Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 57: The Politicians - The American Commonwealth, vol. 2
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chapter 57: The Politicians - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Institutions are said to form men, but it is no less true that men give to institutions their colour and tendency. It profits little to know the legal rules and methods and observances of government, unless one also knows something of the human beings who tend and direct this machinery, and who, by the spirit in which they work it, may render it the potent instrument of good or evil to the people. These men are the politicians.1
What is one to include under this term? In England it usually denotes those who are actively occupied in administering or legislating, or discussing administration and legislation. That is to say, it includes ministers of the Crown, members of Parliament (though some in the House of Commons and the majority in the House of Lords care little about politics), a few leading journalists, and a small number of miscellaneous persons, writers, lecturers, organizers, agitators, who occupy themselves with trying to influence the public. Sometimes the term is given a wider sweep, being taken to include all who labour for their political party in the constituencies, as, e.g., the chairmen and secretaries of local party associations, and the more active committeemen of the same bodies. The former, whom we may call the inner-circle men, are professional politicians in this sense, and in this sense only, that politics is the main though seldom the sole business of their lives. But at present extremely few of them make anything by it in the way of money. A handful hope to get some post; a somewhat larger number find that a seat in Parliament enables them to push their financial undertakings or make them at least more conspicuous in the commercial world. But the gaining of a livelihood does not come into the view of the great majority at all. The other class, who may be called the outer circle, are not professionals in any sense, being primarily occupied with their own avocations; and none of them, except here and there an organizing secretary, or registration agent, and here and there a paid lecturer, makes any profit out of the work.2 The phenomena of France and Italy and Germany are generally similar, that is to say, those who devote their whole time to politics are a very small class, those who make a living by it an even smaller one.3 Of all the countries of Europe, Greece is that in which persons who spend their life in politics seem to bear the largest proportion to the whole population; and in Greece the pursuit of politics is usually the pursuit of place.
To see why things are different in the United States, why the inner circle is much larger both absolutely and relatively to the outer circle than in Europe, let us go back a little and ask what are the conditions which develop a political class. The point has so important a bearing on the characteristics of American politicians that I do not fear to dwell somewhat fully upon it.
In self-governing communities of the simpler kind—for one may leave absolute monarchies and feudal monarchies on one side—the common affairs are everybody’s business and nobody’s special business. Some few men by their personal qualities get a larger share of authority, and are repeatedly chosen to be archons, or generals, or consuls, or burgomasters, or landammans, but even these rarely give their whole time to the state, and make little or nothing in money out of it. This was the condition of the Greek republics, of early Rome,4 of the cities of mediæval Germany and Italy, of the cantons of Switzerland till very recent times.
When in a large country public affairs become more engrossing to those who are occupied in them, when the sphere of government widens, when administration is more complex and more closely interlaced with the industrial interests of the community and of the world at large, so that there is more to be known and to be considered, the business of a nation falls into the hands of the men eminent by rank, wealth, and ability, who form a sort of governing class, largely hereditary. The higher civil administration of the state is in their hands; they fill the chief council or legislative chamber and conduct its debates. They have residences in the capital, and though they receive salaries when actually filling an office, and have opportunities for enriching themselves, the majority possess independent means, and pursue politics for the sake of fame, power, or excitement. Those few who have not independent means can follow their business or profession in the capital, or can frequently visit the place where their business is carried on. This was the condition of Rome under the later republic,5 and of England and France till quite lately—indeed it is largely the case in England still—as well as of Prussia and Sweden.6
Let us see what are the conditions of the United States.
There is a relatively small leisured class of persons engaged in no occupation and of wealth sufficient to leave them free for public affairs. So far as such persons are to be found in the country, for some are to be sought abroad, they are to be found in a few great cities.
There is no class with a sort of hereditary prescriptive right to public office, no great families whose names are known to the people, and who, bound together by class sympathy and ties of relationship, help one another by keeping offices in the hands of their own members.
The country is a very large one, and has its political capital in a city without trade, without manufactures, without professional careers. Even the seats of state governments are often placed in comparatively small towns.7 Hence a man cannot carry on his gainful occupation at the same time that he attends to “inner-circle” politics.
Members of Congress and of state legislatures are invariably chosen from the places where they reside. Hence a person belonging to the leisured class of a great city cannot get into the House of Representatives or the legislature of his state except as member for a district of his own city.
