What is Political Realism?

Many Americans feel that the political system is failing them. Many are wondering “why are the presidential candidates so much more extreme than me or anyone I know?” It is tempting to think that corruption and money in politics must be part of the problem; that greedy politicians like Donald Trump are born out of an unrestricted political system run amuck. But, what if it’s exactly the opposite? What if American politics needs more back room deals and pork barrel spending? Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, makes this counterintuitive argument in his paper “Political Realism: How hacks, machines, big money, and back-room deals can strengthen American democracy.” In the remainder of this post, I explain the basics of policial realism and allude to a relationship between realist theory and the economics of political decision making.

Political Realists assume that politicians are not solely interested in serving the public. Instead, a realist assumes that politicians, like ordinary people, are driven by wealth, power, and personal gain as well as service, charity, and moral principles. Furthermore, a realist is not interested in whether self-interest should be a political motive. What matters is that politicians are self-interested.

Realists also believe that the primary function of government is to achieve a political equilibrium. Equilibrium consists of satisfying the most political participants (politicians, voters, bureaucrats, big businesses, etc.) and minimizing dissent. In short, a government is working well if there are as few groups of people who are frustrated with the current functions and uses of government. This goal requires compromise above all else.

Politicians are often divided on important issues, making compromise difficult. Realists believe that the only way around this are incentives. Political actors need ways to motivate dissenters to come together if there is to be any progress. Realists view pork barrel spending, earmarks, endorsements, loyalty, back-room deals, and other frequently deemed “corrupt” actions as the means of motivation that facilitate political compromise.

As an economist, many of Rauch’s assumptions are appealing. In fact, Nobel Laureate James Buchanan’s seminal work in Public Choice economics echoes the key points in the political realism literature. I plan to investigate the relationship between political realism and economics (both theoretical and applied) in a later post. My suspicion is that political realism in conjunction with economics will be able to explain much of the current state of American politics and how the country can move forward.


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