Sunday, July 21, 2013

The power to persuade

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli

This quote is prompted most immediately by comments I received on a recent blog post with regard to a minor infrastructure project in my home town.  But it is something I have been wanting to discuss for some time.  Over the last several years, we have seen new executive leadership at the national, state, and local governmental level characterized by well-intentioned, thoughtful, and intelligent people, some of whom have not been able to build and manage constituencies to support their agendas.  It is not that these folks fail to understand marketing and persuasion: Indeed their election campaigns are models of grass-roots outreach and popular appeal, often artfully tapping the power of social media.  The issue is that they don't understand that governing requires a very different set of skills.  Once you are actually in charge, decisions you make will, as Machiavelli noted, arise the ire of those opposed, while those who are in favor tend to sit on the sidelines.  So your job has to include maintaining and building a sufficient base of support to offset the ability of individuals to create blocking coalitions.

Richard Neustadt wrote about this in 1960 in his book Presidential Power.  The book focuses on  the Presidency, but it applies as well to governors and mayors.  Let me borrow some summaries from Wikisummary:

Neustadt uses a pluralist view to understand politics. In the pluralist world, competing factions mobilize and counter-mobilize, persuading and arguing until policy ultimately arrives at what the typical citizen would want.

"Presidential power is the power to persuade." Presidents are expected to do much more than their authority allows them to do. Persuasion and bargaining are the means that presidents use to influence policy. 

"Effective influence for the man in the White House stems from three related sources: first are the bargaining advantages inherent in his job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do. Second are the expectations of those other men regarding his ability and will to use the various advantages they think he has. Third are those men's estimates of how his public views him and of how their publics may view them if they do what he wants. In short, his power is the product of his vantage points in government, together with his reputation in the Washington community and his prestige outside. 

"A President, himself, affects the flow of power from these sources, though whether they flow freely or run dry he never will decide alone. He makes his personal impact by the things he says and does. Accordingly, his choices of what he should say and do, and how and when, are his means to conserve and tap the sources of his power. Alternatively, choices are the means by which he dissipates his power. The outcome, case by case, will often turn on whether he perceives his risk in power terms and takes account of what he sees before he makes his choice. A President is so uniquely situated and his power so bound up with the uniqueness of his place, that he can count on no one else to be perceptive for him."

I wonder if some members of the new generation of political leaders are so seduced by the effectiveness of their campaign methods--and the warm feeling that comes from being adored by your supporters during an election--that they have failed to move along to the next step, learning how to build and maintain the constituencies that are needed to govern.


Brad F said...

On presidential persuation:

Maybe not the powerful many might think


e-Patient Dave said...

But there was a time when the party in power could succeed in persuasion, and was at least afforded a grudging "Well, they won" acceptance. Many talk about the reasons that today it seems quite possible for a very small number of individuals to control a large part of the process - or at least paralyze, if not control in the positive sense.

As one example, have we ever seen a case where so many legislators have gone against the wishes of 90%+ of their constituents? That's the case with NH's Senator Kelly Ayotte (and numerous others) on the recent gun control legislation. Now, don't anyone go tangent on WHICH issue it is - reread the question. It's a question, not a rant.

e-Patient Dave said...

On a related note, I recently heard J. D. Kleinke speak about the political process and the conjuring up of imaginary targets. He cited complaints that PPACA is 1500 pages; he said it's actually 900, and most of the complaints are about the 600 pages that don't exist. :) He then rattled off all kinds of junk that isn't in the bill.

Another example is the nasty flaming by Obama's opponents last week after his VERY calm statement about race in America. A normally sane friend linked to a commentary asking "What right does he have to question the jury's verdict???" As anyone who WATCHED the video knows, he didn't say a THING about the verdict; he explicitly stayed off that.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I think a consequence of our current society (I tried to use some adjectives in front of 'society' but it's too overwhelming, but you know what i mean), with all these links etc., we fail to take the time to read them and reflect on the content first. Far easier to just knee-jerk a reaction when we really don't know what we are talking about. Social media makes this both more possible and more gratifying.

I wish I could live another 50 years and see how humans think and communicate by then. A bit scary for the future.