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Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: The Machine Politician Versus the Administrative State

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: The Machine Politician Vs the Administrative State

Once upon a time, in the bad old days, American politics was dominated by the so-called “urban political machines.” These machines, composed of unelected, self-appointed elites, chose political candidates based on their own narrow interests and exploited uneducated and impoverished city-dwellers for their votes. By perpetuating a ruling elite based on cronyism rather than competence, they impeded good government and held back progress. Fortunately, around the turn of the twentieth century, a series of reforms broke the power of the urban bosses and ushered in a more enlightened ruling class who governed for the sake of the greater good.

That’s the popular narrative, anyway. Like many (most?) people here on the motte, I’m broadly skeptical of high modernity, progressivism, and Whig history. Accordingly, I’ve always been dubious about the knee-jerk “machine politics=bad” reaction. This skepticism has been intensified by the general failure of western efforts to transplant our own political institutions into the third world, where such clientalist arrangements are still pretty common. Clearly, they’re working for someone, or else everyone, presumably, would joyfully adopt US norms and institutions. I happened to come across a primary source from the hey-day of machine politics, “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” (available on Project Gutenberg), in which a very successful machine politician described his business in his own words. It was brief but compelling read; I’ll be describing my impressions below, mixed in with some larger thoughts about machines as a form of political organization.

Most people have probably heard of Tammany Hall. From roughly 1789 to the 1930s, the organization exercised a dominating influence in New York city politics, occasionally verging on an outright monopoly. George Washington Plunkitt was a life-long New Yorker and proud “practical politician” associated with Tammany Hall throughout his career. “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” is largely told in his voice, with occasional notes from his editor. And it’s a compelling voice. Plunkitt may or may not have been a criminal, and he was certainly not a responsible leader by modern lights. But he is a charming and often insightful raconteur. I’m not sure I’d loan him any money, but I’d definitely buy him a beer.

Much of that charm comes down to his frankness. Plunkitt is quite honest about having gotten rich off of politics, though he denies having broken any laws. He claims to practice what he calls “honest graft”, which seems nowadays equivalent to what we could call insider trading, using his knowledge of city politics to make favorable investments. So far as I can tell, this wasn’t actually considered a crime, though it certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. Likewise, Plunkitt is extremely frank about appointing friends and associates to government jobs as a reward for their political support. He expresses shock at the suggestion you would do it any other way. Nothing seems to excite his ire more than “the curse of Civil Service reform” a topic he harangues the reader on frequently, and to which we shall return in a moment. One of the first things that struck me in the text was Plunkitt’s de-emphasis on what we moderns would normally consider a key skill of a politician, public speaking. “The men who rule have practiced keepin’ their tongues still, not exercisin’ them. So you want to drop the orator idea unless you mean to go into politics just to perform the skyrocket act.” Nation-wide media was relatively new in Plunkitt’s time, the trans-continental telegraph only having been completed in 1861. Nation-wide broadcast media was not even a twinkle in Marconi’s eye yet. Presumably, in such an environment the kind of mass popular appeal that politicians today cultivate was much less of a requirement.

There are probably some readers who will point to the general mediocrity of most political speeches today and argue that no, party-elite connections are still what matters. I won’t say these people are entirely wrong, but I don’t think they’re entirely right either. It seems very unlikely to me that, for example, Barack Obama’s popularity within the college-educated demographic was entirely unrelated to his ability to performatively model PMCi-values on a national stage. For that matter, Trump is frequently cited as someone who enjoyed considerable success in spite of a general lack of party-elite connections. I suspect the increasing importance of nationwide broadcast media was a significant contributor to the eventual decline of the machines.

Closely related to this is the role of class dynamics. Plunkitt comes across as something I didn’t realize existed, an urban populist. Speaking of a hypothetical candidate who asserts “I took first prize in college at Aristotle; I can recite all of Shakespeare forwards and backwards; there ain’t nothin’ in science that ain’t as familiar to me as blockades on the elevated roads and I’m the real thing in the way of silver-tongued orators.”, he responds “I guess you are not to blame for your misfortunes, but we have no use for you here.” Its hard to imagine a blunter dismissal of PMC values. Like modern populists, he rails against elites, who he charges with hypocritical moralism and petty tyranny “We don’t own our streets or anything else…we’ve got to eat and drink what they tell us to eat and drink, and…choose our time for eating and drinking to suit them. If they don’t feel like taking a glass of beer on Sunday, we must abstain. If they have not got any amusements up in their backwoods, we must have none. We’ve got to regulate our whole lives to suit them. And then we must pay their taxes to boot.” These elites aren’t only tyrannical, they’re unpatriotic “Nobody pays any attention to the Fourth of July any longer except Tammany and the small boy. When the Fourth comes, the reformers, with revolutionary names parted in the middle, run off to Newport or the Adirondacks to get out of the way of the noise.”

