A Distant Mirror
By THOMAS FRANK
By now, even the most dedicated “values voter” is aware that an orgy of plunder and predation grinds merrily on in the capital, yet if polls are to be believed, the Democrats can persuade almost nobody to switch their vote on that basis. That’s because, while they have many nice slogans on the subject, Democrats offer no larger theory of corruption, no way to help voters understand what is essentially Republican about the pillage currently being visited on our national government.
I suggest the Democrats turn their eyes to the conservatives’ beloved 19th century, an era that is relevant again in all sorts of startling ways. The reigning economic faith of our time, they will find, is merely a souped-up version of the Victorians’ understanding of the market-as-nature. Again Americans thrill to the exploits of the great tycoons, and gradually we are becoming reacquainted with pervasive inequality, the wrenching “social issue” of our great-grandparents’ time.
This is why I nominate Matthew Josephson’s 1938 masterpiece, “The Politicos: 1865-1896,” as the volume of history with the most to teach us about the present. The book is valuable for its surface qualities alone — its painstaking reconstruction of forgotten scandals, its glimpses of antique slang and high-flown oratory, its remarkable cast of politicians, like the “Easy Boss” Tom Platt and the “Plumed Knight” James G. Blaine, all of them household names once but today as obscure as Ozymandias.
Still, contemporary readers will feel the sharp poke of recognition with nearly every chapter. Then, as now, empty accusations of treason were standard rhetoric. Reformers were routinely taunted as effeminate — in the manner that conservatives today bandy about terms like “effete,” “French-looking,” and “girly man.” Roscoe Conkling, the sarcastic voice of New York finance, famously laughed off a crusading editor as a “man milliner.”
And, of course, there was corruption, the unending outrage of money- in-politics. Both parties bid for the favor of big business, and both did a considerable amount of business themselves, as the roll call of forgotten scandals attests: the Whiskey Ring, the Post Office Ring, the Credit Mobilier scheme, and the Grant administration’s ceaseless “saturnalia of plunder.” But “The Politicos” is not merely a catalog of money-in-politics, it is a study of the logic and development of money-in-politics, from the crude grasping of the “spoilsmen” in the 1860’s to the final union of politics with business in the 1890’s, when industries and even individual corporations effectively sent their own representatives to the United States Senate.
Matthew Josephson was a man of the left, but “The Politicos” is not a reassuring tale of liberal triumph. The figure who towers over this dialectic of graft as it roars to its consummation is the greatest of 19th-century political commanders, the industrialist Mark Hanna, who managed the 1896 presidential campaign of William McKinley. Hanna was famously quoted as saying openly what his contemporaries would say only privately: that we were ruled by “a business state,” and that “all questions of government in a democracy were questions of money.”
When confronted by a groundswell for the earnest reformer William Jennings Bryan, Hanna used every weapon available to make an example of the upstart. While his lieutenants portrayed Bryan as an anarchist, Hanna enlisted the financial support of industry for McKinley, going so far as to levy an assessment on the capital of large corporations. He may not have rewarded his supporters with honorifics like “Pioneer” and “Ranger,” as did his modern disciple Karl Rove, but by the end of the contest Hanna had outspent Bryan by 10 to 1, much of it on “floaters” compensated for their votes.
Hanna’s methods were corrupt, yes. “But his corruption was rational,” Josephson tells us. “It flowed from the very nature of our society and its laws.”
And as we scratch our heads over all the shocking stories of the last six years we would do well to keep Josephson’s dictum in mind. These are not tales of individual venality, separate one from the other. They are expressions of the age. The issue is not merely corruption; it is what old Will Bryan would have called plutocracy.
Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.’’ He is a guest columnist during August.