Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Degeneration of Politics


The Degeneration of Politics





There’s a certain wry amusement in looking back over the
last few months of posts here on The Archdruid Report.  Each week, I’ve gone to the keyboard
intending to proceed further with the outline of the impending fall of American
empire that’s the putative theme of this sequence of posts; each week, I’ve
ended up talking about some way that the impending fall of American empire is
affecting us right now.  That’s worth
discussing in its own right, to be sure, but I could probably keep on writing
weekly posts about such things until long after America’s global empire is a
distant memory, and still not get back to the core issues of how we got here
and where we’re headed.

Those issues need to be kept in mind, for reasons that are
far from academic.  Just now, for
example, the United States is trudging wearily through yet another vacuous
presidential campaign, and even the mass media has to struggle to find any
noticeable difference between the two grinning, gesticulating animatronic dolls
disguised as presidential candidates who will spend this coming autumn lurching
through their little elect-me routines with the mad persistence of broken
cuckoo clocks.  Since neither candidate
has a record worth examining, and neither one seems to be able to think of any
substantive proposals for dealing with the widening spiral of crises that
besets America these days, both campaigns have fallen back on the insistence
that the other side’s candidate would be a worse president than theirs. I find
myself wondering, in defiance of all the rules of logic, if both are right.

It’s not surprising, given the fatuous spectacle into which
our politics has degenerated, that so many Americans have given up on the
political process altogether, or that a growing fraction of Americans have gone
veering off into political extremism. 
The question that needs to be asked is why what was once one of the
world’s most vigorous democracies can’t do better. It’s not a new question, but
like most questions about contemporary American life, it generally gets asked
and answered by people who never wonder if history has anything to say about
the matter. 

Now in fact history does have quite a bit to say about the
matter.  When the United States won its
independence from Britain, the constitution that was signed in Philadelphia in
1787 established a form of government that was not, and did not pretend to be,
democratic.  It was an aristocratic
republic, of a type familiar in European political history: the government was
elected by ballot, but the right to vote was restricted to those white male
citizens who owned a significant amount of property—the amount varied from
state to state, like almost everything else in the constitution, but it was
high enough that only 10-15% of the population had the right to participate in
elections.

What broke the grip of the old colonial aristocracy on the
American political system, and launched the nation on a trajectory toward
universal adult suffrage, was the emergence of the modern political party. In
America, at least—the same process took place in Britain and several other
countries around the same time—the major figure in that emergence was Andrew
Jackson, who seized control of one large fragment of the disintegrating
Democratic-Republican party in 1828, transformed it into the first successful
political mass movement in American history, and rode it into the White
House.  Central to Jackson’s strategy was
support for state legislation extending the right to vote to all white male
citizens; in order to make that support effective, the newly minted Democratic
Party had to organize right down to the neighborhood level; in order to make
the neighborhood organizations attract potential members, the party had to give
them an active role in choosing candidates and policies.

That was the origin of the caucus system, the basic building
block of American political parties from then on.  Jackson’s rivals quickly embraced the same
system, and one rival force—the Anti-Masonic Party, which was a major force in
national politics in the 1820s and 1830s—built on the Jacksonian template by
inventing state and national conventions, which everyone else quickly copied.
By the 1840s, the American political party had established itself as an
essential part of the way Americans chose their candidates and made their
laws. 

Here’s how it worked. 
Party caucuses existed in every urban neighborhood, small town, and
rural center, and their activities were not limited to one meeting every four
years; they met regularly, as often as once a week, to talk politics and keep
party members informed of what was going on in local, state, and national
affairs.  Ambitious young men—after 1920,
ambitious young women as well—attended caucus meetings throughout their voting
district, pressing flesh, making connections, and learning the ropes of
politics.  As election time approached,
caucuses went into overdrive, nominating candidates, drafting policy proposals,
and—crucially—electing delegates to city or county conventions, who would
support the candidates and the proposals at that level. 

The city and county conventions then did much the same
thing, sorting through the candidates and proposals from lower down, choosing
party candidates for local officers, and electing delegates to the state
convention.  The same process repeated
itself at the state level, sorting out proposals from below, nominating
candidates for state offices and Congressional seats, and electing delegates to
the national convention, where the presidential candidate was chosen.

I once had the misfortune to be stuck in the Atlanta
airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight back to the west coast, while large
television screens all over the concourse showed the Republican National
Convention in full spate.  A series of
forgettable speakers were bellowing at the top of their lungs about the alleged
virtues of whatever forgettable candidates the GOP was fielding that year; I
suspect the point of all the yelling was to keep the delegates from dozing off,
because the proceedings reminded me of nothing so much as a high school pep
rally for a team that’s already lost its shot at the local playoffs.  The candidate had already been selected;
ditto the party platform, a collection of bland sound bites that not even the
most diehard of the faithful expected anyone to remember the day after the
election; all that remained was the sort of tepid rah-rah atmosphere you get
when people are going through the motions of something that used to matter, but
no one any more can remember why.