This is striking because historically, cities have been recruiting pools for “progressive” movements, where “progressive” broadly means “someone who wants to replace the established order with something new.” There’s a danger in over-extrapolating from recent history, but this really does seem to be a pattern. Many of the most radical excesses of the French Revolution were driven by attempts to appeal to the sans-culottes of the Paris mob. Conversely, the revolutionaries imposed some of their most brutal repressive measures in the rural Vendee. A century later, orthodox Marxists famously thought that Russia was not yet ready for a revolution because the urban working class was still too small a percentage of the population. This pattern is embedded in our very language. The word “Pagan” derives from the Latin word for “rustic”. It’s modern usage originated in the period where Christianity had become an elite religion but had not yet been fully imposed on bitter-clingers in rural parts of the empire. The modern analogs would be the trumpenproletariat in flyover country.

How do we square this circle? I think part of it is that “populism” in common usage tends to be something intended to appeal to working class voters, who as a group are usually social conservative but economically liberal. In the modern world, populism is associated with rural areas because structural changes to the economy have skewed urban populations towards professionals rather than the working class. Per Wikipedia, in 1910 only 37, 200 Bachelors degrees were awarded across the whole country, in a population of just under 92 million. Of that 92 million, nearly 5 million (4,766,883)lived in New York. 4,766,883/37,200 = .008. In other words, even if every college graduate in the country had lived in New York City, they would have made up less than one percent of the population. By contrast, today 39.5% of NYC has a Bachelors or higher. And NYC isn’t even in the top five most educated cities in America! Likely in the eighteenth-through-early twentieth centuries – the heyday of the industrial revolution – urban populations were skewed in the opposite direction than they are now.

Of course, that doesn’t explain the other instances of urban progressivism cited above. I think we can chalk that up to these movements being an alliance between elite-aspirants and the working class, with the elite-aspirants providing the socially-liberal rhetoric of the movement, while the footsoldiers are largely motivated by pragmatic material concerns. This is as close as I have to working explanation, unless of course you think that the progressivism-urbanism association is all a mirage.

In lieu of ideological appeal, technically wonkery, or even a charismatic public persona, Plunkitt offers a vision of politics based on personal relationships and the rendering of services. He began in politics by getting his cousin to promise him his vote – not to Plunkitt personally but to whoever Plunkitt told him to vote for. Plunkitt offered this vote, along with his own, to the district leader. Then he recruited two of his old school-friends. “Before long, I had sixty men back of me and formed the George Washington Plunkitt association.”

In return for these votes, Plunkitt was offered positions in government. The exact position seems to have changed as the voting blocs he commanded grew in size. Its less clear from the text what exactly these individual voters received. Certainly as Plunkitt grew in power in the organization, he could offer jobs to some of his supporters. Judging by his repeated denunciations of civil service reform, this kind of patron-client relationship was key to the whole edifice. But of course, there couldn’t have been enough full time jobs to hand one out to every voter. The whole thing wouldn’t scale. Plunkitt’s access to the apparatus of government probably meant he could hand out contracting opportunities even when he didn’t have a full time job on hand. He says as much. But a lot of it also seems to come down to small acts of friendship and making people like you. “I know every man, woman, and child in the fifteenth district, except them that’s been born this summer – and I know some of them too…I reach them by approaching them at the right side…I hear of a young feller that’s proud of his voice, thinks he can sing fine. I ask him to come around to Washington Hall and join our Glee Club. He comes and sings and he’s a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball dub. That fixes him. You’ll find him working for my ticket at next election day. Then there’s the feller that likes rowin on the river, the young feller that makes a name as a waltzer on his block, the young feller that’s handy with his dukes. I rope them all in by givin them opportunities to show off.” Presumably the various public observances which Plunkitt alludes to were excellent opportunities for generating this kind of social capital.

These acts of friendship could also take a more practical form. “What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them in the different ways they need help. I’ve got a regular system for this. If there’s a fire…any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fire engines. If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things running again.”

Obviously there’s no statistics provided. But my intuition tells me this sort of thing was probably pretty effective. I grew up comfortably middle class; I’ve never known what its like to be worried about where my next meal will come from or where I’ll sleep. I’ve never worried about whether my wife or my kid will have enough to eat. If I was worried about that – well I don’t think there’s much I wouldn’t do for someone who solved that problem for me. Leaving intuition aside this model – tangible benefits for friends and family in exchange for loyalty – is arguably what leadership looked like for most of human history. Reciprocal altruism is a bedrock of human behavior. The intimate nature of such exchanges elevates them beyond the merely transactional; emotional ties soon develop and invest these relationships with the aura of the sacred. I’ve little doubt Plunkitt’s methods were effective. For that matter, I have little doubt that from inside, most participants in the machine were perfectly satisfied with the arrangement.

