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Tuesday, February 28, 2017


My abstract discussion of bureaucracy has sparked an extremely interesting flow of lengthy comments.  I am humbled by the accounts by David and by Professor Pigden of the long years they spent engaging in the hard, slogging work of ground level politics.  Against those efforts, my writing of such tracts as In Defense of Anarchism seem like nothing so much as “shit to airy fineness spun,” as Alexander Pope apparently did not say in his Dunciad but should have.

Let me just respond to S. Wallerstein’s latest post, in which he says in part, “The people who run the Democratic Party are smarter than you and I are. … They'll always win because they're smarter and less scrupulous than you and I are, unless we start over with new alternative movements, organize other innocents and potential reborn innocents.”

Let me offer some reflections on the upper middle class weekend amusement known in Massachusetts as antiquing, which is to say driving to Cape Cod and pottering around in antique shops hoping to stumble on that once in a lifetime find, a genuine eighteenth century bow front chest too dirty and covered with spider webs to be recognized for the treasure it is.  [There is even a mystery series, the author of which I cannot recall, whose main character has an infallible nose for the authentic skittle ball teapot or lost Stubbs.]

This always struck me as a fool’s errand when I lived in Massachusetts, for a very simple reason.  I, the antiquer, was a weekend amateur who spent maybe fifteen hours a year poking about in the staged jumble of antique shops.  The proprietors were full-time professionals who sat in their shops all day, six days a week, fifty weeks a year, surrounded by objets d’art that they regularly checked, rearranged, packed up for periodic antique shows, unpacked, and repositioned in such a manner as to catch the eye of the weekend novice.  What was the likelihood that I was going to spot a valuable item that the owner of a shop had failed to appreciate?

The people who run the Democratic Party are not smarter than I am.  They are just professionals whose entire working day is devoted to seizing and maintaining control of political power.  Of course they are better at it than I am!  But let them go up against me in a departmental fight over a tenure case and I will show them what it is like to cross swords with a professional!

Nobody said this was going to be easy.  But we have one thing going for us.  They need us more than we need them.  They need us, or rather our votes, in order to prosper in their jobs, and if we can mobilize enough of us, we can outvote them, replace them, remove them, or – what is also possible – get them to recognize that their self-interest lies in supporting our candidates and pushing our policies.  But we have to stick to it, because if they get the idea that we are weekend antiquers, they will smile, nod, and go right back to what they were doing before we wandered into their shop looking for a bargain.


Unknown said...


Jerry Fresia said...

No disagreement with the point made here.

I would also like to add that in addition to bureaucratic inertia and the myriad of state regulations protecting and maintaining the two party system - and the Commission on Presidential Debates (an extension of the power of the two major parties), there are further and more structural, in nature, institutional supports of the two party system: the Electoral College, single member districts, and plurality elections. Each of these alone makes it rational for a voter to disregard her first preference and vote for the lesser of two evils.

We can see the impact of these factors over time. As I have mentioned, the only instance of a third party displacing a major party, at the federal level, was during the 1850s when the Republicans displaced the utterly fractured Whigs, an example that is sui generis. The most successful (at the state level) third party was the People's Party (albeit racist). In 1894 it enjoyed roughly (warning: this is off the top of my head) 40% support in about 25 states. By 1896 it was folded into the Democratic Party at the national level and essentially disappeared afterwards.

When Theodore Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to Howard Taff in a bid to capture the presidency for a 3rd term, he formed the Progressive Party and won 88 electoral votes, the most by any 3rd party (and lost to Woodrow Wilson who won 435.) And of course, there was Ross Perot, who in 1992 won 19% of the vote and got zero electoral votes. Worse, his inveighing against NAFTA had no effect at all despite his broad popular support.

The bottom line is that a revolutionary social movement would be required to dismantle the two party structure and make 3rd party efforts worthwhile. Short of that, Bernie's approach seems sensible: take over the Democratic Party, election by election, in shot-gun fashion, from the school board on up to the presidency, all the while building a revolutionary movement.

s. wallerstein said...

I have no doubt that sword in hand (to use your metaphor), you are an opponent to be feared in a debate of ideas, but these characters, the mainstream Democrats, are not going to challenge you to a duel of ideas, face to face, person against person, one gentleman against another (I do not mean to sound sexist), but twenty of them will hit you from behind when you're looking the other way and then when you're on the ground and complain in the name of fairness, it's your word against that of twenty respectable pillars of society, who will point out in the most reasonable tone of voice that someone has to be crazy to accuse such distinguished pillars of society of fighting dirty. If at that point you can convince the usual passive on-lookers that the pillars of society fight very dirty, you may win. Sincere (no irony) good wishes.

Aardvark said...

On the other hand, you might have been able to spot, say, a first edition of Kant's Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics in a general antique store. My father-in-law, a renown Ornithologist, has picked up valuable paintings of birds for just the value of the frame.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Indeed. Many years ago I bought a 3rd edition of Kant's First Critique for a song. But I gave it to a friend who read the draft of my first book on Kant, as a thank you.

David Auerbach said...

the mystery series:

(the TV show wasn't half bad)

Enam el Brux said...

I'm not going to remember thus for Friday, so permit me (or not) to hijack the thread: I renewed my membership in the Union of Concerned Scientists. (They claimed that I was a member, but I have no recollection of ever joining. The ruse, if that's what it was, worked.) Then I contributed another $5 to Our Revolution, almost apropos of the discussion on whether the bureaucratic apparatus of the Democratic party is worth nudging toward middle-of-the-road social democracy.