As recently as the 1950s, that kind of atmosphere was
unthinkable at a political convention, because what happened there actually
made a difference.  Since the local
caucuses all happened at more or less the same time, as did the local and state
conventions, the absurdity of the current nominating process—in which victory
in three or four early state primaries can all but clinch the nomination for a
candidate long before most party members have any voice in the matter—was not
an option. Instead, it was standard for delegates to converge on the national
convention backing anything up to half a dozen serious candidates, and the
candidate who proved best at making speeches, managing his public presence, and
engaging in no-holds-barred backroom political deals—not bad job training for
the presidency, all things considered—normally came out with the nomination.

That was the way the system worked.  Was it vulnerable to corruption? You
bet.  Most large American cities spent
many decades under the one-party rule of political machines that funneled
public money to an assortment of private pockets, buying and selling votes like
so many pork bellies, and the bosses of the biggest machines—Chicago’s Richard
Daley was among the most famous of the recent examples—could play kingmaker on
a national scale in a tight election. 
Party machines more generally were full of able political connivers
whose obvious interest in advancing their personal power and wealth noticeably
outweighed any concern they might have had for the public good. All these were
among the reasons why the caucus and convention system was gutted, stuffed and
mounted in the 1960s and 1970s, and primary elections became the standard way
to choose candidates.

Compare the older system to the way presidential nominations
are handled nowadays, though, and it’s not exactly easy to claim that the
present system is more representative or less blatantly corrupt than the
caucuses and conventions of the past. Where winning a presidential nomination in
1852 or 1952 required solid organizational skills, the backing of a significant
fraction of the party’s local movers and shakers, excellent public relations,
and a good dollop of the amiable ruthlessness that makes for success in the
world of political dealmaking, winning a presidential nomination nowadays
requires precisely one thing: 
money.  Business interests
unquestionably had a seat at the table in the days when caucuses and
conventions mattered, but theirs was far from the only such seat, and it happened
quite often that a candidate favored by the very rich got elbowed aside by some
upstart with populist notions who was just that little bit better at playing
the political game.

More generally, it’s worth taking a look at the kind of
people who advanced to power through the old system, and comparing them with
the kind of people who advance to power through the new.  A Kansas City haberdasher like Harry Truman
wouldn’t be elected to the city council today, but he was one of those
ambitious young men I mentioned earlier, and his exceptional skills as a
campaigner, organizer, and bare-knuckle political bruiser took him all the way
to the White House; the world-class drubbing he dealt out to media favorite
Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election was typical of the man.  More generally, it’s fair to say that very
few of the significant political leaders of American history between Jackson’s
time and the beginning of the 1960s could get elected in today’s money-driven
environment. If we’re going to have a corrupt political system—and we are; no
political system anywhere will ever be more honest than the people it
governs—we might as well have one that produces leaders more capable than the
airbrushed marionettes who infest the American political scene these days.

Quite a few of the reforms that reshaped American politics
in the 20th century had the same effect as the gutting of the caucus and
convention system.  Two of the
Progressive Era’s chief reforms—direct election of US senators and nonpartisan
elections for city governments—are cases in point.  Until 1913, US senators were appointed by
state legislatures, were directly answerable to state governments, and thus
reliably opposed attempts by the House of Representatives to expand federal
power at the expense of the states.  Once
US senators were elected by popular vote, that check went away, and the
backroom political deals that previously put state politicians in the Senate
gave way to outright purchase of senators by corporate interests, which could
readily provide the money that candidates needed to win elections.  In the same way, campaigns to “clean up”
cities by abolishing political machines got rid of the machines, but this
simply meant that business interests no longer had to bargain with machine
politicians for favors; they could simply buy elections and get what they
wanted.

Changes along these lines, it deserves to be said, are
tolerably common when a nation gets into the empire business. The rise of each
of the major European empires, for example, were preceded by bitter struggles
between the national government and feudal domains that had existed as
quasi-independent states for centuries; only when traditions of local autonomy
and decentralization are crushed can a nation concentrate the power and wealth
needed for imperial adventures.  The
extreme decentralization of the United States under its original constitution
made conflicts of this kind inevitable, and earlier posts have already outlined
the shifting battle lines along which those struggles were fought out.

