The Closet Moderate: How honest government creates partisan rancor

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How honest government creates partisan rancor

Hey hey, anyone still read this blog? I know, my fellow bloggards and I have neglected our blogging duties. But we'll get better! Promise! Please, don't leave us!

Now that that's out of the way, here's what I was actually going to blog about:

Every four years, we Americans are treated to the hyperbole in the news media about how politically divided America is. I've even heard news readers say that we've never been more polarized. Never. I guess they're not counting that time when America was so polarized we killed each other in open combat for four years.

Yes, people who say this are stupid, but there's a small drop of truth in it, if you squeeze hard enough. Americans have been more ideological divided many times in the past, but never have the two major parties been as ideological as they are now. In the old days, ideology was for small single issue parties, like these guys. The one time an ideological party got big enough to elect a President, everyone freaked the hell out and we had the aforementioned four years of bloody American-on-American carnage. Afterward, the two parties went back to being non-ideological for the next hundred years.

So, you may ask, if parties weren't based on ideology, what held them together? One thing: patronage. Time was, if you worked hard to get a party elected, they'd get you a government job if they won. This happens now, of course, for the big shots, but back then every job from Secretary of State to Fourth-Class Postmaster was a presidential appointment. These jobs, top to bottom, went to party hacks. These hacks, therefore, would work hard for their party at the next election, because if the party lost, they'd be out of a job.

It worked in reverse, too, I would imagine. If some job seeker was political neutral, and got offered a job by the party in power, he would quickly become a party stalwart. This was easily possible because the parties were as internally diverse as they were different from each other. Sure, you'll read the broad strokes in history books: Democrats were for low tariffs and silver money, Republicans were for high tariffs and gold money. But there were many members of each who went the opposite way, and when the issues came up for a vote, they'd vote their ideology. All that bound them to the party was sweet, sweet patronage (and not a little graft).

Then, the do-gooders decided that government jobs ought not go to the best-connected man, but rather to the best-qualified man. It took a few decades to get going, but after a while, only the big deals government jobs were left to a President's discretion. Why vote for a party now? Because their ideas are better? What ideas? They're all politicians, they don't have ideas! But, slowly, the veneer of ideas was plastered over the naked power-grabbing politics, and nerds came to write bills instead of hacks. Is it better? I don't know. It certainly is more boring.

So, the next time you hear some talking head say we're so so polarized, remember that it's all due to good government and the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. And nerds.

1 comment:

Herodotus said...

So...what you are saying is that Charles Guiteau was a misguided hero?