Grand Old Rethinking

Whether a four-point defeat in the presidential popular vote justifies the intense soul-searching of today’s Republican Party is a question we’ll leave to well-paid political consultants, but the phenomenon of institutional soul-searching more broadly is another story.

According to a recent article by David J. Lynch in Bloomberg Businessweek, Republicans have relied too long on a formula of tax cutting and have only belatedly woken up to their loss of market share. Today, “the Republican Party resembles the Democratic Party of a few decades ago: clinging to the old and wary of the new,” Lynch writes. “As Republicans quarrel over whether to move toward the middle or stay firmly on the right, some party leaders are retracing their steps to figure out how they lost the spark of the Reagan years—and how they can get it back.”

In short, these Republicans are rethinking what Peter Drucker called the “theory of the business,” the core set of assumptions about one’s mission and one’s customers (in this case voters and campaign donors).  The theory of the business is a concept we’ve written about many times (see here and here and here for a few samples), because it is so central to Drucker’s work. The theory of the business in use by the GOP—involving a promise of lower taxes and less government—can be said to date back to 1981, and it was robust enough to win Republicans the White House in five of seven subsequent elections.

But “very few definitions of the purpose and mission of a business have anything like a life expectancy of 30, let alone 50, years,” Drucker warned in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “To be good for 10 years is probably all one can normally expect.”

Image source: Cornell University Library
Image source: Cornell University Library

In any case, whatever Republicans come up with, it’s likely to fall short of Drucker’s greater hope: that some thinker or group of thinkers would enunciate “a theory of what government can do.”

As Drucker explained in Managing in a Time of Great Change, it’s been a long time since anyone looked at the issue in sufficient depth. “No major political thinker—at least not since Machiavelli, almost 500 years ago—has addressed this question,” Drucker lamented. “All political theory, from Locke on through The Federalist Papers and down to the articles published by today’s liberals and conservatives, deals with the process of government. . . . None asks what the proper functions of government might be and could be.”

In short, Drucker felt that fundamentally rethinking government was imperative. “The new political theory we badly need will have to rest on an analysis of what does work rather than on good intentions and promises of what should work because we would like it to,” he wrote. “Rethinking will not give us the answers, but it might force us to ask the right questions.”

What do think: How should the Republican Party—or any party out of power—go about rethinking itself?