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Rainbow's End.

Rainbow's End. Stephen P. Erie. University of California Press, $27.50.

The outsider supposes that the sachems of the national wing of the Democratic party, doomed as they are to at least another four years of grim exile from the White House, will seek not only sustenance from the pork of liberal programs hunted down by their skilled corps of congressional foragers and the roots and berries of state initiatives gathered by their governors, but wisdom as well from dispassionate soothsayers whose careful inspections of the past may inform their strategies for the future. After all, the presumably best braves of their tribe have been soundly clobbered three times in a row now, twice by the California medicine man and once by a fellow who acts and orates like an escapee from Watership Down. Surely it is time for them humbly to ascertain not only what they have done wrong, but, much more importantly, how to stop doing it.

The fashion in the immediate aftermath of Michael Dukakis's embarrassment last fall was to designate him as the principal if not the sole culprit in the November disaster, and thus have done with the maner. This is the Breaker Morant gambit, employed without notable success by British army commanders seeking to remove atrocious bloodstains of the Boer War from their escutcheons with the solvent of Australian blood. It is consoling-and accurate-to say that the Duke conducted his campaign with all the grace of a man falling out of a tree, but that neither explains how so uncoordinated a chap made it to his diving platform at the top of the party's tree in the first place, nor implies any reason for confidence that his successor at the pinnacle in 1992 will not prove equally inept. The issue is not whether Dukakis, or the Jimmy Carter of 1980, or the George McGovem of 1972, made the most of his opportunities, however great or small, but what fell fortune impels the dispensers of such opportunities to be so capriciously disdainful of political realities.

On the face of it, studies such as Steven Erie's contribution of Volume 15 to the California Series on Social Choice and Political Economy would seem worthy of study by the lonely and disconsolate now weary of the texts of all those Gideon Bibles they've been reading in Iowa farmhouses and New Hampshire motels since Jimmy Carter did his Cheshire cat routine in the 1980 rout. Subtitled "Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985," Erie's work ought to be a helpful guide to the forlorn and dejected, dealing as it purports to with the evolution of the party into its pal miest days. The times have certainly changed since Mike Dukakis's parents came through the golden door from Greece, and our society has changed with them, but surely there are useful lessons to be gleaned from refreshing recollections of what worked before.

Well, most likely there are, but a fellow could throw his back out extracting them from this book. Professor Erie's thesis-he teaches political science at the University of California, San Diego-seems to be that the legends of how the Irish gained and exploited their political beachheads in America do not square with the facts. He will perhaps protest that what I am about to do to summarize and clarify his treatise amounts to an oversimplification so extreme as to amount to distortion, but, with all respect, one of us had to do it and he left all the work to me.

The myth as Erie sees it is that the Irish confabulated the Democratic party in the nineteenth century by the same means that the British employed to man their armies and navy: instead of conscripting able, fit recruits from all levels of society, they lured the mentally infirm and financially distressed from the oppressed lower classes into service with small bribes from the public purse. The fact as he perceives it is that the Irish became increasingly selective as their political ranks gradually gained power, padding the voting lists and stuffing ballot boxes only as much as absolutely necessary to maintain their monopolies of municipal and state control. Because the public treasuries of the cities and counties consisted chiefly of tax revenues collected from middle-class homeowners (the states, still administered by stubborn garrisons of "native"-i.e., Protestant-political opponents, kept their grip on what little commercial taxation there was), the new Irish bosses had to moderate the demands of, their constituents lest they inflame passions for reform. So they contented themselves with creating large numbers of notvery-desirable jobs in order to acquire and maintain the loyalties of tractable voters from the lower middle class who would trade prospects of wealth for lifetime security, and they bought no more votes than they absolutely needed. Naturally they prefered their co-religionists when those precious jobs were distributed, and, logically if injudiciously, they therefore took small pains to reinforce their ranks with later arrivals speaking German, Hebrew, Polish, and Italian.

Acculturation and actuarial realities inexorably depleted the numbers of those docile enough to sit still for such treatment. The shift in tax-collection emphasis from local and county property revenues to state and federal personal and corporate income taxes delivered into non-Irish hands in state capitals and Washington the muchlarger wads of cash needed to fund the national welfare class that local and county governments simply could not afford to support. The ductility of the taxpayer is variable, and influenced by a number of factors, but powerful among them is the inverse effect of the distance between him who pays and him who collects. A homeowner who sees his property tax double will scream bloody murder at his druggist, who happens to moonlight as a local tax assessor, and if he doesn't see tangible improvements in exchange for his tax money-more streetlights and better paving, with more cops and better teachers much in evidence-he will buy his aspirin elsewhere, and otherwise get even. But the person who earns income that he never even sees has no convenient scapegoat for any rage he feels and seldom thinks to hold his congressman accountable for the way the dough is spent.

The Depression that enabled FDR to complete the transfer of responsibility for public assistance-and thus the principal authority to commandeer and allocate the revenues to finance it-to Washington scuffled and sank local, county, and state political organizations that failed to please those in charge in Washington. FDR, as Erie in his most cogent sections points out, was absolutely ruthless in his designations of controllers of all the lovely money parceled out from Washington. Local and state leaders who delivered for him got hegemony over the administration of alphabet agencies spewing money and jobs into their fiefs; those who displeased him saw the dependent in their midst succored by bureaucrats in Washington. And that was another thing: even as the nationalization of assistance made political ethnocentricity a pitiably obsolete antique, so it engendered the vast bureaucratic army that overwhelmed and replaced the roving guerrilla bands that had ruled the precincts before.

I think Erie's finding can be fairly said to lead to the conclusion that what the Democratic party has since done to cobble up a national strategy patterned on the old local approach has failed precisely because what worked on the relatively personal level of municipal machine politics-individuation of problems and solutions-cannot work on the utterly impersonal level of nationally organized politics. Once the power ebbs from city hall and floods the Capitol, those needful of government assistance, or just greedily coveting it, have no choice but to organize into interest groups that press demands with media bullhorns. Since those groups, unlike merely pestiferous individual mendicants, have polling strength sufficient to frighten politicians, politicians who believe that they must be satisfied, just as the loners used to be, endeavor to placate all who stand and shout. Which leads, inexorably, to the budgetary behavior that has brought the country to the precipice of financial suicide: so long as no group may be offended, and all groups must be rewarded, the resources of the Treasury must be deemed infinite.

What Erie does not quite say, at least so far as I could tell, is that national elections such as 1988's strongly suggest that the national mutant of the nineteenth-century liberal local machine approach is now in its tum in decline. Michael Dukakis gamered the votes of only 23 percent of those eligible to mark ballots-46 percent of the half of the eligible voters who bothered to go to the polls. Something is seriously wrong, and it needs prompt attention.

It's just too bad that this is not a better book. -George V Higgins
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Author:Higgins, George V.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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