The Importance of a Healthy
by Dan Sullivan
The role of the committee system
Thomas Jefferson was right in saying that electoral
democracy only works
well at the local level, and that government power has to be diffused.
"Democracy" does not mean elections; it means the people rule the
government. Indeed, the Greeks, who invented democracy, did not even
have elections. (They had town-hall meetings and a Senate that was
chosen by lottery.)
As government becomes centralized, it also becomes more
dominated by special interests, who can afford to send lobbyists to the
state and national capitals. Although ordinary people can talk to their
municipal and school officials, they increasingly find out that these
officials are prevented from rational actions by state and federal
mandates. Our government has become undemocratic because power is
concentrated at higher levels, and electoral democracy works best at
the local level.
political parties also work best if power is diffused, and that is what
the committee system is supposed to accomplish. At its best, the party
committee system is the eyes and ears
of the party. That is, each committee person not only represents the
party to the people in his voting district, but represents those people
to the party. The committee member is responsible for endorsing
candidates who reflect the interests of the voters in his or her
district and the principles of justice that serve voters in all districts.
The decline of the committee system
As the power of party
committees has declined in the United States, the
importance of media power,
money power and incumbency has grown. People think of committee people
as part of a "machine" that tries
to tell them how to vote. While there is a kernel of truth to that
accusation, I believe committee endorsements are more reliable than
advertising, media hype, and top-down endorsements. After all,
of each party elect their committee members in their voting district. Voters do not get to choose which special interests fund campaigns
newspapers and broadcast stations. Even the endorsements by
high-ranking officials are
are indirectly endorsements from special interests and media moguls if
those officials are beholden to those interests.
Your most important vote
Although more voters pay more
attention to presidential
to any other election, a single vote is less likely to affect the
outcome of a Presidential election than of any
other. Millions of people vote for each President, and the difference
winner and runner-up in any one state is seldom within tens of
of votes. At the other extreme, a committee race is often decided by a
mere handful of votes when more than one person runs. Yet few voters
attention to committee
races, and even fewer can tell you who their elected party committee
In a healthy committee system, people elect good committee
and trust them to get good local candidates elected. Then good
local officials help bet good candidates elected to state office, and
good state officials help get good national candidates elected,
including Presidents. Even today,
candidates rarely win a state primary election without the endorsement
of a high-ranking office
holder in that state, such as a governor or U.S. Senator.
means that voters who choose good committee people set wheels
in motion to give us better candidates at all levels, right up
to Presidents. That makes your vote for a committee person your most
important vote of all.
The role of money
Special-interest money in elections has
become a major scandal. The higher up the political ladder one goes,
the more each candidate spends per vote, and the more likely that the candidate who spends
the most money will win. Yet committee candidates rarely spend more
than enough to distribute a photocopied hand-out to each voter. Rather
than depend on money, committee candidates win votes from their neighbors based on
their personal reputations, and campaign directly to those voters who
already know them. Getting good committee people and then getting the public to trust
their endorsements weakens the influence of special-interest money.
The role of media
Voters who would never let a committee member "tell him who to
vote for" often trust media personalities to tell them how office
holders are performing, and even trust them to recommend candidates. Some
candidates often boost their public approval by playing up to the
media, scoring points on superficial stories that make for good
sound-bites or good copy, but not necessarily for good government.
Also, media outlets are often biased toward their advertisers'
agendas. Perhaps advertising bias was not so bad when the
advertisements were directed at selling products to the consumer.
Today, however, many advertisements are directed at political
influence. For example, Pennsylvanians are bombarded with
advertisements by Range Resources and Consolidation Coal, neither of
which sell products directly to consumers. The point of these
advertisements is to tell us that it is in our interest (and to tell
media people it is in their
interest) to oppose taxes, regulations or other impediments on them
as they plunder the earth for their their own profit. Similarly, AT&T ads tell us how wonderful it will be when they
take over T-Mobile. These ads are not aimed at cell phone purchasers,
but at influencing the Justice Department, which rejected the merger,
and the Supreme Court, which is hearing their appeal. Their ads
designed to distract us from real consumer questions, such as how it
can possibly be in our
interest for the cell phone company with the worst record of customer satisfaction
to buy out the company with the best record.
