WHY CITIZEN POLITICS MAY BECOME A THING OF THE PAST
By: Sean Scallon
A famous story in Chicago
political lore goes something like this: An
eager, young man was looking to work on his first political campaign in Chicago. He went
to his local ward Democratic Party headquarters and asked the ward committeeman there if
he could help out. Who sent you? The committeeman asked him.
Nobody. The young man replied. I dont want nobody nobody
sent, was the blunt answer of the committeeman to the volunteers request.
have plied their trade in American politics for a long, long time. Once upon a time they
were known as bosses and they ran political
organizations called machines which controlled
city blocks, wards, townships, counties and even whole states from one end of the country
to the other. The boss may well have been a saloon keeper or a public employee in the
parks and rec. department and the organization may have doubled as a volunteer
fire-fighting company. But no mistake should be
made in the describing the purpose of these organizations: Getting out the vote for the
party they belonged to and the ticket they supported for by any means necessary, legal or
illegal. The boss was the one in charge of the
effort and he benefitted from the spoils from winning.
this quest for votes to obtain the spoils of office angered businessmen and other
professionals and ordinary citizens alike who didnt like the idea of their tax money
going to further fatten the already portly boss and his friends, otherwise known as cronies. As an educated middle class began to grow
in the late 19th century these persons (who were nearly all Protestant and
native stock American in contrast to the machines vote which nearly all Catholic and
immigrant) decided to beat the politicians on their own field of play the ballot
box. They may well have been amateurs when it
came to politics but they used their college educations to master election law, learned
how to organize and mobilize their own fellow citizens into various political groupings
either for certain causes (like Prohibition or the Suffrage movement) or for certain
candidates like Roosevelt, Bryan, Wilson or LaFollette and raised money from businessmen
tired of being shaken down by party organizations. In
time they would ride waves of reform and voter disgust at machine corruption to rip power
away from the bosses and the vested interests. And thus the Progressive Movement was born.
Progressives came and went but the struggle between professionals and amateurs in politics
continued onward and continues even to this day. However, the campaign of 2012 is showing
signs that the professionals may get the upper hand for a long time to come.
course this has been said before and the amateurs have always figured out a way to be
successful. In 1940 they were able to snatch away the Republican Party nomination from the
professionals and give it to a little-known utility company executive named Wendell
Willkie making his first try ever for public office (although one hesitates when the word
amateur around those businessmen and publishers like Oren Root, Russell
Davenport, Henry Luce and Ogden Reid who organized Willkies campaign and made his
nomination possible.) Although backed by powerful Republican politicians like Thomas Dewey
and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., it was the Citizens for Eisenhower group (funded largely by
Texas oil money) who ran Ikes campaign all the way to the White House, not the party
apparatus which was still weak nationally. Also
on the Republican side were all the new groups created from the Conservative Movement who
were the muscle which allowed Barry Goldwater to defy the Eastern Establishment and win
control of the GOP. Amateurs were also affecting the Democrats as well. Even though Adlai
Stevenson owed his political career to the Boss of Bosses Richard Daley, he brought in
thousands amateurs into party who formed political clubs of their own to contest the
machines, help drive out an incumbent President of their own party in Lyndon Johnson with
the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, help reshape the party with the candidacy of George
McGovern and turned an unknown former Georgia Governor into President Jimmy Carter. The
well renowned political scientist Russell Q. Wilson wrote one of first books about them
called The Amateur Democrat. And citizens based grassroots politics
helped to fuel many a third party candidacies from Robert La Follettes to the
Wallaces Henry and George to Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Grassroots,
citizens-based campaigns were also significant in party nomination contests from Gary Hart
to Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson to Ron Paul to Howard Dean, whose 2004 campaign begat
Barak Obama four years later.
Television and civil service
reform brought an end to political machines and bosses but political professionals
themselves never went away. Starting in 1960s a new group of professionals called campaign consultants rose to replace the bosses who
died off or went to jail. In place of the
machine came whole companies involved in either public relations work, legal work,
consulting or polling and either worked on political campaigns or for corporate clients or
did lobbying work as well. They are the building blocks of major campaigns these days and
those candidates who can sign up the best firms are usually the ones taken most seriously
by the media and the ones most seen as electable by well-heeled donors.
animosity between the professionals and amateurs has existed as long as the categories
have existed. Former New York City Congressman and Mayor Ed Koch, who began his political
career as amateur Democrat inspired by Stevenson and was a member of a Greenwich Village
reform club, recalls the reaction he got when he tried to work in one of Tammany
Halls old neighborhood sachems back in 1957 in his biography Mayor.
.The problem was
I was the only person in the club wearing a three-button Brooks Brothers suit. The club
officers wouldnt talk to me and they wouldnt let me do anything. They thought
I was a spy. Most of the others were old-line politicians. They didnt trust me. It
was a simple as that. So I left.
its no different. Watch a You Tube video of Ron Paul supporters confronting
professional pollster Frank Luntz in New Hampshire of 2008 and youll see the same
thing, contention between passionate civic involvement and the cool detachment of the
permanent campaign. Indeed it was this animosity did much top fuel the campaigns of Ross
Perot, Howard Dean, and Ron Paul and to a lesser extent the 2008 campaign of Barak Obama.
amateurs thought they had gotten the upper hand on the professionals over the last decade.
