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?”
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?”
…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.”
…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?”
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.”
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:
From Enthusiastic, to Jaded, and Back Again, Rinse and Repeat
The 2020 book The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save our Democracy, by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, hits close to home. It says a lot of what I’ve been trying to say for some time now, but it’s much more effective.
Let me explain how I went from being a die-hard Republican insider in 2001; to in 2012, becoming an independent activist trying to change the system to break-up the dynamics that heavily favor parties and their insiders, so that all voters can have a real and meaningful voice. My change in perspective started when I began to grasp the injustice of parties being able to conduct themselves like private clubs, even though they hold a very crucial gatekeeper role in our public elections.
As Chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party (2003-2005), I ran up against members of my executive committee voting to remove “county and state delegates” from their elected delegate position. At that time, Utah had primarily a caucus/convention system of nominating candidates for the general election ballot. Delegates to both the county and state conventions, elected at their county precinct caucus, were free agents, not bound to vote for any candidate, but instead were elected as “representatives” with sole power to cast nominating votes at their respective conventions on any candidate for each state and federal public office (except president, where they only elected national delegates and electors). Any candidate receiving at least 60% of the delegate vote became the party nominee for the general election ballot without facing a public primary at all. Not only did all executive committee members and public officeholders (incumbents) already have automatic superdelegate status, but add to that, the power of the executive committee to remove elected delegates and replace them with appointed delegates. That was a lot of power in the hands of just a few people! These issues were further compounded by the fact that most general elections were not competitive; Republicans typically won most races overwhelmingly. Hence, the voice of “the people” in our elections was heavily outweighed by the power of “the party.” This could result in either the tyranny of the majority, or the tyranny of the minority, depending upon who held controlling power within the party.
In 2010, with that stewing in my mind, I managed the campaign of a college mentor who was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in the country. In that race, qualifications, substance behind the issues and the character of the candidates made virtually no difference. It was a lopsided district, and all that mattered was her opponent getting the partisan Republican base at caucus and convention — then the general election was in the bag. (And it wasn’t just Republicans; Democrats benefitted from a similar super-majority in the city capital.)
In 2012, I officially unaffiliated with any party, and began advocating for a change to the caucus/convention system. I knew we had to come up with something better than party primaries, though, because of the broader dynamics of not having competitive general elections. Unrepresentative election results especially ensued, given that most voters weren’t affiliated with a party, and thus had no say in closed primaries. Then their choices in the general election were limited and predetermined. My most profound realization came when I considered, for the first time, that there was no reason we HAD to keep parties as gatekeepers for our public elections. That’s not in the Constitution. In fact, the Framers were anti party-system.
California had just passed a top-two primary system, wherein all candidates from all party preferences to no party preference were on the same primary ballot, and the top-two vote getters, regardless of party, moved on to the general election. That was a neat idea! (But, a little limiting). In some of our Republican conventions, we had utilized ranked choice voting, a type of instant run-off election where voters can rank their candidates in order of preference; and if no candidate gets a majority on the first ballot, an automatic series of run-offs ensues until someone wins with a majority. What if we fused the idea of a combined primary, like California had, with the idea of ranked choice voting, to allow for more than two candidates to advance to the general election, or at least to ensure that those who did advance hadn’t simply squeaked by with a low plurality win due to vote-splitting? That was the answer!
I was so excited about this new proposal for a combined primary utilizing ranked choice voting. I began sharing it with knowledgeable and capable people. I found a few good people who were supportive of the idea, and in early 2013, we set up a website to start drumming up support for a citizen ballot initiative. However, ours was a big change that would not inherently favor the powers that be, and it would require a lot of supporters and a lot of resources to be successful. As we were just getting off the ground, some big money interests got involved and “took over” the electoral reform space in Utah. Their endeavor managed to succeed at adding a signature route to the primary ballot, such that party conventions were no longer the sole route. Theirs was a step, but not a complete solution, since it retained party primaries, with the Republican primary remaining closed to non-party members.
A little while after my family moved to New Hampshire seven years ago, I got involved in re-instituting New Hampshire Independent Voters. Our primary purpose is to decrease the power of special interests, including parties, and increase the power of “we the people,” with a special focus on expanding ballot access for all candidates, and voting access for all voters, including independent voters, to cast a real and meaningful vote. We aren’t a party, and we aren’t directly about trying to help elect independent candidates; we’re about systemic reforms needed to give everyone an equal playing field.
