Not often does a respected American commentator openly advocate a return to smoke-filled rooms, backroom deals and old-style pork. But that’s exactly what Jonathan Rauch does in a recent article in The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane”.
According to Mr. Rauch, politics is an intrinsically messy affair involving coalitions of hundreds if not thousands of politicians and interest groups. How do you line up these actors? How do you hold key players accountable, encourage collaboration and minimize disruptive self-dealing?
In the old days, political insiders (who Rauch calls “middlemen“) greased the wheels with under-the-table gifts, ‘special allocations’ and, on occasion, a trip to “the woodshed or the wilderness”.
Although “undemocratic, devious and secretive”, these practices enabled parties to recruit and nurture talent, vet candidates for loyalty, build donor bases, buy off antagonists, mediate disputes and – in general – facilitate the messy process of turning compromises into law.
In a word, they helped bring order from chaos. As an example, Rauch cites the Civil Rights Act, a deal made possible only because LBJ could offer Senator Charles Halleck “a big fat research grant” for his Indiana district.
Is this honorable? “No” responds Rauch, “but it’s politics. It’s what you need to give people the incentive to make things work”.
Too much sunshine
One big obstacle – at least in Western democracies – is that the “alluring aroma” of pork and “deals of dubious distinction” don’t sit well with voters.
After Watergate and the advent of in-depth investigative reporting, Americans began to demand stricter prohibitions on ‘Beltway insiders’. Between the 1970s and 1990s, rules requiring greater transparency (“sunshine laws”) were enacted, both at the state and federal levels. As a result, says Rauch, the nation gradually fell into “chaos syndrome”, a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization.
The problem, explained the author, is that while the old system broke down, nothing else replaced it. The old incentives and disincentives that once helped seal coalitions and forge deals were no longer available. Put differently, the system “atomized”.
“Chaos became the new normal,” said Rauch. “Both in political campaigns and in the government itself”.
Rauch claims that the wheelers-and-dealers who sealed deals in smoke filled rooms – the so-called middlemen – may have been “corrupt” (at least according to how we now define the term) but they were also untiring champions of both democracy and egalitarianism. To illustrate, he cites Tammany Hall, the infamously corrupt Democratic party machine that ruled over New York between the 1790s and early-20th century.
According to Rauch, Tammany Hall excelled at “organizing and representing unsophisticated voters”, helping (mostly Irish) immigrants gain political power “to the horror of many Progressives who viewed the working class as unfit to govern or even to vote”.
“Even the lowliest precinct walker or officeholder had a role and a voice and could expect a reward for loyalty; even the highest party boss had to cater to multiple constituencies and fend off periodic challengers.” The old-style system was hierarchical, but not authoritarian; strict but not inflexible.
Most important, Tammany Hall was effective. Boss Tweed – the famous politician later convicted for stealing up to $200 million from NYC taxpayers – single-handedly built the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, started construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, allocated land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, built dozens of orphanages and almshouses, and expanded social services at an unprecedented rate.
By mid-19th century, New York was awash in patronage and corruption – but also monumental achievements, full employment and an egalitarian society unmatched by any other city on earth.
The virtues of pork
Rauch doesn’t deny that corruption has the potential to subvert justice, or give unfair advantage to unscrupulous players. The problem, however, is not so much corruption per se but how we deal with corruption.
First, he says, it would be much better to avoid overreacting, as this has proven to be just as harmful as corruption itself. The sunshine laws, for example, force politicians to work in “fish bowls”, depriving them of any incentive to reach consensus.
For this reason, hyper-transparency is not the best way to tackle graft, says Rauch. As long as “backroom deals” are regarded as “unseemly”, compromise between opposing parties will be difficult if not impossible. Informal arrangements between elected officials and contributors may appear inappropriate, he claims, “but they play a vital role as political bonding agents”.
“They encourage coordination, inter-dependency, and mutual accountability. They discourage solipsistic and antisocial political behavior. … A turncoat or troublemaker, by contrast, could expect to encounter ostracism, marginalization, and difficulties with fund-raising”.
In Americans’ idealistic zeal, the nation threw out the baby with the bathwater. By demanding more transparency and depriving the “middlemen” of vital tools, says Rauch, America ended up “abusing and attacking (its) own immune system”.
Now, the nation is sick.
One symptom of this illness is the loss of what has historically been known as a “party leader”. According to Rauch, there are now only individual actors “pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon”.
Corruption as fate?
In many ways, this plea sounds familiar, a paean to the art of making “the ends justify the means”. The basic logic goes something like this: graft, kickbacks, patronage, nepotism… all are part of human nature. Any leader who deals with actors whose main interest is themselves and their constituents ignores this reality at their own peril.
Put differently, how can politicians be expected to govern effectively without perks, pork and ‘special allocations’? This is what officials from Latin America, Russia, Asia, Africa – arguably every continent on earth – think but rarely say.
Hearing it from a respected American is rarer still.