Unrisible Irrascible Men

    Michael Wolraich's Unreasonable Men is an engaging exercise in political map making, following the fashions of the times with the entrenched interests of every year. The period in this case is the turn to the 20th century up to pre-WWI America, when her social development lagged significantly behind her economic success, but I found myself wishing for similar vignettes in other ages and historical climes. It's not the most weighty of tomes - finished in 1 day - but I'm not alone in not having time for say Carl Sandburg's 6-volume set on Lincoln - Unreasonable Men is more in the spirit of Hamilton, the Musical - a theater piece you can enjoy and put down, though revert to and contemplate with pleasure.

    Unreasonable Men is a multi-tragedy combined with a soothing but ironic ultimate success - the one we all kind of know about, the America Made Great Yet Again. But the proof is in the details, not in any assured outcomes, and Michael provides those details. Aside from the figures we know or kind of know - Roosevelt, Taft, a bit of Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilt and early cro-Rockefeller clan - there are the Congressional and business characters usually well forgotten after their period shelf-life. And this part of the tale is the most worth remembering - the bipartisan logjam of entrenched power controlling the sausage making. There are no accidents in this factory - it's a well-run machine producing an exact product to specification, whatever the occasion. There's an assuredness to the actors' certainty of what is and what should be, born in the conceit of the scientific marvels of the late 19th Century driving progress with seemingly no brakes. But like Casey Jones' famous locomotive, speed and haste portend more than a safe arrival, and America's trains built on fealty to the robber barons is soon to come apart at the seams.

    To not give away the good parts, the core issue at play is America's tariff system, the sole serious means for government to raise money at that time and the playing field for most that was corrupt. But the book highlights the increasing political and personal divides in the new century - the conquest of the West completed, the people turning to more basic and mundane but fragmented wants. Nothing unites a country like a shared goal, and nothing divides it like that goal completed. 

    At the heart of this book's heroic journey is Bob LaFollette, a quixotic character from then "out west" Wisconsin who discovers somewhat early on that he wants to help people, and doesn't seem that intent on playing the game as intended. He's not a grand chess master - his play seems to look 2-3 steps ahead where most people see only the gotcha enticements of 1 - but his playing is good enough to keep him going into the big leagues. If this were a novel - and you have to keep pinching yourself to remind that it's not - there'd be one primary evil foil. But in the pattern of America's shifting alliances, characters like Roosevelt provide a powerful ally and enemy at once, just as the Senate and House and party leaders provide a palpable enough villain. Even JP Morgan's appearance is more benign than malignant, though it serves to show part of what's wrong with this supremely patronistic system. While LaFollette is billed as the "won't take no for an answer" type, he's surprisingly reasonable in his ambitions - focused on digestible mouthfuls moreso than swallowing the whole hog, but insistent on those mouthfuls, along with (at least in retrospect) attuned to obvious needs rather than unhinged demands, and that reasonableness in a time of undistributed plenty and seemingly unbreakable agreements makes him a dark horse to root for. He's not a Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington type in the sense that this isn't a movie - his ardor and persuasion has to be carried across his rise as Congressman, Governor, Senator and short-lived Presidential aspirant against real foes and obstacles.

    Lincoln Steffens and the budding socially conscious news media (in contrast to the Hearst/Pulitzer-style yellow journalism of the previous decade) provide a useful messaging outlet in those telegraph-and-sparse-telephone days, and it's heartening to see them skeptically persuaded rather than bought by the growing populist furor, even though the press plays its usual fickle role between strings pulled from behind the set and the drive for sensation from the (as Michael helpfully defines) "muck rakers".

    Aside from the political foils, the backdrop is the collegiate setting of the well-heeled - the Long Island clan we know from high school's The Great Gatsby, but a step earlier in its development - when that wealth was created amidst the self-assurance of the rail and coal and electricity boom and land grabs out West, when train and ocean travel became the connective tissue of that generation's jet set - and indeed, half of the book mentions this or that character off on an enviable 6-week to 3-month vacation. Wolraich's description isn't roman-à-clef - it's more utilitarian, a bit like mug shots or quick snaps to identify the usual suspects - but it's sufficient to get us involved and identified with a scene we thought we knew enough about, but was much more involved and transformational than that overlooked in Civics class (and at last we get some inside skinny on those 4 turn-of-the-century amendments that snuck in after a 40 year drought).

    These are not smiling people - they're earnest and hard-charging in that Teddy Roosevelt we do likely glimpse, my way or the highway, but even there, Wolraich's descriptions and dredged out historical references bring more nuance and understanding to the well-trod character, and that nuance makes Roosevelt's role in this tragedy much less predictable and more engaging as the plot develops. There are some gaps in the mosaic - New York's sweatshops and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire would have fit in well with the budding outrage that drove the new "progressivism" that LaFollette introduced, while women, even the suffragettes, play a quite minor role as was usual for the time - but the book foremost is about Washington and its inner workings and how that changed - not any particular piece to the puzzle.

