In recent weeks Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution has been sending me quotes from James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book, The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities. And I in turn have been sending these missives on, like precious snippets of political science samizdat, to other friends and colleagues, noting that, when it comes to diagnosing the root causes of our current political quandaries, we are all struggling to climb the mountain, only to arrive at the peak and find a sign indicating that Wilson was here more than 50 years ago. Rather than keep circulating Wilson’s wisdom on the QT, I thought I’d share some telling pieces of it in this post so that we could all wrestle with its implications.
Wilson’s book looked at the contest between what he termed “amateur” Democratic Party reformers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and their rivals—the political professionals in the party machines from whom they were seeking to wrest power. What distinguished amateurs from professionals was not their relative seriousness or dedication but rather a reliance on what Wilson termed purposive incentives instead of the material interests that had long fueled American politics in the form of patronage jobs for the party faithful, pork barrel spending, and the perquisites of office.
“The amateur believes that political parties ought to be programmatic, internally democratic, and largely free of reliance on material incentives such as patronage. A programmatic party would offer a real policy alternative to the opposition party. A vote for the party would be as much, or more, a deliberate vote for a clear and specific set of proposals, linked by a common point of view or philosophy of government, as it would be a vote for a set of leaders. The programmatic basis of one party would, to some extent, compel an expression of purpose by the opposing party and thus lead to the realignment of both parties nationally, with liberals in one and conservatives in the other.”
While Wilson was writing in 1962 about amateur reformers in the Democratic Party, he was really writing about a new mode of politics cutting across parties. Indeed, as he acknowledged in his preface to subsequent editions of the book, the Goldwater campaign of 1964, with Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in the vanguard, marked “the greatest victory of the amateur spirit in recent American politics.”
The problem with the amateur spirit is that, for all of its moral clarity (if not superiority) relative to a world governed by cigar-chomping political bosses, its pervasive spread in the ensuing decades has created new and more intractable problems of governance in the United States. As Wilson prophesied all too well, with these developments “the need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.”
The amateur spirit, and the disdain it has for compromise and trade-offs, is not a suitable approach for governance in a continental republic that intentionally encompasses a tremendous diversity of interests and whose core constitutional arrangements are designed to separate, check, balance, and decentralize power. But, for better or worse, we are all amateurs now; we certainly are governed by them. The question is, given where we are, what we can do about it? Sadly we don’t have James Q. Wilson with us today to help us sort this out. We all will need to figure this one out ourselves. We welcome your ideas!