June 28, 2007 - Issue 235

National Affairs
A Central Paradox of American Politics
By Lawrence R. Velvel, JD
BC Columnist

It is always nice to learn that one is not the only person in the world to hold an idea that others would find so antagonistic or erroneous that one utters it but rarely. It happens occasionally me because I read books (and occasionally when reading internet stuff or even, amazingly enough - but very rarely - when reading mass media journals). But usually it happens, if at all, when reading a book. It happened this weekend when reading a new biography of Henry Horner, written by Charles Masters, a Chicago lawyer, historian and writer. The book is called Governor Henry Horner, Chicago Politics, and the Great Depression.

Horner was the Jewish governor of Illinois during the Depression, from 1932-1940. At that time he and, I believe, Herbert Lehman of New York, were apparently the only two Jews who had ever been Governor of a state. (Have there been any since?) As a young Jewish kid growing up in Chicago in the 1940s and first half of the 1950s, I occasionally (but not often) heard his name. So, when a cousin sent me the new biography, I at least knew who Horner had been, albeit not much more.

Masters thinks that, as a politician, Horner was something of a fish out of water. He had been a successful probate judge before becoming Governor, and his personal characteristics were suitable for a judge, not a governor. (Masters feels he performed admirably as a governor despite this.) He was honest, careful, even painstaking, thoughtful and reflective, deeply concerned about individuals, not one to bash opponents or smash away at them (in ways that existed then and are de rigueur today), something of a reader, even an intellectual perhaps, a micromanager, very concerned to do the right thing and to help people. Events ultimately forced him to be a son of a bitch in the mid and late1930s, but this was contrary to his nature; indeed, Masters believes the stress of it, and of acting contrary to his instincts, eventually killed him, albeit being a son of a bitch enabled him to triumph over powerful pols, some of whom I remember from my youth. This is to some extent fodder for a fire I tend, because I believe, and have extensively written in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam, that one of the bitter lessons of Amerika with a K is that being a son of a bitch is what leads to success in this country, and that nice people, as Leo Derocher said, finish last, get stepped on. The great trick, which Horner did not learn, it seems, is to accept in your heart that you must be a son of a bitch, and not feel too badly about it, even though your nature and upbringing should rebel at it, as Horner’s seems to have.

This leads to a point Masters makes near the very end of the book - the point which I was pleased to read because it shows that at least one other person thinks something that I think. (Is it conceivably possible that this agreement arises from having the same ethnic and geographic background? The older I get, the more I find that there was (is) a certain Chicago, perhaps even Chicago Jewish, style from the 1930s or so, on to perhaps the 1960s. I have a hunch that Ira Berkow, the long time New York Times writer, who grew up in Chicago when I did (we knew each other slightly), thinks there was (is) such an intellectual style. I seem to recollect that it has been said to be exemplified at the highest levels by Saul Bellow, whom I find impossible to read, ironically enough.) Here is part of the passage in which Masters concludes with three sentences stating the point I have in mind.

“Horner’s experience reveals that a politician who wants to survive and prosper must spend an inordinate amount of time playing party politics, cultivating powerful interests, strategizing elections, and building an organization to sustain his or her interests, not simply working on the people’s issues. Hard work and goodwill are not enough. And yet, upon his death, it was generally agreed that Horner had been the kind of man that most people wanted in office; he simply couldn’t survive in office the way he was or wanted to. This is a central paradox of American politics today, I believe. What we want, we often won’t elect. What is it about a good man or woman that is an impediment to the functioning of the power structure?”

Master’s view of a central paradox is inordinately close to my own, maybe even identical to it. For it is my view that in America today, the very fact that a politician wins high office demonstrates almost conclusively that he or she is not fit to hold it. The traits it takes to win are nonstop, years-long campaigning that leaves one no time to reflect, (lack of reflectiveness anyway), willingness to mouth the platitudes of the day, a desire to say things that sound good even though they’re stupid, jingoism (ala Giuliani’s bullshit remark to Ron Paul in South Carolina), avidity for savaging opponents, avoidance of crucial issues whenever possible, no need to show a prior record of accomplishment in business, the professions, academics or other areas in which success usually requires at least some degree of substantive competence. Success in gaining election signifies only that one is a dealer in baloney and not that one is an avatar of efficiency or substantive competence. The traits needed to be truly successful in office, once elected, however, are usually quite different from what it takes to be elected. The ability to think, the ability to determine which polices are more likely to succeed, a desire and ability to say things that are true, principle, honesty, effectiveness in running organizations - it is substantive traits that determine success in carrying out an office.