We’ve had a lot of people agree with our issues and “sign up,” but few have been actively engaged enough to donate significant amounts of time or resources. We’ve also assisted already established organizational allies on things like money in politics, redistricting, and voting rights. Since New Hampshire doesn’t allow for citizen initiatives, any electoral reforms have to pass the legislature. In 2017, finding someone to sponsor a bill for a combined primary was met with resistance, but the idea of a bill to implement ranked choice voting was met with more enthusiasm. So I’m now also leading an organization called New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting (NHRCV). We’re focused on educating about and advocating for ranked choice voting in NH. We’re not focused on combining the primary (although I wholeheartedly still support that concept). NHRCV is having success in a non-partisan/cross partisan manner with people, volunteers and resources, thus far.
So here’s the kicker. Guess what’s been happening in the last couple of months? We’ve had new people joining NHRCV, people who haven’t been involved with the independent voter group or the RCV group before, holding up Gehl and Porter’s book, saying that they would be a lot more enthused about our efforts if we were supporting a “top 5” reform. I’ve had others who have been enthusiastically volunteering, say, “Wait, you mean we’re just supporting ranked choice voting without doing away with party primaries? Well, how will that really change anything?” While I do think RCV reform alone will be a great improvement, I agree that a more fundamental change is sorely needed to truly transform our system to one that really works for “the people.” Oh, the irony of finding myself as the jaded one; the one setting aside the “ideal,” and making the case for working with what’s possible.
Indeed, Gehl and Porter are extremely welcome voices to the movement. Their research and credibility brings vibrant clarity, with concrete examples, to these issues. It looks like their work has the capacity to thrust the need for systemic change to the forefront, as they argue in mainstream terms and call upon us to open the market and innovate like we would in any other industry. They call upon us to quit saying the system is broken; they expertly unveil how the system is working exactly how it’s meant to work, and that’s the problem: we need a new system! They lay out in great detail how “the political-industrial complex is a private industry within a public institution,” and that “reveals the root cause of the situation in which we find ourselves.” They then eloquently propose the solution: a “top 5” combined primary utilizing ranked choice voting in the general election.
If every well-intended, rational American reads Gehl and Porter’s book, combined with Gruber, Hardy and Kresky’s Touro Law Review article, “Let All Voters Vote: Independents and the Expansion of Voting Rights in the United States,” it will be more than possible to bring about the needed systemic reforms that could do wonders for our representative, constitutional Democracy.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and President of New Hampshire Independent Voters and New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting.
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We look forward to seeing you on October 18th at 7 pm ET for our conversation on The Politics Industry.
The new rules of the game that Gehl and Porter are advocating for in The Politics Industry are simple:
- Level the playing field by using top-five voting or RCV to allow healthier competition, and allow your citizens to vote on who they favor rather than having to pick from a bucket.
- Create better competition and force the candidates and representatives to become more accountable to the citizens which in turn creates a better government.
- Finely restructure the way we think about our legislative branch. Long ago, our nation decided it was reasonable for the Senate and Congress to create their own rules. Now that we have decades of data to see those rules at work, it’s become apparent that the structure of these two bodies is to repeal and replace rather than create then improve. We need to change this idealism and create a non-partisan commission to restructure and rewrite the rules of our legislative body.
I see sports and politics as one and the same. The idea of two teams in competition against one another, both with the same goal, the desire to win, and both in the same league. We have dedicated networks that offer different opinions, report highlights for the day and analysis of each representative or athlete on what they did and why. This means that as spectators we pick and choose who we support, the teams that we follow. We listen to what the players and coaches have to say and believe them. Politics has become just a game and updating/rule changing is needed. We need better and more fair competition with the opportunity for our representatives to work together and become more accountable to constituents.
We can do it but we have to start now.
Ben Walton is the Head of Program Development for The People. Prior to working for The People, Ben served as the High School and College Coordinator for Voters Not Politicians. Ben received his BA in Political Science from Aquinas College in 2018
In an interview with Valuetainment’s Patrick Bet-David, Katherine Gehl describes her journey in trying to make positive changes in government. In the video clip below, Katherine applies the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief to her experience searching for solutions for true political change. After trying one method after the other, Katherine comes to the conclusion that the barriers are systemic, they are embedded in the rules and incentives of politics and that we have the power to change and reform them.