The shortness of terms of office, and the large number of offices filled by election, make elections very frequent. All these elections, with trifling exceptions, are fought on party lines, and the result of a minor one for some petty local office, such as county treasurer, affects one for a more important post, e.g., that of member of Congress. Hence constant vigilance, constant exertions on the spot, are needed. The list of voters must be incessantly looked after, newly admitted or newly settled citizens enrolled, the active local men frequently consulted and kept in good humour, meetings arranged for, tickets (i.e., lists of candidates) for all vacant offices agreed upon. One election is no sooner over than another approaches and has to be provided for, as the English sporting man reckons his year by “events,” and thinks of Newmarket after Ascot, and of Goodwood after Newmarket.
Now what do these conditions amount to? To this—a great deal of hard and dull election and other local political work to be done. Few men of leisure to do it, and still fewer men of leisure likely to care for it. Nobody able to do it in addition to his regular business or profession. Little motive for anybody, whether leisured or not, to do the humbler and local parts of it (i.e., so much as concerns the minor elections), the parts which bring neither fame nor power.
If the work is to be done at all, some inducement, other than fame or power, must clearly be found. Why not, someone will say, the sense of public duty? I will speak of public duty presently; meantime let it suffice to remark that to rely on public duty as the main motive power in politics is to assume a commonwealth of angels. Men such as we know them must have some other inducement. Even in the Christian church there are other than spiritual motives to lead its pastors to spiritual work; nor do all poets write because they seek to express the passion of their souls. In America we discover a palpable inducement to undertake the dull and toilsome work of election politics. It is the inducement of places in the public service. To make them attractive they must be paid. They are paid, nearly all of them, memberships of Congress8 and other federal places, state places (including memberships of state legislatures), city and county places. Here then—and to some extent even in humbler forms, such as the getting of small contracts or even employment as labourers—is the inducement, the remuneration for political work performed in the way of organizing and electioneering. Now add that besides the paid administrative and legislative places which a democracy bestows by election, judicial places are also in most of the states elective, and held for terms of years only; and add further, that the holders of nearly all those administrative places, federal, state, and municipal, which are not held for a fixed term, are liable to be dismissed, as indeed many still are so liable and are in practice dismissed, whenever power changes from one party to another,9 so that those who belong to the party out of office have a direct chance of office when their party comes in. The inducement to undertake political work we have been searching for is at once seen to be adequate, and only too adequate. The men needed for the work are certain to appear because remuneration is provided. Politics has now become a gainful profession, like advocacy, stockbroking, the dry goods trade, or the getting up of companies. People go into it to live by it, primarily for the sake of the salaries attached to the places they count on getting, secondarily in view of the opportunities it affords of making incidental and sometimes illegitimate gains. Every person in a high administrative post, whether federal, state, or municipal, and, above all, every member of Congress, has opportunities of rendering services to wealthy individuals and companies for which they are willing to pay secretly in money or in money’s worth. The better officials and legislators—they are the great majority, except in large cities—resist the temptation. The worst succumb to it, and the prospect of these illicit profits renders a political career distinctly more attractive to an unscrupulous man.
We find therefore that in America all the conditions exist for producing a class of men specially devoted to political work and making a livelihood by it. It is work much of which cannot be done in combination with any other kind of regular work, whether professional or commercial. Even if the man who unites wealth and leisure to high intellectual attainments were a frequent figure in America, he would not take to this work; he would rather be a philanthropist or cultivate arts and letters. It is work which, steadily pursued by an active man, offers an income. Hence a large number of persons are drawn into it, and make it the business of their life; and the fact that they are there as professionals has tended to keep amateurs out of it.
There are, however, two qualifications which must be added to this statement of the facts, and which it is best to add at once. One is that the mere pleasure of politics counts for something. Many people in America as well as in England undertake even the commonplace work of local canvassing and organizing for the sake of a little excitement, a little of the agreeable sense of self-importance, or from that fondness for doing something in association with others which makes a man become secretary to a cricket club or treasurer of a fund raised by subscription for some purpose he may not really care for. And the second qualification is that pecuniary motives operate with less force in rural districts than in cities, because in the former the income obtainable by public office is too small to induce men to work long in the hope of getting it. Let it therefore be understood that what is said in this chapter refers primarily to cities, and of course also to persons aiming at the higher federal and state offices; and that I do not mean to deny that there is plenty of work done by amateurs as well as by professionals.