    And in that regard, Unreasonable Men is instructive as well as retrospective - a reminder that the wheels can come off at any time, not just with the big wars, but the tense moments of the Panic of 1907, and how the most prepared can take advantage of these shock points in history. It's also ultimately optimistic in its outlook, how the system eventually won - at least in values the progressive left would acclaim - even as most of the players go down in defeat. In the original 1972 movie Rollerball, John Houseman proclaims, "no man is bigger than the game itself, Jonathan" - and as this chapter of America unfolds, the game, not the house, is the winner. Well done, Wolraich - bully.

    Disclaimer - aside from blogging with (& occasionally fighting with) Wolraich, this is an unsolicited review from a purchased version of the book.

    Comments

    So then, why not "reasonable men" instead of "unreasonable" ones?

    How do we apply the lessons in the book to today? IYO.


    Perhaps "reasonable man". I'll revisit lessons for today in a different blog - wanted to stay focused on the book itself in this theead.


    Weren't there more comments on this post before? I thought it was an interesting discussion, or maybe I'm thinking of a different post.


    Nope, yours & Michael's were all - I think I scared people away...


    Peter, I should have answered your question before. The title is informed by the book's epigraph courtesy of George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." 

    In short, the language is ironic. Progressives like La Follette and (eventually) Roosevelt seemed unreasonable to many of their contemporaries, but my book suggests that their obstinance and willful pursuit of the impossible was the most effective way to create political change.


    Yes. I'm ashamed to say I bought your book, but haven't read it yet.

    The possible v impossible question in politics and economics is interesting to me. Conservatives would argue that certain policies--none come to mind, of course--are "impossible" because the economy just doesn't work that way. Yes, you can try to do it, but it will fail because of human nature which guides the economy. See the USSR and Venezuela and so on.

    "Unreasonable men" like Follette, FDR, maybe Bobby Kennedy and Bernie say: "Why not?" But I think we have to tackle the rejoinder: "Because things--human nature, the economy, etc.--just don't work that way."

    Some people (Dan K comes to mind) have given up arguing with conservatives as a waste of time. "They're colonizing your mind," he might say and I think did say. But even if that's true, our opponent is conservatism (at least in some current forms) and especially conservative ideology. Basically from Goldwater to today, the conservative movement has done a GREAT job of convincing people across the spectrum that "this is the way the economy works."

    So when you argue with them, you're not really arguing with someone who "disagrees with you," but effectively with the laws of economics. Changes can be made within these laws, but only on the fringes, but not in the fundamentals. And they have a highly energized, well funded, and decentralized infrastructure that is basically reinforcing this line of thought all the time and for a very long time now. Even if you can point to places where these laws don't work as advertised, the basic mindset isn't touched. So liberals end up arguing for things "that would be great to have" (or that are rights), and conservatives argue for the "way things are, son."

    Which is a more powerful starting point?

    All that said, we have had a major victory on this plane with the ACA. Perhaps the most important political victory that the ACA has achieved is convincing a majority of people that health care is a right. That they must be protected from pre-existing conditions exclusions. That their kids must be able to stay on their parents' plan until XX. And so on. But the first point is the most important because it's the most deep-rooted and fundamental. Even if you're a Bernie person and dismiss the ACA as a giveaway to establishment forces, you have to admit, I think, that the ACA has done the heavy lifting of changing people's mindset toward health care. This is much more important than the admittedly important features of any program. These arguments all come AFTER everyone agrees that, regardless of what we end up with, health care is a fundamental right.

    Just an aside: I was reading an article, I think in the NY Times Magazine, about the head of the Federalist Society, his name escapes me, and the work he's done. Amazing. The human infrastructure he's built; the ideology he's inculcated across the conservative world. Textualism and originalism in his hands has become the equivalent of supply side economics and its nostrums. "This is the way the Constitution is and therefore must be interpreted." This is great political work on his part, and I have no idea whether the ACS has gotten anywhere near as far with the general public or liberals.

    Conservatives have this uncanny ability to make use of "common sense truths." Everyone knows that a piece of writing can't mean "whatever you want it to mean."  Therefore, the Constitution must mean "some one thing," and judges, therefore, should stick to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were written and meant at the time. Even if this idea is only partially true, it has the ring of truth--it's "convincing"--and it is true enough for people who haven't thought about this long and hard. The "living Constitution" has a hard time battling this common sense truth. Of course, the "living Constitution" has some common sense truths going for it, but it's an inherently less clear idea.

    This is how great brands work: Even before you walk into the grocery store to buy a detergent, Tide has won three-quarters of the battle, or more, of selling you. Tide holds a conscious or unconscious position in your mind at the top of the ladder of quality and value. It took work and money to put it there and takes more to keep it there, but it's there. So any other selling they do--half price off, two for one, 1/3 more detergent--only has to take you from being 75% sold to being 85% or 95% sold. Unknown brands have almost no chance against this mindset.


