When I used to teach about American politics, the theme of the course ran much along the lines of this recent article in The Atlantic: how the kinds of politics that we often find “corrupt” and “grubby” provided for stability in politics while trying to do away with them necessarily made for more chaos. It is tempting, then, as the article seems to suggest, that simply re-inserting more “corrupt” practices (deregulating money and opening the door to more “earmarks” and other forms of pork barrel politics, for example) would help restablize the politics.
This is, I think, badly mistaken. While it is true that “corrupt” practices were common during eras of more stable politics, they were themselves symptoms, not necessarily causes, of what really brought about that stability. What made for stability in the American politics of the past was, to use the words of Tip O’Neill, “all politics were local.” However, the localized orientation of the politics took different forms in different eras. During the 19th century, the local focus of the politics was the local party organization, perjoratively called “machines.” While many trafficked in pork barrel politics and other “corrupt” practices, this was a supplement, rather than the main activity: what made the “machines” work was that they organized for socialization of their would-be-supporters at the local level, through among other things, staging parades, picnics, and other social events involving large scale participation among the locals, what Michael McGerr described as “popular politics.” While devoid of “policy” content, they helped reinforce the sense of community and trust in local political leaders: while they may not always agree–or even know what to agree on, given the complexities of politics–they could be assured that they were dealing with the members of the same communities with broadly shared values, principles, and interests who could be trusted to do the right thing.
After the decline of the machine politics came the era of personalized politics, or the “home style” as described by Richard Fenno. The centerpiece of this era was the local incumbent politician rather than an organized machine, but the key to the politicking remained the same. Rather than spend too much time on the technical details of policy, the politician would spend most of the time communicating with the locals as a local, building a sense of trust in himself as herself as a good member of the community who shares its values, principles, and interests, and indeed, someone who could be trusted to do the right thing, even if the details might remain murky and unclear.
Localized politics traffics in less than rigid adherence to principles, and that is the problem for many “purists.” Radiolabs, on public radio, had a curious story some time ago about a transgender person who became the mayor of a small town in Oregon. Rural Oregon is not exactly a hotbed of social liberalism: indeed, the town in the story is a rather staid, quite socially conservative place. However, the difference is that the transgender person who was elected mayor was a local, whom everyone knew for decades and liked, so to speak. The sense of broadly shared values, interests, and principles went much deeper than the mere appearance and the fact that he became a she. The “trust” transcended the mere technical details like biology. To the outsiders who are not privy to the sense of community and trust that undergirded this peculiar turn of politics, of course, this is corruption and deviation. The “facts” of politics are so obvious and fundamental that the vague and undefined “community values” and such nonsense might seem trivial next to the principle. For those to whom “politics” comes first, these eccentricities must be stamped out.
There are times when the primacy of politics does take the center stage. It is worth noting that the era of machine politics comes to an end in McGerr’s account as the Great Depression starts unfolding. The politics of personalized and localized trust is inherently “conservative” in the sense of preserving the status quo. The politicians and/or machine seek subsidies from the national politics to further the local activities that reinforce the community values and trust that, after all, keep them in office. In return, they are happy to keep the status quo going and keep trouble off the table. If the status quo is going fundamentally askew, bringing misery upon many, the personalized and localized trust of the individual politicians may not be enough to keep them in office–especially if they are seen as the defenders of the “wrong” side in national politics. This is what happened to the Republicans in the New Deal Era and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats in 1994. Many politicians who were well-known for establishing and maintaining excellent ties to their local communities were nevertheless swept out of office due to their association with the “wrong” side of politics.
Survival of these “personalized and localized trust” politicians in an era of major national turmoils is predicated not so much on their own skills but the kind of leadership exercised at the national level. National political leaders can enlist their support, in exchange for subsidizing their local socio-political activities, for national policy that reinforces stability, something, at least, that does not bring the nation to the brink of political crisis that winds up overriding personal trust for many voters. On the one hand, lack of rigid ideological adherence to any “principle” by many of these politicians makes this achievable. It does not mean it is necessarily easy: it does require a “vision thing,” not just letting things take their “natural course” for the sake of getting along just to get along.
Even more critical is that, in order to build “politics of personalized and localized trust,” you need personalized and localized trust to begin with. Who enjoys that sort of trust today? Where are the communities where there are localized values and beliefs that define them? The short answer is that there are not as many of them as one would like: cities and suburbs hold most of the US population today and they are not exactly “communities” where the residents interact with each other all the time. When the South began to turn Republican, the process was especially fast in the suburbs, where many of the populations were not even Southerners. Many parts of the rural South, where strong communities built on long-term trust endured, elected politicians tended to remain Democrats of long standing, until they died out–literally. While many of these communities and their representatives were deeply “conservative” in the usual sense, they were far more often than not willing and ready to cut deals with the Democratic Party when necessary, for the right “localized” price. After all, they were elected on the basis of being “community” people, not ideologues.
The prospects of restoring stability to today’s politics, then, are bleaker than not. Hillary Clinton, on surface, ought to be the most stabilizing figure in politics: she has the support of all the right people, she is seemingly a “moderate,” and she certainly raises plenty of money from all quarters. Yet, she is fundamentally distrusted. She has no roots in any community. Nobody knows where she is from. This is not just her problem. In 2012, Matt Taibbi had made a curious observation in an article that was otherwise about how Mitt Romney is a shady businessman: how Romney had no “accent,” no visible trace of any community that he belonged to that showed up on his campaign trail. This is, of course, a bit untrue: Romney was, after all a key member of the Mormon community and that was a critical component of his support base, but not something that was sufficiently broad. In contrast, Clinton truly has none. (Yes, she is a woman, but then that is too broad a category to elicit real “trust.”) Adding more money, more pork, and more “corruption” to a system that lacks an underpinning of trust will simply make the system more corrupt and even less trustworthy, not more stable or more “accountable.”
PS. There is an interesting point raised about EU agricultural subsidies and Brexit in this blog post, in reference to this LRB article: point #2, that handouts don’t bring gratitude. This is, of course, why trust precedes corruption. It is not corruption and pork that undergirded politics of the old, but the fact that politicians who are deserving of the locals’ trust were securing things from the political process on their supporters’ behalf. Without trust, all the subsidies are just giveaways handed out in contempt, in shallow attempt to buy acquiescence. They are accepted in as bad a taste as are given.