A more serious issue arises when a media outlet has agendas
beyond the media itself. For decades, the owner of the Allentown
Morning Call also owned most of the parking lots in Allentown's
commercial districts. The paper not only denounced proposals to change
from a property tax to a land value tax, but denounced anyone who
supported that proposal. After the paper was sold to people who had no
financial interest in the parking lots, the
reform was passed with the paper's endorsement. Allentown home owners paid less, and
Allentown's economic decline was reversed, but only after that parking lot owner retired and sold the newspaper.
A better example of media's conflict of interest is subsidies for
professional sports facilities. When Kevin McClatchy bought the
Pittsburgh Pirates, he immediately set out to get the city to build him
a brand new ball park at taxpayer expense, threatening to move the
Pirates if he did not get his way. His own family's financial empire
came from the ownership of newspapers, beginning with the Sacramento Bee in the 1800s.
McClatchy quickly sold an "undisclosed interest" in the Pirates to the
owners of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
for a few million dollars and
their integrity. The newspaper, which had previously ridiculed the idea
of taxpayers building the Pirates a new ball park, suddenly rallied behind it.
In Pittsburgh, a
small weekly "giveaway" newspaper, had run several exposÚs on how the
Pirates had been weaseling out of payments toward Three Rivers Stadium
and out of loans the city had made to them when they had been in financial
As the campaign for the new ball park began, the brother of an owner of
the Philadelphia 76ers (a professional basketball team) purchased In Pittsburgh
for a million dollars, which was about four times its estimated value.
He then fired almost all of the editors and writers, and the
replacement staff wrote cover stories about how smart it was to raise
taxes for "regional assets" like the ball park.
KDKA TV and KDKA radio, "the voice of the Pirates," also
hyped the subsidies relentlessly. "The brass" instructed talk show
hosts to bring McClatchy and other pro-subsidy guests on to their shows
prohibited them from hosting opponents. I was a leader of a coalition
opposing the subsidies, and their most popular talk show host called us
to apologize for his
bosses' behavior, and to tell us that, if we called in, he would be
sure we got a
All of this is on top of the normal pro-sports media bias. It is well
known that sports pages sell more newspapers and that people watch news
shows to get the sports rundown at the end if there is a home team in that sports market.
of all, the media is biased toward whatever the public wants
to hear at the moment. For several years at the beginning of the Afghan
and Iraq wars, major media outlets suppressed many scandals, such as
evidence of "weapons of mass destruction," had been fabricated, how
Halliburton and other companies were profiteering off the war, etc.,
because war fever had swept the public. Media leaders feared that
criticisms of the war would be seen as unpatriotic. Once people became
interested in knowing more about the scandals, they reversed their bias and flooded the
airwaves with stories embarrassing to the military effort.
These are but a few relatively clear examples of media bias.
They pale beside the influence of conglomerates that own television and
radio networks. As media ownership is consolidated under fewer and
fewer owners, and as these owners are increasingly multi-national
conglomerates with more important agendas than delivering quality news,
they become less and less trustworthy as guides to ordinary citizens.
The point is that media hype is less trustworthy than
recommendations of committee people. Whatever faults the committee
system has, committee people are spread throughout the population, have
the ability to stay in touch with their neighbors, and
want their own neighborhoods to thrive.
The role of top-down endorsements
As I noted earlier, the higher the elected office, the more a
candidate must depend on special-interest money to get him elected.
Also, the higher the office, the more contact the office holder has
with special-interest lobbyists and the less he has with voters. Even
in cases where holders of high offices are not corrupted outright, they
are still more exposed to the perspectives of special interests and
less exposed to the voices of common sense.
While it aids the democratic process for local officials to
endorse state and federal candidates, it does not help so much when
and federal officials endorse local candidates. Again, the most local
office holders of all are the party committee member, and his or her
recommendation is less subject to bias than the recommendation of
higher office holders.
Myths about machines
The popular belief is that government employees who become
committee people are not independent citizens, but cogs in a machine, doing
the bidding of party bosses. However, most government employees are
civil servants, hired and promoted based on objective criteria.