What caused the decline of machine politicians? And were they as bad as modern opinion holds? The first question can be answered more or less satisfactorily. The second is mostly a matter of opinion. The most commonly cited factor in the decline of the machines is the introduction of the direct party primary. Nowadays, we take it for granted that party members come together in a sort of internal election to vote on who they’ll put forward as a candidate for. Since politics is our national sport, presidential primaries often get breathless coverage in the media. But in fact, this wasn’t common for much of our history. Direct primaries were fairly rare prior to the mid-nineteenth century and didn’t really pick up steam until around the turn of the century. Prior to that, it was common for local voters to select delegates to a nominating convention, who in turn would choose the candidate. In theory, the transition to direct primaries allowed candidates to “cut out the middleman” i.e. intra-party elites and “bosses” and appeal directly to voters. Plunkitt and his ilk, who relied on horse-trading rather than offering a coherent vision of the common good, were finished.

This triumphalist narrative remains common. Its not entirely wrong so much as it is incomplete. This study suggests that the introduction of direct primaries was correlated with a decrease in Congressional representatives (both Senate and House) voting in line with party leaders. Insofar as “party leaders” are a proxy for the old school bosses, we can say that that this represents a weakening of their power. But direct primaries are only part of the story.

Another major part is this: technological and demographic changes made interpersonal connections an inefficient way to mobilize voters. In 1793, the House of Representatives was only 105 members. Today, it has 435, a number set by law in 1929. In 1793, there were roughly 34,000 voters per representative. Today the ration is roughly 1: 761,000, an order of magnitude higher. While I don’t have data for state and municipal legislatures, its safe to assume the same trend holds.

“Dunbar’s Number” is the theoretical upper limit on the amount of close relationships anyone can have. Estimates vary between 150 and a little over 200, but the bottom line is this: for most of our existence as a species, humanity operated in relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers. We evolved to handle a certain number of point-to-point contacts. Past that limit, it becomes necessary to start sorting people into categories of one sort or another. A politician in a district with, say, 500 people can personally know a large chunk of them. In a district with 5000, he can know fewer, but his ward heeler subordinates might still know many on an individual level. But by the time you hit 500,000, this sort of personalized relationship is impossible. Even if you maintained a small army of volunteers to go around and engage with individual voters, said volunteers would soon themselves exceed Dunbar’s number, diluting the strength of their relationship to the politico.

Instead of cultivating relationships with individuals, you cultivate relationships with voting blocs. Farmers, lawyers, blue-collar workers, gun owners etc. Legions of specialists search for ever-more-subtle coalitions of interest to solicit. This is where broadcast media becomes important. Broadcast media is a way of efficiently marketing to large numbers of potential voters, far more efficient than simply going door-to-door.

Its not only the politicians who start sorting people into boxes based on professional, ethnic, or social status. The voters will do that themselves. At one time, people’s sense of identity was largely local – their town, their neighborhood, their block. But as the world flattens and the flow of information, goods, and services becomes ever-less constrained by geography, people start to think of themselves in larger terms: a Christian, a lawyer, a Republican, an X, Y, Z. These larger identities have always been present of course, but they make up an increasingly greater portion of any given individuals sense of themselves. Plunkitts’s methods relied on local ties that are increasingly less important.

Another major factor was Plunkitt’s great white whale “the curse of civil service reform.” While Plunkitt was presumably most concerned with New York’s Civil Service reform, these developments were merely reflective of larger trends in the country. For most of the nineteenth century, government administrative jobs had been distributed at the discretion of elected officials. But in 1883, Chester A. Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform act, which provided for certain federal jobs to awarded on the bases of competitive examinations rather than by administrative fiat. Those who had gotten their jobs through competitive examinations could not subsequently be removed for “political reasons”. At the time, the act covered only a small percentage of the executive. But, in a true stroke of genius, the act was written with a “ratchet provision” which allowed the president to add positions to those covered under the Pendleton act. So, if your side was likely to lose the election, you could add all your appointees to the rolls right before leaving office, and your successor couldn’t remove them. After enough iterations of this process, about 90% of the civil service was covered under the act. While the Pendleton act only covered federal civil service jobs, a similar process seems to have taken place within various states.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, one is half-tempted to ask: do you want the deep state? Because this is how you get the deep state. In the process of enshrining their ideals in law, the professional-managerial class of the day created the legal basis for entrenched bureaucracies to pursue their collective interests even in the face of opposition from the nominal chief executive. Debates about the role of meritocracy aside, Civil Service reform went a long way towards eliminating the middle ranks of the machines, those on whom men like Plunkitt relied.