Having thus seen what are the causes which produce professional politicians, we may return to inquire how large this class is, compared with the corresponding class in the free countries of Europe, whom we have called the inner circle.
In America the inner circle, that is to say, the persons who make political work the chief business of life, for the time being, includes:
All the above may fairly be called professional or inner-circle politicians, but of their number I can form no estimate, save that it must be counted by hundreds of thousands, inasmuch as it practically includes nearly all state and local and most federal officeholders as well as most expectants of public office.11
It must be remembered that the “work” of politics means in America the business of winning nominations (of which more anon) and elections, and that this work is incomparably heavier and more complex than in England, because:
(1) The voters are a larger proportion of the population; (2) the government is more complex (federal, state, and local) and the places filled by election are therefore far more numerous; (3) elections come at shorter intervals; (4) the machinery of nominating candidates is far more complete and intricate; (5) the methods of fighting elections require more technical knowledge and skill; (6) ordinary private citizens do less election work, seeing that they are busier than in England, and the professionals exist to do it for them.
I have observed that there are also plenty of men engaged in some trade or profession who interest themselves in politics and work for their party without any definite hope of office or other pecuniary aim. They correspond to what we have called the outer-circle politicians of Europe. It is hard to draw a line between the two classes, because they shade off into one another, there being many farmers or lawyers or saloonkeepers, for instance, who, while pursuing their regular calling, bear a hand in politics, and look to be some time or other rewarded for doing so. When this expectation becomes a considerable part of the motive for exertion, such an one may fairly be called a professional, at least for the time being, for although he has other means of livelihood, he is apt to be impregnated with the habits and sentiments of the professional class.
The proportion between outer-circle and inner-circle men is in the United States a sort of ozonometer by which the purity and healthiness of the political atmosphere may be tested. Looking at the North only, for I have no tolerable data as to the South, and excluding congressmen, the proportion of men who exert themselves in politics without pecuniary motive is largest in New England, in the country parts of New York, in northern Ohio, and the Northwestern states, while the professional politicians most abound in the great cities—New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco. This is because these cities have the largest masses of ignorant voters, and also because their municipal governments, handling large revenues, offer the largest facilities for illicit gains.
I shall presently return to the outer-circle men. Meantime let us examine the professionals somewhat more closely; and begin with those of the humbler type, whose eye is fixed on a municipal or other local office, and seldom ranges so high as a seat in Congress.
As there are weeds that follow human dwellings, so this species thrives best in cities, and even in the most crowded parts of cities. It is known to the Americans as the “ward politician,” because the city ward is the chief sphere of its activity, and the ward meeting the first scene of its exploits. A statesman of this type usually begins as a saloon- or barkeeper, an occupation which enables him to form a large circle of acquaintances, especially among the “loafer” class who have votes but no reason for using them one way more than another, and whose interest in political issues is therefore as limited as their stock of political knowledge. But he may have started as a lawyer of the lowest kind, or lodginghouse keeper, or have taken to politics after failure in storekeeping. The education of this class is only that of the elementary schools. If they have come after boyhood from Europe, it is not even that. They have of course no comprehension of political questions or zeal for political principles; politics mean to them merely a scramble for places or jobs. They are usually vulgar, sometimes brutal, not so often criminal, or at least the associates of criminals. It is they who move about the populous quarters of the great cities, form groups through whom they can reach and control the ignorant voter, pack meetings with their creatures.
Their methods and their triumphs must be reserved for a later chapter. Those of them who are Irish, an appreciable though diminishing proportion in a few cities, have seldom Irish patriotism to redeem the mercenary quality of their politics. They are too strictly practical for that, being regardful of the wrongs of Ireland only so far as these furnish capital to be used with Irish voters. Their most conspicuous virtues are shrewdness, a sort of rough good-fellowship with one another, and loyalty to their chiefs, from whom they expect promotion in the ranks of the service. The plant thrives in the soil of any party, but its growth is more vigorous in whichever party is for the time dominant in a given city.
English critics, taking their cue from American pessimists, have often described these men as specimens of the whole class of politicians. This is misleading. The men are bad enough both as an actual force and as a symptom. But they are confined to a few great cities, those eleven or twelve I have already mentioned; it is their achievements there, and particularly in New York, where the mass of ignorant immigrants is largest, that have made them famous.
