Congressman, federal judge and Clinton White House counsel Abner J. Mikva liked to tell an amusing story about his first taste of Chicago politics. He went into a ward office to volunteer, was asked who sent him, and said nobody sent him. The man at the desk told him, in charmingly ungrammatical and no doubt heavily accented English, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”
The story is meant to be funny. The juxtaposition of the idealistic young man and the self-important ward flunky. The idea that “Getting involved!” is not necessarily welcome. The idea that politics is about the participation of the select and not the actively sought-out masses. So silly! Ah, but what can you expect from a self-important ward flunky?
Mikva later did get involved in Chicago politics and gained power in politics and law at the highest level. The fact that he shared the story is a distraction he obviously learned pretty quickly, the idea that mass participation is the basis of American politics, as contrasted by his successful participation after having been turned away by the ward flunky.
Nevertheless the ward flunky was right. To be really involved, you have to be invited. The Wikipedia article omits any detail of Mikva’s biography from the time this happened, 1948, to his first time in elected office, 1969. In the intervening 20 years Mikva was identified as somebody of use to the system and got an invitation- the next time he went back to the office, he was sent, although he doesn’t talk about this.
Mikva went to the University of Chicago law school- not Harvard or Yale, but an elite school and a better place if you wanted entrée into Chicago legal, business and political life- as Obama found out later- and must have spent years as a lawyer in Chicago before somebody identified him as the sort of fellow they’d like to have on the crew. He started out in the state legislature, then moved into Congress, but apparently pissed some people off because he lost his seat in redistricting and then spent a couple of years representing Republican areas as an “independent Democrat” against the system. This sort of thing never lasts long and another outsider Democrat, Jimmy Carter rescued him by making him a federal judge.
Roughly, I think Mikva was a dedicated progressive but probably a little too intellectual for legislative politics and better suited to carrying water as a lawyer and judge. He makes clear his distaste for the rough and tumble of ethnic politics- he’s a Jew and prominently mentions the name of the ward flunky, Timothy O’Sullivan, in his story. Being a Jew was not helpful to O’Sullivan’s prosaic business of distributing city jobs and other loot to obedient people in the neighborhood. A red-haired kid who identified himself as a local would have gotten a more friendly reception and maybe an assignment after an interview about who his relatives were- as a black kid would have in a black neighborhood. Obama was surprised to find that poor blacks he wanted to organize to “fight the system” were not at all interested in organizing against their own neighborhood black leaders and patrons. Mikva was from Milwaukee and new in town, having just started law school, and O’Sullivan was probably right to be suspicious of him. On the other hand being a Jew no doubt helped Mikva a great deal as a lawyer and judge, so his implied complaint of anti-Semitism is a little flat.
So- how does one get an invitation? How is one sent? For the highest levels, an elite education is necessary. Harvard, Yale or Princeton- HYP as the Lion of the Blogosphere calls them- or some regionally elite school at the lower levels. Stanford is always mentioned as a top-level school, but I don’t think going to Stanford has much status outside of California. Schools like Emory and Vanderbilt are big in their own states, but not outside them. Being successful as a lawyer shows you have the political and rhetorical skills to participate, and higher-ups in the legal profession can monitor your political correctness and loyalty.
There are two parties to the system, roughly represented publicly by the Democratic and Republican political organizations, but not actually political in the way these organizations formally are, in the mass politics sense. The one real party is the liberal/progressive party. It runs and controls everything for the benefit of liberals and progressives. But it needs a subordinate, theoretically opposed counterpart for two reasons. One is we supposedly live in a democracy, and there is supposed to be choice. Two is that dissent and serious anger needs to be released in some way. Part of this is that the policies of the ruling party may actually cause serious problems for itself with its desired policies but can’t reverse itself or lose face, and can’t alienate core supporters. So the subordinate party can advocate and sometimes implement policy.
Republicans have been broadly successful in two areas- criminal justice and taxation. Progressive criminal justice policies create chaos and horror, so Republicans have been allowed to implement strong criminal justice measures- but only strong criminal justice measures- to keep society intact. The best example of this is former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani used aggressive measures to go after the Mafia then supported the police commissioner William Bratton’s aggressive measures against street crime. Giuliani however is and was friendly to liberals on most counts, including being friendly to gays and not explicitly racist.
Liberals don’t like being mugged, and they don’t like paying 50% federal taxes, so Republicans have been permitted to succeed on these issues. Broadly what the Republicans do is use their control over a large block of voters, some traditionalist, some libertarian, to extract as many concessions as they can on the behalf of the people they really work for, big business.
Since Republicans have these two issues, the way to get chosen as a Republican insider is to either be a successful prosecutor- Giuliani’s route- or be a rich businessman. A successful prosecutor will have credibility with the rubes on putting criminals away, and a rich businessman will have credibility as a champion of capitalism and in addition he can finance his own campaign and those of others.
Where the subordinate party has not had success, because it wasn’t supposed to, was on issues of real importance to non-elite whites. Non-elite whites have been destroyed on all racial issues, except crime, which is allowed to be suppressed only to the extent liberals find necessary and only as long as it can be portrayed as a non-racial issue. “Cultural” issues- feminism, homosexuality and the destruction of the nuclear family among the non-elite classes- have been routs for non-elite whites.
An opposition politician of the subordinate party can only speak if he does not oppose black power and feminism. Until recently he was permitted to take a libertarian attitude towards homosexuality, but now anything other than positive support is unacceptable.
The elite selects who gets to participate and what they get to say in the ostensibly open, but in fact closed political system. Real opposition gets ruthlessly crushed if it is open. Pursuit of their interests through this system by non-elite whites is impossible, so what are we to do?