The bureaucratization of the civil service also contributed to the ballooning of the administrative law sector, which further eroded the ability of elected officials to actually make a difference in the lives of their constituents. Remember when Plunkitt said that local charities would get around to doing something just about the time that a family was starved to death? One of the services machine politicians provided their constituents was the ability to apply pressure on the machinery of the state. If, say, you felt that your property had been unfairly seized, or you had been denied something you were owed, or you had been inconvenienced in some way by The Man, you could turn to your ward heeler, who in turn could bring the matter to your local elected representative. Nowadays – you’d hire a lawyer.

America is almost unique in the extent to which the actions of executive agencies are dictated by lawsuits or the fear of lawsuits. The Equal Protection Clause means effectively, anyone can sue a government agency for virtually anything. The most well-known application of this on the Motte is probably the collection of legal decisions arising from civil rights law which has contributed to the institutionalization of progressive tendencies throughout the public and private sector. This is correlated with explosive growth in the legal profession. In 1960, there was roughly one lawyer for 627 people in the country. By 1987, there was one lawyer for every 354 people. Today, there is roughly one lawyer for every 250 people. Notably, some 30% of Representatives and 51% of Senators have law degrees. To a large extent, the politician as advocate has been replaced by the lawyer as advocate. Instead of being compensated by votes, today’s advocates are compensated in publicity and cash. Rule of law becomes rule of lawyers.

All that said, were the machine politicians so bad? I’ll admit that I am somewhat tempted to romanticize Plunkitt and all his spiritual kin, from Boss Tweed to Enoch L Johnson. Undoubtedly they were self-interested, but no more than any other politician. They made it their business to know their constituents and to provide something meaningful to them. Above all, they seemed to have been accessible. They gave their constituents a sense of agency, a feeling that there was something they could do and someone they could turn to when things went wrong or when they were being pushed around. How many of us can say the same? If, for example, my local police department confiscated my property in a civil forfeiture case, I would have no choice but to pursue a costly and time-consuming remedy through the courts. I’m fortunate enough that I could probably afford it; many others couldn’t.

At the same time, I’ve already discussed the major limitation of such political machines: they simply don’t scale. In the savage war of all against all, scale is everything. The big fish eat the little fish and organizations – political, economic, or social – which can more effectively mobilize greater resources usually out compete the smaller ones. Even if such an arrangement could survive, I expect that in time it would lose the qualities that make it appealing. A political machine would eventually become vulnerable to the same oligarchical dynamics as every other political system, and the machine politicians as detached and self-absorbed as every other elite.

Join me, then, in raising a glass to Plunkitt and all his tribe. Like Haast’s eagle, the woolly mammoth, or the horse nomads who conquered half the world, they were magnificent in their day. But their day has passed. The world has changed; I do not think we will see his kind again, for better or for worse.

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A politician who I think is quite similar to a Tammany Hall-type is Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario. He doesn't have a "machine" perhaps in the same way, as it is not built around a singular place or institution, but rather his close family members: Rob Ford was mayor of Toronto before him, and various other members of his family are following behind him into politics. In Toronto and Ontario they speak of "Ford Nation": a coalition of hangers-on, staffers, relations, magnates, and supporters, and I think it resembles a machine if you squint somewhat.

Ford is not an ideological man, and while he skews toward what you might call typical small-c conservatism that doesn't really encapsulate him. With him as Premier Ontario is embarking on massive expansions of public transit (roughly equivalent to the American federal government's expenditures in this regard) and nuclear power. He's also pushed through new highways through prime agricultural land. He has obvious populist tendencies: availability and price of beer has been a constant messaging point for him, even if it costs the government a billion dollars. He is extremely popular among immigrant groups and has been one of the biggest promoters of the rather absurd state of the international student program. His government is also very scrutinizing and responsive to public opinion: his rule through COVID was essentially through the whim of public opinion polls, seesawing rapidly from no restrictions to incredibly harsh and unconstitutional ones with great abandon. He has also presumably walked back proposed changes that he had promised key donors if they were publicly unpopular, like the Greenbelt land swaps.

It's also very good to be his friend. I don't know if there is necessarily good evidence that he is himself benefitting to any large degree from the state of things, but plenty of people who attend his daughter's wedding for no apparent reason profit. The members of his Cabinet get extra-juicy salaries and pensions, and he has both expanded the number of cabinet positions and adopted a policy of rotating his MPPs through those so that most have gotten a turn on the merry-go-round. This kind of personal largesse is also helped by the Canadian media's silent handshake deal to not report on personal matters: hypothetically if one were to perhaps be Ford's mistress, maybe you'd get a key spot in Cabinet, like, say, Infrastructure Minister or something. Just spitballing.