Grassroots campaigns have used the internet and its entire social media potential to
organize campaigns literally from scratch. From Meetup to Facebook to You Tube to Pay Pal
to Twitter, everything one person or a group of people needs to organize meetings, produce
media, keep followers informed and interactive with the campaign and pay for it as well is
there at the click of a mouse. Who needs to pay the Luntzs of the world millions when a
politically savvy housewife could theoretically do the same thing from her kitchen table?
as with all new technology, eventually everyone learns (or almost everyone as VCR clocks
in basements or landfills remain unprogrammed). Thus, every campaign now has its own
internet site, its own You Tube channel, its own Facebook page and Twitter followers
(which campaigns can actually buy by the bulkload). The campaigns pay the tech. geeks to
handle these sorts of things and can pay handsomely because their TV ad budgets can now be
subsidized by either one man or several different groups thanks to the Supreme
Courts Citizens United decision.
And that same court decision means that in the future political campaigns taking on either
incumbents or front runners or the
establishments designated choice will have to be bankrolled by single individuals
like a Sheldon Adelson or Foster Freiss, or theyll be have to be supported by
political groups funded by billionaires or corporations, hardly campaigns one would call
one can wonder whether such support is really all its cracked up to be. Rick
Santorums campaign in Iowa this past election cycle consisted largely of his family
members traveling from one small town to the next. But when Santorum was endorsed by an
influential religious Right figure in that state, overnight his poll ratings shot up and
soon after his campaign was being aided by Religious Right voters who helped him eke out
and upset victory. It didnt matter that Santorum had very little grassroots support
or campaign infrastructure in the state, all that mattered is that he got the right
support from the right people at the right time. No doubt Ron Paul had far more intense
grassroots support than Mitt Romney ever did in the primaries (Outside New Hampshire, ever
see a lot of Romney signs around until this past fall?) but all it got Paul was some
convention delegates and 10 percent of the GOP primary vote while Romney got the
nomination. Newt Gingrich didnt have much of a campaign in South Carolina but he
didnt need one after one great debate performance threw the states Republican
activists in his corner. And it isnt long before said grassroots groups are usually
absorbed into the party structure itself. Obamas grassroots groups from 2008 played
no real independent role in 2012 while the Tea Partiers of 2010 are pretty much did the
Romney campaigns bidding.
to mention the fact some volunteers can cause campaigns headaches. Rand Paul had to
disavow a supporter who reportedly stomped on the head of protester outside of debate
during his Senate campaign of 2010. The Ron Paul presidential campaign had to do the same
to supporters who chased and threw snowballs at Sean Hannity in New Hampshire back in
2008. Indeed, infighting between Ron
Pauls grassroots supporters and those working for the official campaign has occurred
since 2008. By 2012 it had reached a point of bitter acrimony as grassroots supporters
attacked Rand for his endorsement of Mitt Romney along with campaign manager and Paul
son-in-law Jesse Benton, fellow campaign manager John Tate and the campaigns
official blogger (and TAC contributor) Jack Hunter for various reasons. It also produced
an open split during the Republican National Convention where the official campaign held
its own rally in the Sun Coast Dome in Tampa while grassroots supporters held their own at
the Florida State Fairgrounds (in 2008 there was just one end-of-the-campaign rally).
Its doubtful either Rand or Benton or Tate or Hunter enjoy reading the names
theyre being called on various Paul grassroots websites (Daily Paul or Ron Paul
Forums) and one wonders if any potential Rand for President campaign will have much of a
grassroots component at all or be top-down structure with coal company money replacing
chip-ins, automated robo-calls replacing sign wavers and plenty of slick TV ads replacing
the burdens for campaign volunteers, never easy ones, have only gotten harder as the years
have gone by. Its more expensive to feed, house and clothe said volunteers.
Its more expensive to drive to Congressional District or state conventions or find
lodging for an overnight stay. Its certainly harder if said volunteers who have
young children and need to leave said kids with a baby-sitter or relatives to attend
meetings (Paul grassroots supporters had to organize Chip-In or Pay-Pal accounts to help
delegates defray the costs of attending conventions.) Its harder now after Citizens United to help keep such campaigns
competitive with just moneybombs when the Great Recession has robbed
volunteers of even the pocket change or beer money they once sent in.
is not to say there wont citizens actively engaged in politics anymore but if so, it
may well be as a part independent groups or other for causes than campaigns that are less
expensive and perhaps would make them feel more wanted.
Sean Scallon is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter who
lives in Arkansaw, Wisconsin. His work has appeared in Chronicles: A magazine of American
Culture. His first-ever book: Beating the Powers that Be: Independent Political Movements
and Parties of the Upper Midwest and their Relevance in Third-party Politics of Today is
now out on sale from Publish America. Go to the their website at www.publishamerica.com to
order a copy. He is a regular columnist for Ether Zone.
"Published originally at EtherZone.com :
republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact."
Sean Scallon can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
the December 9, 2012 issue of
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