Progressive Review Home Page
An excerpt from "Shadows
of Hope" by Sam Smith
(Indiana University Press, 1994)
In 1816, Columbus, Ohio, had one
city councilmember for every hundred residents. By 1840 there
was one for every thousand residents. By 1872 the figure had
dwindled to one to every five thousand. By 1974, there was one
councilmember for every 55,000 people.
The first US congressional districts
contained less than 40,000 people; my current city councilmember
represents about twice that many. Today the average US representative
works for roughly 600,000 citizens. This is double the number
for legislatures in Brazil and Japan, and more than five times
as many as in Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy,
and West Germany.
It isn't just a matter of numbers.
Back in the early days of television and the late days of the
Daley era in Chicago, Jake Arvey was an important man in national
Democratic politics. At Democratic conventions, Walter Cronkite
and David Brinkley would ponder what Arvey was going to do; presidential
candidates would seek his blessing.
Yet Arvey's power base was not a
national organization nor telegenic charisma, but rather the
24th Ward of Chicago, from which he helped to run the city's
Another Chicago politician described
it this way: "Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries
of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before
it hits the ground there's already a personal history at headquarters,
complete to the moment of its tumble."
There was plenty wrong with the
Daley machine and others like it. One job seeker was asked at
a ward headquarters who had sent him. "Nobody," he
admitted. He was told, "We don't want nobody nobody sent."
Among those whom nobody sent were
women and minorities. The old machines were prejudiced, feudal
And so we eventually did away with
But reform breeds its own hubris
and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine
politics we also were breaking the links between politics and
the individual, politics and community, politics and social life.
We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.
George Washington Plunkitt would
not have been surprised. Plunkitt was a leader of Tammany Hall
and was, by the standards of our times and his, undeniably corrupt.
As his Boswell, newspaperman William Riordon, noted: "In
1870 through a strange combination of circumstances, he held
the places of Assemblyman, Alderman, Police Magistrate and County
Supervisor and drew three salaries at once -- a record unexampled
in New York politics.". Facing three bidders at a city auction
of 250,000 paving stones, he offered each 10,000 to 20,000 stones
free and having thus dispensed with competition bought the whole
lot for $2.50.
Tammany Hall was founded in 1854;
its golden age lasted until the three-term LaGuardia administration
began in 1934. For only ten intervening years was Tammany out
of office. We got rid of people like Plunkitt and machines like
Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government.
But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a philosophy
and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy
the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal
loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.
Plunkitt was not only corrupt but
a hardworking, perceptive and appealing politician who took care
of his constituents, qualities one rarely find in any plurality
of combinations in politics these days. Even our corrupt politicians
aren't what they used to be. Corruption once involved a complex,
if feudal, set of quid pro quos; today our corrupt politicians
rarely even tithe to the people.
Politics, Plunkitt said, "is
as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or
the drug business" and it was based on studying human nature.
He claimed to know every person in his district, their likes
and their dislikes:
"I reach them by approachin'
at the right side . . . For instance, here's how I gather in
the young men. I hear of a young feller that's proud of his voice,
thinks that he can sing fine. I ask him to come around to Washington
Hall and join our Glee Club. He comes and sings, and he's a follower
of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation
as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball
club. That fixes him. You'll find him workin' for my ticket at
the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin'
them opportunities to show themselves off. I don't trouble them
with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin'.
Plunkitt also believed in sticking
with his friends: "The politicians who make a lastin' success
in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends,
even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary."
His prescription for becoming a
statesman was to go out an get supporters. Even if it's only
one man. . . and then you get his cousin and his cousin and so
on until you have your own organization. It was a principle that
worked well for Tammany Hall, which at its height early this
century had 32,000 committeemen and was forced to use Madison
Square Garden for its meetings. In contrast, when the Democratic
National Committee decided to send a mailing to all its workers
a few years ago, it found that no one had kept a list. The party
had come to care only about its donors.
But most of all Plunkitt believed
in taking care of his constituents. Nothing so dramatically illustrates
this than a typical day for Plunkitt as recorded by Riordon:
"Plunkitt was aroused a two
am to bail out a saloonkeeper who had been arrested for tax law
violations. At six he was again awakened, this time by fire engines.
Tammany leaders were expected to show up at fires to give aid
"At 8:30 am he was getting
six drunk constituents released. At nine he was in court on another
case. At eleven, upon returning home, he found four voters seeking
assistance. At three he went to the funeral of an Italian, followed
by one for a Jew.
"At seven PM he had a district
captains' meeting. At eight he went to a church fair. At nine
he was back at the party clubhouse listening to the complaints
of a dozen pushcart peddlers. At 10:30 he went to a Jewish wedding,
having "previously sent a handsome wedding present to the
bride." He finally got to bed at midnight."
