Ten Rules That Demystify Politics

By Bradley Tusk

Between hosting the Firewall podcast twice a week, teaching a class on disruption at Columbia Business School, giving speeches, going on TV news, writing columns and The Fixer, not to mention several decades working in government, politics, venture capital and technology, I’ve developed a working philosophy of politics. I talk about it all the time, but this is my first attempt at codifying it into rules and putting them all in one place. Be forewarned that it’s very much a work in progress, and I would love feedback from anybody who engages with my work on how these rules can be fine-tuned, amended, amplified, whatever it may be.

(1). Every policy output is the result of a political input.

(2). Every politician values staying in office far more than anything else.

(3). Politicians are extremely rational and smart when it comes to determining what’s in their best political interest.

(4). Expecting politicians to “do the right thing” and defy human nature never works.

(5). Politicians will do what you want in one of two cases: (a) they think you can help them win their next election; or (b) they think you can cost them their next election. Otherwise, you don’t matter at all.

(6). Because of gerrymandering, the only election that typically matters is the primary. And because primary turnout is 10–20%, a very small group of voters and special interests choose our elected officials and the policies they pursue.

(7). Politicians, because all they want to do is stay in office, will adapt to whatever policies the majority of their primary voters support, so if primary turnout expands considerably, then the politician shifts to the center to accommodate it.

(8). If we want different outputs, if we want different policies, we have to change the inputs. The only thing that works is changing the political incentives. Everything else is just noise.

(9). While mobile voting is our structural solution to the problem, on a day to day basis as we run campaigns for our portfolio companies, our clients, and our causes, the key to any campaign is to understand whose support you really need and what will make them feel like you can impact their next primary. This applies to every state and to every party and ideology.

(10). In other words, politics is far less complex than the people in the business — electeds, staffers, reporters, pundits, academics, think tanks — make it out to be. The more complex it sounds, the more impressive they seem. But it’s just about inputs and outputs and nothing else.

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Bradley Tusk

Venture capitalist, political strategist, philanthropist and writer.