I should like to spend a little time on this Monday morning reflecting on the current political situation with the aid of Max Weber, arguably the greatest sociologist who has ever lived. In his magnum opus, Economy and Society [Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft], Weber presents the classic analysis of the phenomenon that was then coming to characterize German society and has since become the dominant phenomenon of the modern era, bureaucracy. I think we can gain some insight into, and perspective on, the current struggle for control of the Democratic Party by thinking about the Party not as a conspiracy or as a movement or as a betrayal or as a cop out, but quite simply as a bureaucracy. This will take me a while, so settle down.
Bureaucracies are social organizations consisting of defined roles with associated functions and duties determined by objective rules – that is to say, by rules that are to a considerable extent independent of the individuals who occupy the roles at any moment. In contrast with some other systems of social organization, in a bureaucracy the roles define the individuals who occupy them, not the other way around. The roles have rights, powers, duties, and titles associated with them, which the individual takes when he or she assumes the role and puts off when he or she steps out of the role. Sometimes, but not always, occupants of roles wear special clothing or carry special symbols to identify them as role-bearers.
Modern armies are bureaucracies. Corporations are bureaucracies. The Catholic Church is a bureaucracy. Universities are bureaucracies. Charities are bureaucracies. The Boy Scouts of America is a bureaucracy. And political parties are bureaucracies.
For the individuals who occupy the roles defined by the rules of the bureaucracy, their occupation of those roles is a job. It is the way they earn their living, and with very few exceptions, the individuals need those jobs to live. They are not independently wealthy amateurs who agree to perform the functions of the role out of love or ideological commitment or on a lark. Modern political parties depend on these bureaucratic role-occupiers for their regular, continuous functioning.
Think about it. Suppose someone is the Registrar of Voters in a county in which such positions are political appointments or else partisan elective offices. That person goes to work every day, five days a week, all year round, registering voters, certifying election results, maintaining files, writing periodic reports, and doing all the other bureaucratic tasks specified by the rules that define the office. If this is a political position, the Party counts on him or her to show up and perform these tasks, whether it is an exciting October day weeks before a crucial election or a lazy March day when nobody in town is paying attention to anything but the performance of the local college basketball team in the NCAA tournament.
Such jobs do not pay a great deal, so politically engagé upper middle class doctors and lawyers and college professors may have no interest in competing for them. Sixty thousand a year does not seem like much to them, even though it is a bit more than the median household income for an American family, but you can bet that it means a good deal to the Registrar of Voters. That job is his or her meal ticket.
The Registrar probably got her job [let us assume the Registrar is a woman] by going to local Party meetings several times a week for years, volunteering during elections, ringing doorbells, serving as one of those folks who check you in when you go to vote. For her, the job is not a sacrifice she is making out of deep ideological conviction [though of course she may have that, as anyone might]. It is a paycheck and a title she is proud of, a positon that gives her status in the community, and maybe, if she sticks with it and is seen to be doing a good job, a step up a ladder to an even better job with a bigger paycheck. There is nothing reprehensible about this. Quite to the contrary. It is the norm in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organizations. Her behavior, viewed objectively and functionally, is little different from the behavior of an Army Captain bucking for Major or an Intern trying to get a Residency or a Law Associate angling for a Partnership or an Assistant Professor trying to get tenure.
Political professionals, or pols as they are sometimes called disparagingly, rely on the party’s coffers for their jobs. Not surprisingly, they tend to view with favor big donors who, in return for preferment or maybe just access, provide large donations that keep the organization going. They may welcome enthusiastic small donors, but long experience has taught then that small donors are fair weather friends [or maybe foul weather friends, as the case may be.] Their enthusiasm waxes and wanes, because for them – but not for the party professionals – politics is a sometime thing. A protest candidate like Bernie Sanders may fund an entire run for a presidential nomination with donations averaging $27, but those $27 donations have a way of drying up when the election is over, and for someone whose full-time employment depends on party funds, that is a very nerve-wracking way to live. I think of Immanuel Kant, who until 1770, when he was awarded a professorship at the University of Königsberg, earned his living as a privatdozent, being paid by those students who chose to attend his lectures.
These facts may be offensive to those of us for whom politics is a grand calling, but they are a way of life for the people for whom politics is their daily bread. Do we need such people? Well, in a country of three hundred thirty million souls, with fifty states and innumerable counties and municipalities, the answer is yes. These are the folks whose daily work determines whether voter suppression laws are passed or blocked. They are the people who decide whether Creationism is taught alongside Evolution in the local high schools. They are the people who decide whether laws are passed making it hard to form a labor union.
But, someone protests, Why couldn’t we dispense with pols, with paid professional pollsters and fund raisers and ward captains and media massagers and the crowd of people who make a living out of what ought to be a civic duty? We could, of course, if we could count on civic-minded or ideologically driven volunteers to do all the work that the working stiffs in the political parties now do. But as Oscar Wilde famously observed, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” Which is to say, in a large, modern bureaucratic society, even one like America which exhibits a remarkably high level of ground level volunteer activity, it is going to require an organized political party staffed by paid men and women and funded in a regular and reliable fashion to have a continuing and sustainable effect on the public life of the nation.
So, we have a choice to make, and like all serious and important choices, it is neither easy nor unambiguously clear: Do we on the left try to take over the existing Democratic Party, with its vast and well-established cadre of local, state, and national professionals? Or do we wash our hands of the Democratic Party and try to build a new party pretty much from scratch?
Let us be clear: That is the choice. If you are not willing to do the work of building a new party, hoping to rely instead on what Mao in another context called a Permanent Revolution, then you are on a fool’s errand. You may succeed in getting your candidate nominated for the Presidency, but you will not win back the 1000 state legislative seats lost to the Republicans during the Obama years, and you will not therefore re-establish the right to vote, or to have an abortion, or even to use the bathroom of your gender, in all the locations where those rights have been effectively taken away.
Now, on rare occasions, new parties have succeeded in the United States. Rarely, but they have. My personal judgment is that we have a better chance of advancing our goals by trying a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, but I do not know that for a fact, and I respect those like Chris who have clearly made a different judgment. All I ask is that we recognize the bureaucratic reality of modern American politics and make our decision with that recognition before us.