In the early chapters of their book, The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America, James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn explain how Theodore Roosevelt came to be the first Rooseveltian “traitor to his class,” by descending from the lofty heights of inherited social position and entering the rough world of elective politics.
According to Burns and Dunn, the impulse to reform was shared by many other members of the Knickerbocker gentry from which Roosevelt came. Some even engaged in politics.
But they did so in a way that was condescending toward the lower social classes and of their partisan political organizations, always with an eye toward re-establishing the ruling status of those with proper “breeding,” who, they were sure, could overcome the social ills and undeniable corruption of machine politics.
These patricians, known as “Mugwumps,” were appalled by the waves of eastern European, Jewish, Catholic, and Irish immigrants, people they deemed too ignorant to be entrusted with the responsibility of managing the corporate structure of government. In the late nineteenth century, many of TR’s class even advocated rolling back voting rights as the sole prerogative of those who owned property.
In the end though, the Mugwumps and their class recoiled from politics. They refused to dirty their hands by doing the one thing that governance requires. They would not compromise.
As I write this, the Republican caucus of the US House of Representatives is meeting. If reports are to be believed, the caucus will be unwilling to pass the Senate fiscal measure passed early this morning, the result of a deal between Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican leader of the US Senate, which won by a vote of 89-8.
The fifty or so House Republicans, evidently including the number two man in the House, Eric Cantor, are not, like the Mugwumps, old money patricians.
But they do appear to have a similar aversion to compromise. Some do, it seems, informed by the same vanity that rendered the Mugwumps politically impotent: They would rather be critics who remain ideologically pure than participants in governance who take tough choices and taint their political virginity by meeting the other guy halfway.
Other Republican caucus members may torpedo the deal because of their well-founded fears that compromise will bring heavily bankrolled primary challengers to them in the 2014 elections.
But they–along with intransigent liberal Democrats–need to remember that people don’t elect them to perpetually campaign, to function no more as pundits with offices in the Cannon, Longworth, Ford, and Rayburn buildings.
Ideological purity may, in America’s severely gerrymandered US House districts, ensure re-election in districts that don’t reflect the political sentiments of the American people. But when will the ideologues of both parties, with particular emphasis on about four dozen Republican House members at the moment, reach the same conclusion that TR reached, that compromise, getting one’s hands dirty according to one’s own ideological lights, is the only way governance can happen?
We don’t elect people to public office just to give them permission to keep on campaigning. We elect them to govern.
Members of both Congress: Get your hands dirty. Make deals. Govern. That’s what Americans do.
[UPDATE: The House passed the Senate's modest fiscal bill on January 1, around 11:00 PM. There's still a lot of work to be done for the new Congress, which will be sworn in today.]
[I blog usually on entirely different subjects, here. I hasten to add that this post reflect only my opinion and isn't intended to reflect a religious conviction based on my faith or calling as a pastor.]
Congress image via shutterstock.com