Harvard Business School: The U.S. Political System Has Been 'Hijacked'
America’s present system of governance would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers, a case study by Harvard Business School asserted in 2017, because politics has become an industry in its own right, “hijacking” democracy along the way.
“America’s political system was long the envy of the world. It advanced the public interest and gave rise to a grand history of policy innovations that fostered both economic and social progress,” wrote Katherine M. Gehl, a business leader and former CEO with experience in government, and Michael E. Porter, an expert on competition and strategy in industries and nations, in their report, "Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America."
“Today, however, our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.”
But everyone — including many pundits, political scientists, and politicians — is looking in the wrong places, they wrote, both for the causes of and solutions to America’s democracy problem.
Pointing to “a failure of the nature of the political competition that has been created,” Gehl and Porter explain that extreme polarization or incompatible ideologies among U.S. political parties is not to blame — this is a systems problem.
“This was the unexpected conclusion of the multiyear Project on U.S. Competitiveness at Harvard Business School, established in 2011 to understand the causes of America’s weak economic performance and rising inequality that predated the Great Recession,” they wrote.
As a result, the United States suffers a number of pathologies that do not plague other advanced nations: “In areas such as public education, health and wellness, personal safety, water and sanitation, environmental quality, and tolerance and inclusion, among others, U.S. progress has stalled or gone in reverse.”
Rather than leading the world in these areas, America has tumbled down the list compared to other advanced countries, perhaps most notably in the area of education.
The U.S. has found its way to a poorly educated public, which necessarily limits citizens’ economic opportunities, and has fallen well behind other advanced economies. Gehl and Porter noted that in 2015, the U.S. ranked 31st out of 35 OECD countries in math, after hitting the 25 spot in 2009. Similarly, the U.S. dropped from 14th in reading to 20th, and in science, from 17th to 19th.
Where America was once a pioneer, it now lags behind. And Congress has proven itself incapable of acting, increasingly unable to accomplish meaningful change and address important issues.
This is not an inherent problem with America’s two-party system, they cautioned; rather, these problems arose from the way America’s political parties created a private political “industry that sets its own rules” and treats voters as customers.
“The parties compete to divide voters and serve special interests, rather than weigh and balance the interests of all citizens and find common ground to move the country forward.”
Research from Princeton and Northwestern University found in 2014 that politicians’ “customers” have little to no say in how the country is managed, Gehl and Porter noted.
The researchers discovered that “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
“The result: America’s political system today would be unrecognizable to our founders. In fact, certain of our founders warned against political parties,” they wrote.
John Adams, our second President, said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”
Our founders— and most Americans today—would be shocked by the extent to which our democracy has been hijacked by the private and largely unaccountable organizations that constitute today’s political industrial complex.
The problems plaguing American democracy will not correct themselves, and the factors involved are self-reinforcing.
“The only way to reform the system,” the researchers wrote, “is by taking a set of steps to change the industry structure and the rules that underpin it—shifting the very nature of political competition.”
Those steps include restructuring the election process; restructuring the governing process; reforming money in politics; and opening up “near-term competition, without waiting for structural reform.”
“We can never forget that the political system we have today was designed by our own elected representatives—the people we voted into office,” Gehl and Porter concluded. “This system was corrupted over time, and most of us did not even notice. We have the power to reinvigorate our democracy, and we must.”