"By these means the Tammany
district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps
watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children,
knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and
their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge
for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder
that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it
speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?"
These glimpses are instructive because
they contrast so markedly with the impersonal, abstract style
of politics to which we have become accustomed. It was, to be
sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew
whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition
was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo
told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:
"I ain't got no axes to grind.
You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town
and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen?
On election day we'd beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don't
run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders.
Me, Vito Marzullo. that's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election
day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .
"My home is open 24 hours a
day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing
spell, I'll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for
anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, 'Let your
conscience be your guide.'"
In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo,
politics was not something handed down to the people through
such intermediaries as Larry King. It was not the product of
spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It
welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower,
one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What
defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory
Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't
have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate,
Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for
the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted
to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny's
brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of
the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary
politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter
could with greater regularity count on something in return.
In fact, we didn't really do away
with machines, we just replaced them. As Tammany Hall and the
Crump and the Hague and the Daley organizations faded, new political
machines appeared. Prime among them was television but there
were others such as the number-crunchers, policy pushers and
lawyers running Washington, as well as a new breed of political
professional, including campaign consultants, fundraisers and
The curious, and ultimately destructive,
quality of some of these new machines -- particularly the media
and the political pros -- was that they had such little interest
in policies or democracy; rather they were concerned with professional
achievement or television ratings or making a buck. When one
of the most skilled of the new pros, James Carville, was asked
whether he would take a post in the Clinton administration, he
admitted candidly that he only knew about winning elections;
he didn't know about governing. And his Clinton campaign side-kick
Paul Begala once remarked, "Someone says issue; I say gesundheit."
Of course, some of the new machines
were very much interested in politics. Whether in the guise of
public interest groups, trade associations or corporate PACs,
these organizations became our surrogates in politics.
The political action committees,
created as a reform, helped to legalize and institutionalize
corruption. And even those organizations professing the most
noble causes often came to be run with all the democratic spirit
of, say, the American Asbestos Promotion Council. Increasingly
they began to emulate the operational style of their most detested
opponents, seeing their own members largely as a source of funds
and over time coming to accept the Beltway assumption that amending
line 3 of Section 1 of Title 6 was the moral equivalent of progress.
The people of the country recognize
the problem but are understandably confused as to what to about
it. It is, for example, hard to devise a plan of action if the
media consistently shuts its eye to new ideas or programs not
part of the existing system. To be noticed, an idea must first
be successful, but to be successful it must first be noticed.
The media tends to takes a pass on this conundrum, accepting
the notion that those things that are wrong must be corrected
by and within the system. Yet it is somewhere in that assortment
of readily dismissed new proposals, concepts and schemes that
the solutions to our crises inevitably lie.
Writer John Gall has said that "systems
tend to oppose their proper functions." The ideal proper
function of the American system is life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness. Yet as it gropes its way, the system in reality
increasingly endangers human life, denies personal liberty and
represses individual happiness.
It is not a particularly graceful
or perceptive way in which to end our era of empire. We have
no DeGaulle or Mountbatten to help ease the way from the imperial
to the more mundane. Indeed, most of our leaders seem possessed
of one or both of two notions: either that the system is working
despite all contra-indications or that history can be reversed
by a few pieces of well-chosen legislation or by a cleverly designed
propaganda campaign: Just Say No to Facts.
Unfortunately, complex failing systems
have little capacity to save themselves. In part this is because
the solutions come from the same source as the problem. The public
rarely questions the common provenance; official Washington and
the media honor it. Even a failure as miserable as that of Vietnam
had little effect on the careers of its major protagonists, those
men who not only were wrong but were wrong at the cost of 50,000
American lives. They remain quoted copiously, cited as experts
and transmogrified into statesmen. Failure compounded with notoriety
is worth still more. Thus, Henry Kissinger and Oliver North can
count on much larger lecture fees than, say, Marion Wright Edelman
or Barbara Jordan.
Complex systems usually try to save
themselves by doing the same they have been doing badly all along
-- only harder. This is because the salvation of the system is
implicitly considered far more important than the solution of
any problems causing the system to fail. We have seen some dramatic
examples of this phenomenon in recent times. The Vietnamese War
quickly became a battle to justify the decision to enter it.
As it lost all other purpose, the system became incapable of
facing either battlefield or political reality until confronted
with a proto-revolution of the young.
The question we ought to be asking
is not what a failing system should be doing but whether such
a system can do anything except to make matters worse, all the
more so by trying to do something about it. The problem is similar
to that illustrated by President Eisenhower's bumbling agriculture
secretary Ezra Taft Bensen. When Bensen announced that he would
be working day and night on the farm problem, another politician
wisely commented, "I wish he wouldn't. He was causing enough
trouble when he was just working days."
