Teams of Rivals

Teams of Rivals
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Some news events are exciting but unimportant from the perspective of politics and social change. They even have a name for such events: “pseudo-events.” The Super Bowl is a pseudo-event, as is a salacious sex scandal. The problem in writing a serious book about American politics is that, although pseudo-events lack social significance, they are often what average readers care about. Profundity bores most people, even readers of politics. They want to find out who’s up, who’s down, and how the great game of politics is played.

This is why Tevi Troy’s new book, Fight House, is so remarkable. Troy is a former Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, and therefore someone with first-hand knowledge of bureaucratic politics. He also has a doctorate in American Civilization, which gives him the analytical tools needed to spot trends. With his combined skills, he has crafted a truly enjoyable read that joins surprising, even titillating, political pseudo-events with serious analysis of how government works. Tracing the history of conflict inside White House staffs from FDR to Trump (with each administration getting its own chapter), he explains why some administrations succeed while others fail, with an eye toward advising future administrations on how they might conduct themselves.  

Managing Conflict

Like all political realists since Machiavelli, Troy recognizes that, for any White House administration, success is uncertain. Success in politics is, to a high degree, a matter of chance. What Troy wants to do, as Machiavelli did, is to give an administration a better than even chance of success—that is, to improve the odds. He examines three sources of conflict as the basis for doing so.

Ideology comes first, with opposing belief systems a major source of staff infighting. Usually, administrations with this problem devolve into two ideological camps, but sometimes it can be three, as, for example, in the current administration, where “globalists,” traditional Republicans, and populists (or Trump loyalists) battle it out.

Second comes “process,” or how the White House organizes its people. The inexorable expansion of White House staff that began under FDR continues to this day. Even Eisenhower, who preferred the old Cabinet model of governance, practically doubled the number of White House staff during his tenure. Still, organization varies.

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