Whatever the pitfalls of civil service, it keeps public employees far
more independent than they were during the real machine era.
those who do not have civil service protection endorse candidates by
secret ballot, and are free to vote against the interests of a boss whose interests conflict with the those of the people, the
neighborhood, the party or the committee person's own sense of morality.
This is not to say that government employees do not have a
pro-government biases, but only that they see government from the
bottom, "warts and all." Compare this bias to that of special
interests, media pundits and high officials, and the bias of committee
people seems more
One candidate (whom I happen to hold in high regard for his
integrity, if not for some of his views), declared that he would not
accept campaign contributions from any government employees. Yet he did
accept contributions from employees and owners of corporations that got
tax subsidies and government contracts. I do not
think he was being hypocritical, but only biased. Like many voters, he
saw political machines as being about government employees, ignoring
the role of contractors and licensed monopolies.
The fact is that many committee people are quite ethical, and certainly
more ethical than higher elected officials, if only because they are
under less pressure to be unethical. They would be even more
ethical if we the public paid more attention to the committee system.
Contract patronage vs. wage patronage
The most notorious political machines in American history were
based on contract patronage far more than on wage patronage. New York's Tammany Hall, the most notorious machine
in our history, lived off of kickbacks from contractors, land speculators and licensed
monopolies. The employees of these contractors and monopolies had no
protections from being arbitrarily fired, and ballots were not secret.
The employee of a government contractor or licensed monopoly could lose
his job by voting against his boss's choice. The same progressives who
brought about the secret ballot also brought about civil service. While
public employee unions encouraged
people to support particular candidates, private contractors forced their non-union employees to
support candidates and could fire them for contrived reasons if they
did not go along.
They still do so today. Election finance records often show a page or
more contributions from upper-level employees, all for the same amount,
and all submitted at the same time. This is nothing more than laundered
corporate giving. Recent court decisions that allow corporations to
give directly (at least in federal elections) make the matter even
Corporate roots of corruption
People often think of corruption in terms of favoritism in
hiring and public employees (policemen, building inspectors, etc.)
taking bribes and kickbacks. However, where these small abuses occur
there is usually a bigger, more institutionalized corruption at the
top, involving entrenched interests controlling the highest elected
Often this corruption does not even involve anything illegal, as laws are tailored to the desires of the interests in control.
This was the point of the essay, "Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft," by
famed Tammany Hall boss, Congressman George Washington Plunkitt.
Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I
have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin'
richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft -
blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. - and
neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.
There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might
sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took
Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city, and
it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped
off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all
the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that
place makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which
nobody cared particular for before....
Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on
my investment and foresight? Of course it is. Well, that's honest graft.
- William L. Riordon, Plunkitt Of Tammany Hall, Chapter 1, "Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft"
official historian of Pittsburgh's centennial described its Magee-Flinn
machine as "the most cold-blooded and vicious political
ring that ever ruled an American city." Magee and Flinn owned the
streetcar monopoly at a time when city transportation was mostly by
streetcar. The Flinn machine was finally brought down in 1910 by a
scandal in which 41 people were indicted, including the chief
executives of six major banks.
The corrupt Quay machine, which dominated Pennsylvania, and
especially Philadelphia, was also based on railroads, streetcars and
other companies that provided jobs based on loyalty to the machine.
State ring are the
great corporations, the Standard Oil Company, Cramp's Ship Yard, and
the steel companies with the Pennsylvania Railroad at their head, and
all the local transportation and other public utility companies
They get franchises, privileges, exemptions, etc.; they have
helped finance Quay through deals; the Pennsylvania paid Martin, Quay
said once, a large yearly salary; the Cramps get contracts to build
United States ships, and for years have been begging for a subsidy on
home-made ships. The officers, directors, and stockholders of these
companies, with their friends, their bankers, and their employees are
of the organization. Better still, one of the local bosses of
Philadelphia told me, he could always give a worker a job with these
companies, just as he could in a city department, or in the mint, or
- Lincoln Steffens, "Philadelphia, Corrupt and Contented,"McClure's volume 21, May to October, 1903, page 254
In city after city, Steffens described the efforts of ordinary
citizens to get out from under the power of corporate corruption. In
his day, it was railroads, transit companies and banks. In our day, it
is mostly subsidized developers (especially in cities), land
speculators looking for new highways (especially in rural areas), and
banks. Government employees play a minor role in machine politics, and
civil-service employees can actually protect us by exposing corruption.
