Katherine Gehl, like so many, thinks politics is broken. Unlike most, the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation has a plausible plan to fix it, by approaching it as an industry.
Together with famed Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, they outlined the road map in their book, “The Politics Industry,” and started the Institute for Political Innovation to help people bootstrap the ideas in their states. In the 2020 election, Alaska became the first state to implement many of these ideas. When she thinks What the Future, she thinks one down, 49 to go.
Matt Carmichael: We’re starting from the premise that the system itself needs fixing, right? What makes you say that?
Katherine Gehl: From my perspective as a citizen, we’re getting more and more divided and, yet we’re still not making any progress in Washington, D.C. Then there’s the perspective from the work that I now do. I used to be engaged in politics in a very traditional way, which is I supported candidates and I picked people that I thought could go to D.C. and make a difference. I switched my focus from hoping for certain leadership and realizing that we have a systems problem. There’s no connection between Congress acting in the public interest and the likelihood that they’ll get reelected. That’s a crazy design in any other business.
Carmichael: You write about approaching government and politics as an industry or a business. But you also make clear in the book that we shouldn’t run government like a business. Why is that?
Gehl: Government actually needs to do things that business is not suited to do. How you win in private industry is that healthy competition propels businesses to make better products, better products equals happier customers, happier customers equals success. Whereas in politics they actually don’t have to make their customers happy in order to continue doing well. We need to create a system where solving problems and creating opportunities in the public interest is the best way for a political party or a politician to get ahead.
Carmichael: Clearly the system is working for those whose power it perpetuates. So there is a substantial customer base who are being well-served by the system, right?
Gehl: First of all, yes, there are customers who are being served. The current customers that matter are ideological voters in party primaries because 80% of House races are decided in the primary. So ideological party primaries matter, donors matter and special interests matter. They’re the only customers whose influence has any power to determine winners and losers.
Carmichael: You strongly advocate Final-Five Voting and ranked-choice voting. What are those?
Gehl: What we have now are party primaries, where we identify one Democrat and one Republican who can advance to the general election. In top five primaries, we have a single ballot where candidates appear regardless of party. When the polls close, you add up the votes and the top five finishers advance to the general election regardless of party. When we go to the general election, voters have the opportunity to rank those candidates from most favorite all the way to least favorite. That’s ranked choice. When the polls close, we count up all the first-place votes. If nobody out of the five candidates has over 50%, ranked-choice voting enables instant runoff. You need to do these as a package, otherwise you really won’t get the benefit.
Carmichael: OK, how will that help?
Gehl: There are two core problems in our political system. We don’t get results —think about Congress—and there’s no accountability for not getting results because the customer only has two choices. The only thing either side has to do to win is convince the customer they are the lesser of two evils. With Final-Five Voting, we address the key reason we don’t get results. The biggest bottleneck for results is party primaries that push candidates far to the left and far to the right.
Carmichael: As discussion of a second Trump impeachment grew, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) indicated that she might be willing to break from the GOP. Is this a function of the recent passage of a Final-Four Voting plan in Alaska?
Gehl: Sen. Murkowski had already shown a propensity for cross-partisanship, and now that she is no longer constrained by unhealthy electoral competition, she is even more free to push against the hyper-partisanship and gridlock that has plagued the politics industry for decades. In doing so, she might even lead others in the Senate to act similarly.
Carmichael: What does that do to our existing power structure?
Gehl: It would alter the power structure. Those who are at the top of the existing system could definitely feel threatened, but we’re still going have campaigns and we are still going to have the same number of congressional jobs. You’re just going to run your ads on a different basis. You might not run your ads on division anymore. You might run your ads on actual vision and ideas. The politics industry is not going to go away.
Carmichael: So how do you make this change happen?
Gehl: It’s so unbelievably more doable than anything else that people in political reform have focused on and really more powerful as well. Political reform tends to be perceived as usually a Trojan horse for party advantage. Both parties want to reform something because changing that will actually help them, but it keeps the existing two-party structure intact. This innovation is completely nonpartisan. It is not designed to change who wins. It’s designed to change what the winners are incented to do. You get innovation, results and accountability, which is fundamentally a shared American ideal.