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 my book Apocalypse Not