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The magnificent filth of politics

February 5, 2013, at 5:08 PM

Thomas Frank does not like Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. Not one bit. The heroes are not pure in motive; the 13th amendment was not born from a virginal doctrine of racial equality. The President and his team had to bribe their way to victory, forcing men of conviction like Thadddeus Stevens to disclaim their own core beliefs in order to assure the amendment's passage in Congress.  Well, never. Frank's specific beef is with historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who seem to celebrate corruption and pass on to future generations the idea that Great Ends are indeed justified by their unclean means.

But when has American politics ever been clean?  Not in 1800, after the death of George Washington, when every faction Washington worried about was let loose, and when such grand men as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson cut deals to secure their own power.  Teddy Roosevelt was an incorruptible police commissioner of New York City, but he sold his soul to politics when he backed the notably corrupt James Blaine in the 1884 presidential election over the genial but less reliable Grover Cleveland. "The magnificent liar from the state of Maine" won Roosevelt's vote because Roosevelt's political career would have been over had he not done so.

And so on, and so forth, with liberal heroes like F.D.R. and Lyndon B. Johnson being supreme commanders of the art of American politics, where a little bit of grift and graft has always greased wheels.

I don't like corruption, and I don't celebrate it. These days, we rightfully police corruption and many of our institutions are much more professional than they were. (We have a ways to go.)  Today's analog might be deep cynicism and opportunism. But American politics has never, ever been pure. And American politics has worked, too, despite the corruption in some cases, and because of it in others.

What frustrates us now about politics is not a re-emergence of a strain of corruption-cum-cynicism, two pulsating veins the head of the body politic.

What's bothersome is that our familiar politics does not work. Nothing's getting done. The Republican Party's doctrinal and demographic narrowing -- features external to the daily practice of politics -- are gumming up the machine.

So long as politics works, Americans in general seem to tolerate a certain amount of cynicism and petty vote-buying and glad-handling. 

When it does not work, those features of the system become paramount flaws. It is those facets of the system that sustain the powerful interests at the expense of the few.

I think that if Barack Obama's health care plan included a public option, the back-room deals that produced it would not be as universally reviled by liberals as they now are. The ends justify the means. 

 Right now, President Obama is taking time to push for an assault weapons ban that he knows will not pass. Why is he doing this? He is cynical: he wants to secure more meaningful and consequential reforms using the assault weapons ban as bait. So he talks about it and makes it seem more important than it is.  That's not pure. And it might not work. But this is his strategy to maximize the real-world impact of gun control.

Politics without dirty deals is not politics. It's something else. It's not something we've seen here; there are no historical antecedents for it. Purely deliberative reasoning, shorn of self-interest, is an academic exercise. Let it by all means by an aspirational ideal. Call out cynicism where you see it, but don't lump all cynicism and opportunism together. Be wary of judging what is with what you think must be. If humanism on a grand scale is your goal, you aren't going to get there without getting mud on your jersey.

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