All this is to say is that it's basically a patronage system. We still have a civil service obviously, but elected jobs and public contracts are increasingly used as treats to be dangled for loyal supporters and donors. And the results aren't all that terrible, really. Yes it's wasteful and corrupt and inefficient and the fiscal burden of this is going to have to be reckoned with somewhere down the line. But Ford markets himself as The Guy Who Gets Things Done, and there's no doubt he gets things done. There's new regional rail and new subway lines and new nuc plants and new public buildings all coming online. This is causing a problem for the Ontario Liberals because they're getting their lunch eaten by him; all they have to offer as an alternative at the moment is that under Liberal rule politicians might be more polite and somewhat less corrupt but also nothing will change.

I strongly suspect that the chattering classes care a lot more about corruption than the majority of voters. Really egregious corruption can rub people the wrong way, particularly if people feel they are being shut out of opportunities that insiders have access to, but I don't think a lot of people care very much about, say, who gets appointed transportation minister. In order to be enraged about deviations from procedural norms, you have to be deeply invested in the legitimacy of those norms to start with. While the PMC may be, increasingly large numbers of voters aren't.

I've seen arguments rethinking "corrupt" machine politics of the "bad old days" like this for at least a decade now (it's pretty much the standard position of the Good Ol' Boyz podcast, for one). Some point out that ethnic machines did better at integrating and assimilating immigrant minorities like the Irish than the subsequent "neutral" civil service. I remember once reading an academic paper by a non-westerner pointing out that many different things get subsumed under the label of "corruption" by modern first-worlders; things which are not equally bad, and some of which — particularly paying officials to expedite an approval that would otherwise be long-delayed — can be beneficial at least in developing countries. I remember a Chinese-American individual (iirc, originally in the context of an Avatar the Last Airbender fanfic) talking about a similar distinction in Chinese culture between expected "skimming off the top" to mostly spread around greasing the creaky wheels of the bureaucracy (while keeping some for yourself, of course) versus taking so much it gets in the way of the job getting done. I recall another Asian author arguing similarly about "cronyism," and the difference about hiring through personal connections someone you know can do the job — in particular, because of those personal connections — and giving a job to an incompetent relative or such. Some point out how, with the proliferation of NGOs, QUANGOs, non-profits, consultants, et cetera (the "NGOcracy") even more money disappears into the pockets of various people whose contributions to the processes of getting things done are opaque, if not outright dubious — it's just done lawfully now.

I recall many times seeing people argue that our current system, while all legal and above-board, spends more money and gets less done for the average voter. What I've seen argued in reply only a few times, but sticks deeply into my memory, is that this is the whole point of civil service reform — government doing less is not a bug but a feature. The illegality of the machine system was bad, sure, but the real problem with it was that it delivered for the electorate too often.

Debates about the role of meritocracy aside, Civil Service reform went a long way towards eliminating the middle ranks of the machines, those on whom men like Plunkitt relied.

Hiring on connections means you can hire too wide a variety of people — variety in ability to do the job, but more importantly, variety in social class. Switching to hiring on credentials — particularly with academic capture — could possibly get you more competent people, but it definitely gets you more of the right sort of people, the right social class.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, one is half-tempted to ask: do you want the deep state? Because this is how you get the deep state.

The answer, in this view, is yes. You should want the "deep state." Because you need experts in charge, not the ignorant masses. Too many voters are ignorant, deplorable, bitterly clinging to their superstitions and bigotries, unable or unwilling to recognize progress, on the wrong side of the long-but-inevitable arc of history. The average Republican voter wants fascism.

In the process of enshrining their ideals in law, the professional-managerial class of the day created the legal basis for entrenched bureaucracies to pursue their collective interests even in the face of opposition from the nominal chief executive.

Again, the chief executive has to be nominal, and the entrenched bureaucracies able to act in opposition to him, because he's too beholden to the electorate. An important part of "defensive" democracy — perhaps the most important part — is defending said democracy from it's electorate. You can't let them, or their representatives, have much real power — that was proven once and for all by Weimar Germany. As H.L. Mencken put it:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

We are a democracy, because we agree that such is the only legitimate form of government, and that our government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. But "consent" in this context means something rather different from most others — very different indeed from the consent of "consenting adults" or "affirmative consent." It is through the great civic ritual of elections that this consent is collectively expressed and renewed, and our collective identity as a country reaffirmed. Hence, refusal to let parts of the citizenry participate is contrary to our commitment to equality. Hence the historical expansions of the franchise, the current movements to stop the disenfranchisement of felons, and even the work by some to extend the franchise to non-citizen residents.

