Watch her full answer below:

David Belmont from New York talks about scholar Kermit Roosevelt’s view of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, and his assessment that partisanship is the biggest challenge in further developing it. He explains, quoting Roosevelt:

…because party loyalty now dominates over loyalty to your particular branch of government, thereby eroding the checks and balances and separation of powers critical to the continuation of constitutional law.”

David asks Gehl if she agrees with Roosevelt’s observation, to which she replies:

Yes, I agree exactly with what he said…Article 1 of this constitution that Roosevelt was talking about gives the power to change the rules of elections to every state individually – that’s what’s pretty fabulous about this. We don’t have to get the national movement to get everybody across 50 states to agree or congress to pass a law, we don’t need a constitutional amendment – we need, state by state, the state legislature to pass a bill and the governor to sign it, or in half the states, we can use a ballot initiative where the people can use signatures to get Final-Five voting on the ballot and then the citizens can vote for it.”

Watch her full reply below:

Paige Bartkowiak from Michigan asks about the idea of integrating competitiveness with government:

…it seems to me like businesses are primarily concerned with their profitability, yet government’s primary purpose is not that, so I’m wondering if you’ve considered…if there’s any concerns with using competitiveness as a marker for success just do to the business principles possibly coming into tension with our government…”

Gehl clarifies that the extent to which competitiveness would be applied would be limited to the politics industry itself, responding:

…we are never saying that government should be like a business. In fact, our work is not about government…our work is about the politics industry, which consists of private, gain-seeking organizations. I mean, everybody in the politics industry, with the exception of the actual elected officials…are mostly for-profit entities. So the media, the consultants, the pollsters, the fundraising entities, all those people have businesses and they’re making money.”

She goes on to expand even further:

I want to see a free-market politics where what it takes to be successful, what it takes to make that profit, is by getting good results out of congress for the public interest – not getting results out of congress or a gridlock that benefits only certain special interests or donors or party-controlled primary voters.”

Watch Gehl’s full explanation below:

Evelyn Dougherty from Massachusetts asks about the effort in her state to pass Amendment 2, which establishes ranked choice voting, and what the impact would be if it passed:

I know it’s not your full model, but if we win, what do you think the impact will be on Massachusetts, and actually, for the nation?”

Gehl expands on Evelyn’s question to include the effort in Alaska to pass THEIR Amendment 2, which would give the state ranked choice voting AND non-partisan top-four primary elections, and responds:

I think that, similarly as I said to Alaska, the case in Massachusetts is that these states that are making the effort to engage citizens across the state…this is a harbinger for good things, because that’s precisely what it’s gonna take in every other state in the country to change the rules.”

Watch the full conversation below:

Harry Kresky from New York asks:

What I don’t feel completely comfortable with, and I’d be eager to hear your response to this, is the suggestion that there’s a magic bullet – open primaries, top-five. I just think that our problems culturally, economically, politically, historically are just bigger than that.”

Gehl dismisses Final-Five as a magic bullet and encourages other efforts towards political reform in tandem with Final-Five:

Two comments: First, there is definitely no magic bullet, and not just because there are multiple bullets, as in multiple problems, multiple things we’re going to have to address over time, but in part because magic bullet suggests that after we get it off in its right direction…then you would really have a utopia…Winston Churchill said ‘Democracy is the worst form of government out there, except when compared to all the others.’ Meaning, government, self-government, is really hard. So, what I think is that right now in our democracy, we have – it’s messy, it’s hard and we have bad results to show for it. I think that with Final-Five voting, combined with its ancillary benefits and other things, we can have a democracy that is messy, hard and with some good results to show for all of that.”

She continues:

…the second comment, which gets more at the heart of your question, is there’s so many problems and some of them are contextual and cultural and all-encompassing and date from the founding of our country and how do we get at those? And here’s where I go back to a core tenant of strategy and business, and I’ll quote my co-founder, Michael Porter: ‘Strategy is about choosing what not to do.’ So while I know that a sufficient number of us must get involved in Final-Five voting…I definitely don’t suggest that every single person should make Final-Five voting their top priority because there are other things, there are other huge problems, that need to be fixed in the country and addressed, and lots of other people have agency and passion and leadership around those problems.”

Watch her full explanation below:

Patrick McWhortor from Arizona asks:

Do you have any sort of notions of how, once you get reform – hopefully Alaska, Massachusetts, Florida, wherever it happens – once you get it in place, of following it up with essentially an additional political movement to take advantage of the new system that hopefully will forestall – as much as possible – the parties, the powers that be…that have the capture of the current model, so that you can forestall their effort to capture the new system?”

Gehl responds:

You’re right, there’s going to be an ongoing battle – and I don’t mean that like a good versus evil battle, but just a battle – which is to say that organizations and humans will constantly optimize under the system that they’re in. So, when we change these rules, then all of those players in the political industrial complex will work to figure how they need to engage the best to do well in that system. Now my hope, candidly, is that they will find that this new politics industry doesn’t necessarily make their life worse.”

Watch her full answer below:

Jane in North Dakota asks Katherine Gehl to comment on the separation of powers in government and cites Measure 3, a ballot effort supported by the Badass Grandmas that would have established open primaries and instant run-off in North Dakota but was ultimately thrown off the ballot on a technicality:

I’d like you to talk about the separation of power and the disintegration of it.”

Gehl responds:

So, when change to the political system is made in any state – I would say, over the course of making these changes, they’re completely partisan neutral. They’re not a Trojan horse for hurting one party more or benefiting the other party more…But if one half of the duopoly has a lot more power in one state, then in that particular state, this could be seen as leveling the playing field. And although they can’t understand that we’re not talking about leveling the playing field between two, we’re talking about opening the whole thing up to open competition, the existing powers that be see change as a threat.”

Watch the full discussion below:

Gehl concludes our Politics for the People conversation with a final comment:

I have always thought that if we, not just me but any of you here, take this to our fellow citizens who love this country the way we do, they’re not going to say ‘Oh no, let’s keep it how it is. No, this thing is great. I want to keep being divided. I can’t think of anything better.’ No!”

Watch her whole statement below:

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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