Ironically, we have come to our
present unhappy state in no small part because of our willingness
to turn over individual and communal functions to the very systems
we now ask to save us.
Functions formerly performed by
community, family and church have now been assumed not only by
government but to an increasing but unappreciated degree by the
private corporation. Consider the modern shopping mall, a common
contemporary replacement for a town business district. Although
these complexes clearly serve a public function (and are often
built with considerable public concessions), they are in fact
controlled by a single corporation. This corporation may, without
any consultation with the persons who use the mall, enact a wide
variety of laws that will be enforced by the public police. There
have been repeated cases where corporate owners have sought to
deny the public its constitutional rights (such as those of the
First Amendment) on the grounds that the petitioners were on
private property. The village square has thus been privatized.
High-rise apartment buildings offer
another example of corporate autocracy. High-rise owners sometimes
brag in their advertising of the wonderful 'community' they have
created for their tenants, but unlike a traditional community,
the rules for trash collection, control of pets and barbecue
grills, and security, are not decided by an elected council but
by the corporate lord of the manor.
Meanwhile, both liberals and conservatives
(although consistently denying it) act repeatedly on behalf of
state centralization, the difference being that conservatives
tend to want the government to assume controlling functions while
liberals and progressives want government to take over caring
functions. Thus under conservatives, we get more missiles and
prisons, while under liberals we get more day care centers and
farm subsidies. Since few of these programs evaporate upon a
change of administration, there is a growing bipartisan intervention
of government in our social and cultural lives.
Government and corporations are
poor surrogates for families and community. Since, however, much
of their growing influence comes in the arguable name of progress,
we seldom address the long--range effects of such change. As
the system becomes more cumbersome, we happily embrace solutions
that seem to offer individuals at least a fighting chance in
their struggles with it. We willingly suspend seemingly abstract
doubts in order to survive. We may, for example, wonder what
children raised in corporate or government day care centers will
actually turn out to be like, but we do not wonder too long or
too loudly because our economic system appears to offer little
In fact, this is not really true.
We can ask the how of what we do as well as the what; it is simply
that the nature of our political conversation seldom seems to
allow us the opportunity.
In 1910, G. K. Chesterton described
two characters, Hudge and Gudge, whose thinking evolved in such
a disparate manner that the one came to favor the building of
large public tenements for the poor while the other believed
that these public projects were so awful that the slums from
whence they came were in fact preferable. Wrote Chesterton:
"Such is the lamentable history
of Hudge and Gudge; which I merely introduced as a type of an
endless and exasperating misunderstanding which is always occurring
in modern England. To get men out of a rookery, men are put into
a tenement; and at the beginning the healthy human soul loathes
them both. A man's first desire is to get away as far as possible
from the rookery, even should his mad course lead him to a model
dwelling. His second desire is, naturally, to get away from the
model dwelling, even if it should lead a man back to the rookery.
But I am neither Hudgian nor a Gudgian. . . Neither Hudge nor
Gudge had ever thought for an instant what sort of house a man
might probably like for himself. In short, they did not begin
with the ideal; and, therefore, were not practical politicians."
Much of American politics follows
the Hudge-Gudge model, producing failure for both conservatives
and liberals -- the former offering us an army of the homeless
and the latter presenting us finally with drug-infested housing
To break this cycle, we must not
only change our political policies but the very way we regard
politics. Until we bring politics home -- devolving its power,
abdicating its phony expertise, and undermining its arrogance
-- we will remain trapped in a temple to a false god.
Bart Giamatti, long before he became
baseball commissioner, wrote:
"Baseball is about going home
and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It
tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again
but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once
more, the bat and oar over the shoulder, until there is an end
to all journeying."
True politics, in imitation of baseball,
the great American metaphor, is also about going home. Members
of Congress consider it the sine qua non of their routine. Presidential
candidates engage in an elaborate if disingenuous ceremony of
finding the American home during primary season. And in between,
everyone in politics pays extraordinary attention to political
shamans like Gallup and Roper whose magical powers center upon
their understanding of what's happening "at home."
Yet like so much in our national
life, we are only going through the motions, paying ritualistic
obeisance to a faith we no longer follow. In fact, we have lost
our way home.
A few years back I attended a planning
session for a liberal conference that was to focus on the Bill
of Rights. Several of us suggested that we might consider what
the Bill of Rights left out and proposed a panel on the "natural
rights" of Americans. The idea excited me because it offered
an opportunity to examine what it meant to be a real live American
human, not merely an American legal or economic entity. It might
be the beginning, for liberals at least, of restoring the idea
of the actual individual -- rather than the aggregated individual
-- to the center of their thought and policies.
