(Another in John's series on the dark side of party politics. - promoted by Paul Rosenberg)
Indispensable Enemies, Walter Karp, Franklin Square Press, 1993 / 1973
Indispensable Enemies is a wild ride, and very few will want to stay on all the way to the end. Karp has no respect for either of the major parties, and his low opinion extends to such Democratic heroes as Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ, and even McGovern. He was politically unaffiliated, but identified with the Progressive and Populist traditions, and nowadays he seems to be admired mostly by paleocons and right-libertarians. But his insights into the two-party system can help dissidents of any stripe understand what's wrong with our political process, and more specifically, what's wrong with the Democratic Party.
The basic idea of the book is that when you're trying to understand American politics, you don't want to start with the candidates and elected officials, or with the voters and public opinion, or even with the lobbyists or with the media, but with the political parties. Karp overstates his case considerably, but there are few who could read his book without learning something from it.
The parties and the pros work for themselves first, last and always, and a party's ruling group would always rather maintain control of a losing party than win and lose control. Parties do not depend on elected officials for funding. Quite the opposite: elected officials who don't have their own organizations and who can't self-finance are pretty much dependent on the party. (This is especially true of low-seniority members of the House, who are little more than but peons.) The party gets its funding from donors, and donors give money as often to prevent action asthey do to get action: sometimes all they want is nothing.
By and large party leaders do not want reform, progress, or change, since anything new makes their job harder and threatens to bring in new and competing leaders. The two party oligarchies support one another against the dissident forces in either party, and often their disputes are choreographed dog-and-pony shows leading, like pro wrestling, to foreordained conclusions -- as we have seen with free trade, tax reduction, and deregulation, often the two parties are in agreement on the issues.
Some examples of what party leaders will do in order to keep control:
A. Sabotage a popular candidate of their own party, either because he is in some way dissident on the issues, or just because he seems likely to try to take over the party organization.
B. Concede small or large areas to the "opposition" party, ensuring a standoff whereby the leaders of the two parties are able to broker deals at the expense of their own supporters. After the Civil War the Republicans conceded the whole South to the Democrats by accepting the disenfranchisement of black Americans. In many states, the party machines divide the state on an urban-rural basis. Once the nation or the state is stabilized that way and a standoff achieved, the leaders of the two parties can happily do business.
C. Split their own party so that one faction can be played off against the other. For decades, even during periods when liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans had the votes to end segregation, the Democratic leadership (by honoring seniority rules, the filibuster, etc.) allowed the Southern Democrats to block progress. The sacred rules of Congressional procedure are nothing but the devices by which the party leaders manipulate and control Congress. None of them have the sanction of law, and many of them aren't even very old. The plain fact is that before LBJ the party leadership, including the northerners, never wanted to end segregation and were perfectly happy to let the South run the show.
D. Build campaigns around wedge issues, peripheral to the real business of government, which set a bloc of voters in one party against a bloc in the other party. Wedge issues aren't a Rove invention: for decades after the Civil War, the most visible issues were prohibition, foreign-language schools, and anti-Yankee or anti-Reb sentiment. Wedge issues cost little or nothing, and if the level of animosity can be kept high enough they're the gift that keeps on giving.
For example, the Republicans have been flogging abortion for three decades now without delivering much of anything. They do not really want to win, because if they do, they'll not only anger their own moderate voters, but will also lose their leverage with anti-abortion voters. Peripheral issues of this kind are decoys allowing allow the two parties to quietly achieve goals that they really care about.
E. Neglect or sabotage outreach. The party pros do not want enthusiastic new supporters if the new supporters seem likely to make new, inconvenient demands. What they want is predictable, tried-and-true party regulars making specific, limited demands. Voter enthusiasm is not a good thing, but rather a problem to be solved: often the party must figure out how to fail in a non-obvious way, without angering its voters.
The two parties, and the liberal and conservative wings of each party, often secretly cooperate with one another by killing inconvenient measures that their adversaries need to seem to support, but do not want to see passed. When you see support for a popular bill mysteriously evaporating, or when you see factional disputes within the dominant party or faction delivering victory to the weaker one, this is often what has happened.
F. Bipartisanship. Need I say more? The bosses deal, and Broder rejoices.
Karp makes one point that I can't develop here, but which is dear to my heart. He asks the reader to assume that political players are agents and know what they're doing, so that if the players' actions don't make sense in terms of their professed goals, we should conclude that their actual goals are different. This goes against fifty years of lumpen-wonk truisms about how politics works. Wonk Democrats seem to be fanatically committed to the idea that blind forces decide everything and that no one ever really knows what they are doing or why, and they automatically accuse anyone who believes that politicians do things for reasons of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist.
