Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Here’s a quote from Mike’s interview with Leo Linbeck III on the party system in American politics, for the rest of the interview, please check out today’s transcript, “The system is set up where the incumbent has all the advantages: the financial advantages, the name ID, the party apparatus, which are huge benefits in the primaries. We can level that playing field through money, through grassroots organizing. Essentially, we can give voters a choice. Right now they don’t have a choice. The decision is made in the primary, but 62 percent of incumbents last cycle had no opponent in the primary. Even if you figure this out and you went in and you said I’m going to vote in the primary, you go in and there’s only one person to vote for.”
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Leo Linbeck, III, who wrote this wonderful essay about why Congress doesn’t work and how it has undermined self-government, posted at The Imaginative Conservative two weeks ago, originally appearing in The American Conservative magazine, is on the Dude Maker Hotline with me. Another thing that intrigued me about your essay, Leo, and about your approach to it, and this runs through almost all the writers at The Imaginative Conservative, it is something that is foreign and is anathema to our heated, hyperbolic, partisan atmosphere that is promoted by television and radio networks across the land. You wrote this:
Anti-centrocracy conservatives and progressives are natural allies in a long war to dismantle centralized power. They may not agree on policies, but they can agree on who decides these policies. Both understand that the two political parties have a financial stake in keeping decision-making in Washington, D.C. Conservatives may speak of “federalism” while progressives speak of “local control,” but they are anchored in the same underlying sentiment: a desire for self-governance.
Mike: I speak about this often on the air. I run into and find, in many instances, that those that identify themselves as liberals, many of us that identify as [r]epublican or paleocons or tradcons, find more in common with doctrinaire liberals, the old-school liberals, than you do with many big-government statist, war advocate types that call themselves conservatives. There is a natural alliance there, isn’t there?
Leo Linbeck: There can be if we frame the question correctly. There are profound disagreements on policy. We can’t paper over that. Those are healthy debates that have gone on throughout human history: What’s the proper role of government? What’s the proper role of the citizen? How do we make decisions about things in the commons? Those are important debates. What happens when we centralize all these debates is that we make them winner-take-all. If I live in a town and they decide they want to ban alcohol because the town decides we don’t want alcohol in our town, if I like having a drink, I can just drive to another town and have a drink there, or move if it’s important enough. When we centralize these things in Washington, we make it winner take all. When we make it winner take all, we drive the hyper-partisanship. Then we enable these organizations, whose basic pitch is the wolf is at the door. You have to send me money to protect you against the wolves here in Washington. Both sides do this. That leads to more extremism in these debates.
The reality is, when I sit down with my progressive friends and we talk about things in our local community, we find ways to reach agreement on things. We can try things that maybe I’m not sure it’ll work, maybe they’re not sure it’ll work, but we’ll give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we can make adjustments. Again, that feedback loop is very tight. As soon as we centralize these, we disempower local communities and we turn this into a professionalized, partisanized fight. That doesn’t help anyone. That’s where we can come together, this question of who decides. That who decides is actually more important than what’s decided. If we get that decision wrong and we make that decision at the central level, it almost doesn’t matter what we initially agree on, because eventually it will morph into something that is hyper-partisan, that is extreme, and that is non-responsible, ultimately, to the will of the people.
Mike: What Mr. Linbeck is saying is, if you have a town, let’s say it’s 10,000, or a small community or voting district, just 10,000 souls, and the progressives take over and ban your weapons and pass county-wide health insurance and everybody’s going to be taxed to the hilt to pay for it, if after two years there’s only 5,000 people living in the district and they’re overrun with crime, there’s a very good chance the people that came up with the original idea will not be reelected. The people in the next district will say, “I might want to move back if we can get rid of this stupidity that these imbeciles rained on our head.”
It’s doable in that small scale. You can actually do that. A town council can call a special session, “Okay, we screwed up, we acknowledge that. We’ve got to meet together and officially repeal this and get it off the books and figure out another way to do this.” This is how it works. That’s what republicanism is, which is why, in almost everything you read from anytime in the latter part of the 18th century all the way through the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century, you will find that word everywhere, in almost every politician’s dialogue: republicanism with a little [r]. That’s what you’re talking about, right?
