Calling it the "political industry" connects us to other ideas that can help us better understand what's happening. We have tools for analyzing industries and their behavior. We have tools that help us understand the effect of competition and the lack of competition in industries. We can use those tools to understand the political industry. Industries can be competitive or monopolistic, regulated or unregulated. Most industries seek to grow--to generate more and more economic activity.
The political industry is a growth industry. Each election cycle the industry gets larger. It consumes more resources and produces more--what? A well designed political system would produce solutions to problems that can’t be solved by individual and market means, and can only be solved collectively. An effective politics industry doesn't have to do that. It just needs to grow, and it does that by producing politics.
I didn’t make up the term “politics Industry.” I got it from a paper, [“Why competition in the politics industry is failing America,”](https://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/why-competition-in-the-politics-industry-is-failing-america.pdf) by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter. Katherine Gehl ([website](https://www.katherinegehl.com/), [Wikipedia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Gehl)) was the fourth-generation President and CEO of Gehl Foods and is now a policy activist and political reformer. Michael E. Porter ([Wikipedia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_E._Porter)) is an American academic known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes.
`The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.`
`Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. Politics is, in fact, an industry— most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations. The industry competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest.`
But unlike many other industries with many competing organizations, the politics industry is a duopoly. Two brand-named political organizations dominate the industry. And while they appear to compete, they have an important shared interest: to keep other competitors out of the industry. In this, they’ve done an outstanding job. And it means that they can compete much less than they'd have to if others were allowed into the industry.
Kehl and Porter say:
`The politics industry is different from virtually all other industries in the economy because the participants, themselves, control the rules of competition. There is no truly independent regulation of politics that protects the public interest. Free from regulation and oversight, the duopoly does exactly what one would fear: The rivals distort the rules of competition in their favor. Examples of this includes controlling access to the general election ballot, partisan gerrymandering, and the Hastert Rule, which puts partisan concerns above legislating for the public interest.`
To see how badly the politics industry works, compare it to really competitive industry: groceries. People choose the grocery store that they shop at based on convenience, products and price. Because competition is fierce the grocery industry is a low-margin business and as a result, consumers win. Once inside the store, shoppers have more choices. For each kind of good stores don't just give you one brand--they give you several. A store that gave you only one choice would soon be out of business.
Imagine if the grocery industry ran the way the politics industry runs. Supposing there are two grocery chains: Super Foods and Friendly Shopper. Instead of competing by giving you variety, each store would put together a weekly basket of goods and let shoppers choose which one they prefer. If the majority of shoppers in an area decided on the Super Foods basket, then every shopper would get that basket. Even the shoppers who preferred the Friendly Shopper basket get the Super Foods basket. That sounds pretty bad.
But it’s even worse. Because almost no one who chooses the Super Food basket likes everything in it. You might like 90% of what’s in the basket. I might like 50%. To the Super Foods basket-maker all that matters is that more than 50% of shoppers like the Super Foods basket better than the Friendly Shopper basket. The goal is no longer to maximize shopper satisfaction--it's to do just a little better than your one competitor.
And it’s even worse. Because once you choose which basket you prefer, then you, and everyone else in that region gets that basket for the next two, four, or six years.
And it’s even worse. Because Super Foods and Friendly Shopper are national brands. Local store managers have some ability to modify the local basket to match local tastes, but the national organization discourages that. They want brand consistently as much as possible. Why? Becuase they want to advertise their basket nationally, so they need consistency. They want the brand to mean something. So they push to have the Super Foods basket in Florida and the Super Foods basket in Maine as close as possible.
This is obviously a horrible system. There is some choice, but it’s minimal. But that’s what the politics industry delivers. There are two national brands: Republican and Democrat. You don’t get to choose the policies (groceries) that you want. The brands make up a national basket of policy choices, make minor local adaptations, and then offer you a candidate--that’s the basket--designed to get 50% of the shoppers in a the region to choose it over the competition. Whatever the majority of shoppers choose is what everyone gets for the next two, four or six years.
The paper is well worth reading. It’s not our broken political system: it’s our anti-competitive, duopolistic politics industry. Seeing it through that lens suggests some solutions.