But precisely as we allow more of the population to participate in elections, the less sway upon government said elections can be allowed. Democratic legitimacy requires that the people — the whole of the people — be free to make their collective voice, their collective opinion, heard. But just because the government hears that voice, doesn't mean they have to listen, that they have to treat it as in any way binding upon them. "Willie hears ya, Willie don't care."

Mencken also defined "democracy" as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." But, the argument goes, nowadays we know that a country don't deserve something so awful, and thus, democracy is when society is ruled by a technocratic bureaucracy, led by an intellectual vanguard elite who know what is best for society, and which does that regardless of what the common people think about it.

The "liberal" in liberal democracy already means the options available to the voters are limited; people have inalienable rights, and choices that would violate them are "off the table" no matter how much a majority of voters would want that. So, given such limits exist, it then leaves only to negotiate how wide or narrow they can be. Why would one where there are "various safeguards and provisions to ensure that the “will of the people” would not get out of hand" and the political spectrum is confined to "a narrowly defined spectrum of acceptable opinion" set by elites, with parties and politicians outside that narrow range banned, be any less "legitimate" or "democratic" than one where democracy is less managed? You can get your Model T in any color you want, so long as you want it in black.

In short, the argument is that the "populist" reasons for which the common voter might have preferred the old machine politics are exactly the reasons it had to be destroyed. We need managed, defensive democracy and a deep state to save our democracy from a dangerous excess of democracy.

Edit: I'd also like to add here a quote from Mary Harrington's recent UnHerd piece:

Does this mean everyone is now better represented than before? Perhaps not. For at the very moment the universal franchise was granted in the early 20th century, extra-democratic bodies such as NGOs and international regulatory entities began professionalising and proliferating, and in the process draining ever more power into pre-political fields closed to the democratic process. It’s possible that this was a coincidence, of course. But perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the patrician preference for keeping popular opinion at arm’s length never really went away, meaning that the arrival of the popular voice in the halls of power necessitated new mechanisms for routing around that voice where necessary.

Certainly, it was striking to see this lordly attitude at full volume, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, as the Remainer great and good united in defence of their beloved, extra-democratic, supranational technocracy. And I’m sure you remember, as I do, every well-connected such individual insisting the referendum should be struck down because people didn’t know what they were voting for, and had been duped by the side of a bus.

Since then, though, I’ve started to wonder whether the technocrats were at least partly right. Given that a great many Tory MPs still don’t seem to understand EU regulatory mechanisms, it’s is at least plausible that no one else did either. Hence, the Remainers may have been, like Cromwell in 1066 and All That, “Right but Repulsive”.

I think this line of argument conflates two different propositions: a) there's such a thing as too much democracy and b) the only appropriate guarantor against too much democracy is a managerial elite with the backing of the state. Lots of people agree with the first proposition without necessarily agreeing with the second.

b) the only appropriate guarantor against too much democracy is a managerial elite with the backing of the state.

I'd say this needs slight modification — that a managerial elite need not be the only appropriate guarantor against too much democracy, just the best option. And what alternatives do you have in mind? How else do you propose to keep the governance of a modern, complex nation state going when the electorate will, if allowed, vote for the Wrong Choice?

You should want the "deep state." Because you need experts in charge, not the ignorant masses.

And if those experts were neutral and ideologically uncommitted, that would be fine. Instead, we get 2020 where "pandemic except if you're rioting in ways we approve of" and "20% inflation over 4 years matching the amount the money supply grew". 100% expert caused. They overreacted, and their having listened to people they shouldn't have listened to is a strong indication that they aren't immune to partisan pressure.

The average Republican voter wants fascism.

So does the average expert, apparently; they even have their own brownshirts (or... black hoods, I guess).

Why would one where there are "various safeguards and provisions to ensure that the “will of the people” would not get out of hand" and the political spectrum is confined to "a narrowly defined spectrum of acceptable opinion" set by elites, with parties and politicians outside that narrow range banned, be any less "legitimate" or "democratic" than one where democracy is less managed?

You misunderstand: liberalism is designed to be a safeguard against "when your neighbor gets it wrong". By extension, that is also designed to protect you from expert overreach, which again, if you want to see evidence of that all you need to do is look out the window.

But just because the government hears that voice, doesn't mean they have to listen, that they have to treat it as in any way binding upon them.

Yeah, I remember when Louis XVI and Charles I said that too. They actually kind of do need to treat it that way sometimes, because if they don't and shit gets bad enough as a consequence, that government tends to get replaced by other means (as politics is violence by other means, and power comes out of gun barrels).

because we agree that such is the only legitimate form of government, and that our government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.

