Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Book Review of Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America

I first heard about this book in an Open Left blog diary by John Emerson and was immediately intrigued by Walter Karp’s unconventional views and his conclusions on the political behavior of political parties and politicians.

Originally published in 1973, Indispensable Enemies argues that to truly understand power in American society, one should look closely at the two major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. Rather than looking at prominent politicians or elected leaders, lobbyists, or corporations, Karp argues that to truly understand power in America, the focus should be on party organizations and the bosses who rule these organizations on the local, state and national level. Karp argues that nothing happens in American politics, government and hence, society at large, without the approval and consent of these bosses. However, these bosses and the decisions they make, although they have a big impact in society, are largely invisible to the general public.

Emerson does a nice job summarizing the main thrust of the book at Open Left so rather than recreate the wheel I will paraphrase the next several paragraphs from his essay to illustrate the book’s main points.

- The parties and the party professionals work for themselves first and foremost. A party's ruling clique always would rather maintain control of a losing party than win elections and lose control.

- Parties do not depend on elected officials for funding. Elected officials who don't have their own organizations and who can't self-finance are pretty much dependent on the parties. The parties get their funding from donors, and donors give money to prevent action as they do to get action (or have no action at all).

- Party leaders do not want reform, progress, or change. Anything new makes their job harder and threatens to bring in new, competing leaders.

- The two party oligarchies support each other against insurgents of either party. Often, disputes are highly-choreographed dog-and-pony shows leading to predetermined conclusions.

In addition, the parties and bosses take the following steps in order to keep their control and power over the party hierarchy:

- They can sabotage a popular candidate within their own party because he is an insurgent or because he seems a likely candidate to take over the party organization.

- They concede small or large areas to the opposition party. This ensures a standoff where leaders of the two parties broker deals at the expense of their supporters.

- The bosses can split their own party so that one faction can be played off against the other. They can also build campaigns around wedge issues, peripheral to the actual business of governance, which can set a faction of voters in one party against a faction in the other party.

- The bosses can neglect or sabotage outreach to new supporters. The party pros do not want enthusiastic new supporters if these supporters are likely to make unfamiliar and inconvenient demands. What they want is predictable, tried-and-true party regulars making specific, limited demands. Voter enthusiasm is not a good thing, but rather a problem to be solved.

- The two parties and the liberal and conservative wings of each party often secretly collude with one another by killing inconvenient measures that their adversaries need to seem to support, but do not want to see passed.

Unrelentingly dark and pessimistic, Indispensable Enemies was an exhausting book to read all the way to the end as Karp gives example after example of actual events in U.S. history seen through the lens of his analysis of party power politics. Karp skewers both Republicans and Democrats including damning passages about some sacred cows of American Progressive politics such as Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, the New Deal and trade unions.

The shining light in an otherwise, dark and depressing book is Karp’s belief that the antidote to the power and chicanery of the political parties is an engaged, active citizenry.
“[I]t should be clear that the essential and inherent danger to party power is independent political ambition, the presence in public life and public office of men who ignore and defy the dictates of party bosses and oligarchies. To preserve their power, party organizations must try constantly to eliminate the political condition that breeds independent political ambition. That condition, in general, is the free political activity of the citizens themselves, their own efforts to act on their own behalf, to bring into the public arena issues that interest them and to encourage by their activity the ambition of public men.

[T]he condition safest for party power is public apathy, gratitude for small favors, and a deep general sense of the futility of politics. Yet there is nothing natural about political apathy, futility and mean gratitude. What lies behind them is not ‘human nature’ but the citizens’ belief that politics and government can do little to better the conditions of life; the belief that they are ruled not by men whom they have entrusted with their power but by circumstances and ‘historical forces,’ by anything and everything that is out of human control; the belief that public abuses and inequities are somehow inevitable and must be endured because they cannot be cured (Karp, 110).”

Karp’s book, therefore, is a manifesto for citizens to actively oppose and depose the party bosses and political parties who, by their actions and behavior, have betrayed the public trust. It is a call for citizens to be active participants in deciding their civic fate and a call for ordinary people to take back the reins of American democracy from those who have taken it away.

Despite having been published more than twenty years earlier, Karp’s book still deeply resonated with me and his analysis of American political power and history rang true for today’s politics. It might be a bit outdated in this age of 24/7 news cycle, the Internet and web 2.0—but I still give Indispensable Enemies five out of five stars! If you can find a copy in a library (it was out of stock in Amazon the last time I checked) I highly recommend borrowing it. This book is highly recommended to get an essential understanding of power politics.

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