The Important “How” Question

When the shoe fits….

A recent post to Washington Monthly took Democrats and liberals to task:

For the most part, today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks. Other than defending the idea of government against anti-government conservatives, getting rid of the filibuster, reforming the primary system, and occasionally calling for more “accountability” and “transparency,” they would be hard pressed to articulate any coherent vision of how to reform the government we have, or any real understanding of how the damn thing works.

In all fairness, this is a thoroughly bipartisan flaw.

Whenever I hear people complaining that the President–any President–promised to do such-and-such and hasn’t done it, I want to ask the complainer if s/he has ever heard about those pesky three branches of government…

It also underscores a lesson I am constantly trying to hammer home in my policy classes: although the “what” is clearly important, the “how” is equally so. In fact, it is often only when we try to figure out how to do something–how to craft a system or device that will get us from here to there–that we have to confront the very real possibility that the “what” we so ardently desire isn’t achievable.

Our ubiquitous smart phones didn’t come about because someone said, gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could access the internet from our phones? Achieving the goal required understanding how to make the damn thing work.

Genuine political reform requires intimate knowledge of those boring nuts and bolts, an understanding of how government works (and–increasingly–why it doesn’t).


  1. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    WE THE PEOPLE put these people in office, either by voting or by not voting. Indiana turned out only 28% of voters in last November’s election, only 30% nationwide. With an 11% approval rating, we sent 96% of the House and the Senate back to office, the same people who are hell bent on wrecking the train of State.

    Our people…us…by and large have no clue about how government works. I’m betting if you asked most people on the street, they couldn’t tell you who their reps are. They couldn’t tell you the difference between state and federal govt.

    They are not being taught good civics in the lower grades. Nor are they learning on their own. We have to get over this problem before we can solve the bigger problem.

  2. I believe that during President Obama’s adminstration we have learned how LITTLE power the president actually has. Since 2010 it has only taken John Boehner and the Tea Party ownership of the House to call a halt to forward motion to undo most of what was “undoable” from the Bush/Cheney misadministration. Primarily by President Obama not allowing Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy to end when he set the end date, we are deeper and deeper in financial stress in the middle class and below. Going along to get along didn’t work in this case. Backed by the old men on SCOTUS, we have lost ground and had our civil and human rights curtailed. It seems to me to be more a question of “CAN” we change this rather than “HOW”. Neal makes an excellent point about civics not being taught in lower grades, when students are just coming into their awareness of a world around them but that they are not the center of it. If we began changing this situation today; our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will still be paying the price for our earlier negligence. And I do love that Pogo quote:)

  3. What seems odd to me is that so many Republicans who HATE government, spend millions of dollars to get INTO the Government. Very odd.

  4. Many years ago a Group of us went to the State House to testify in favor of Public Financed Elections. Perhaps needless to say the Legislators sat looking bored. No Action Taken. Granny D (Doris Haddock) walked from coast to coast. She was arrested in the US Capitol Building on April 21, 2000 for demonstrating in the Capitol Building and reading the Declaration of Independence. Per Wiki part of her quote to the sentencing judge, ” If your concern is that we might have been blocking the halls of our government, let me assure you that we stood to one side of the Rotunda where we would not be in anyone’s way. But I inform you that the halls are indeed blocked over there.

    They are blocked by the shameless sale of public policy to campaign contributors, which bars the doors and the halls to the people’s legitimate needs and the flow of proper representation. We Americans must put an end to it in any peaceful way that we can. Yes, we can speak when we vote, and we do. But we must also give our best effort to encourage the repair of a very broken system. We must do both. ” Further she said – “Your Honor, some of us do not have much power, except to put our bodies in the way of an injustice–to picket, to walk, or to just stand in the way. It will not change the world overnight, but it is all we can do.”

    I am now old and rusty. I see our system as not much different in effect than the Old Soviet System. Yes, we can post our opinions here or on Facebook, and shout out about the inequities of the System. Change our system?? It has only become worse since Granny D was arrested. Some might say, we elected Obama, he is sadly IMHO an illusion of change.

  5. My brain cramped reading the first quoted sentence.

    “For the most part, today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics.”

    How proud we would be of anyone who could achieve significant progress in those areas for the country over their lifetime, much less over one administration.

    Then another thought. Where would the country have gone since 2008 without the strong restraint of the now almost totally dysfunctional Great Oligarchy Plot exerted by President Obama? Or, put another way, consider where the country would be today if the legislative and been able to keep Bush and Cheney’s hands off of the controls during the reign of Bush the Second. Debt free and at peace with Islam for starters.

    Republicans are now at the Wailing Wall lamenting that Obama is now behaving exactly as they did during his first term. It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that if they proposed something that was actually good for the country rather than for their supporters at the expense of the country he might be more tractable.

    Instututions establish trajectory by both what they do and don’t do. All decision are from among alternatives. The ones chosen and the ones left on the table both contribute to outcome.

    The GOP is leaving the existential threat from climate change on the table and is pursuing dismantling health care progress instead.

    If I were President Obama I’d be locking the door to the Oval Office as my service to we the people so that the destruction of the Republican Party can proceed without further danger to the country.

  6. I am very supportive of the positions taken by President Obama (except maybe his golf game preempting that wedding in California) History will judge him well.


  7. Just to show how fickle the memory is. I remember the first two years of Obama’s presidency as endless discussion and action on saving our economy from the destruction wrought by Bush/Cheney’s tax cuts, bursting bubbles, holy wars, and Wall Street’s begging for bailout.

    All accompanied by Republican counterpoint about how smart Europe was by declaring poverty.

    Seemed important to me at the time and the results, in retrospect, say our way worked much better than Europe’s way though not perfectly.

    Lack of perfection seems to be the major indictment hurled at Obama by the Great Oligarchy Plot.

  8. The most important question is how any of this matters if left-leaning progressives don’t vote. How did the rightwingers get the power to make the new rules? We gave it to them by not voting.

    The GOP has a magnificent and mellifluously mendacious marketing machine feeding blood red meat to their base. And the base gets mad and they vote. That same machine has also duped millions of intelligent left-leaning progressive into believing that they are “hip” not to vote. “Government’s a mess, so I won’t vote.”, “ I don’t like having only two choices, so I won’t vote.” Well, there are only two choices in the Super Bowl and we still show up and pick a side. If we are duped into not voting again, how does it matter? Admit it, you were duped. Vote.

  9. Indiana needs to start searching NOW for a replacement for Joe Donnelly before his re-election time. He is a closet Republican we need to oust him ourselves rather than allow a Republican to beat him in the next election. He needs to go; and on a fast track. We hurt ourselves by electing him as a Republican couldn’t possibly do worse. Oops; I fogot the opposing Republican was Mourdock who believes God means for rape victims to have those babies…would he – could he – be any worse than Donnelly?

  10. Donnelly has done a good job in this odd state. Why degrade our own?You must think we are in California. I can assure you from the temperature here in the last few days , we are not in California.

  11. I know exactly where we are and how weak Donnelly has been since he was inaugurated to represent residents of Indiana…he doesn’t seem to keep abreast of the times or the needs of the majority of those of us who voted for him.

  12. Greg has a very good point when he cites lost opportunities. And that is what irks me. Obama had a chance, a long chance to undo so much of the wrong. Therein lies the Dems problem: When the GOP is in power, they use it to make strong gains. When we get in we are satisfied to hold the line with no daring moves. Then when they regain power they make stronger moves. Obama could have done much by doing nothing but chose to reinstate the tax cuts. No guts and no glory. When they rule, they act. When we rule, we argue.

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