Last week we witnessed the inauguration of a new president and with him “a new era of responsibility.” A few years earlier, our “Free State”, Maryland ushered in a new Governor, who also in his inaugural proclaimed, “a new spirit of cooperation.” Both presented themselves as reformers, who recognized in President Obama’s words, “That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.” Both implicitly promised a new kind of politics – bipartisanship that overcomes the “special interests” and paves in President Obama’s words, “The surest route to our common good.”
What is the “common good” and who or what are the “special interests”? The honest answers to both those questions were provocatively published, ironically by Barack Obama’s academic home, The University of Chicago Press, over 100 years ago in a book entitled “The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures” by Arthur Fisher Bentley. As Nicholas Lemann, a “Critic at Large” for The New Yorker Magazine, pointed out some time ago, “The Process of Government” is a “hedgehog” of a book.” “Its point – relentlessly hammered home – can be stated quite simply: All politics and all government are the results of the activities of groups.”
It is instructive to remember, as Nicholas Lemann points out that Bentley wrote “The Process of Government” in 1908 at the height of the “Progressive Era” “when educated, prosperous, high-minded people believed overwhelmingly in “reform” and “good government”. At that time, those early 20thCentury “Reformers” clearly took interest groups to be the enemy of these goals. Are we not by heeding the clarion call of President Obama and in our state Governor O’Malley, a century later, ushering in another “Progressive Era” which can be accurately described with similar adjectives as the last one. Isn’t Bentley’s message as contrarian today as it was when it was initially published? I don’t think so.
Nicholas Lemann opines that in 1908 “The more populist Progressives liked having the people as a whole decide things by direct vote. There is still some of this sentiment particularly in California. But as in 2009, President Obama’s and to a lesser extent, Governor O’Malleys progressive coalitions want to give more influence and authority to “experts” and less to the masses. In 1908, Arthur Bentley was, as Leman suggests, that “rare Progressive intellectual who believed, based on his experience as a journalist, that the Chicago Political Machine had a more accurate understanding of how politics works in our democracy than the Lakefront liberals did.”
In 2009 Barack Obama, a product of “Chicago Style Politics” and Martin O’Malley, a product of Baltimore neighborhood politics are the progressive literary and political heirs and implementers of the theory of Arthur Fisher Bentley. President Obama in his books, reportedly chronicles his use of Chicago politicians and veterans of the Illinois legislature as mentors to teach him how to get things done. These literary sojourns corroborate my view of the President’s history and pragmatic philosophy.
Incidentally, this is a side of Barack Obama, the “Chicago Politician” that the left wing of his liberal political base has not liked when it has intermittently manifested itself both in the campaign and in the brief life to date of his administration. Their standard objection to “Pluralism” or “Chicago Style Politics,” which is another name for Bentley’s explicit and Obama’s and O’Malley’s unannounced theory of politics as a never-ending small-bore struggle for advantage among constantly shifting coalitions of interest groups” is well settled. That objection is that “pluralism gives too little weight to the power of ideas and to social and economic forces. It also leaves no room for morality.” Specifically, progressives articulate as support for their objections to Pluralism as an operational political system the following fundamental sequential inquiries: (1) Isn’t there such a thing as a policy that is “right on the merits”?, (2) If there is, shouldn’t we find a way to make sure that it is enacted instead of having to trust in “the messy workings of the political marketplace”?
To these questions, this writer would respond by asking – “Isn’t another and accurate way of characterizing “The messy workings of the political marketplace” calling it the “constitutional representative democracy” that we live in? If it is, then, as I have previously written in this column, isn’t having to subject our hypothetical arguably “right on the merits public policy” to the “messy workings of the political marketplace” a reasonable price to pay for the freedom that our democracy gives us. I submit that it is and that understanding that explains why as politicians such as Barack Obama, Martin O’Malley and others succeed, they become more obviously attentive to interest groups as well as more clearly and intensely engaged in bargaining and compromise in order “to get things done”.
There is no question that this raises concerns relating to both style and substance among the Presidents and the Governor’s most ardent supporters. This is notwithstanding the current practice of these successful politicians to mask these activities in political theater, which casts interest groups and their representatives (lobbyists) as “special interests”, i.e. “Bad Guys”, whose importance and influence we seek to minimize.
What does this portend for the future governance of our country and our state as well as the means of recovering from the economic recession nationally and locally? That improvisational script is unfolding on the stage of our national and state political theaters. Future columns will look both on stage and behind it to decipher it.