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“Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” builds on political realism, an emerging school of thought that is characterized by respect for transactional politics and by skepticism toward idealistic political reforms. In our era of intense polarization and gridlock, Jonathan Rauch asks: How can political home truths – truths our grandparents took for granted – help modern politicians negotiate, compromise, and govern?

Rauch’s research paper asserts that:

  • Government cannot govern unless political machines or something like them exist and work, because machines are uniquely willing and able to negotiate compromises and make them stick.
  • Progressive, populist, and libertarian reformers have joined forces to wage a decades-long war against machine politics by weakening political insiders’ control of money, nominations, negotiations, and other essential tools of political leadership.
  • Reforms’ fixations on corruption and participation, although perhaps appropriate a long time ago, have become destabilizing and counterproductive, contributing to the rise of privatized pseudo-machines that make governing more difficult and politics less accountable.
  • Although no one wants to or could bring back the likes of Tammany Hall, much can be done to restore a more sensible balance by removing impediments which reforms have placed in the way of transactional politics and machine-building.
  • Political realism, while coming in many flavors, is emerging as a coherent school of analysis and offers new directions for a reform conversation which has run aground on outdated and unrealistic assumptions.

Rauch also explores possible realist solutions, such changes to campaign finance laws, congressional earmarks, primary elections, and transparency rules.


Jonathan Rauch

Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

A senior writer for National Journal magazine in Washington and a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, Jonathan Rauch has written several books and numerous commentaries on public policy, culture, and economics.