Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Popular Mayors and Non-Partisan Politics

Great Frank Bruni column yesterday about Joe Riley, who has been mayor of Charleston, South Carolina for 39 years. Riley is one of those civic booster, get things done mayors who seem to act outside of ideology. During Riley's tenure Charleston has been one of America's most successful older cities, both rehabilitating its historic neighborhoods and creating vibrant new business districts. What he said to Bruni was interesting:
Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said. Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster. But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”
Over the years Riley has been involved in many fights, but as Bruni says
he has been careful not to pick abstract and unnecessary battles, and he has deliberately concentrated on visible, measurable realities: the safety, beauty and vibrancy of streets; the placement of parks; the construction of public amusements; the availability of housing.
George Will had a similar column back in 1995 about Mayor Bob Lanier of Houston, who was once re-elected with 91 percent of the vote. Lanier was famous for things like removing graffiti and filling potholes, plus putting a thousand more police officers on the street at the height of the great crime wave.
Says Bob Lanier in Lyndon Johnson accents, ''They flat understand the street in front of their house, or a street light so the street is safer.'' Which is to say (as another mayor who was easy to underestimate, Fiorello La Guardia, memorably said), there is no such thing as a Republican or Democratic way to collect the garbage.
I know that this is what many Americans want from their government: not partisan wrangling or posturing, just prosperity and safe streets. Which raises the question of why our national government is so unlike that, no matter who is in charge.

I regularly meet people who think that it could be, and who rail against politicians and their speechifying and insist that if people just set aside politics and worked together we could solve our problems as Charleston has. I doubt it. I suspect on the contrary that the issues facing the national government are too diffuse and complex to be fixable in the way that potholes and streetlights can be. Actually the feds do a lot of that sort of thing, and they are generally pretty good at it: consider Social Security, Medicare, the major National Parks, the FBI -- these things are run at a very high level of competence and there is very little partisan rancor about them. One of the biggest generators of rancor is macro-managing the economy; the relationships between tax rates, interest rates, deficit spending and so on and whether people have jobs are too abstract for most people to grasp, in fact they may be too abstract for anyone to fully grasp. Managing the macro economy also seems to be very difficult; what country has ever done it well and consistently for even 25 years? So instead of rolling up our shirtsleeves we get recriminations. The federal government also has many policies that are frankly moral, especially in the areas of health and welfare, and since Americans do not agree about these things we can hardly expect our politicians to. And what about foreign policy? Is there some non-partisan, competent way to work for a safe and secure world? There is also the issue of attention -- things slide through at the local level that would get intensely scrutinized in Washington, so instead of back room deals we have to have carefully spelled out policies that are bound to piss somebody off. But I think the biggest reason our politics are acrimonious, as I have often said, is that we use politics to express our identities, and America is full of people who would rather stand up for their own sort of people and denounce others than work together to do anything.

So I don't think that any candidate for President is ever likely to get 91 percent of the vote. But sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands at all the"abstract and unnecessary battles" being waged in Washington, and I really wish people would stop worrying about what is liberal or conservative and just fix something.


G. Verloren said...

"But I think the biggest reason our politics are acrimonious, as I have often said, is that we use politics to express our identities, and America is full of people who would rather stand up for their own sort of people and denounce others than work together to do anything."

You've expressed something I've always been unable to adequately articulate, or even fully conceptualize.

Some people would just rather be clannish and miserable than cosmopolitan and happy.

Fortunately, barriers are being broken down in many places, particularly amongst the disillusioned youth of a globalized, digital world.

That's not to say change will come swiftly or even easily, but at least progress is being made on the fundamental level of questioning and rejecting the established system, and trying to figure out other ways of doing things.

Thomas said...

I think it is important to realize that there are people and interests that *want* us polarized. Or rather, that they'd prefer us polarized than to allow an informed populace.

Thomas said...

This is most obvious in immigration. Current immigration - where illegals have essentially no rights and thus are a cheap source of labor. If we enforce, that labor goes away, if we grant any legal status, they aren't as cheap. E.g., Lots of people in Texas are having their very cheap McMansions built by undocumented citizens who are unprotected from wage theft and worker safety laws.

See, for example: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/10/176677299/construction-booming-in-texas-but-many-workers-pay-dearly

John said...

Plus the whole media outrage machine, and the political groups that fundraise by getting their supporters frightened or angry.