Leo: Yeah. It’s interesting because there’s very little in the Constitution that creates a specific prohibition against certain things at the state level. One of the things that is in the Constitution is that it requires states have a republican form of government. The founders, this wasn’t a theoretical exercise for them. They had been living under the kind of a system and then created it from scratch when they came over from Europe. It wasn’t like there was a representative of the king who was standing at Plymouth Rock saying, “Hey, welcome to America. Glad to have you here. Here’s the way you need to run things.” They figured it out on their own.
The other thing that’s important about these disputes, laws are dispute resolution mechanisms. The Constitution, in some sense, is this macro dispute resolution vehicle. It’s very important to have systems where people’s voices are heard, and if the vote goes against them, they can accept that. I could be wrong on something that I believe. I want my voice heard. I don’t have to win every argument. I want my voice heard. If my voice is not heard, it’s much harder for me to accept the outcome of that decision. It’s actually more important for the loser of the argument than for the winner of the argument. We’ve got these sort of one-size-fits-all or winner-take-all systems. We make it impossible for people to accept the outcome, on both sides. We basically have eternal conflict. Most of us don’t want to live under eternal conflict. We want to resolve these issues and get on with our lives. We have a much better shot of doing that at the local level.
Mike: One of the other things I shared with the audience two weeks ago when I read part of your essay on the air was this passage:
My personal political journey began about five years ago when I was sitting at a business luncheon in Houston, listening to a presentation by the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher. He showed a series of slides with typical Fed fare: deficits, interest rates, home prices, mortgage markets. This was before the financial crisis, and the economy still seem strong. But Fisher was not so optimistic, and his talk was a little unnerving. At the end, he said words to the effect, “All of this probably sounds scary, but the next slide that I’m going to show you is the one that keeps me up at night. If you are concerned about your country, it should keep you up at night too.” On the screen appeared one number: $84 trillion. “That is the unfunded liability of Medicare,” Fisher said. I quickly ran the math and realized this was almost $300,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States.
Mike: After the luncheon, you made your way through the crowd to find Fisher. You asked him, [paraphrased] “Dude, are you sure you’ve got the facts right?” Mr. Fisher replied, [paraphrased] “Yes, I double-checked, it’s correct.” You asked him, “How did this happen?” He looked back at you and said what, Leo Linbeck?
Mike: Thus your quest began, right?
Leo: Yeah, that was sort of when the scales fell from my eyes, I suppose. Of course, people how had been paying close attention, which I had not been paying close attention. They know that we’ve been making promises to people that we are not capable of fulfilling. The interesting thing is, the way the incentive structure is set up within the political system, to make it politically profitable for elected representatives to simply not face this fact and kick the can down the road. My experience when I started meeting elected officials is these aren’t bad people. Everyone wants to vilify them. They’re not bad people. They actually, almost without exception, go to Washington to try to do the right thing.
The problem is, the political system is structured such that it’s almost heroic to have to face these things. It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to get 535 heroes to unite behind a solution. We have to change the incentive structure. That ultimately comes down to the way they keep their job, how they’re elected. When you see that 396 incumbents ran for reelection in 2010, and the total that lost the primary challenge was four, then realizing that’s actually where the decision is made in almost all these races. Then you see the way that the system is built up to protect them and to basically co-opt them into maintaining power at the center. It really highlights the need to do some fundamental things.
Mike: One of those things is to begin the process of chipping away at the primary system. Most Americans seem to think that the primary system is a function of the Constitution and it’s always been this way. I receive dozens of emails and letters, tweets and Facebook posts every day about [mocking] “You had your chance in the primaries, bucko, now sit down and accept the results.” Actually, we didn’t really have our chance in the primaries. As you point out, 12 percent of people participate in primaries?
