Last week The Crimson reported a sharp rise in student interest in things political. To me this is an exciting development. We are all part of the body politic in one way or another, whether we like it or not. And if we don't like it, which is not an uncommon feeling today, there is only one way to change it, and that is by participation.
A large share of our government consists of organizations which accomplish one purpose or another in ways that are not radically different from organizations in the private sector. For example, as a hospital the Cambridge (City) Hospital is not too different from the Somerville Hospital or the Mt. Auburn Hospital. Of course some of the governmental organizations are unique, such as the Army or the Internal Revenue Service, but they still follow the organizational principles that would be followed if they were not public enemies.
The formal governmental machinery is quite different. It is a little different in the executive branch, more different in the judiciary, and very different when one comes to the legislature. The essence of the legislative process is that there are a whole lot of people--voters--who want something good to happen. These people have a lot of agents who act in their behalf, and in the long run each agent has power only to the extent that he reflects in some effective way his constituency. That is one thing any good politician feels in his bones. He has a sense of all those people who trust and support him and, if he is wise, he never loses touch with them.
The Massachusetts legislature is a somewhat unusual body. It has traditions, usually honored, of being an open body with an ancient right of access by any citizen. It mixes rather extensively into local and particular issues, details of staffing state agencies, rentals of property, local water supplies and town dumps, etc. One reason for this is that, unlike most other states except Hawaii and Indiana, the capital is in the state's largest city. It costs a dime to see the legislature in action. Perhaps it is in consequence of this mixing into many detailed matters that it does not deal very effectively with general issues. There are some notable successes, like no-fault auto insurance and community mental health programs, and some notable failures, like mass transportation and school integration.
But I am more interested in the feel of the process. How do you really get things done? I need to start by dispelling a few myths. One of these is that issues and formal positions by candidates have very much to do with the end product. Basically it is only a very small part of the electorate that is strongly issue oriented. People vote for a candidate because, as one man said to me on the street recently, "I don't know that much about the issue but I like the way you come at it." I think people are correct in this attitude because issues change. People change much less. It is relatively easy to find out what people want at some point in time, and to vote that way. It is much harder to keep their confidence when you have to go against their wishes in a significant number of cases.
A second myth is that a clear, ringing statement of a general principle is a viable answer to a problem. Often it is a first step, but it is only a first step. For example, most people believe that large mental hospitals produce more abnormal behavior than they alleviate. So let's get rid of them. Fine. But to do so one has to draft legislation, spend hours talking to professionals, to employees, to budget directors, to people in the community, so as to develop alternatives--and build bridges to people can reach these alternatives. You have to negotiate compromises. You get a bill passed and then the process really begins. Some of the Harvard and Radcliffe people who have started a community residence in Cambridge know the months of work it requires. The legislator who knows what his constituency wants also knows that he has not delivered the product until he has followed and expedited the process clear to the end.
The Massachusetts legislature is a somewhat usual body. It has traditions, usually honored, of being an open body with an ancient right of access by any citizen. Unlike most other states the capital is in the state's largest city.
A third and final myth is that the lobbyists are a bad influence on legislatures. This I categorically deny. I have been proud to call myself a lobbyist because that is the role I have been playing, for Cambridge, for mental health, for the reorganization of human services. I know I have been effective in proposing, testing, inquiring, communicating. In this way I have been taking part in a legitimate and indispensable process that is required equally of a citizen as a free agent and of a paid representative of any interest group. I am disturbed when I see this role smeared by the sometimes irresponsible press.
One final point. What about party politics? Isn't it discredited and somehow corrupted? Wouldn't it be better if people were elected as Independents? Superficially yes, maybe, but in the real world, no. In serious politics, you are concerned not with making a series of independent judgements, but with the complex business of government, which may involve dealing simultaneously with a score of decisions and problems. You need allies--and not just on a single vote or on a single issue. Successful government--government which can offer both stability and progress--requires the development of a majority committed to reasonably common goals and ready to work out acceptable means to their achievement. Under our system of government, this can and should be the function of a political party.
Edwin B. Newman, professor of Psychology, is Republican candidate in the Second Middlesex, including residents at Radcliffe, the Divinity School, the Law School, Yard and Union dorms, and Harvard Houses, excluding Dunster, Leverett and Mather. He challenges incumbent Democrat Thomas Mahoney, professor of History at MIT.