In the smaller cities, and in the country generally, the minor politicians are mostly native Americans, less ignorant and more respectable than these last-mentioned street vultures. The barkeeping element is represented among them, but the bulk are petty lawyers, officials, federal as well as state and county, and people who for want of a better occupation have turned office-seekers, with a fair sprinkling of storekeepers, farmers, and newspaper men. The great majority have some regular avocation, so that they are by no means wholly professionals. Law is of course the business which best fits in with politics. They are only a little below the level of the class to which they belong, which is what would be called in England the lower middle, or in France the petite bourgeoisie, and they often suppose themselves to be fighting for Republican or Democratic principles, even though in fact concerned chiefly with place hunting. It is not so much positive moral defects that are to be charged on them as a slightly sordid and selfish view of politics and a laxity in the use of electioneering methods.
These two classes do the local work and dirty work of politics. They are the rank and file. Above them stand the officers in the political army, the party managers, including the members of Congress and chief men in the state legislatures, and the editors of influential newspapers. Some of these have pushed their way up from the humbler ranks. Others are men of superior ability and education, often college graduates, lawyers who have had practice, less frequently merchants or manufacturers who have slipped into politics from business. There are all sorts among them, creatures clean and unclean, as in the sheet of St. Peter’s vision, but that one may say of politicians in all countries. What characterizes them as compared with the corresponding class in Europe is that their whole time is more frequently given to political work, that most of them draw an income from politics and the rest hope to do so, that they come more largely from the poorer and less cultivated than from the higher ranks of society, and that they include but few men who have pursued any of those economical, social, or constitutional studies which form the basis of politics and legislation, although many are proficients in the arts of popular oratory, of electioneering, and of party management.
They show a high average level of practical cleverness and versatility, and a good deal of legal knowledge. They are usually correct in life, for intoxication as well as sexual immorality is condemned by American more severely than by European opinion, but are often charged with a low tone, with laxity in pecuniary matters, with a propensity to commit or to excuse jobs, with a deficient sense of the dignity which public office confers and the responsibility it implies. I shall elsewhere discuss the validity of these charges, and need only observe here that even if the years since the Civil War have furnished some grounds for accusing the class as a whole, there are many brilliant exceptions, many leading politicians whose honour is as stainless and patriotism as pure as that of the best European statesmen. In this general description I am simply repeating what nonpolitical Americans themselves say. It is possible that with their half-humorous tendency to exaggerate they dwell too much on the darker side of their public life. My own belief is that things are healthier than the newspapers and common talk lead a traveller to believe, and that the blackness of the worst men in the large cities has been allowed to darken the whole class of politicians as the smoke from a few factories will darken the sky over a whole town. However, the sentiment I have described is no doubt the general sentiment. “Politician” is a term of reproach, not merely among the “superfine philosophers” of New England colleges, but among the better sort of citizens over the whole Union. “How did such a job come to be perpetrated?” I remember once asking a casual acquaintance who had been pointing out some scandalous waste of public money. “Why, what can you expect from the politicians?” was the surprised answer.
Assuming these faults to exist, to what causes are they to be ascribed? Granted that politics has to become a gainful profession, may it not still be practised with as much integrity as other professions? Do not the higher qualities of intellect, the ripe fruits of experience and study, win for a man ascendency here as in Europe? Does not the suspicion of dishonour blight his influence with a public which is itself at least as morally exacting as that of any European country? These are questions which can be better answered when the methods of party management have been described, the qualities they evoke appreciated, their reaction on men’s character understood.