The Presidency is the most visible example of this. I have had people I am close to say that I’m just an aginner or worse because I seem not to like any President. But what’s to like when you go through the roster of disasters who have held the office since at least 1964. All of these jerks had the traits necessary to win office, but once in office, almost all were disasters (pace Reagan worshippers), and most were dishonest, lying bums. Shall one go through the list of liars since 1964? They include Johnson, Nixon (who lied about everything all the time), Reagan, Clinton and Bush II. And even if one doesn’t consider Ford, Carter and Bush I to be liars, they were at least not very successful (with liars Johnson, Nixon and Bush II being even more unsuccessful). And not to be forgotten are some of the truly horrendous human beings cum war criminals whom some of these bums brought to power, people like Kissinger (who, like Nixon, lied and lied and lied), Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and, perhaps sadly because of his later regrets and immense brainpower, Robert McNamara.

* * * * * *

What is to be done about what Charles Masters has so trenchantly called “a central paradox of American politics today”? Is there anything that can be done?

It no doubt is arrant arrogance and disgusting self flattery to feel one knows what has to be done. Yet, even if one nevertheless feels he may have a few possible ideas, one also knows that as a practical matter they are incapable of accomplishment in today’s America. Eisenhower formally warned of the military-industrial complex, which would oppose various needed changes, but there are also other complexes that would likewise oppose most or all of what has to be done. One could name the two-major-party complex, the two-party-plus-the-(incompetent)-media complex, the pols-plus-the-campaign-contributors complex, the right-wing-plus-the-Supreme Court complex, and others besides.

Nevertheless, here goes nuthin’.

It is critical, to begin with, that there be a new, wholly independent third party. I recently heard it said - I believe by Glenn Greenwald of Salon on a radio show (What The Media Won’t Tell You) on which I interviewed him for an hour - that we currently have one major party with two branches. That strikes me as correct, and the Democrats have done their best to prove it correct since the 2006 election. We desperately need a new party to stand for honesty, reflectiveness, a nonmilitaristic, nonimperalistic stance in the world, decent policies at home to help the average guy instead of ever greater help to and enabling of the ever richer rich who already are filthy rich, and sound environmental policies.

There are some nascent third party movements already in existence, but they strike me as just vehicles for existing pols. That won’t do the job, as was found out by, say, the People’s Party and the Populists of the Gilded Age, or George Wallace and - a much better person - John Anderson in later years. Nor did Ross Perot or Ralph Nader cut it, one coming across as a wacko and the other having waited decades too long (as well as for other reasons). No, a successful third party cannot be a vehicle for existing pols or for egotists like Perot or Nader. It must instead be a mass movement of the honest and decent, of the people who haven’t been listened to.

I do know one individual who is contemplating such a third party, and I do have some other persons in mind whom I think would be honest, intelligent candidates, and who would be a breath of fresh air. All one can say is, we shall see. Meanwhile I am not overly hopeful, lest there be the equivalent of what somebody called A promise to the ear, broken to the heart.

There also needs to be a vast change in our election system, partly so that a third party could have at least some success and partly just to have a better system wholly aside from any third party. In most states and for much or most of our history, the election system has been run on a winner take all basis. Whoever gets the most votes for President in a particular state gets all of the state’s votes in the Electoral College. Whoever gets the most votes in a congressional district wins the congressional seat, so that the entire congressional delegation of a state, or virtually the entire delegation, can come from one party - can be all Republicans or all Democrats - even though, if one simply counted up all the votes in the state for one party and all the votes for the other, they might come out 55% to 45% or 60/40 or 52/48.

Over the course of time, the Electoral College and the winner take all system that we follow has been vigorously, even unanimously, defended by politicians, political scientists, the media, and so forth. It is time for it to be changed. There are nascent movements to change the Electoral College and to create a partially or wholly proportional representation system at many levels of government, right down to city elections. Proposed changes have been written about a fair amount (e.g., by Steven Hill), and I shall not canvass the pros and cons here (with one exception). Generally speaking, suffice to say that changes will be bitterly opposed, and opponents will make the age old claim that changes would destabilize the country. But we have seen the kind of pass the nation has now come to (and came to in the Gilded Age and the Depression) because of a calcified two-party system.

I have read that oft times scientific controversies are not settled, they merely become superannuated because they are irrelevant to and ignored by the next generation. Something like that seems to me in order today with regard to our rigid, calcified, unresponsive two-party system. Its apologists can offer all of their traditional defenses, but we have seen that in its unalloyed form, it doesn’t work well. There must be at least some admixture of proportional representation (the exception that I said would be mentioned) so that good people who are honest, thoughtful, and interested in getting a substantive job done competently can have a chance to be elected, can by being elected serve as models who can push for what ought to be done, and, by pushing for what ought to be done, can make it happen, and happen far earlier than otherwise.