Leo: Right. It is a very small number of people who are involved in making these decisions. A big part of what we did in this last cycle was to try to drive up voter turnout in the primaries. That’s when people ought to vote. That’s when the decision is made. If you’re a Republican and you’re in a Democratic district, you ought to vote in the Democratic primary because that’s when the decision is made. The parties want you to think that this is a club and you should only vote in these primaries if you’re a member of the club. That’s ridiculous. That’s when the decision is made over who’s going to represent you. You ought to show up and vote. The same thing for Democrats in Republican districts. If people don’t engage in that part of the process, they’re basically disenfranchised. Most people didn’t even know this. We did polling and focus groups on this. When people found out this fact, that that’s where the decision was made, they were shocked and suddenly were like, “We want to engage.”
The other thing that has to happen is we have to level the playing field. The system is set up where the incumbent has all the advantages: the financial advantages, the name ID, the party apparatus, which are huge benefits in the primaries. We can level that playing field through money, through grassroots organizing. Essentially, we can give voters a choice. Right now they don’t have a choice. The decision is made in the primary, but 62 percent of incumbents last cycle had no opponent in the primary. Even if you figure this out and you went in and you said I’m going to vote in the primary, you go in and there’s only one person to vote for.
Mike: The parties aren’t going to volunteer to do this. It occurred to me when I read this, when I was thinking about it last night, my pitch to you for How to Fix Congress Part II would be to encourage, in state legislatures and in state parties, a return to a caucus system where if you have 750,000 people that are represented, okay. Let’s divide that by 100. Each candidate has to win a caucus. You’ve got to win a caucus in a district, almost like an electoral college kind of thing. That way you would encourage more candidates, if they think they can win their own local caucus, you might have a lot more candidates who would actually try out for the team, don’t you think?
Leo: Yeah. Honestly, I think it’s very difficult to convince people to switch back from a primary system. The caucus and convention system did end up getting corrupted in a lot of localities. People figured out I can just buy my way into a position of influence and get to pick the guy in the smoke-filled room and all that. Convincing people to go back to that system is probably going to be difficult. I think there’s a better way that we identified to do this, which is to engage people in the primary process itself, and to try to level the playing field. We used a Super PAC to do that. Essentially support credible challengers against incumbents. Give them enough money where they can be competitive against the incumbent. It doesn’t take as much as you might thing. We think about these races as being multimillion-dollar races. In the primary, what we found was half a million dollars of funding between the challenger and our Super PAC, we were able to unseat every incumbent that we ran against where we were able to reach that threshold, no matter how much money they spent. We were outspent 2:1 and 3:1 by the incumbent. We were still able to win.
If you have enough money to get your message out, people will make good decisions, but you have to have good challengers. We need people who will step up. They need to understand that if they engage in the primary, it’s not this impossible task. We ran in nine primaries: five Republican and four Democratic primaries. We were able to win four of those. We had a .444 batting average, which I think would get you in the hall of fame. I think we’ve proved that you can do this. Now we’ve just got to get people who are willing to engage and run and take on these incumbents, and change the incentive structure. We need the incumbents to be more beholden to their constituents than they are to the sort of power apparatus in Washington. The only way we’re going to do that is through more engagement in the primary system.
Mike: Leo Linbeck, III is the author. You can read him at The Imaginative Conservative. I’ve reposted the essay in today’s Pile of Prep. You’re also the CEO of Aquinas Companies. You’re on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. Keep up the good work, my friend. When primary season comes around in a year and a half, we’ll have to revisit this and talk about it again, yes?
Leo: Yes. We’re beginning work already to look at 2014.
Mike: Where would a listener go to find out more about your efforts in primaries?
Leo: They can go to campaign4primaryaccountability.org. They can just Google Campaign for Primary Accountability. That’s our Super PAC that is engaged in these races and we’re looking to engage again in 2014.
Mike: Leo, thank you very much for your hard work in these efforts. Thanks for being on the program, I appreciate it.
Leo: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate you having me.
End Mike Church Show Transcript