The specific form that those struggles took in the United
States, however, have consequences that will likely play a large role in
shaping the course of America’s imperial decline.

The first is that the gutting of the caucus and convention
system took place alongside the collapse of an entire world of democratically
run voluntary organizations, which provided citizens with most of the training
they needed to take an effective role in local politics.  In 1920, for example, half of all adult
Americans, counting both genders and all ethnic groups, belonged to at least
one fraternal order, and these orders—ranging in size from multimillion-member
organizations such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows down to little local
orders with a single lodge and a few dozen members—were nearly all run by the
same democratic processes used by caucuses to elect delegates and vote on
policy proposals.   Nearly all the other
institutions of American civil society, from gun clubs and historical societies
to  independent lending libraries and
farmers’ cooperatives, ran their affairs in exactly the same way.

Those days are long gone. 
The vast majority of those institutions went extinct decades ago,
abandoned in the course of America’s transformation from an active civil
society to a passive mass society, and even in the few organizations that
remain, it’s rare to find anybody who still remembers how to chair a meeting so
that all viewpoints get heard, the necessary decisions get made, and everyone
still gets home at a reasonable hour. The fetish for consensus politics among
activists on the left helped to finish the job, replacing old and effective
methods of organization with a system that simply doesn’t work.  I don’t suppose that my readers have yet
forgotten the torrents of self-praise that came out of Occupy Wall Street and
its equivalents last year, or more precisely from the activists who hijacked
the mass demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, pushed consensus methods on
them, used those methods to get control of the meetings and the money, and then
ran them into the ground. The result, as usual, was that most of the people who
had originally joined the protests simply walked away, once it became clear to
them that their voices had been coopted and their concerns would not be
addressed, and the activists drifted elsewhere once it became clear to them
that they no longer had an audience.

That’s the first consequence.  The second is that, by gutting the caucus
system, the American political system deprived itself of a crucial source of
guidance and feedback.  When neighborhood
caucuses were still debating political issues over mugs of beer and passing
their recommendations up the line to county, state, and national conventions,
canny politicians of both major parties paid attention, since shifts in the
political wind could be sensed there more quickly than elsewhere. Canny
politicians in the major parties also paid close attention to anything the
small parties did that attracted more than the usual number of voters—that’s
how labor unions were legalized, for example. That meant that serious problems
generally got attention from the political system:  not always quickly, and not always the kind
of attention that helped matters much, but more often than not it kept the US
from sailing blindly into disasters that everybody but the political class saw
well in advance.

The current political system doesn’t have that advantage.
These days American politics is a closed loop in which the competing pressure
groups that make up the political class need not listen to anyone outside of
their own narrow world of power brokers, corporate donors, and tame
intellectuals.  It’s a perfect culture
medium for groupthink, efficiently screening out the divergent voices and alternative
views a nation needs in order to survive in an uncertain and troubled world.

The third consequence is that the centralization of American
power, thorough as it was, never quite reached all the way down to the level of
structure.  Many European countries
scrapped their old regional provinces entirely in the process of centralizing
power, replacing the traditional geography of power with a new structure that
deliberately disrupted local ties and loyalties. The United States never
managed to break up the states, say, into a couple of hundred administrative
districts with boundaries that cut across the old state lines and only such
powers as Congress chooses to hand out. 
Instead, the states remain fully functional regional governments,
clinging jealously to what remains of their old prerogatives, and possessed of
certain rarely exercised powers that could turn out to be decisive in a time of
crisis. We’ll talk more about those next week.

****************
End of the World of the Week #33

Not every prophecy of doom that claims to be ancient is
actually ancient. Fans of the supposed Mayan origin of the current flurry of
2012 prophecies may find it useful to keep that in mind, as theirs is far from
the first time that some contemporary writer has foisted predictions onto a
much older and more famous figure.  One
example that comes to mind right away is the notorious Mother Shipton.

Ursula Shipton, née Southeil, was born around 1488 in
Yorkshire and died in 1561.According to a popular chapbook published six years
after her death, she was fabulously ugly, but a skilled fortune teller with a
more than local reputation.  Nearly all
her prophecies were about local Yorkshire events, and none featured the end of
the world.

That was remedied in 1862 when a hack writer named Charles
Hindley supplied Mother Shipton with a new set of prophecies, ending with the
couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

Needless to say, 1881 came and went without any particular
sign of doom, but Hindley’s invented prophecies have been circulated since his
time as Mother Shipton’s authentic prophecies. When I was in high school, a
version appeared that applied a useful update to that last couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In nineteen hundred and ninety-one.

1991, in turn, passed without apocalyptic incident.

—for
more failed end time prophecies, see this book Apocalypse
Not


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