Even our modern scandals have involved the use of private
corporations to crush whistle-blowing public servants. Pittsburgh's
Allegheny County hired Sabre Systems, not merely to reassess county
real estate badly, but to end the career of a whistle-blowing assessor
had a seniority of 83. Sabre Systems laid off 85 assessors, after which
they produced a spectacularly erroneous reassessment. However,
their contract was designed to protect them from accountability.
Top county officials in
both parties were involved in approving Sabre Systems' actions and in
either hiring or rehiring the corrupt assessment official who
engineered the Sabre Systems disaster. As a result, Sabre's bad
assessments are still in force with little modification, and the
whistle blower (and 82 other civil servants) have not been compensated
for their improper firing.
A strong committee system, representing every neighborhood and
in touch with what is going on in government, could have made
politicians reluctant to abuse both public employees and the taxpaying
public, or to under assess some neighborhoods at the expense of other neighborhoods.
Rebuilding the committee system
are things committee chairs and ordinary committee
people can do, things activists and civic leaders can do, and things
the public can do to make the committee system both more effective and
ethical, more purposeful and powerful, and more trustworthy and
trusted. The party that does this will become stronger in general
elections, and the committee people who do this will become stronger
within the party.
Yet the key is to focus on being better, not stronger. Strength based
on virtue will continue to grow, while strength based on power-seeking
will self-destruct. It is in the long-term interest of committee
people, the public, and the party leaders to create a healthy, virtuous
What committee people can do
The first thing committee people can do is interact with people in their own voting districts.
Knocking on a few doors every weekend is good, or have volunteers
distribute fliers inviting citizens to come to a local get-together
the get-together, committee members can introduce themselves, meet and
greet their constituents, and listen respectfully to anyone who has
concerns about their neighborhood, their municipality, school
district, county, state and country. Hosts should have hand-outs that tell people
who their party committee people are, who their state committee people
are, and who their elected officials are. These handouts should include
addresses, email addresses and phone numbers. (Committee people who do
not want to give out home numbers should be sure to give people some
way to reach them.) Very few people will attend these, but they will be
the people who care. Some of them might volunteer to help with future projects.
The event could be funded by the party or by a local
official, but it is best to have pot-luck dinners in which voters
support the committee people and each other, rather than the party supporting the voters.
Although more voters will turn out for free hot dogs, commitment
will actually be stronger among voters who feel that they have
contributed to the process. Besides, the goal is to make elected
officials and the party feel loyal to the committee people and the
voters, rather than the other way around. Freebies that flow from the top down make committee people and
voters feel loyal to whoever paid for the freebies. It is sad to think of people giving their loyalty for a hot dog.
Elected government officials who also hold committee offices should
resign those offices and let others serve. This implies no disrespect
to the elected officials. Rather, it respects the difference between
the job of governing and the job of representing the people to those
who govern. Elected officials who trust their committees will let those
committees do their jobs without interference from above.
Committee members from both parties can cooperate in these
projects, and committee people from neighboring voting districts can
join together for combined events. Still, it is important that voters
interact with committee people in their own party and their own
districts. In joint efforts, name tags should identify the
party affiliation and voting district, not only of each committee
member, but of each attendee.
Ward chairs, party leaders
and public officials should not
attend these events unless they are called upon to answer to the
committee people and the voters. Even then, they should do this at the
beginning of the event and then leave. The point is for
voters to discuss their ideas with each other and with their own to
committee people. Then the committee people can discuss what they have
learned with those who hold higher positions. The party becomes
a vehicle for bottom-up influence, which is the essence of
What party leaders can do
In Pennsylvania, each municipality has a ward chair, vice chair,
secretary and treasurer in each party. Large municipalities might also
have these officers for each ward, and the county also has these
These officers should preside rather than dictate, and should find ways
to maximize the influence of their committee people. During the primary
elections, they should host forums for the candidates, in which the
committee people formulate their concerns and appoint one or two of
their members to seriously interrogate candidates on these concerns.