The book starts out with an exceptionally good analysis of the structures of the current political system and what they term the “political industrial complex.” This analysis helps you understand how the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties have structured the election and legislative processes to control who we can vote for how we pass legislation and who these processes serve.
The current political system is not broken. It is designed to do exactly what you see it is doing. It works for and delivers to exactly who it is designed for. Clearly, not the citizens who vote for them but the corporations and donor class that pays for them.
The book starts with an analysis of the election and legislative processes. The book does an excellent job of defining the structure of these two processes and how the duopoly manages to keep its power. Over the past few decades, through an accumulation of minor changes in how elections are run and how the legislative process works, the duopoly of the two major parties has managed to make it very difficult to be an independent candidate or Congressperson.
The changes in these systems protect the duopoly at the expense of democracy. With this structure in place, there is very little incentive for Congress to deliver for the average citizen. It is the best government that money can buy.
The second strength of the book are the solutions to democratizing the election process, specifically non-partisan open primaries leading to the top candidates moving on to a general election with ranked choice voting. My one criticism of the election process assessment is the lack of analysis of the redistricting process and how gerrymandering distorts this part of the process. Personally, I think the “efficiency gap” method of analyzing the redistricting process is a good one but the Supreme Court seems to think it is a bunch of “sociological gobblygoop.”
My other basic criticism is with a lack of emphasis/analysis on campaign finance reform. Along with gerrymandering, I consider these problems to be more important than election and legislative reform. It is possible that it was thought that some of the solutions proposed would help alleviate these issues but that was not made clear.
Relative to the election process, I thought the solutions of open primaries and ranked choice voting were excellent. After that, the solutions for legislative reform, campaign finance reform and opening up competition were weak. There are many suggestions about what “should” be done to solve many problems but no specificity in how the solutions to these problems should be implemented.
Currently, there is no incentive to have “solutions-minded centrists” to run for office. All the other/above problems would need be solved before that can be a reality. My opinion is that if the above problems are solved, it will lead to less polarization and more centrists will be elected. If politicians don’t work for voters, you will never have solutions-minded ones.
My major disagreement is thinking that change can come from the center. As the book says so itself, most change has come from the fringes. Since the corporate/donor class is the right side of the spectrum, I only see any possible solutions to any of these problems as coming from the left side of the political spectrum. To see how hard the corporate/donor class is willing to fight, one only has look at what was done to Bernie Sanders during the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles. The Democratic Party, basically being a private corporation, did everything it could to make sure his prospects as a viable candidate were destroyed.
Alan Baily is an architect who, as a member of the Big Apple Coffee Party, has a keen interest in fighting against corporate power.
The Politics Industry, by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter is a good reminder of who is supposed to be in control of the political process in our country, but it is also a cautionary note about the fact that our political process has been hijacked by the two party duopoly and that the system is not working for us, “We The People.” There are many points made in the book about who makes election laws and rules, some arbitrary, as well as who it is that has the ultimate power to change them…”We The People.” As a lifelong activist, a long-time leader in the independent movement and a recently derailed independent candidate for a state senate seat, due to rigged rules and COVID-19, I found the rallying cry for unity to be the most important message. However, I truly believe that unity is the greatest obstacle we face.
I have lived all over the United States, have recently moved to another state, and have found that we, as a nation, are anything but united. I agree with the message in Chapter 6, “Laboratories and Principles,” that we must be mindful of the individual uniquenesses of each state and how they operate, but we also need to find the ways that the states are all alike, the similarities, or we, as a nation, are certain to fail as divided individuals. I feel Chapter 6, “Laboratories and Principles,” also provides the best examples about division and unity. On pages 158 and 159, under “Localize, Localize, Localize,” I found two statements that stand out:
Again, the unique personalities and histories of our fifty states are some of America’s greatest strengths, but this individuality can and will bite back if not respected.”
…While national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, local politics by and large does not. It is thriving because we are in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships right around them…”
My concern, then, is that if we focus on local only rather than local plus national as a whole, We The People will fail to unify our nation for the greater good and we will lose our ability to regain our collective power.
Catana Malinowski is an independent leader with the National Election Reform Committee (NERC).
Politics for the People Zoom Call
With Author Katherine Gehl
Sunday, October 18th
If you have not yet registered: Click here to RSVP!