The American Estates as a thought experiment

Now that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has dropped out of the race, it may be a little clearer that money by itself does not win campaigns. Today, that brought me back to a topic an ASU doctoral student and I had written about last year, on power and education policy. As I noted earlier last fall, the column Amanda Potterton and I wrote on Arne Duncan’s legacy did not answer the question, “What is the proper relationship between civil society and regulatory/administrative bodies?” That had been simmering in the back of my head a few weeks later when Stanley Hubbard complained that Donald Trump was not wholly controlled or owned by the billionaire donor class. As Hubbard opined to The Hill reporters,

This idea of “I don’t need to have any funding, I’ll fund myself,” that scares the hell out of me… That’s like a dictator. I think that any politician should have to answer to their constituents. … I don’t think it’s healthy to have somebody who doesn’t answer to anybody.

Never mind that someone who becomes president does have a constituency, the American voting public. This quotation is a Kinsley gaffe, when someone accidentally says the truth in public: Hubbard sees his ilk as a separate constituency to which Republican candidates must kowtow. In effect, Hubbard and some other super-wealthy political donors see the American political system as akin to the French ancient regime, with separate and equally-powerful political classes. In pre-Revolutionary France, you had the estates of the nobility, clergy, and then everyone else, where the nobility and clergy could outvote the vast majority of French citizens and control public policy.

In reality, we have an American Estates-like system. We do not carve out seats in Congress reserved for industry or the 0.01%; ours is the soft language of “civil society” and the harder reality of well-positioned networks, networks of the already-advantaged or of those who create new networks. The seats reserved by the powerful was the subject of one line in a speech a little more than eight years ago, by then-candidate Barack Obama talking about the interests involved in constructing health-care policy:

… if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there is no problem we cannot solve, there is no destiny that we cannot fulfill. Our new American majority can end the outrage of unaffordable, unavailable health care in our time. We can bring doctors and patients, workers and businesses, Democrats and Republicans together, and we can tell the drug and insurance industry that, while they get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair, not this time, not now. [emphasis added]

What was left unsaid was what counted as buying every chair. The future president (along with his rival, fellow senator Hillary Clinton) was shrewd in understanding that any major health-care insurance change would have to involve industry; that was critical to passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and while many Republicans have thrown everything they could at it, they have not made the involvement of hospitals and insurance companies in the negotiations one of their main talking points. The Obama administration’s functional politics have acknowledged the need for coalitions, regularly including private partners.

Amanda Potterton and I argued that pattern clearly included the administrative side of education policy-making, and one could make a good case that the Department of Education under Arne Duncan spearheaded the use of civil society in policy-making and policy implementation. Did that go over the line of reasonable involvement of wealthy foundations and networks in the administration of an agency? One way of exploring that is to eliminate the fuzziness of our soft system of Estates. Pretend that there literally are seats at the table in the construction of regulations and administrative policy.1 For the moment, consider just K-12 education policy under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and assume that there are physical seats for the following:

  • State commissioners/superintendents of education
  • Representatives of local school districts
  • Representatives of teachers
  • Representatives of parents
  • Representatives of education researchers
  • Representatives of well-funded foundations
  • Representatives of the general public (taxpayers, businesses, etc.)
  • Anyone other group you might wish to add to this list

Let us assume for the moment that while consensus is admirable, it is not required, so a majority rules in considering each proposal–a coalition of interests can outvote the minority, and that power will be stark in your allocation of seats. What would be the right proportion for the groups? Stripping out the fuzziness of the relationship between civil society and federal (and also state) agencies helps us answer a few questions: what is the ideal amount of power that various interests should have, and is that what actually happens?

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  1. In many cases, this is not figurative; negotiated rule-making or at least attempts at it is common in some of the most controversial construction of regulations in the Obama Department of Education. And both federal and state agencies often use advisory boards to … well, give often-non-binding advice on policy implementation. []