Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.
Our Constitution was not a proclamation written by a convention. It was a negotiated contract for uniting thirteen sovereign independent states. Nothing like that had ever been done voluntarily, and few nations have matched it in two hundred years, even with the use of force.
My own personal short list; eight decades in retrospect.
Right Angle Club 2012
This ends the ninetieth year for the club operating under the name of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia. Before that, and for an unknown period, it was known as the Philadelphia Chapter of the Exchange Club.
NEARLY every student of government agrees, the state government is the weakest part of the American system. Almost every academic or federal congressman, at least, seems to hold that belief, while almost any lawyer would prefer to have his case in Federal court rather than before a state judge. Although the followers of Thomas Jefferson kept the nation in an uproar for forty years pursuing his notion of government identical with the will of the people, the public opinion he prized nevertheless remains scornful of state government. Such scorn by itself can undermine legislative quality, creating a destructive cycle.
Students of government point to instability and unpredictability as main features of concern about state government. The legal profession values a central principle, called stare decisis: Leave the Law Alone. Stability, or order is desired so highly that dictatorship, corruption, and poverty may be tolerated in order to achieve it. Conversely, an inability to predict what is coming next is highly destabilizing, a sign of amateurism at the controls. Any decision is better than no decision, even a bad decision is better than no decision. The public hesitates to act in the face of indecisive governance, and dynamism drains from the environment. Most of the time it doesn't make much difference what a rule says as long as it is emphatic and prompt. And it's usually the case that bad decisions are quickly reversed. Test it yourself: how much difference does it make whether a one-way street runs East or West? But it would make a considerable difference if almost any street changed Eastward to Westward to Eastward again, several times capriciously. Suppose someone did make a bad mistake: Eastward to Westward and back to Eastward again. Everyone can now see that Westward was a dumb idea, you bonehead. It will be a very long time before anyone tries that, again.
A second general characteristic of state government is the location in a small remote town. The capital of Michigan is in Lansing, not Detroit. In New York, it is in Albany, not New York City, and in Pennsylvania, it moved from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. Even in little Delaware, it is in Dover, in Maryland, it is in Annapolis rather than Baltimore. And so through most of the fifty states, we see the same pattern. No doubt it could be argued: getting away from big-city bosses and political machines is positive, and stretching a network of highways through the open countryside to the new capital is a source of real estate development for the state. But it definitely creates weakness of the governing system to locate it in towns that have little newspaper coverage, no think tanks, few universities, and even poor airports, school systems, museums, and civil society. These are generally one-industry towns, where the children of the bureaucracy all go to school with each other, along with the offspring of lobbyists. Voices in the past have been raised against the development of a ruling class, as might have been seen in Potsdam outside of Berlin and similar political suburbs. But we have just as surely developed a bureaucratic subclass in Bethesda, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia. No doubt there are many other similar clusters, in other states. Where the children of bureaucrats are clustered in the schools near the Washington Post and the National Journal it can be argued they know the inside game of politics, as well as the children of Boston, know the inside baseball of the Red Sox, and there is a certain value to developing such a political artisan class. But in the vast majority of the country, the dominant problem is that the voters of the state have not the faintest idea of how their state government is functioning. The children of bureaucrats may still learn at the dinner table how to adopt "Yes, Minister" behavior or how to find lifetime bureaucratic jobs with accidentally high fringe benefits. The big flaw is the rest of the state does not realize the smallest part of how prevalent such behavior is in the capital. If the politician who is caught in a scandal is largely unknown to the general public, it is an advantage to the political class. With less notoriety, there is less scandal, possibly even lighter punishment from judges he has been involved in appointing. Rising above this sort of sorry behavior, the quality of legislation is surely diminished when there is diminished fame for doing a good job, diminished scorn for incompetence.
To a certain extent, this pressure for mediocrity is augmented by the reduced importance of the subject material. The federal government is involved in foreign policy and monetary issues Constitutionally forbidden to the state legislature. Even at the bottom of the hierarchy of public notice, the activities of mayors and city councils have a more direct effect of the lives of the local voter than state government does, with importance shaved off at both the top and the bottom. Such activities really can possibly afford to be relegated to some rural small town with nothing to do except play poker and drink in the bar of the local hotel; it's a question which is a cause, which is the effect. The Constitution provides that the Federal government shall be limited to a dozen specified activities, while everything else is governed by the states. Unfortunately, two hundred years of chipping away at the wall separating two governments of limited powers have left the states with little scope to govern anything substantive except the insurance industry. That does not prevent most state governments from considering more than two thousand bills a session, but these are matters of little import, boring, boring.
