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HBS Prof, Former CEO Campaign For Major Political Reset

Katherine Gehl speaks at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last month as Michael Porter looks on. James Meinerth photo

The political system in the United States isn’t broken. It works exactly the way it’s meant to — and that’s the problem.

So say Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, who have been working together since 2016 to effect a kind of paradigm shift away from the typical division-lamenting despair that characterizes much of today’s political discourse in the U.S. Late last month in a presentation to the Commonwealth Club that was sponsored by the University of San Francisco School of Management, Gehl, a former CEO of high-tech food manufacturer Gehl Foods, and Porter, a long-time professor at Harvard Business School, offered their “strategy for reinvigorating our democracy.”

Many Americans, they say, are troubled by the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. They argue, through the “Gehl Porter Politics Industry Theory,” that political stagnation in the U.S. is not the result of a single cause, but rather a failure of the nature of the political competition that has been created — in other words, a systems problem. As they write in a paper funded by HBS from September 2017, “Too many people — including many pundits, political scientists, and politicians themselves — are laboring under a misimpression that our political problems are inevitable, or the result of a weakening of the parties, or due to the parties’ ideological incoherence, or because of an increasingly polarized American public. Those who focus on these reasons are looking in the wrong places. The result is that despite all the commentary and attention on politics in recent years, there is still no accepted strategy to reform the system and things keep getting worse.”

Gehl and Porter say they have a realistic approach to changing this — involving nothing less than the realignment of America’s political system. And they have ideas on what business schools can do to help.

POLITICS IS A DUOPOLY THAT THRIVES ON DIVISION

USF School of Management Dean Elizabeth Davis introduced Katherine Gehl ad Michael Porter at the Commonwealth Club on March 29. James Meinerth photo

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club’s new location on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge and a stone’s throw from the city’s iconic Ferry Building, Gehl and Porter pointed out that while trust in government is at a 60-year low, the industry of politics — in which parties “compete to divide voters and serve special interests, rather than weigh and balance the interests of all citizens and find common ground to move the country forward” — is thriving. They say the blame for political gridlock and malfeasance typically falls on “the influence of special interests, the role of big money, the decline of bipartisanship, the polarization of the American public, and, most recently, the proliferation of fake news” — but they say these are symptoms, not root causes.

The real culprit, Gehl and Porter say, is “the kind of political competition that the parties have created, including their insulation from new competition that would better serve the public interest.” It’s a duopoly that competes on division, creating and reinforcing partisan divisions and failing to deliver practical solutions.

“The political system,” Gehl told the Commonwealth Club, “is a private industry that sets its own rules.” That, added Porter, sets it apart from nearly all other industries, and also makes it very dangerous.

‘WE CAN FIX OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM’

Gehl and Porter say the way the politics industry is structured has resulted in three grim realities for citizens: there is no incentive to solve society’s problems; there is no accountability for results; and there are no countervailing forces to restore healthy competition. They have some fixes — and in an interview with Poets&Quants, they offer some thoughts on how graduate business education can be part of the solution.

In their September 2017 paper, Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America, Gehl and Porter lay out a four-pillar approach to reforming our political system. The first reform: restructure the election process, including the establishment of nonpartisan top-four primaries and ranked-choice voting. They further call for restructuring the governing process to eliminate partisan control of House and Senate rules and processes. The third pillar is a host of detailed reforms aimed at the influence of money in politics, designed to “shift the incentives for politicians to respond to constituents, instead of responding to donors.” Finally, they call for a series of innovations to open up electoral competition without waiting for structural reforms. “The top two parties,” they write, “should always be operating under a potential threat from competitors that better serve the public interest.”

“We can fix our political system, but it will require sustained citizens’ initiative and significant investment,” Gehl and Porter write. “A new kind of philanthropy, which might be called ‘political philanthropy,’ is needed. Donors who support the collective interest in political reform, innovation, and solutions-oriented candidates will have a huge impact on America’s progress in addressing the many societal needs our nation faces.

“We can never forget that the political system we have today was designed by our own elected representatives — the people we voted into office. This system was corrupted over time, and most of us did not even notice. We have the power to reinvigorate our democracy, and we must.”