Let me frankly say in this regard that there is a point of view in this country which holds that what has occurred in politics is that good people have become trapped in a bad system. Al Gore apparently says this. I disagree with it. One concedes, one proclaims, that the system has gotten bad, but one does not concede that the people in it are good, that supposedly “good” people have become trapped in the bad system. A person should be judged by what he or she does (not just by what he or she says). Judging by what our politicians do - judging by their dishonesty, their failures to support good policies or achieve desirable goals, by their selling out to campaign contributors (viz. Hillary Clinton - big time), our politicians are not good people trapped in a bad system, they are bad people. They are bad people making use of, taking advantage of, a bad system. We need to create a system in which at least some good persons can have a chance to be elected in order to show the way to better policies and a better society. Some form of admixture of proportional representation into our otherwise entirely winner take all system might well achieve this.

All of this leads to yet another point, by the way. Today a lot of good people, intelligent people who are driven to actually accomplish things rather than to just talk, wouldn’t spit on politics, let alone practice politics by running for office and having to do all the horrible things one must do in a campaign and in politics in our calcified two-party system. Since admixture of proportional representation might enable good people, accomplishment oriented people, to practice politics outside the now almost entirely corrupt two-party system, it might succeed in bringing the good people, honest, thoughtful, accomplishment-oriented people, into politics.

Finally, let me mention one of the most fundamental changes that is needed, a change in the philosophy under which this nation operates. We are a nation more given to secrets and secrecy than almost anyone wants to admit. We like to consider ourselves an open country, not a secretive one. But it is not true. Secrecy exists at every level of activity. It exists in government at every level, in corporations, in universities, in medicine, in law in certifying bodies, everywhere. The subject is way, way too huge to get into very deeply here, but more is now being written on it, most recently in a new book by Ted Gup called A Nation Of Secrets.

Secrecy is defended on a host of bases: individual, privacy, national security, corporate confidentiality, the need for doctors to have private case discussions in order to improve care, the sensationalistic writing and broadcasts of most of the media when it learns of things that were secret, and a score of other reasons. But the problem is that secrecy is the progenitor of evil. And while not everything that is secret spawns evil, all evil is spawned in secret. I am insuperably pressed to think of a single humanly caused disaster in my lifetime that did not have its origins in matters that were at first secret. That, of course, is only logical. If potential evil is not kept secret, if it is a matter of public information from the get-go, it is likely to meet strong opposition from the get-go and is far less likely to succeed. (Hitler did tell us his views in Mein Kampf long before he had power. But would the world have stood idly by after he got control of the German state and military in the 1930s if he had then openly announced that he intended to take over all of Europe and to murder the Jews, Gypsies, and others. Somehow one thinks the French might have gone into the Rhineland, which they easily could have done, instead of letting Hitler walk into it unopposed. Nor does one think pacifism, and failure to rearm, would have continued to carry the day in England. Hitler would have been stopped before he began.)

Because secrecy is the progenitor of evil, ways must be found to greatly lessen it in this country, to lessen it at every level and walk of life. For as Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. What was said above with regard to scientific controversies and proportional representation applies here too. All the long propagated reasons for secrecy will continue to be put forward, but they are superannuated, and should be ignored, because they have been enablers of evil. No doubt some secrecy, some confidentiality, will have to be maintained. But we must greatly lessen it. And, in this connection, there is an old saw that provides a good general rule for people to follow so that a lessening of secrecy will not harm them (or even if secrecy is not lessened): if you wouldn’t want to see something mentioned on the front page of The New York Times the next morning, then don’t do it.

Finally, one word about the mass media, an especial bete noire of mine. Lincoln recognized that what the media says is vital to the ability to govern. That has not changed. And, as often discussed here, the mainstream media is a threat to good governing in this country today. The media should change, and the change should begin in schools of journalism, whose graduates too often are nothing but trained hacks who know little substance and rarely discuss substance. As was discussed with Glenn Greenwald on the radio interview mentioned earlier, perhaps the impact of the mass media, in impoverishing our knowledge and our discourse, will ultimately be far less consequential because of the rise of the blogosphere and other internet phenomena, which give so many more people an opportunity to put ideas before the public. One hopes so. Yet, unless and until the blogosphere and other internet phenomena completely take over for the media, it would still seem desirable for the mass media to improve dramatically in its understanding and presentation of substance.

BC columnist Lawrence R. Velvel, JD, is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. Click here to contact Dean Velvel.


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