The Progressive Movement of the early Twentieth century saw much the same problems, being handled by much the same sort of people; but they over-reacted to it. Like most reform movements, the Progressives wanted to make a big splash and then go home. A century later, it is difficult to assess how outrageously corrupt the Senatorial process may or may not have been at that time in the past. Somehow, the public became convinced the U.S. Senate was a terribly rotten organization because of the terribly rotten selection system for U.S. Senators. Consequently, the Seventeenth Amendment passed with little fanfare, taking the selection process away from "the states" and giving it to a statewide popular election. In states with large urban political machines, this change meant giving the nominating process to big-city bosses, taking it away from the legislatures. That is definitely a distinction without much difference. Most big-city political bosses are content to select obedient hacks for nomination to the legislature, but this is the source of most rotten boroughs, gerrymandering, corruption, and mediocrity. In the areas of rural machine politics, the boss himself is more commonly attracted to the appointive legislative jobs. In New Jersey, the election law prohibits more than small campaign contributions to legislators but permits unlimited contributions to the county boss. Either way, the progressive reform of 1913 has not had much progressive effect. One thing is very certain. When the method of selection of the state's U.S. Senator is left to the legislature, the resulting Senator is pretty certain to be a current member of the Legislature. And in the instant you aspire to be U.S. Senator, it becomes very clear you will greatly enhance your chances if you first run for the legislature. There were once likely to be half a dozen senatorial aspirants within the Legislature at any one time, so there was an appreciable improvement in the quality of the Legislatures. True, there was probably more grand-standing and maybe even vote-swapping in return for assistance on the Senatorial seat selection. But there was also much more attention paid in return to the state's interests, by the U.S. Senate. The state's voice on the national scene was considerably louder. The value of a legislative seat and the later experience it provided were much enhanced by possessing the power of selecting a U.S. Senator.
A measured assessment of the effects of the Seventeenth Amendment is long overdue. My own view is that ripping the selection process away from the state legislatures and substituting a second popularly elected national legislative house, was both an over-reaction and a careless gesture without much improvement. Because vested interests have been created, it is now nearly useless to ask the present Congress to study the matter. We have to hope that some rich private citizen will see the need for a serious study of these issues, and both fund the effort as well as leave it alone. If it gets captured by ideologues, it will require a second study, or maybe even a third.
And finally, we get to Earl Warren. former governor of California, and President Eisenhower's choice for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Eisenhower later once referred to the appointment as the worst decision he ever made. Two decisions are said to have been his pets: Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims. Prior to these two decisions, it was really only possible to gerrymander Congress and the fifty state Legislatures. The U.S. Senate and the various state Senates were elected by geographic boundaries, and couldn't be gerrymandered. Tracing back to a corridor conversation between John Dickinson and James Madison, Dickinson had caucused with the other small states and was in a position to block almost any Constitutional Provision at the Convention. He used words to the effect of, "Do you want a Constitution, or don't you?" and went on to describe his total unwillingness to allow big states to dominate small ones. Out of this, Ben Franklin cobbled a compromise of a two-house Legislative Branch. To pass, any legislation would require the approval of both houses. The House of Representatives would have proportional representation, while in the Senate each state would have two senators, regardless of its population. Eventually, almost every state Legislative branch followed this pattern, although it was not a provision of the Constitution.
The hidden dissention in 1789 was over slavery, but Dickinson was a shrewd and experienced lawyer. He knew human nature, and the best example of the power of his insight has later emerged as California has become the largest state. Every new insurance design first seeks to conform to California laws, because it's expensive to launch a new project, and you might as well assure yourself of conforming to the rules of the largest market, first. The smallest state, Delaware, was not about to be pushed around like that, even on many unrelated issues. But centuries later, Earl Warren had learned the same lesson in reverse and lunged for it when he became Chief Justice. Using the argument of "equal justice", he forced 49 state Senates to adopt proportional representation, just like the other house in their branch. New Jersey, which I know best, is typical in being forced by this decision to change its Senate from one vote per county to voting by population. The subtlety was that both houses of state legislatures became dominated by big-city machines and hence were capable of being gerrymandered. They thus gained control of the nomination process, and gerrymandering nation-wide has assumed the posture of machine politics dominating the selection of candidates. It's certainly true that in the Pennsylvania legislative process, you can regularly observe party hacks drive up, and vote on the floor in accordance with a little card which the "leadership" hands them as they step on the floor. The beauty part of this is that decades later, most citizens haven't a clue what had happened.
Originally published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019