The Hacks We Need

June 2015
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Without Frank Munsey and George Perkins, there would have been no Bull Moose Party. The role of money in politics is a theme throughout Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. She writes that Theodore Roosevelt could not have run his third presidential campaign without the support of newspaper publisher Munsey and J.P. Morgan financier Perkins.

More than 100 years and countless reforms later, men with money still seem to dominate our politics. One example is Rex Sinquefield, who has donated nearly $40 million to campaigns and candidates in Missouri and is the subject of a feature by Alan Greenblatt in this issue. Money has always been central to elections, and a strong case could be made that our reforms have only made things worse. Rather than limiting the influence of wealthy individuals like Sinquefield, reforms have instead strengthened his input and diluted the influence of political parties to the detriment of both democracy and effective governance.

That’s the view of Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In the crisp and invigorating paper Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, Rauch describes how “progressive, populist and libertarian reformers have joined forces” against “transactional politics” and political machines, only to render governing more difficult and government less effective. Rauch isn’t arguing for the return of the likes of Tammany Hall, but for a more realistic view of how the hard work of governing actually gets done: Agreements are made among competing interests by people skilled at making deals. No one gets all they want, but the institutions of government aren’t weakened.

“If public approval is the gauge,” writes Rauch, “the collapse of machine politics is a disaster: people rightly perceive that politics is more contentious, more ideological and less productive than in the past, and they are justifiably disgusted.”

In my view, much of what has been called reform is driven by the view that politics is inherently bad. One result of this view is an ever-expanding definition of corruption. The reality, however, is that politics is simply the process by which we govern ourselves. There is no alternative other than chaos. The “political realism” Rauch argues for is one that gives politicians the tools they need while seeing “governing as difficult and political peace and stability as treasures never to be taken for granted.” As a former politician, I say amen to that.