This is very strange, because the same wonks who so strongly claim to believe in blind forces also believe that the wise Democrats they support are doing magical things behind the scenes, and that we should just stand behind them without asking what it is that they're doing. It's almost as if the wonks are putting up a smokescreen of conspiracy-theory accusations specifically for the purpose of diverting our attention from their own backroom politics.
Karp makes a vivid case, and every reader has to decide how much of it he accepts. It's partly outdated: his book was published in 1973, and since then our politics has been transformed by think tanks, talk radio and TV, the conservative colonization of the serious media, PACS, and so on. I'm not sure that the Gingrich-Delay-Rove Republicans fit into the pattern described by Karp, and the fact that today's Democrats do seem to fit the pattern might be evidence that they're living in the past and still haven't figured out what hit them.
I strongly recommend that everyone read this book. This post gives you only a very sketchy idea of what Karp has to say, and in the book itself he provides a wealth of concrete examples of the kinds of things that I have only been able to summarize.
|Bourbon Democracy Of the Middle West:
The simple truth is, the party organization will dump an election whenever its control over the party would be weakened by the victory of its own party's candidate.... Fear of the party's own elected officials is often a determining feature of party politics regardless of who holds the office.... Party organizations cannot afford to take chances. They will even try to defeat a party hack if his victory would prove inconvenient.
In many states the contest between the majority party's regulars and its uncontrolled elements is the only real electoral competition that state parties, despite themselves, provide.... minority parties help the ruling party regulars in many ways, first and foremost simply by being a fake opposition.... Anything that stirs up the electorate, anything that rouses their interest in politics, is harmful to party organizations and, most directly, to a state's ruling party.
Given every opportunity to crush an influential Bourbon [William Colmer, a conservative Southern Democrat who had deserted the Democrats in two different Presidential elections], the non-Bourbon Democratic majority elevated him to the highest of Congressional stations [Chairman of the Rules Committee).
The Northern wing could then split its vote four ways and hand Boggs the victory. This sort of manoeuver is usually attributed to the inherent disunity of Northern liberals, but there's nothing inherent about it. When reporters asked Udall what caused his defeat, his answer was simple: "the big-city boys". As Jim Folson, the anti-Bourbon former governor of Alabama, once put it, "The Yankees and the Southerners give each other hell up in Congress, and then they get together in the back room and say, well, we put it over on the folks again. It's been going on for a hundred years."
Then came the depression, and Republican voters started casting their votes for Democratic legislative candidates, whoever they might happen to be. By 1934, the Democrats in ten Republican strongholds held 42 percent of the legislative seats, a historic, if unwanted resurgence. Little boodle parties suddenly found themselves saddled with flocks of freshmen legislators and all sorts of unwanted ambitions that threatened the regulars' control.
The Bourbons could not have enacted these measures [the disenfranchisement of black Southerners after 1896], would not have dared to enact these measures, had the Bourbons even expected the Republican Party to protest. Republican bosses and Republican Presidents did not protest. They saw their Republican voters decimated by disenfranchisement, they saw their own winning party in NC ruined by disenfranchisement, yet they let this constitutional degradation of American citizens pass unopposed."
So there it is: two national apogees of reform and two unexplained blunders that brought reform to a halt. What no one, to my knowledge, has suggested is that.these blunders were not blunders at all, that each was the deliberately chosen means for achieving the very end it achieved: bringing reform to a halt.
Kennedy was carrying out a basic political strategy for killing pledged reforms - the creation of what political observer Martin Gelfand has termed the "indispensable enemy", the opposition required to prevent you from doing what you must appear to want done.
His administration declared that it could not pass programs through the Senate without Republican votes and - what was palpably untrue - could win them only if Senator Everett Dirksen gave his approval to Kennedy legislation. Accordingly, Kennedy made elaborate public efforts to win over Senator Dirksen and an "extraordinary rapport" was established between the two men.
On the other hand, those who make blanket condemnations of "conspiracy theories" base their own view on a farfetched theory indeed, namely that whatever men in high office actually do, they are essentially men of goodwill.
Whenever the results of deeds are divorced from the deeds themselves, they lose their political character and appear to be the results of happenstance, of larger social forces and historical trends, or even of the providence of God. Although they are the consequences of political action, they will appear beyond reach of political action, since what men do not appear to have done, they appear incapable of undoing. To those who wield irresponsible political power, the advantage of hiding deeds is obvious and profound. By divorcing deeds from their results, they can produce results which serve their own interests yet bear no responsibility for them, for what appears to just happen, or what appears to issue from social and historical processes, is the specific responsibility of no man.
As Alexis de Tocqueville long ago observed, a despot does not care that his subjects dislike him as long as they dislike each other, for then they cannot act together and so remain impotent.