Political Entrepreneurs vs. Political Managers

Matt Yglesias has posted a piece contrasting the right wing’s strong infrastructure for encouraging young conservatives to the weak support that the Democratic Party gives its own next generation. This gives me a rare opportunity to agree enthusiastically with Matt, and leads into a piece which I’ve been planning to write for some time.

Conservatives and liberals come from very different backgrounds. Conservatives tend to come more from the business world, whereas most liberals have a history in academia, public administration, non-profits, unions, and other large bureaucratic organizations. While there are strengths that come from this institutional background, there are weaknesses too, and at the moment I find the weaknesses the most striking.

Businessmen are entrepreneurs, gamblers, opportunists, and sometimes lowlifes, and they are always looking for an edge. Many are semi-educated, uncredentialed, and self-taught, and they’re always on the outlook for talent. They don’t usually care about someone’s credentials if they’re able to do the job.

By contrast, academics and administrators are always worried that someone might be hired or promoted who is Not Fully Qualified. In many cases, the administrators see their job as maintaining normality, following standard operating procedures, and keeping things on an even keel. They strongly favor team players who don’t rock the boat, and are often quite indulgent of staff who are part of the family, even if they’re not pulling their full share of the load. In many organizations positive performance standards are unclear, so avoiding problems becomes the goal, and the fail-safe position is to hire a credentialed, experienced worker with no history of innovation.

This sounds like the generic libertarian stump speech, but I think that this is an issue on which liberals should listen to libertarians. I don’t push my argument nearly as far as they do — they think that it destroys the whole liberal program down to the roots — but I believe that they do have a major point.

There was something out awhile back saying that liberal foundations keep people on a short leash, demanding tons of documentation and placing a swarm of miscellaneous conditions on every grant. This is true in academia too — grantwriting has become a profession in itself. Without a good grantwriter (who doesn’t really need to know much about the field), many scientists would never be able to do their work at all.

Kos believes that the Democratic Party is dominated by timid people who do well whether the party wins or loses — he really can rant on that subject (no link, sorry). To call the Democratic bureaucracy risk-averse is a vast understatement. Their practices are the standard bureaucratic ass-covering, and the fact that these practices haven’t really been working very well is no skin off their ass. They still have their jobs, right?

Eric Alterman noticed early in his career that his conservative friends all had cushy jobs, and he didn’t. Conservatives often say that you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them, but they’re more generous to young conservatives than liberals are to young liberals, and they’re also more willing to take chances. Ann Coulter has supported herself in style for more than a decade by cranking out freelance stuff which is shoddy and nasty, but effective. At the beginning of her career someone just said, “Give her a chance”, and she came through for them. Liberals do not work that way.

“But… but… you’re not saying that we should get down to their level and hire the liberal equivalents of Ann Coulter, are you?”

Well, maybe I am. I’m sort of sick of seeing liberal Democrats bragging about the Miss Congeniality booby prize we get for losing all the time. But at least, the Democrats should take their chances, spread some money around, and give a bunch of relatively untested and relatively uncredentialed young guys like Matt, Jesse at Pandagon, et. al., the chance to show what they can do.

(Also, they should avoid ageism and shovel some cash my way too. The party needs to mend its fences with its paranoid fringe elements.)

(This is Part II of the piece on competition I promised here. Part I will appear later, since this piece is more or less timely now.