Jerry Seinfeld wrote that his television program was “a show about nothing.” Similarly, one of the only realistic tics of the hit show House of Cards is the near-total absence of policy. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is driven by lust for power and a desire to exact revenge on his enemies, but has no great passion for policy details. Similarly, much was made during the presidential campaign of the limited policy content of the Trump campaign. Trump, of course, is headed to the White House.
The greatest mistake anyone could make about Washington is thinking that the day-to-day grind of politics is driven by substantive policy disputes. Rather than thinking of our rulers as philosophers or scholars arguing over principles or social science, a better analogy might be chimps flinging feces at each other in the monkey house.
To be sure, there is no shortage of policy debate in Washington. As Ben Friedman and I point out in a recent article, think tanks that include foreign policy departments spend more than a billion dollars every year. That’s a lot of policy.
But is anybody reading these reports? In an audit of itself, the World Bank–one of the more prominent and respected idea-generators in town–found reason to wonder:
Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.
I had a similar experience several years ago when I was asked by an academic publisher to moderate a panel on how to get their policy-relevant journal articles wider circulation in Washington. In a room full of think tankers, congressional staffers, a few academics, and some staffers from the publisher, I suggested that it might be worth publishing a shorter synopsis of the work without the math and jargon, something more Foreign Affairs length and complexity.
This suggestion was met with gales of laughter from the congressional staffers, who agreed that Foreign Affairs was far too involved and wonky not just for legislators, but for their staffs.
Indeed, one of the Heritage Foundation’s earliest and most important innovations was its “briefcase test,” which judged that anything longer than one two-sided sheet of paper was too involved for legislators. As the Heritage Foundation’s historian recalled,
The test was [that] if the Congressman could put it in his briefcase and read it going to National Airport…then, okay, he might find some use in it and take the arguments in it and rely upon those in the debate about a particular issue.
This view allowed that at least bullet-point level sophistication could influence policy, but begged the question why a Congressman might find a particular argument “useful.” If they are at all like the rest of us, they find arguments useful when they confirm prior beliefs. So in this sense the Congressman isn’t thinking about policy so much as he is looking for arguments to use in defense of his position.
Young idealists of all ideological stripes come to Washington to “make a difference,” and think that their participation in this “war of ideas” is a good way to do so. It probably would be accurate to tell them that more often than not, one’s proximity to the ideas industry is inversely proportional to his proximity to political power.