George Washington Plunkitt on the Sausage Factory of American Politics

There’s a phenomenon among cave explorers called “the rapture“, akin to “an anxiety attack on methamphetamines”, that can overcome people in the claustrophobic depths. I believe a similar thing happens in the claustrophobic depths of our own struggle: some are overcome with frustration and desperation so overwhelming that they panic and abandon the movement altogether.

A spirit of relentless optimism and experimentation is a prerequisite for anybody taking on this cause. Thomas Edison epitomized that spirit when he famously quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” George Washington Plunkitt, also born in the 1840’s, was a hustler in New York City’s notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. While Plunkitt was nowhere near as innovative or admirable as Edison, these men both typified the boundless ambition and optimism that White Americans would do well to revive.

His memoir, entitled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, is a brutally honest and unapologetic tour through the sausage factory of American politics. In it, he describes how the democratic process is invariably driven by graft and special interests. He explains how to build and maintain a constituency. He lampoons patriotism and idealism in American politics as shams perpetuated by self-promoters. He calls out the “reformers” and “the civil service” for being more dishonest and corrupt than the machine politicians they were sent to replace.

His folksy meanderings can be at times amusing and obnoxious distractions, but the style is what one might expect to find from a bright and gregarious man who’s devoted himself to politics and eschewed academics. Even the parts that seem completely parochial or personal can be gleaned for thoughtful insight from a life of experience. He drives home his most important points, like the importance of loyalty, multiple times and from multiple angles.

The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary; men who keep their promises and never lie. Richard Croker used to say that tellin’ the truth and stickin’ to his friends was the political leader’s stock in trade. Nobody ever said anything truer, and nobody lived up to it better than Croker. That is why he remained leader of Tammany Hall as long as he wanted to. Every man in the organization trusted him. Sometimes he made mistakes that hurt in campaigns, but they were always on the side of servin’ his friends.

This book is antiquated and many of his prescriptions are outright immoral and/or illegal, but few other books have so thoroughly influenced my understanding of how the world actually works. My foray into political activism and “community organization” has confirmed over and over again how little has changed in the century since this book was written.

On one memorable occasion, a local GOP operative I met with lurched over the table at Steak ‘n Shake and confided that he’s really only in it to scrape lists and make contacts for his mortgage gig. There was the passionate tea party organizer who bellowed about taxes and principles through her megaphone…her husband was plotting a run for office. At the national level, the whole Obamacare distraction is little more than a transfer of “honest” graft from the private corporations that benefited under the Republican administration to the bureaucracies and organizations that benefit under this Democratic administration.

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Too many idealists attempt to cram their ideals onto reality, then become frustrated when reality fails to comply. To make any real progress, we need to use reality as the starting point and engage in practical politics to pull reality toward our ideals. It’s not about compromising or selling out, but about building a base of constituents who look to you as their most credible and competent advocate.

We White Advocates are in a curious position, as our ideology ultimately boils down to being advocates for our constituents. In theory, our job should be easy: White Americans want what’s best for themselves and that’s what we’re all about. Unfortunately, this simple formula has broken down at both ends: with White Americans being bamboozled into wanting what’s not best for themselves and White Advocates failing to be be credible and competent advocates.

The first half of this equation, persuading Whites to think for themselves, might even take care of itself as demographic, social, and economic realities impose themselves on the somnambulant masses. But even if there were some sort of mass awakening, the mob would have no credible and competent political machine to turn to. This is where practical street-level politics, community organizing, comes in. This is where we get to the point: fighting for our people.

William L. Riordan, the scholar who compiled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, explained how Plunkitt put this theory into practice…

Everybody in the district knows him. Everybody knows where to find him, and nearly everybody goes to him for assistance of one sort or another, especially the poor of the tenements.

He is always obliging. He will go to the police courts to put in a good word for the “drunks and disorderlies” or pay their fines, if a good word is not effective. He will attend christenings, weddings, and funerals. He will feed the hungry and help bury the dead.

A philanthropist? Not at all He is playing politics all the time.

Brought up in Tammany Hall, he has learned how to reach the hearts of the great mass of voters. He does not bother about reaching their heads. It is his belief that arguments and campaign literature have never gained votes.

He seeks direct contact with the people, does them good turns when he can, and relies on their not forgetting him on election day. His heart is always in his work, too, for his subsistence depends on its results.

Plunkitt’s most memorable phrase, “I seen my opportunities, and I took ’em!”, epitomizes practical politics. Plunkitt, like most contemporary politicians, was a morally bankrupt ideological vacuum. But one needn’t abide our movement’s false dichotomy between the crooked winners and “beautiful losers”. We can adapt practical political tactics from him, Saul Alinsky, or whoever else offers a good idea.

Like Thomas Edison, we must never give up, even when it seems hopeless. In Edison’s own words, “Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.”

Matt Parrott is an analyst and family man in suburban Indianapolis. He is the chairman of the CofCC’s Indiana chapter, Hoosier Nation, and blogs at Fair and Delightsome. He hosts a copy of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall at his website for your reading pleasure.