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"[A] Central Paradox of American Politics."

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Message Lawrence Velvel
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Governor Henry Horner of Illinois illustrates "a central paradox of American politics": Americans won't elect the kinds of people they want to govern them.

June 25, 2007

Re: "[A] Central Paradox of American Politics." From: Dean Lawrence R.

Dear Colleagues:

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 to this writer because he reads 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 b*tch in the mid and late1930s, but this was contrary to his nature; indeed, Masters feels the stress of it, and of acting contrary to his instincts, eventually killed him, albeit being a son of a b*tch 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 b*tch 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 b*tch, 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 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 Timesman who grew up in Chicago when I did (we knew each other slightly) thinks there was (is) such an intellectual style, and 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?" (Emphasis added.)

Master's view of a central paradox is inordinately close to my own, maybe even identical to it. For it is this writer's own 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'. Most or all of the nuthin' has been written of here before, so will be mentioned now only sparingly rather than being fully fleshed out.

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.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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