I enjoyed seeing, in The Washington Post today, a Muslim from birth and son of an Islamic scholar explaining the American political system to Donald Trump, and other “real” Americans who are as confused about it as the Donald is.
I refer to Fareed Zakaria’s weekly column. An excerpt:
Having recently discovered how the nomination process works in the Republican Party, Donald Trump is furious. “They wanted to keep people out,” he bellowed. “This is a dirty trick.” In fact, Mr. Trump is right on the first count and wrong on the second. Political parties do have mechanisms to “keep people out.” But far from being a trick, they are the crux of what makes parties valuable in a democracy.
Clinton Rossiter begins his classic book “Parties and Politics in America” with this declaration: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties.” In a large and diverse country, to get things done, people need devices to navigate the political system, organize themselves, channel particular interests and ideologies, and negotiate with others who have differing interests and views. Political parties have traditionally played this role in the United States. And they have often played it as a counterweight to the momentary passions of the public.
At the heart of the American political party is the selection of its presidential candidate. This process used to be controlled by party elites — mayors, governors, legislators. In the early 20th century, an additional mechanism was added to test a candidate’s viability on the campaign trail: primaries. Still, between 1912 and 1968, the man who won a party’s presidential primaries became the nominee less than half the time. Dwight Eisenhower was chosen not by primary voters but in a complex, contested convention.
1968 was the year things changed….
… and not for the better. That was when the Democrats, and then the Republicans turned toward letting primaries decide.
Which was when the parties lost the one characteristic that made them useful — providing the service of vetting candidates so that total whack jobs didn’t show up on the November ballot.
I remember the late David Broder waxing nostalgic about what parties had once been, and he hoped, could be again: entities that asked candidates the key question of “Who sent you?” — meaning, what reliable person or people vouch for you? The problem he was lamenting is that too often, the answer had become “I sent myself.” Which is how you get socially dysfunctional egoists such as Trump — and Ted Cruz — threatening to take the GOP nomination.
My response to that was that to the extent parties played that vetting role in the distant past, there was no sign they were prepared to play it now. And as I said then and now, the evil parties do greatly outweigh any slight benefit they still provide.
Anyway, I thank Mr. Zakaria for providing this small history lesson to people like the caller I heard on NPR this week who wanted to know why convention delegates had any say in the nominating process….
“I remember the late David Broder waxing nostalgic about what parties had once been, and he hoped, could be again: entities that asked candidates the key question of “Who sent you?” — meaning, what reliable person or people vouch for you? ”
Of all people to wax nostalgic for the old Chicago machine.
“Who sent you?”
“We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
This was the glue that held the machine together; you only did a favor to someone you owed a favor to. Not exactly what you mean here, I suspect.
It’s also how the Mob used to run: You get in because someone vouches for you — the way Pacino’s character did for Donnie Brasco.
Yes, what did away with that essential vetting function were things we regard as reforms. But with things that are gained, often other worthwhile things are lost.
Which reminds me — you in particular should appreciate this…
On another post, I make a reference to patronage, vis-a-vis post-Watergate morality…
You know how I first heard the word patronage? Or at least, it was my first memory of hearing of it…
It had to do with the shenanigans of Ray Blanton.
This of course, was right after I got into journalism, at The Jackson Sun — which in turn was right after Watergate. Our star political writer was John Parish, who was engaged in a titanic battle against the corruption of the Blanton regime. (At one point Blanton transferred John’s wife, who worked for the state social services agency, to the other end of the state, forcing her to quit her job.)
The word “patronage” came up a lot, in contexts that made me see it as synonymous with “corruption.”
It was only years later that I realized (correct me if I’m wrong about this) that the term didn’t necessarily always have such negative connotations…. that it was sometimes used to refer to the team that gets elected getting to hire its own people — which to some extent is related to the legitimate idea that elections have consequences. In other words, it’s legitimate for voters to expect that when they elect, say, a Republican, there will be Republicans running the government.
Most of the country has long tried to strike a balance, of course, between legitimate patronage and the corrupt kind — putting some employees under civil service protection, while classifying other jobs as “political.”
Something else it took me awhile to learn… I thought at the time, being such a rookie, that Blanton was an anomaly, an unusually corrupt individual. Only later did I learn how, shall we say, routine behavior like his was within the Tennessee Democratic Party, especially during the Crump years, but apparently beyond those days as well.
I learned that in part from getting to know some individuals who were a lot older than I was, but who had been Republicans all their lives — not as a statement of favoring Country Club sensibilities or rejecting the Civil Rights Act, but because they hated corruption, and would have nothing to do with the Democratic Party. I’m talking West Tennessee here; not East Tennessee. John D. Graham (a journalist turned local politico) was one such longtime Republican who told me some interesting tales of the old days.
Anyway, does any of this strike any chords with you?…
Following up–Some of us remember just why things changed in 1968, and it had to do precisely with that Chicago machine and its sometimes brutal failure to acknowledge new forces in political life. Parties do indeed serve important purposes, but one of their most important is helping people hook up their aspirations and anxieties with political goals. That’s why the most politically engaged people are usually partisans, not above-it-all mugwumps like a certain mutual acquaintance of ours. But a serious weakness with parties is their inability to cope with drastic change in the deep realities faced by the voting public. Such failure led to the collapse of the Whigs in the 1850s, and the turmoil that overtook the Democratic Party in the 1920s before the Depression and FDR pulled its chestnuts out of the fire. The same was true of the failure of elite control of the Dems in 1968, and it’s arguably the same with the Republicans now; many of their constituents need something other than the old “conservative” bromides, but they’re incapable of offering anything without the Koch or the DeMint seal of approval. It’s a natural process, one we’ve seen before.
“Parties do indeed serve important purposes, but one of their most important is helping people hook up their aspirations and anxieties with political goals.”
People are always telling me that, but since I have never in my adult life seen a political party that would be a viable channel for achieving my “political goals,” it’s very hard even to imagine.
As for “aspirations and anxieties”… those words tap into something that makes me uncomfortable about our politics. They sound… personal. They sound like the words people use when they talk about their own individual interests, and I’ve always considered voting with the intention of somehow benefiting oneself to be, at the very least, unseemly.
I realize millions of people do indeed vote that way (the evidence to that effect seems pretty strong), but that doesn’t make it right in my book. I do my best to vote honestly for the policies most likely to benefit the country and the world as a whole, not myself. It’s not that I’m so noble or anything, I just don’t want to give my conscience any more excuse to nag at me…