The idea was quickly shot down,
in part because it was argued that the poor and the suffering
did not have the luxury of such "New Age" concepts.
Locke, Rousseau and Madison were not exactly proto-hippies and
the Declaration of Independence was not written by Jerry Brown,
but these traditional liberals simply could not see beyond the
question of economic rights.
We had touched on the hidden debate
of American politics. On one side stand the liberals, the conservatives
and the Marxists and on the other the libertarians, greens, and
decentralist progressives. What, we were really discussing, is
In one corner -- the one preferred
by capitalists, Marxists and many liberals -- are those who see
the individual as possessing certain rights, but still being
at heart primarily an economic creature.
In the other corner are those who
see the human franchise extending far beyond matters of survival
and fiscal equity to include the right of privacy, the right
of the individual as inherently superior to that of a corporation,
the right to follow one's own moral vision, the right to make
one's own mistakes in peace, the right of a community to govern
itself and the right of a citizen to be served by the state and
not be a servant of that state. Oh yes, there is also the oft
forgotten right to be happy.
Somehow it had seemed relevant that
on the 300th anniversary of what might be called liberalism's
first position paper -- in which John Locke argued that the state
exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens -- that
we spend some time on humans as other than creatures of government.
Three hundred years later, however, these leading American liberals
couldn't understand what Locke was talking about.
Such issues may seem far removed
from the drug wars of our cities. Yet the armed zombies wandering
our streets are grim examples of what can be produced by a society
that pretends they don't matter. By caring only marginally for
the economic survival of our inner cities and not at all for
their soul or culture, by denying individual dignity and worth
to their residents, by refusing them money, power or even adequate
audience, the system has created the environment in which the
drug wars have flourished.
Here is the payoff for not caring
about the intangibles of human existence; for providing education,
shelter and social services on the cheap; and for excessive faith
in a megasystem that cannot respond to a reality that stretches
only a few blocks. Following the advice of Daniel Burnam, we
have made no small plans and thus we find ourselves, finally,
with no solutions applicable to the small and real places in
which each of us live.
We cannot hope to work our way out
this dilemma by more great plans and massive "wars."
We must take the time to recreate what we have destroyed. Just
as we are cleaning up the toxic wastes, the fouled rivers and
the noxious atmosphere that is our environmental legacy, so we
must confront the ecological destruction of our political system.
We must do this to have a reason for America to continue to exist.
The conflict can no longer be the phony battle between liberals
and conservatives that leave us the Hudge-Gudge choice between
control by huge corporations, huge government, or a conspiracy
between the two. The question is whether we can restore the individual
and the community to the center of American political life.
In the 1960s, Robert McNamara declared,
"Running any large organization is the same, whether it's
the Ford Motor Company, the Catholic Church or the Department
of Defense. Once you get to a certain scale, they're all the
same." And so, increasingly to our detriment, they are.
In 1993 we "changed" administrations, but, unless challenged
by a new politics, this will largely leave unchanged that which
is administered. We must learn and teach, and make a central
part of our politics, that while small is not always beautiful,
it has -- for our human ecology, our liberties, and our souls
-- become absolutely essential.
Politics, of course, is not a neat
place. A young legislator once asked Earl Long whether ideals
had any place in politics. "Hell yes," said Ol' Earl,
"you should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get
your hands on."
Politics is the sound of the air
coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music
of hope. Vaclav Havel says that genuine politics is "simply
a matter of serving those around us, serving the community, and
serving those who will come after us. " James Michael Curley
put it this way: "Wherever I have found a thistle, I endeavored
to replace it with a rose."
Politics is laundry lists and dirty
laundry, new hospitals and old hates, finding out what others
think about it, and the willing suspension of our closest beliefs
in order to get through the next month or year. It is, suggested
one writer, a matter of who gets what, when, where, and how.
Not least, as Paul Begala says, "it is show business for
ugly people," a theater in which each voter and candidate
writes a different morality play.
In the end, the only test of political
faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded
on a curve -- not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement
over all previous, adjacent and potential imperfections. Havel
says that "It is not true that a person of principle does
not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be
leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion,
and an understanding of others." This is the part of politics
that doesn't appear in any platform. Done badly, it becomes demagoguery
and manipulation. Done well it makes every voter a part of the
office the politician holds. It is a standard to which every
person in office, including our presidents, can be held.
If we choose, we can move empires.
John Adams understood this. The American Revolution, he said,
"was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was
in the minds and hearts of the people . . . This radical change
in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the
people was the real American Revolution."
Finally, we can not be free if we
can not retrieve the part of politics that once made it a natural,
integral and pleasurable part of our lives, and if it now becomes
so distant or so dirty or so cruel that we would rather not even
think or speak about it. Someone else, to our great danger, will
fill our silence.