In 1991, I read Alan Ehrenhalt’s brilliant analysis of who runs for public office, “The United States of Ambition.” (Note: Alan is a friend and occasional colleague.) The book begins with a description of candidates of the 1990s and how they were different from candidates in the past, and continues with chapters profiling the changes at the local, state and federal levels, including who runs for president.
When I reread “The United States of Ambition” recently, I was surprised by how much I remembered of Alan’s book ““ and a critical part I had forgotten.
Here are three most important things I remembered:
- Few political analysts spend much time looking at who runs for office, Alan wrote, but a lot could be learned from looking at this “supply side” of politics.
- The key change was in what Alan called “the decline of deference” and the rise of “freelance” politicians who represented no one but themselves.
- This change in who runs for office, Alan said, resolved an old debate between sociologists and political scientists on who makes decisions for American communities. In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of sociologists studied cities and towns around the country and came to the conclusion that most important decisions were made by a handful of people, the “power structure.” Political scientists did similar studies and found that important decisions were made by shifting coalitions, not cohesive groups. Alan’s answer: The “structuralists” (sociologists) were describing the past, while the “pluralists” (political scientists) were describing the future.
It’s a smart book that’s brilliantly reported and well written. If you like local politics, you’ll be fascinated by Alan’s description of how places like Concord, Calif., Sioux Falls, S.D., Greenville, S.C. and Utica, N.Y. changed, sometimes overnight. At the center of the stories are the politicians. One year, elected officials are people with deep connections to a traditional group of community leaders. Then an election comes along and, bang, the voters put in a group of politicians no one had recruited and few had even heard of before they ran. (You’ll particularly enjoy the story of how in 1974 the voters of Sioux Falls tossed out a longtime mayor who sought and followed advice from a group of business leaders, replacing him with a “shaggy-haired, 27-year-old disc jockey who had run because a listener dared him to on a weekday morning call-in program.”)
The “mutiny of 1974” wasn’t peculiar to Sioux Falls, Alan wrote; it was part of a generational shift away from people who served on school boards, city councils and county commissions out of obligation to the community and toward candidates who ran for office because they loved the game of politics. These new-style politicians, self-motivated and self-sufficient, excel at campaigning.
The skills that work in American politics at this point in history are those of entrepreneurship. At all levels of the political system, from local boards and councils up to and including the presidency, it is unusual for parties to nominate people. People nominate themselves. That is, they offer themselves as candidates, raise money, organize campaigns, create their own publicity, and make decisions in their own behalf. If they are not willing to do that work for themselves, they are not (except in a very few parts of the country) going to find any political party structure to do it for them.
And this is a dramatic break from the past, Alan added:
. . . (T)he successful candidates a generation ago were those who bore the stamp of approval of the town’s informal leadership organization. “When we were kids growing up,” a Sioux Falls businessman in his forties recalls, “everybody knew who would win the elections. The person who had been in Rotary and had been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce always won.”
These were the things I remembered from my first reading: the decline of deference and the sudden jolting changes as a new, “freelance” type of politician emerged in communities.
What I had forgotten was Alan’s caution that this new style of “unbossed and unbought” politician—which independent-minded Americans tend to like—carried a risk. The risk: That in overthrowing the “power structure” we would settle for no power at all. Here’s how Alan describes the downside of the truly independent political leader:
(P)ower can evaporate. When it breaks loose from those who have held it in concentrated form, as has happened in American politics over the last generation, it does not necessarily change hands. It may be dispersed so broadly that it might as well have disappeared into thin air. And leadership, which ultimately depends upon the existence of power, may disappear along with it.
The irony of pursuing office in the 1990s is that one may reach a position of influence, find no established elite or power structure blocking its exercise, yet discover that it is more difficult than ever to lead.
In the cities he profiled, that’s what he found: Newcomers with “no strings attached” also had no ability to pull strings to get things done. “Unbossed and unbought” sometimes meant unmoored and adrift. ” . . . (T)he mayor who doesn’t owe anybody a thing doesn’t have many tools to govern with either,” Alan wrote. “Candidates nobody sent can be very appealing; leaders nobody sent can be dangerous.”
The result, in city after city, were elected officials with too few connections and little in common to work together.
We have replaced governments that could say yes—and make it stick—with governments that offer a multitude of interests the right to say no. We have elected and empowered a generation of political professionals whose independence and refusal to defer makes concerted action, even when necessary, quite difficult.
I think this is exactly so, and it’s why I believe leadership has become the single most important factor in communities today—because it’s so easy to stop things and so hard to move things forward. We can’t depend on a power structure or elected officials to lead anymore. The first doesn’t exist in most places and the second often can’t deliver. It takes a broader group of people working together, using new skills to lead our cities and towns.
I’ve already talked a little about what those new skills are; we’ll talk more about them in the future. But the need for new leaders and new leadership skills is greater than at any time in my memory. Thanks to Alan Ehrenhalt for telling us why.
Photo of sign by Mark Sardella licensed under Creative Commons.