Why Outsiders Need Insiders To Get Anything Done

January 19, 2017

You need Insiders who are loyal to an Outsider and an Outsider agenda to accomplish any real reforms.

Readers ask a reasonable question: if Trump is a political Outsider, then why has he stuffed his staff with Insiders--Goldman Sachs alumni, generals, etc.? The question follows an understandable logic: wouldn't an Outsider appoint other outsiders? The doubt expressed also follows a reasonable logic: if Insiders are running the Trump administration, won't it be just another case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"?

I think there is another dynamic in play here which I have laid out in this chart: Outsiders can be effective in meeting their policy goals (i.e. "success"), but they need Insiders who know how to get things done within a self-serving Establishment that is highly resistant to Outsiders and institutional reforms.

The Insider-Outsider spectrum has several important variations. In economics, Insiders rig the system to benefit themselves at the expense of Outsiders. In religion, Insiders are trusted members of the community of the faithful, and Outsiders are not members and thus untrustworthy.

In other words, there is a push-pull dynamic to being an Insider: it's easy to feather one's own bed as an Insider, because you are a trusted member of the Insider Community. Insiders have security, Outsiders do not. Insiders cover up the sins and greed of other Insiders, lest their own self-serving greed be exposed.

This means Insiders have enormous opportunities to join the Establishment that resists any reforms that reduce Insiders' private gains or the power of entrenched interests.

On the other hand, Insiders who are True Believers in reform have the trust and connections needed to bypass or overcome the inertial resistance to any change within the Establishment.

OUtsiders can only effect significant reforms if they have the overwhelming political power of numbers behind them: if enough Outsiders are enraged at being exploited by Insiders, they can threaten to topple the entire Establishment.

Only when they fear the complete loss of their own power and Insider perquisites do Insiders grudgingly accept reforms that diminish their power, perquisites and security.

The measures of success also matter. If the reformer, Insider or Outsider, seeks to remake society, government and the nation, such lofty goals will fail simply because they are too grandiose to be accomplished in a short time, even with the consent of the governed.

Grandiose goals end up disappointing those who believed them possible.

In contrast, incremental goals are far more modest in scope and therefore within reach of either a mass Outsider movement or True Believer Insiders.

Let's consider two Outsider presidencies: Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter. Lincoln's presidency has been reported in great depth, Carter's has received relatively little critical assessment. Nonetheless, we discern certain similarities to the Trump presidency: all three "came out of nowhere" to win the presidency by slim margins, all three entered office with a deeply divided electorate and all three were Outsiders in the power circles of Washington, D.C.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln's cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, illuminates more than the rivalry: all of Lincoln's key appointees were consummate Insiders.

Carter's closest advisors tended to be Outsiders, while his foreign policy appointees were Insiders. Although there is ample room to debate this, as a political junkie who lived through the Carter campaign and presidency, it seems to me his presidency was doomed by an abundance of lofty goals and a paucity of Insiders who had the trust and networks to get stuff done.

I would argue the surest way to fail as a president is to stock your administration with Outsiders -- especially True Believer Outsiders who view entrenched, self-serving Insiders with utter disdain.

To get anything done in a culture of entrenched interests, one must either have an overwhelming political mandate to dismantle the entire machine--Trump does not--or you need Insiders who know the pressure points of the system and its key players--in effect, Insiders who know how to slip a political stiletto into the kidneys of key players and twist the blade to get done what would otherwise be impossible.

Insiders know (or can find out) who the politicized brown-nosers and incompetents are that must be cashiered if anything is going to change for the better. Outsiders are tempted to "clean house," a strategy that can backfire as entrenched interests hunker down and await the inevitable failure of the reforms.

It boils down to this: you need Insiders who are loyal to an Outsider and an Outsider agenda to accomplish any real reforms. Outsiders are easy prey for polished, self-serving Insiders. You need Insiders who can beat the entrenched interests at their own game, and weed out the toxic institutionalized leadership that resists reforms out of self-aggrandizement rather than principle.

We'll just have to wait and see if Trump's Insiders are loyal to an Outsider and an Outsider agenda or not. Time will tell.


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