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28. Out of Politics and into Ideas
I’ve always been a “political” person, but came late to politics as a professional matter. I did so by diving in as a full-time volunteer for the campaign of an inspirational state legislative candidate who was actually a world class libertarian economist, the late Stephen Dresch. As dean of the economics department at Michigan Tech University, Dresch exposed and reformed some extremely shady practices the institution was engaged in, and in the process became an “accidental” politician.
The 1994 special election campaign I was involved in turned into an epic one as the race took on statewide implications (it would decide the state House majority under then-Governor John Engler). Although we came up 97 votes short, I made connections on that campaign that eventually led to a staff position with state Rep. Greg Kaza, a libertarian Republican, and that’s where this story really begins.
The Dresch campaign was then my only experience in electoral politics, and it was a highly idealistic and purely amateur effort. The campaign’s Upper Peninsula stalwarts were salt-of-the-earth working people who were passionate about limited-government principles that directly affected their lives—mostly property rights and the Second Amendment. There were no party apparatchiks or political hacks involved.
Therefore, my arrival in the state Capitol was a political culture shock. On the first day, I and three other newcomers spent an hour with the nonpartisan human resources staff going over all the staff job’s fringe benefits. My new colleagues were full of questions, but I was appalled: Benefits? I was there to change the world! Yet to these people, this was just another white-collar administrative job.
Those who have worked in this arena will chuckle at my naïveté, but I arrived expecting an intellectually stimulating workplace filled with others like myself who were interested in principles and ideas. Here’s what I found. Half my fellow staffers were ideologically unengaged “housewives” adding a second paycheck to their family income. The other half were political careerists, most of whom cared little or nothing about ideas and principles. Out of more than 600 full-time political staff working for 148 state legislators, there were only a handful primarily motivated by and passionate about limited-government principles.
That was 15 years ago, and nothing has changed. While today I’m infinitely more knowledgeable about politics and state policy, I still find this reality shocking. So maybe I’m still naïve.
Although there’s plenty of drudgery at the lowest levels of legislative staff, capable individuals advance quickly, and working there soon becomes a heady experience. You feel like you’re at the center of important events and that what you do matters. You’re surrounded by lobbyists and other petitioners who all appear to really like you and think you matter. You feel clever operating the instruments of political manipulation, including crafting “spin,” fine-tuning ideological “position-taking,” drafting district-wide communications, and devising campaign strategies.
On rare occasions, your office even gets to feel effective, perhaps helping to make an obnoxious bill slightly less so. More rarely, and never in uncompromised form, you may even help advance some modestly beneficial policy. These events always feel like bigger deals than they really are —most of the time they’re just “inside baseball” details that no normal person will ever know or have reason to care about.
Nevertheless, everyone involved in the enterprise rides on an undercurrent of excitement and self-importance. However, and most importantly, it’s all meaningless in the context of bringing about real change and reform. The reality is, legislatures don’t lead, they follow.
If, like me, you are motivated by limited-government principles, from time to time you look up and realize that you’re engaged in a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, because inseparably interwoven into everything full-time legislators and their staff do in the Capitol is election campaigning. When legislators say they’re “working back in the district,” it means they’re campaigning.
Frankly, it’s a lonely existence for idealists, and limited-government ideologues are nothing if not idealists.
I spent six years in that environment, and became very good at it. But for luck, I might still be there. I had established a relationship with Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It was starting a new website that needed a “movement” person who could translate the complex, often opaque and misleading language of bills and votes into plain-English and objective (but brutally honest) descriptions of what they really do. This had my name written all over it, and it’s still my main job at the Center—creating content for the MichiganVotes.org website. Having described some 15,000 bills and nearly that many votes over nine years, it’s also my legitimate claim to being a think tank “expert.”
Following all those legislative details gives me the knowledge to do other things for the Center, mostly writing articles that connect the dots between free-market principles the legislation flowing from the belly of the big-government beast. From this experience I will offer my one bit of commentary on the transition from legislature to think tank:
The standards are different. Political writing and communications are intellectually sloppy. Rigorous adherence to the truth is neither expected nor required. That doesn’t mean you lie, although many do. But you’re allowed to play fast and loose and with the facts. Frankly, it’s fun and “liberating.” That it’s also potentially corrupting should be obvious.
Perhaps even worse, granting the presumption of good will to the opposition is not only optional, it’s discouraged. The other party doesn’t oppose your preferred policies because they’re misguided; they oppose them because they don’t care about the bad outcomes. True partisan hacks go even further: The opposition wants bad things to happen to good people.
It should go without saying that the standards in the think tank world are very different. Truth and correct facts are the currency of the realm, and passing counterfeits leads to permanent banishment for individuals and institutions. That means meticulous caution is the watchword, requiring sometimes irritatingly intense care regarding miniscule details. It’s a sobering change for those who come from the loosey-goosey political world.
If a person is able to overcome those sloppy political habits, think tanks benefit from having individuals with experience in the legislative arena. I described my own idealist’s shock at encountering the realities of the professional political world. My scholarly think tank colleague s who haven’t been there find that world hard to comprehend. Like most people, they tend to believe that legislators really care about public policy, and initially resist the idea that the majority do not. Once expose d to the evidence, they find the conclusion hard to reject, however, and it has implications for how think tanks should operate.
Which means that individuals with a legislative background can have a real impact on a think tank’s orientation. The temptation for these institutions is always to address their work to policymakers, primarily legislators. Largely due the influence of myself and a couple of colleagues with similar backgrounds, our think tank is now aiming much more of its work at the public, which actually conforms more closely to our proper role of education.
To repeat, legislatures and legislators follow—not lead. Real revolutions in policy don’t originate in marbled capitol buildings but with changes in the climate of public opinion. That’s the field on which think tanks engage, and while they are just one player there, for idealists who want to change the world it’ s the only field truly worth playing on.
Jack McHugh is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s senior legislative analyst and editor of MichiganVotes.org, a website that provides searchable, sortable descriptions of every vote by every member of the state legislature. Since the site was launched in 2001, McHugh has created concise, plain-English descriptions of some 15,000 bills; 11,000 roll call votes; 9,000 amendments; and 2,700 new laws. He entered the Michigan political and public policy scene in 1994, spending six years as a legislative chief of staff in the House of Representatives. Jack McHugh has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in political science from Central Michigan University. His essays on public policy issues frequently appear in Michigan’s leading newspapers, and he is also the co-author of a book on Midwest mountain bike trails.
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