It remains to speak of the nonprofessional or outer-circle politicians, those who work for their party without desiring office. These men were numerous and zealous shortly before and during the Civil War, when the great questions of the exclusion of slavery from the Territories and the preservation of the Union kindled the enthusiasm of the noblest spirits of the North, women as well as men. No country ever produced loftier types of dauntless courage and uncompromising devotion to principle than William Lloyd Garrison and his fellow workers in the Abolitionist cause. Office came to Abraham Lincoln, but he would have served his party just as earnestly if there had been no office to reward him.12 Nor was there any want of high-souled patriotism in the South. The people gave their blood freely, and among the leaders there were many who offered up fine characters as well as brilliant talents on an altar which all but themselves deemed unhallowed. When these great issues were finally settled, and the generation whose manhood they filled began to pass away, there was less motive for ordinary citizens to trouble themselves about public affairs. Hence the professional politicians had the field left free; and as they were ready to take the troublesome work of organizing, the ordinary citizen was contented to be superseded, and thought he did enough when he went to the poll for his party. Still there are districts where a good deal of unpaid and disinterested political work is done. In some parts of New England, New York, and Ohio, for instance, citizens of position bestir themselves to rescue the control of local elections from the ward politicians. In the main, however, the action of the outer circle consists in voting, and this the ordinary citizen does more steadily and intelligently than anywhere in Europe, unless perhaps in Switzerland. Doubtless much of the work which outer-circle politicians do in Europe is in America done by professionals. But that lively interest in politics which the English outer circle feels and which is not felt by the English public generally, is in America felt by almost the whole of the nation, that is to say, by the immense majority of native white Americans, and even by the better sort of immigrants, or, in other words, the American outer circle comes far nearer to including the whole nation than does the outer circle of England. Thus the influence which counterworks that of professionals is the influence of public opinion expressing itself constantly through its countless voices in the press, and more distinctly at frequent intervals by the ballot box. I say “counterworks,” because, while in Europe the leaders and still more the average legislators share and help to make public opinion, in the United States the politician stands rather outside, and regards public opinion as a factor to be reckoned with, much as the sailor regards the winds and currents that affect his course. His primary aim, unless he be exceptionally disinterested, is place and income; and it is in this sense that he may be described as a member of a definite profession.
 In America (Canada as well as the United States) people do not say “politicians,” but “the politicians,” because the word indicates a class with certain defined characteristics.
 Of course now and then a man who has worked hard for his party is rewarded by a place. Barristers who have spent their substance in contesting seats have a better chance of judgeships, and there are usually five or six practising counsel in the House of Commons who are supposed to contemplate the possibility of their obtaining legal office. But these cases are so few as to make no practical difference.
 The number of persons who live off politics by getting places or by manipulating finance is said to have increased in France of late years. But it cannot be very large even now.
 The principal business in life of Cincinnatus was to till his fields, and a dictatorship a mere interlude. When I waited on the president of the Republic of Andorra, one of the oldest states in Europe, in 1873, I found him in a red shirt with his coat off wielding a flail on the floor of his barn.
 Rome in the later days of the Republic had practically become a country, that is to say, the range of her authority and the mass of her public business were much greater than in any of the Greek cities, even in Athens in the days of Pericles. The chances of making illicit gains were enormous, but confined to a small number of persons.
 Norway, the most democratic of the monarchical countries of Europe, is the one which has probably the smallest class of persons continuously occupied with politics.
 E.g., the seat of government for Maryland is Annapolis, not Baltimore; for Ohio, Columbus, not Cincinnati; for Illinois, Springfield, not Chicago; for California, Sacramento, not San Francisco; for Washington Territory, Olympia, not Seattle or Walla Walla; for Louisiana, Baton Rouge, not New Orleans.
 Though, as observed in a previous chapter, the payment of members of Congress does not seem to have any marked effect in lowering the type of members. It is the offices rather than legislative posts that sustain the professional class.
 The progress of the civil service reform movement has greatly reduced the number of federal officers dismissed on a change of administration; and a similar reduction is going on in some states and cities.
 But, as already observed, there are also in the rural districts and smaller towns many workers and expectants who do not look for places.
 The inner circle may in England be roughly taken to include:
Comparatively few newspapers are primarily political, and in many constituencies (e.g., Irish and Highland counties) there are very few persons occupied in political work. I do not, therefore, think this estimate too low.
In the United States there are now out of the whole number of federal offices about 100,000 which may be said to attract aspirants to endeavour to gain them by political work. Allowing one expectant for each office (a small allowance), and assuming the state and local offices bestowed as the reward for political services to be one and a half times as numerous as the above federal offices (they are, of course, more numerous), and allowing one expectant to each such office, we should have a total of over 100,000 + 150,000 × 2 = 500,000, a little less than one-third of the total number employed in railway work. Deducting from this total those who, though they work for office, do not make such work their main business, and those who work with no special eye to office, we should still have a very large total, doubtless over 250,000 of persons whose chief occupation and livelihood lies in politics.
 Lincoln was never a professional politician, for he continued to practise as a lawyer till he became president: but he was so useful to his party that for some years before 1860 he had been obliged to spend a great part of his time in political work, and probably some would have called him a professional.