They should also hold get-togethers for committee people similar to
those committee people hold for citizens. Just as the role of committee
people is to listen to
citizens, so is the role of the party leaders to listen to committee
people. In that way, the bottom-up model of democratic process is
extended. Food at the meetings should be provided by the committee
people themselves, either as a pot-luck or through fund-raising from
outside the officer structure. There are better things the county
committee can spend money on.
County committees should sponsor professionally run effectiveness
training sessions for committee people. These sessions should focus,
not only on how to sell the party's agenda to the voters, but on how to
help voters to bring their own agendas to the party. County websites
should list all of their party's committee people and give contact
Each municipality (and school district) should also have a
party platform. The county should have a platform that is judged by its
compatibility with local platforms, and the state platform should be
compatible with county platforms.
National party platforms are often political footballs for interest
groups, and are out of sync with the concerns of ordinary voters and
local party members. This would be harder to do if there were also
platforms at state, county and local levels. Conflicts between
platforms at different levels are actually good things, because they
keep higher levels aware of the need to stay in step with local
What citizens can do
Find your committee people and
introduce yourself. In
Pennsylvania (and in most states), there is one committee man and one
committee woman from
each party in each voting district. You will find some of them at the
polls on election day, at least during busier hours. Your party's
county committee office should be able to tell you how to reach your
committee person. County
election departments can also tell you who your committee people are
and what their addresses are. Talk to your committee people about your
also offer to help them reach other voters in the district.
are eager to find candidates to run against incumbents, but it is
healthier to reason patiently with incumbent committee people and only
run against them as a last resort. While factionalism based on honest
differences of philosophy is good for a party, factionalism based on
power-seeking rivalries is destructive.
Also, if you come out of nowhere and defeat an incumbent who has the
respect of his fellow committee members, you will be badly handicapped
in working with them as a team member. On the other hand, if you make
yourself known by helping him and the other committee members
accomplish things, you will have influence even if you are not an
elected committee member. You will also be viewed favorably if
the committee seat becomes available, and you will even be respected if
you later run against the incumbent.
Local political clubs
Committee people and ordinary citizens
can participate together in local political clubs. The clubs can be
partisan, bi-partisan or, ideally, multi-partisan or non-partisan. That
is, people from minor parties, or even with no party affiliation,
should be able to participate. These clubs can focus primarily on local
issues, but can also sponsor forums on regional, state and national
What interest groups should do
Even legitimate, seemingly
public-interest groups are often guilty of relying too much on media,
money, and connections with high-ranking officials. This often leads
them to tweak their agendas to either win or at least avoid alienating
these partners. The tweaking, in turn, causes the public interest to be
compromised. It is important that interest groups focus on taking their
message to local committee people in a way that requires less money,
media and political influence than what is required for selling their
agendas in conventional ways.Representatives of local interest groups should talk and listen to committee people and members of local political clubs, and should adjust their agendas accordingly.
Issue forums and debates
Local political clubs can host public
forums and debates, especially if the clubs are either non-partisan or
multi-partisan. Or, party committees can jointly sponsor forums,
agreeing on neutral moderators. Representatives of interest groups can
participate in these forums, but should not be allowed to dominate them.
Power vs. reason
The bottom line is that the
country's best interests are better served by reason than by power
struggles. Regardless of ideology, people at the grass roots are
more interested in advancing those best interests than in winning power
struggles. As one looks further up the political ladder, one finds that
people are increasingly focused on power as opposed to reason. It
doesn't matter much whether power-seekers rise to the top or whether
they find themselves forced to consider power relationships in order to
stay at the top. Either way, reason is best served by bringing the
debate back to the grass-roots level.
It is unlikely that the average voter will ever pay close enough
attention to be able to intelligently choose government officials
wisely. However, committee people strike an interesting balance.
Although they are interested in politics enough to be involved, their
overall interests are not very different from those of their
neighborhoods, they are dispersed throughout all communities, and they
are best able to communicate face-to-face with average citizens,
without money, media power or the privileges of incumbency getting in
Until there are fundamental changes in our democratic process, I
believe that the best hope for ordinary citizens lies in building
strong relationships with party committee people, and in good committee
people playing prominent roles in getting good candidates nominated and