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BY AND LARGE, last Thursday's McGovern Commission hearings in Boston were a New Politics show. Innumerable representatives of various organizations of former McCarthy and Kennedy supporters gathered before the Democratic Party commission to propose what they felt were changes in the operation of the party and of the American electoral system.
Though the details of the proposals varied, a common conviction and a common political ethic lay behind virtually all of them. The conviction is that the "old politics", the Democratic Party's 30-odd years of brokering alliance between trade unions, minority groups, and the South had failed and that drastic changes were needed to enable the political system to cope with current crises. The political ethic underlying the specific changes proposed runs roughly like this: The political system should seek to deal directly with the issues of the time, instead of being a battleground for various faction. "Participation" in the political system by all the people is essential, for it assures that the system will operate in the above fashion.
Where this ethic leads the New Politicians was most clearly demonstrated at the hearings in an hearings in an exchange between former Democratic National Chairman John Bailey's home state of Connecticut. The new politician, Thayer Baldwin, a New Haven attorney who serves as co-chairman of the Caucus of Connecticut Democrats, took exception to Bailey's defense of the state's tightly-controlled convention system of nominating candidates for public office. Bailey said that Connecticut Demo crafts--running nominees selected in this manner--had enjoyed a long series of electoral victories; Baldwin replied that rather than being preoccupied with winning elections, the party should serve as a "lobbyist for the people who are its members."
Baldwin latter retreated from this position, admitting that his caucus felt winning was important, but that it also wanted campaigns to center more about the issues than was currently the case in Connecticut. The message was, however, quite clear: Given a choice between defense of their position of principle on certain issues, and victory at the polls, the insurgents would choose principle, while Bailey and other regulars would opt for victory.
THIS dichotomy is not particularly new; it has appeared periodically in the struggles between "bosses" and "reformers" in American politics. Though the surface aspects of the struggle have changed, the underlying opposition in political ethics has remained remarkably constant.
There is little doubt which ethic is most attractive to students at Harvard and at many American colleges. The reformist or New Politics idea that politics should be an issue-oriented struggle for the public should be an issue-oriented struggle for the public good is, after all, the sort of thing many of us absorbed in our high school civics or American government classes; the regulars' view of politics as primarily a struggle for public office, waged by almost any means necessary, smacks of the cartoons of Boss Tweed we viewed in those selfsame classes. And we feel comfortable with an ideal of a participatory political system which would have as one of its principal features the kind of endless discussions of political issues which students enjoy in their leisure moments.
The New Politics ethic may be attractive, but it may also be one ill-suited for America at the present time. In the 1968 Presidential elections, Richard M. Nixon won by putting together a coalition of his "forgotten Americans"--Southerners, Mid-Westerners, and middle-class people everywhere concerned about what they felt was a decay of American standards. The kind of policy changes New Politicians want will first require defeating the Nixon coalition. Yet this coalition may be hard to beat, particularly if Nixon is able to extricate the United States from Vietnam with at least a minimum of grace before the next Presidential election.
To beat the Nixon coalition will require another coalition--probably one centering about minority groups, the middle class intelligensia, and those workers who cannot bring themselves to foresake old Democratic loyalties for George Wallace or Nixon. Yet the New Politics ethic--stressing as it does principle--hardly lends itself to the task of building alliances--a job which most often requires pragmatic trade-offs of the kind which reformers tend to detest.
FOR EXAMPLE, one of the strongest New Politics ideals--participation in the political process without hope of personal gain--is one which is not likely to strike many responsive chords outside of those intellectuals who have the time and resources to participate in this manner. By contrast, American Blacks who participate in politics tend to do so either for personal gain reminiscent of "machine politics" days (the members of Adam Clayton Powell's Harlem political clubs) or as quasi-revolutionaries. Neither approach fits particularly well with the New Politics.
The commitment to participation can also make New Politics groups tactically inflexible; even when they do emerge, leaders find it difficult to make any agreements with potential allies before consulting the entire membership of their groups, for fear of repudiation if they do not consult.
Norman Mailer's mayorality campaign well illustrates the ridiculous extremes to which the New Politics' commitment to principle can go. It was a campaign dear to many of the New York intelligensia-a campaign run with panache, with striking, if exceedingly poor, ideas such as making New York City the 51st state. The most visible result of the campaign was, however, to push Mario Procaccino--a symbol of all the New Politics hates--that much closer to getting the mayorality by talking votes away from Herman Badillo, Procaccino's chief liberal opponent.
When pressed about their seeming lack of results for New Politicians customarily reply that forsaking their principles and delving into pragmatic alliance building will only lead them into the trap which the Democratic Party has rested in since the New Deal. Time is, they say, required for development of the New Politics.
Maybe so, but the results to date give little evidence that time will provide such a boost. It is perhaps noteworthy that at the McGovern Commission hearings, the only black face in the room for most of the day was that of Earl Graves, the chairman of the McGovern task force, and a former Kennedy aide. And the only people there who appeared to be lacking a college education and at least a $15,000 annual income were the Parker House waiters who gave the New Politicians glasses of water after they'd finished telling the task force what was wrong with American politics.
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