One morning last fall, just after the election, I had coffee with a disillusioned colleague — a tough-minded, veteran journalist, but not a political reporter.

This hard-boiled scribbler had just attended, on an “off-the-record” basis, a private political gathering where the election results were dissected. He was unpleasantly surprised that issues and principles had played almost no role in the analysis.

Instead, it was all unashamedly about political tactics — which districts had been targeted, with how much money, to stimulate which voter blocs, and how such soulless power-seeking maneuvers had worked out.

The image of my dismayed colleague encountering distasteful facts of political life — how cynically, and clinically, politics is practiced by professionals out of public sight — kept returning recently as I read a bracingly unsentimental and contrarian new e-book by Jonathan Rauch.

In “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy,” Rauch argues, in essence, that too much reform has ruined American politics.

A pundit and gay-rights activist affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic, Rauch reports that he isn’t out on this anti-reform limb on his own. He describes what he says is a growing school of scholarly thought.

These new “political realists,” it seems, are reconsidering whether good-government purists’ long crusade to banish political “bosses,” “smoke-filled rooms” and “corruption” in every imaginable form may have utterly backfired. It may have perversely given us today’s much-lamented plague of extremism and gridlock, worse than anything known in the supposed bad old days.

Certainly there is a widespread belief today that politics used to work better in America — that compromise once came more easily, while disagreements were often less bitter. We almost certainly exaggerate the change, and it has many possible causes.

But political realists, Rauch says, can’t help noticing a suspicious coincidence — that our government functioned more effectively before we started fixing everything.

Maybe the only thing wrong with the smoke-filled room was the smoke, he quips.

The most damaging fix all realists deplore, Rauch says, is the long-term weakening of our political parties, whose “central role” in effective governance has “been too often overlooked or marginalized by the reforms of recent decades.”

Interestingly — and maybe confirming the growth of realist sentiment in academe — local Humphrey School political sage Larry Jacobs suggested on this page only a week ago that America could rediscover the importance of strong parties by studying the recent moderation in British politics.

But could muscular political parties really be a force for “moderation”? Definitely, Rauch says, if they function as “political machines.” Taking pains to acknowledge the abuses of old-style political bossism, Rauch says we still need parties with “machine-like” qualities.

In particular, party leaders need to be able to dispense rewards and impose punishments to force obedience from a party’s members and politicians. And those leaders need to be not idealistic “activists” but political “professionals” — meaning they ultimately care more about winning elections than about issues.

“[M]odern analysts miss something important,” Rauch writes, ”when they assume that moderation comes from moderates; often moderation comes from machines that force politicians toward compromise” in their “pursuit of power.”

In Rauch’s realist view, the sort of coldblooded power-seeking motives that seemed so uninspiring to my colleague last fall may “look bad up close” but are essential if a political system is to avoid becoming paralyzed by a stalemate between uncompromising ideals.

It’s professional machine politicians, not ardent visionaries, who can make the deals on which democracy depends.

Rauch argues that modern reformers have stripped today’s party bosses (however “professional” they may still be) of the powers they need to keep their forces in line and deliver on deals.

Two major reform thrusts have destroyed party discipline.

First, the primary and caucus system has increasingly “democratized” the selection of candidates, empowering maverick politicians and militant ideological factions at the expense of party leaders, who once held the keys to the ballot.

Today’s lawmakers live in fear, not of the displeasure of wheeling-and-dealing machine chieftains but of a primary challenge from some never-give-an-inch grass-roots wing of their party.

Second, campaign-finance reform has sharply restricted parties’ ability to raise money and has absurdly prohibited parties from “coordinating” their spending with their own candidates.

This has all but outlawed the main thing political parties exist to do. So increasingly somebody else does it — the proliferating “independent expenditure” groups that are the new, more secretive and less accountable power brokers wielding dollars to influence elections. Rauch calls them “shadow machines.”

And the trouble is that, unlike long-lived, broad-based political parties, focused mostly on winning (even if winning requires compromise and moderation!), shadow machines often arise from less flexible commitments to a single cause or a narrow interest group.

Rauch and his fellow realists have suggestions for repairing the damage that excessive reform has wrought and restoring some of our system’s dealmaking capacity — mainly by re-empowering parties and their leaders.

But the enormous challenge, he concedes, will be overcoming today’s romantic and moralistic consensus about public affairs, which hardly suspects that, in a sense, what this country needs is a bit more unprincipled politics.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.