[The above describes what happens when that legitimacy is withdrawn; it isn't generally perfectly geographically distributed.]

And if those experts were neutral and ideologically uncommitted, that would be fine.

I'd argue that this is impossible. An expert class, by virtue of being a coherent social class, will inevitably end up with their own ideological commitments. Of course the so-called 'deep state' "aren't immune to partisan pressure." And the very idea of "expertise" implies that sometimes, one party will be "more correct" than the other — how do you distinguish that from "partisan pressure"? ("Reality has a well-known liberal bias," "reality-based community" and all that.)

They overreacted, and their having listened to people they shouldn't have listened to

Says you, a non-expert.

The argument isn't that "the deep state" is perfect, or even neutral, but that it's far better than the alternative, wherein the ignorance and bigotry of deplorable flyover chuds is allowed to influence the state. That's how you get another Hitler.

So does the average expert, apparently

No, because the "experts" are left wing, and "fascists" are right wing. "Socially conservative/fiscally liberal" is the fascist quadrant, "socially liberal/fiscally liberal" is the progressive quadrant.

Yeah, I remember when Louis XVI and Charles I said that too.

They didn't have fighter jets and nukes, did they? Less flippantly, the rebellions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were unusually successful, historically speaking, because of changes in military technology — the rise of firearms — which vastly favored quantity over quality and labor over capital in military effectiveness. That "age of the gun" is over; the trend for at least a century has been back toward the medieval and early modern condition of capital-intensive warrior elites defeating vastly larger numbers of less-skilled, less well-equipped peasants.

wherein the ignorance and bigotry of angry coastal bluehairs is allowed to influence the state

Right back at 'cha.

but that it's far better than the alternative

[Citation needed]

the trend for at least a century has been back toward the medieval and early modern condition of capital-intensive warrior elites defeating vastly larger numbers of less-skilled, less well-equipped peasants.

All that needs to happen for the peasants to win is to offer those under elite control a better deal. This is why Afghanistan is under Taliban control: the ANC could have stopped them with all the cool toys the US left behind, but those men in the cities were completely unwilling to lift a finger. It is worth noting that the "expert consensus" was on the side of the society that was defeated, because the experts decided it should have nothing to offer its defenders.

See, that's the thing: expert opinion is an excellent servant, but a horrible master. If the experts are correct, then their suggestions should be relatively simple to disseminate throughout the rest of the society and consensus should be, with some latency, readily achievable.

That's what "expert class" means, after all. Not what the experts have taken "expert class" to mean, which is to be unaccountable for any mistake, acting beyond the rule of law, and to claim 'just following orders' (or to scream something incoherent about muh racism) when pressed.

So does the average expert, apparently

No, because the "experts" are left wing, and "fascists" are right wing. "Socially conservative/fiscally liberal" is the fascist quadrant, "socially liberal/fiscally liberal" is the progressive quadrant.

You seem to be operating from a bizarre definition of fascism. "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state" certainly reflects the views of the expert class more than those of the maga hat wearing normie republican, as do the fascists' many vigorous attempts at social engineering and geopolitical aggression.

To be clear, I do not think "the experts" are meaningfully fascist. There has been a concerted attempt by all politically sides to liken their enemies to fascists, which has lead to the word being a largely useless tangle of negative mental associations.

You seem to be operating from a bizarre definition of fascism

It's one a lot of people I encounter seem to share, though. Set up something like the usual two-axis "political compass," only with different axes: let the left-right axis be the social axis (that has become the most salient of our current culture war), and the vertical axis be the economic axis, with laissez-faire anarcho-capitalism at the bottom extreme end and total communism at the top — the actual space of interest being confined to a much smaller window somewhere in the middle. In the lower left, we have the Libertarian Quadrant: "fiscally conservative but socially liberal." Low taxes, low redistribution, low regulation, but left-wing social politics. Above that, we have the Progressive Quadrant: high taxes, high redistribution, high regulation of markets, and left-wing social politics. (The trend of the past decade has been for the Democratic party electorate to actually move closer to the Libertarian/Progressive border on economic issues as they move left on social issues.) Over on the bottom right, we have the Conservative Quadrant of the GOP establishment — the people who think the best way to promote traditional values is to lower taxes, reduce regulations, unleash the free market, and "shrink government until you can drown it in the bathtub." (I could go on about this group, and how they respond to tensions between market forces and right-wing social values.)

But what about the quadrant above them? People who are socially conservative, but also in favor of wealth redistribution and business regulation? Who want to use the same government powers, particularly over the market, as the Progressives, only for right-wing social ends instead of left-wing ones? (Who those in the Conservative Quadrant would describe as "abandoning their (free-market) principles" and "sinking to the enemy's level" by adopting the enemy's tactics tit-for-tat.)

