Friday, November 6, 2015


Jon Grinspan wrote an article for Smithsonian Magazine noting the comparable issues of America's disenchantment with their representatives now and during our historical past.

I've often used the phrase, Throw The Bums Out when I was disgruntled over some fumble from our local Board of Supervisors, but more often over our state and national legislators.  I'm excerpting Grinspan's article because it gives a different perspective.

"Voters are in a bad mood. Again." he writes.  "We are routinely (and justifiably) frustrated with our politicians, but “throwing the bums out” doesn’t seem to change much. And we are all bracing for another anger-pageant that will stomp through American life for the next 12 months until election day.

It was too easy, the muckraker Lincoln Steffens began to argue, to believe that bad politicians were just immoral people. The young writer had bounced from California to Europe to Manhattan...where  he honed his scorching prose, and learned about New York’s “low-life,” as a crime reporter in rough-and-tumble Manhattan in the 1890s.  One politico called him “a born crook that’s gone straight.”

Like many Americans, Steffens grew up cursing his leaders. Between 1865 and 1900, frustrated citizens pointed to the never-ending string of political scandals and stolen elections, as leaders failed to address the massive traumas of the Gilded Age.

Attacking leaders was an easy route to becoming one. Self-impressed tycoons, high-toned editors and rising politicians “greedy for power” all insisted that they knew how to clean up politics. Replace bad, immoral men with “the best men”—wealthy, God-fearing, respectable—and the democracy would fix itself. And by “the best men,” they meant themselves.

Angry voters tried this approach, throwing the bums out in election after election.  Control of Congress changed hands with dizzying speed in the 1880s and 1890s, yet politics only grew more corrupt.

But as a crime reporter who befriended crooked cops and scheming politicos, Steffens stumbled onto a new approach to journalism. Instead of moralizing, he listened. People would talk, he found, if you let them. Steffens hung around police stations and pool halls, absorbing everything he could. He even tolerated the ceaseless lectures of a young police commissioner named Teddy Roosevelt (though Steffens devised ways to shut his new friend up). And he refused to sit, isolated, in New York, setting out across the country to study dirty tricks from Boston to San Francisco.

Steffens came away with two major insights. Bad politicians were not necessarily bad people.  Steffens concluded that the angry public was focused on the wrong problem. Political dirty tricks were not “exceptional, local, and criminal…not an accidental consequence of the wickedness of bad men...," Americans—obsessed with individualism—liked to rage against immoral men, but really it was big, impersonal structures—like the steady drip of campaign contributions—that did more to buy power and harm the democracy.

Steffens began to write, furiously, publishing his “dawning theory” in his famous “Shame of the Cities” series in McClure’s Magazine between 1901 and 1904.  Often, angry middle-class citizens, looking for someone to blame, perpetuated the pointless cycle of reform and relapse, throwing out individuals but failing to make real change. ...a way to avoid considering the deeper problems with their political system.

American voters began to see that the country’s political problems were, really, social problems. Instead of hollering about immoral bosses, reformers simply went around them, introducing primary elections, ballot initiatives, recall votes, and eventually the direct election of senators. Progressive activists focused on improving political structures, not electoral “lynchings” of the bad guys.

And in our time of anger at politicians, it’s important to consider where bad leaders come from. ...politicians are, as a group, no better or worse than the rest of us. If they stink, something’s rotten with the system that feeds them. As long as we see politics as a war between good and bad individuals, ignoring the structures that reward or punish them, this will continue.

The most compelling words, "the steady drip of campaign contributions" and the word "activists."

We need to be activists, and it is easy on-line to sign petitions and reply as a group to leverage change. When asked to contribute, I answer that as soon as YOU get the money out of politics, I'll be glad to contribute. Above all,  we need to get rid of Citizens United. Every chance to sign a petition or to vote to rid ourselves of that unrighteous production of the court, will help restore balance in our democracy.

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