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Bringing politics home
An excerpt from "Shadows of Hope" by Sam Smith
(Indiana University Press, 1994)

Progressive Review Home Page

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 Democratic machine.

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 corrupt.

And so we eventually did away with them.

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 and comfort.

"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."

Concluded Riordon:

"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 and gratitude.

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 pollsters.

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 other alternative.

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 projects.

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 politics about?.

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.