Thursday, July 14, 2011

The New Political Bosses

Gary Wills used a post to NYRblog this morning to offer a historical perspective on the current logjam in Congressional debate over our Government’s budget.  He begins by identifying Grover Norquist as a key factor in explaining why Republicans have been so intransigent when Democrats try to engage them in serious debate:

Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Tax Payer Protection pledges—a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax—and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider it.

Wills observes that the Tax Payer Protection pledge is a practice that can be traced by to the eighteenth century, when it was called “instruction.”  In other words it was an explicit device through which a candidate gets votes only if he obeys the “instructions” of the voters on what to do on a particular issue, such as taxes, abortion, or gay rights.  He then cited a 1774 speech by Edmund Burke excoriating the “coercive authority” of the instruction system, a speech he made when he himself was standing for election to Parliament.

It was comforting to read Burke’s words on these matters.  However, it presumes that the problem has more to do with the voters than with the individuals who can round them up and control them.  In nineteenth-century American politics those individuals were called “bosses;”  and the control exercised by bosses caught the attention of Max Weber when he visited the United States and studied the political practices.  In the spirit of revisiting the words of Burke, it is also worthwhile to consider what Weber had to say about those bosses in his “Politics as a Vocation” speech:

The boss is indispensable to the organization of the party and the organization is centralized in his hand.  He substantially provides the financial means.  How does he get them?  Well, partly by the contributions of the members, and especially by taxing the salaries of those officials who came into office through him and his party.  Furthermore, there are bribes and tips.  He who wishes to trespass with impunity one of the many laws needs the boss’s connivance and must pay for it;  or else he will get into trouble.  But this alone is not enough to accumulate the necessary capital for political enterprises.  The boss is indispensable as the direct recipient of the money of great financial magnates, who would not entrust their money for election purposes to a paid party official, or to anyone else giving public account of his affairs.

Note, in particular, that last sentence, with its reference to “great financial magnates.”  Anyone deluded enough to think that those most “protected” by the Tax Payer Protection pledge are ordinary Americans currently desperately trying to make ends meet in hard economic times should ponder that sentence.  If Norquist’s pledge “protects” anyone, it is those “great financial magnates,” because it protects them against having to contribute a fairer share to the Government budget.  The brutal days of government crippled by boss politics are with us again;  and, if the rich see it in their interests to beat our Government into submission with a big stick, they could not find a bigger one than Norquist.

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