I've had people in all four quadrants label that corner the Fascist Quadrant.

A number of historical works have pointed out that the tactics used by Mussolini's Fascists and Hitler's Nazis during their rise were developed and used by far-left Communist groups first. Thus, again, "fascism" is when the Right uses the Left's tactics against them. Indeed, in the wake of the Trump convictions, we've been seeing quite a few right-wing commentators arguing that, contra the likes of Asa Hutchinson and Dr. Phil, the GOP needs to stop "taking the high road" and start using the Left's tactics against them in retaliation. And I see plenty of others on the right — when they're not denouncing it as literally Satanic — saying that such proposed actions would constitute fascism.

I have a real-life acquaintance who, about half a year or so ago, made a short argument — I don't remember the precise phrasing, only that it was more succinct and pithy than I can manage — that the average post-Trump Republican voter "wants fascism." To try to lay it out here, first, the average GOP voter has become ever-less wedded to worship of free markets and absolute opposition to redistribution over the course of the 21st century. I remember when people made fun of the old lady at a TEA Party protest with a sign reading "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" for the incoherence of that statement when taken at face value. But I also remember someone arguing that it makes sense if you understand it as a person trying to express support for a portion of the welfare state via a political language limited to anti-government Reaganism. There were plenty of socially-conservative people who were unhappy about the role of "too big to fail" firms in the financial crisis and sympathetic to the economic goals of Occupy Wall Street (and according to one left-wing person I knew, the driving away of such people by the "progressive stack" and embrace of all the usual lefty social causes was not a bug but a feature, because any socially conservative person who would agree with OWS's economic positions is a fascist, and better that OWS fail than let fascists into their movement). Economic protectionism and opposition to globalization — left-wing positions back in the late 90s — are now more popular on the right. You see increasing support for anti-trust laws, particularly with the rise of "woke capitalism," DEI, and ESG scores. Even George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was a step away from the "drown government in the bathtub" position (which is why classmates at Caltech denounced it as fascist). More and more, younger right-wingers are moving toward the sort of things people of my parents' generation used to denounce as "socialism" — and even that set is coming around to the bits like Social Security and Medicare that they're increasingly depending on.

But they're not exactly becoming truly socialist, are they? They don't want a command economy. As my acquaintance put it, they want a government that intervenes enough against Big Business to let the little guy compete, without outright picking winners and losers. They're looking for something in between unfettered capitalism and Soviet communism — a third position, you might say.

Second, when we talk about conserving social traditions, just whose social traditions are we talking about? Basically, the historic majority population of the USA — which is to say, white (more precisely, Western European inside the Hajnal line) and Christian (more precisely, Protestant). At least implicitly.

Next in this vein, I turn to this comment from @FirmWeird from six months ago:

the economy, housing unaffordability (including BlackRock namedrop), the degeneration of The American Woman, the lack of respect from all of society including the command hierarchy,

These are all largely the same thing. From the perspective of the heterosexual male warrior-type, the ability to support and defend a woman/family is extremely important. He's not tying it in to everything, all of those seemingly disparate concepts roll straight back to being able to satisfy the drive for a woman to have kids with.

So our straight working class Trump voter wants policies, both economic and social, that improve his or her ability, and the ability of people like him or her, to find a spouse, settle down, and raise a family in conditions that allow them to pass on their values to the next generation. You might say that this group of people — mostly and implicitly white (or "white-adjacent") — want to secure the continued existence of their group and a future for their children.

Or, to succinctly sum up these two points, they want fascism.

Good writeup.

The enemy of glad-handing client-patron politics is scale, as you say. In ancient history, there is a pattern of large empires growing, fraying the traditional social fabric, and then adopting a universalist religion after the empire's time of troubles. This Confucianism or Christianity can marshal the loyalty of a larger social organism. Likewise, the exploding scale the last few hundred years is continuously destroying old modes of social organizations and spawning totalizing ideologies to mobilize the deracinated masses.

I don't believe civil service reform had much to do with it, except insofar as it was a lever of the above process. "The deep state" or managerialism developed independently from a totalitarian one-party command economy and a liberal federal republic. This convergent evolution suggests that it's the only viable structure for our current level of scale. We could not have chosen differently.

Can you provide any references to the phenomena you described in your first paragraph? I've often suspected that universalist religions are a solution to the problem of scale, but I haven't dug into any literature on it.

This convergent evolution suggests that it's the only viable structure for our current level of scale. We could not have chosen differently.

Unclear. If the Constitution's original first amendment had passed and capped the size of congressional districts at 50k or so (as opposed to the ~700k we currently have) it's not clear how American political institutions would have evolved to deal with that.