Regulated by Talk

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Middle-class-ification has made public opinion more perverse, Edward Banfield argues, and more important:

Half a century or more ago, the basis of city and state political power — and therefore, to a large extent, of national political power as well — was the machine. The bosses who ran it kept themselves in power by dispensing patronage and by trading in ethnic, sectional, and party loyalties, and therefore could pretty well disregard public opinion when it suited them to do so.

Middle- and upper-class-ification rendered this system obsolete and brought into being one in which the politician, in order to compete successfully for office, has to combine offers of benefits to classes of voters (homeowners, taxpayers, and so on) with appeals to general ideas and conceptions of the public interest. Whereas the old system had promised personal rewards, the new one promises social reforms.

Accordingly, the smoke-filled room was replaced with the talk-filled one: “The amount of talk which is now expended on all subjects of human interest is something of which a previous age has had not the smallest conception,” E.L. Godkin remarked at the end of the last [19th] century, adding that “the affairs of nations and of men will be more and more regulated by talk.” But even Godkin, since he did not anticipate television, had not the smallest conception of the extent to which affairs would be regulated by talk in our day.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

Leave a Reply