"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Spaniard in the Works

Jon Rauch's ebook and Atlantic article defending political machines are eye-openers. Did it ever occur to you -- and I assume you are not a paid political consultant -- did it ever occur to you that there was other than a post hoc defense for political secrecy and cronyism and back-room deal-making? That "if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor" was not just Lie of the Year but also a mark of high statesmanship? I don't mean mumbling something about "what're ya gonna do, this is just the way it's done" and shaking your head before announcing an excuse to leave the conversation. I mean, would you ever consider -- could you even imagine -- for no cash remuneration, mind you -- offering an enthusiastic case that the low art of politics is not just a lesser evil when compared to razor blades and lemon juice, but a positively desirable state of affairs?

If you answered no, then Rauch may prove an interesting subject for study. Rauch argues that political machines are actually quite sensible and balanced, and that ideas and their advocates -- "purists" -- are the enemy, the spanner in the works. Power and secrecy, in this telling, are the essence of liberty and democracy. Liberty and democracy themselves, when cited in challenge to the machines, only endanger themselves. If you love your ideals, in other words, you'll let them go: the machine will deliver them back to you.

Rauch's argument is not exactly specious. In fact, I'll grant his premises as true: Tammany-esque political machines  yield more or less stable and tolerable political compromises and responsiveness, and conversely -- and more importantly -- weakening the political machines creates a more fractured, ungovernable politics. That is, if the GOP continues to drift apart along its Ryan/Trump/Freedom Caucus lines, and the Democrats fracture along their Clinton/Warren/Venezuela lines, we'll be less likely to pass a budget that will face the national debt, and more likely to disrupt services many Americans depend on. 

So our tools don't coexist well: ideas need transparency, but machines need back rooms; ideas need advocates, but ideologues make poor deals; we elect politicians, but get results from machines; and we seek the good, but machines offer only the expedient. 

The real trouble is that machines only work when you don't notice them. Once fellows like Rauch make them an object of praise, the jig is up. Political machines worked when they acted invisibly -- and you knew they were invisible because when you noticed them, when you flipped the light on in the kitchen at night, they scurried under the refrigerator. They worked because we assumed they just arose organically, unintentionally, accidentally, and if you noticed them they'd apologize and promise to let you forget about them. Political machines made sense kind of the way mainline churches did, as Joseph Bottum puts it in his devastating critique: "They mattered more when they wanted to matter less." 

But if we put political machines under the microscope and start agitating for the machines, that is the end: once the machine is aware that we are aware of it, there can no longer be any pretense of trusting it -- the machine will no longer bother protecting individual politicians; it will simply assert its unmediated will. Not for much longer can we say "people hate Congress but love their Congressman." In an age when we are aware that politics is a machine, and if we come to consciously approve of and support it as a machine, we must love Congress and hate Congressmen.

And that cannot go on -- once that becomes inverted, people will demand to vote for the machine they love rather than the cog they hate. And that will be the end of the republic. Literally. 

3 comments:

Lawrence Serewicz said...

Tim,
An interesting piece and well worth considering where a political machine ends and a bureaucracy begins. one could suggest that where a bureaucracy begins, we have lost the idea of politics as a personal relationship with all that it entails. In effect, the political machine is another way to describe a political regime, at least in the modern sense, for the polity might have been considered a political machine, or at lest expressing some of its core elements.
I would suggest that the reason we moved from machines is that people understood that they were politically unjust. The question though is whether their injustice was greater than what has replaced them. Moreover, one has to consider whether the the gain, treating individuals as sovereign beings, rather than within a relational context, ie son of someone, relative of someone, cousin of someone, voter or supporter of someone, is what liberalism offers and delivers for all of its flaws.
By its nature, a machine is conservative. By contrast, a bureaucracy, which enables the sovereign individual, in theory and practice, is unmistakably radical even though it masks that radicalism with the appearance of procedural conservatism.
John Adams Wettergreen discussed this issue better than I can. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/08/bureaucratizing-the-american-government-or-the-renewal-of-self-government

Tim Kowal said...

“Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule--and both commonly succeed, and are right... The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.” --- H. L. Mencken

Mencken was right, and alas, is becoming righter still. To the point that some of our intelligentsia defend the vacillations. The gangs of frauds surely are not what we ought to defend about our constitutional form of government, even if, in the (formerly) invisible underbelly, we must depend on them. Even if they are... conservative.

"'In our world...a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.'
'Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

---C.S. Lewis

Political gasbags are not what our republic is, but only what it is made of.

What our republic is – its essence – its telos, its raison d’etre – is…

is….


Who knows. Frank Luntz maybe.

Back to the gasbags.

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