The Scandal of Reform

Categories: current events
Last month in the Current Events forum we read Francis Barry's The Scandal of Reform, and nearly a month later, I'm wrestling with it. For Barry, who advocates a non-partisan democratic solution to city politics, I think this would be a compliment. It's rare to have strong political opinions, read a political book and walk away without immediate strong affirmations or condemnations of the text. However, as the weeks drag on, I find my reactions cohering and intensifying.

First thing's first, though: The Scandal of Reform takes us through a history of New York City politics, from the founding of the nation to 2003, and the ride is thoroughly entertaining. All of us probably learned something of Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed and New York-style patronage in our giant, terrible high school textbooks, but such cursory detail really doesn't do it justice. Barry clearly has fun relating these stories, as well he should.

Tammany is fantastically corrupt and so unabashedly crooked that it's like reading about a cartoon. This is the origin of the joke, "Vote early and vote often." This is a level of corruption so brazen that you half expect Barry to end a story with, "After placing a perfectly spherical black bomb with a single fuse atop it underneath the carriage of an opponent, Tweed grabbed a small handful of burlap sacks with a $ painted on them, then walked across the street into a brothel." Fans of the movie Gangs of New York will recognize this period, and it's hard not to laugh when a public official lauds an election as particularly orderly by citing only a handful of people who were severely beaten during it.

Barry wants to take us through this slog of scandal and corruption because he wants to impress upon us the almost sybaritic indulgence that controlling party machines easily fall prey to (in part because the second half of the book criticizes the overwhelming Democratic majority in New York City politics), and also to show how "fusion candidates" representing the interests of multiple parties historically made greater inroads for reform. This, then, is his ultimate thesis: non-partisan elections exclude the influences of party machines, elect candidates more fairly and with a more representative demonstration of the interests of the people (instead of party doctrine), and provide greater opportunity for cooperation amongst elected officials as they find that their constituencies share interests.

It's tough to disagree with those lofty ideals, but here's where problems step in. One, as Barry himself acknowledges in his conclusion, the evidence that non-partisan elections actually do any of these things in large cities is uneven at best, and as such most of these arguments remain little more than ambitions. Two, Barry himself is all over the place in arguing for these things. The problems in his analysis seem neither deliberate nor fatal to his overall support for non-partisan elections (the concept seems compelling even if argumentation for it is spotty), but they make it hard for his enthusiasm to fully persuade.

For one, since Barry's point is that the party system does not work, it's glaring that he covers Fiorello LaGuardia's terms as mayor in only a matter of paragraphs. His mayorship is arguably the most successful in the city's history and the one to which all exiting mayors are compared. Essentially ignoring him means ignoring the spike in the argumentative road that says party politics are bad politics.

Meanwhile, Barry's politics become difficult to ignore. He reminds the reader several times that he is "a Democrat," but he protests too much. At really no point does he advocate public policy that differs from a center-right perspective, and that makes sense, since he's the principal speechwriter for Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg. He condemns wealthy patrician gentlemen who got into the politics game to "improve" their city — men like Charles Evans Hughes or both Roosevelts — with the word "elites," an anti-left pro-right incantation that can mean anything because it essentially means nothing. It doesn't matter if these men had good intentions or accomplished anything. What does matter is mentioning that they were wealthy and thought they "knew better," which is something of a dissonant position to take if your boss is a billionaire who got into politics seemingly as a hobby.

These political dismissals keep coming. He chides liberal reformers "twisting themselves into knots" by being against non-partisan ballots but for campaign finance restrictions. Yet he does the same thing, only with reversed positions. (You'd probably be against campaign finance restrictions too if your boss was a billionaire.) Virtually no program from the Great Society goes unpunished, but Barry just presumes they're bad. There's never an explanation for how they're damaging to political or civic function, except to note that they strain the budget. Of course, just pages earlier he's mentioned Albany's economic disfunction, but it doesn't seem like he understands there's a connection here. It's like trying to build a county school system from scratch with $75 and then throwing up your arms and saying, "That's it! Public schooling doesn't work!" Well, of course not, if that's how you're implementing it.

If I seem like I'm harping on these things, it's probably because much of the rest of the book is earnest, thoughtful and has its heart in the right place. The political boilerplate and reliance on talking-points buzzwords only interferes with or undermines a point he's making well by other means. After all, who wouldn't like civic leaders more beholden to constituent interests and less to party talking points? Who wouldn't want more leaders seeing their common interests across the aisle? Who wouldn't want to open the door to more than two viable candidates?

Barry has in mind a noble outcome he's seeking to promote via a noble experiment, and it's hard to blame him for wanting it. In making the case for it, he treats us to a lively history of New York politics, as well as a touching look at the breakdown of civic political clubs and sense of community in the post-war era. He also reinforces his support for non-partisan ballots by looking at elections in Minnesota, Nebraska, California and other states. If one looks past the occasionally presumptive political digs, the result is an entertaining and thoughtful look at what he sees as a broken structure at the heart of the democratic process on the city level.
by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎08-21-2009 10:16 AM

I started reading this review, hooked by the Tammany teaser. Tales of the Tammany Tiger and its corruption hold me spellbound. I still recall the time, years ago, that my husband and I came upon a lovely pub in Dublin called Boss Croker's, in the middle of a downpour. We stepped inside, revealed we were New Yorkers, and were regaled by the owner with tales of Boss Croker's days as Tweed's successors. He retired to the life of an Irish gentleman, buoyed by millions in graft. That's an immigrant success story!


But as I continued reading the review it fascinated me even more. It is a bit rich, to say the least, to "condemn[s] wealthy patrician gentlemen who got into the politics game to 'improve' their city" when you work for Bloomburg! Ludicrous is more accurate.


I wonder: Certainly everyone wants "civic leaders more beholden to constituent interests and less to party talking points," but the main reason today politicians aren't beholden to constituent interests is because they are beholden to donors. They need donors' money to buy the media to get the votes of constituents. Look at the rulers of the Bronx, beholden to the giant landlord powers there. They are beholden to constituents alright; the ones who vote with their wallets, through a variety of subterfuges, some barely disguised.


With all Bloomberg's faults, one of his major assets is that he is not beholden to individual donors or consortiums of donors. He can tell them to go to hell. Which is occasionally refreshing. The leaders of Tammany would wonder how anything could get done that way.

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