October 4, 2020


The Other Democratic Party: To Understand Trump's Appeal Look to the Tradition of Boss Politics in the Democratic Party. (STEPHANIE MURAVCHIK AND JON A. SHIELDS  OCTOBER 4, 2020, The Bulwark)

The local patron-or boss-has long embodied the Democratic Party for his loyal voters in the places we studied. Elliott County's judge/executive (an elective executive position) David Blair was the Democratic machine for decades. He remains popular there, even after being forced out of office in 2011 due to corruption charges. Mayor Joe Polisena, meanwhile, controls Johnston's powerful Democratic machine. In Ottumwa the boss tradition faded years ago when city reformers pushed Jerry Parker out of the mayor's office. Yet it lives on in the fond memories of the city's old-timers. To the dismay of many in Ottumwa's small professional class-whom Parker calls the "Indian Hill people" (after the local community college)-they continue to elect him to the office of county supervisor.

The boss and his supporters are held together by a paternalistic social contract, one that exchanges promises of protection and provision in return for respect and loyalty. It's a model of politics that grows up from the patriarchal, working-class family. Boss rule also includes a degree of tolerance for corruption. "Getting the job done" in the service of loyal supporters is what matters, which means that scrupulousness about the law or maintaining tidy distinctions between public and private boundaries can interfere with good governance.

In these communities, the "Democratic" label does not even suggest a commitment to progressive views on race, gender, guns, or immigration. On many such issues, in fact, the Democrats we spoke with are moderate, some even staunchly conservative. Rather to be a Democrat long meant that one was part of a paternalistic social contract, one brought to life through an informal network of alliances.

For almost three decades, for example, David Blair was Elliott County's judge/executive until he was forced out of office by the federal government on corruption charges. Blair was indicted for currying favor with voters by providing them public gravel for the upkeep of private backroads on their farms. But he remains popular. A number of county residents we spoke to lauded him for personally helping constituents out, including hiring them when they needed jobs and using his own company's equipment to clear snow.

He first became a local patron decades ago through his connection to the carpenter's union, which allowed him to become a critical gatekeeper for jobs. "All the boys came to me who wanted in the carpenters' union," he told us. "They were just farm boys. I'd take them up there [to union headquarters] and get them a union card, and send them to Cincinnati to work. They could earn good money up there then." Later Blair continued this strategy when he bought his way into a pipefitters' union. And when Blair eventually acquired a coal business, his ability to offer jobs to loyal supporters expanded once again.

Like Blair and machine politicians everywhere, Polisena is inundated by a constant stream of favor seekers. Unlike boss rule in Johnston's old days, Polisena says he tries to help his constituents, so long as they don't ask him to break the law, which they sometimes do. "People come in here. They'll ask for something off the wall. I tell them . . . . 'I can't do that [often because it's illegal], but I can do this," the mayor told us.

In exchange, Johnston's Polisena-much like Blair in Elliott County-demands loyalty. "If you're not a Democrat in Johnston, you would never get anything, you wouldn't even get your street swept," one local told us. True or not, that's what Johnstonians believe. For this reason, Johnstonians often only expressed reservations about the mayor's rule "off the record." One accounted for their reluctance by saying,"You know how this town is."

Trump fashions himself more an old-style Democratic boss in the mold of a Blair or Polisena than a modern Republican. Like these men, Trump offers his supporters not a grand ideological vision, but rather a promise to take care of them by cutting deals-and corners if need be.

These boss-centered Democratic communities and the Trump White House have also indulged in nepotism. Many are appalled that Trump was set to appoint his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who are neither public health experts nor economists, to the Council to Reopen America. But in the towns we visited, extended family ties are often the basis of common enterprises, including politics. In Johnston a handful of family cliques control town politics. Thus, it seemed normal to people we talked to that Trump's relatives would play important roles in his administration. As one Johnstonian told us, "What do you want his kids to do?" "They're backing their father."

The Democratic machine in Johnston has been stitched together by extended ties that link families across generations, including the Lombardis, the Uccis, and the Delfinos. Mayor Polisena's son-Joe Polisena, Jr.-was just recently elected to the town council. This continuity of families in politics builds trust and familiarity among local supporters.

Donald would have been an ideal governor of IL.

Posted by at October 4, 2020 12:00 AM