    Well, what are you waiting for? ;) 

    By "pursuit of the impossible," I didn't mean pursuit of unworkable policies, I meant pursuit of legislation that cannot pass Congress. Before he radicalized, Roosevelt didn't understand why La Follette kept proposing bills and amendments that were doomed to fail. "His real motives seemed to be not to get something good and efficient done," he complained, "but to make a personal reputation for himself by screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had."

    La Follette knew that conservatives would shoot down his proposals, but unlike Roosevelt, he appreciated the political benefit of losing. Every time they shut him down, his ideas gained popularity, and people became angrier at the conservatives. At election time, he harnessed this anger to throw his opponents out of office so that by 1912, a new progressive majority passed all those once-impossible proposals.

    If modern Democrats hope to reproduce the strength and vitality of the early progressive movement, they should identify the big ideas that they would pass if they had a huge congressional majority--like universal health, massive tax increases on the wealthy, free college, effective gun control, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Then they should fight for those ideas, even though they know they cannot be achieved in the next two years or four years or more. Because the very act of fighting for a dream makes it seem more attractive and achievable. It wins converts and mobilizes the faithful. It puts your opponents on the defensive. It changes the frame of the debate.


    The book to me makes the fight to break the stranglehold on what's permitted on the floor as key - it didn't really matter to some extent whether an idea was good or bad if it'd be stillborn on arrival. Of course getting backing from someone for ideas that make sense is frequently easier than support to shoot your toes off....


    Breaking the congressional stranglehold was necessary to pass legislation, for sure, but focusing exclusively on that may miss the profound political evolution that the progressive movement inspired across the across the country. I like the way Wilson put it in his inaugural address, "Some old things with which we had grown familiar have altered their aspect as we have latterly looked critically upon them, with fresh, awakened eyes; have dropped their disguises and shown themselves alien and sinister..."

    The real change was not congressional. It was societal.


    Yeah, not quite where I was trying to take it. will stick with the longer synthesis rather than trying to snip off ideas here & there.


    By "pursuit of the impossible," I didn't mean pursuit of unworkable policies, I meant pursuit of legislation that cannot pass Congress.

    Ah yes, of course. Sorry for the long windy off-the-mark discursis.

    It is possible, though, that this is what movement conservatism did starting with Goldwater.


    No worries. I agree with you that conservatives have essentially willed their worldview into existence, using appealing stories to persuade people that the economy works the way they want it to work. That said, conservative intellectualism was not always as vapid and fraudulent as it is today. Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago School offered serious economic theories to ground the ideology. I think he got things mostly wrong, but he's a Nobel laureate and way smarter than me. He may be wrong, but he wasn't a fraud.

    I would add that the conservative movement also borrowed from La Follette's playbook by chasing unpassable legislation. Why do you think they voted to repeal Obamacare 60-something times, knowing it would be vetoed? Why did Ted Cruz fruitlessly "filibuster" Obamacare for 21 hours. Because it energized the base and kept the idea of repeal in play. Politically, it was effective, at least until they achieved the power to actually turn it into law. Fortunately, they never had a real plan.


    Unless my observations are skewed, this took a HUGE, sustained, multi-decade effort that liberals just don't seem able to match. We can't even get people out for local and mid-term elections. We make these big pushes every four years and then nothing, or almost nothing. These protests are something new and encouraging. But they are still protests AGAINST and we need that energy FOR.


    Let's not skewer people for not being fanatics. In a different universe it would be the sane approach.


    Fair point, but also, let's not confuse clarity of purpose, strong belief, and persistence for fanaticism. A somewhat subtle difference--because they can amount to the same thing--but an important one, IMO.

    Also, just to respond to the Tea Party remarks below, I'm not really talking about the Tea Party push here, though I guess it fits in. I'm talking about what Goldwater launched and all the think tanks and publications that emerged from that moment. Of course, a lot of conditional events occurred to spur that movement along, but it took clear- eyed, persistent people to move it along.

    Think about it. The Goldwater push could've just died in 1964 in the way that the McGovern push more or less died. Goldwater is now seen as prescient while McGovern is seen as stillborn and his wing has had to fight its way back over decades, and yet they both lost by large margins.

    I'm rolling over a lot of important differences to make this point clearer.


    Is it not exactly the same thing? I don't see the process of building up large wins as being "pro" much of anything.. Rather, it is always anti. The extra group of people needed that aren't energized by ideology are by being angry at the "enemy", anger against lack of moderation? Against something, not for it. (What are Donald Trump swing voters "for" except "change" and "draining the swamp" What was the Tea Party for except being angry?) Now it's against Donald Trump world, before against "liberals" being in charge of their world? Seems to me the "multi-decade effort" from the wilderness is always a smaller group of people, Scaife and Ailes and the Koch Bros. vs. Soros and MoveOn and the Teachers' Unions and Anti-Iraq-war movement and "Hollywood". To pick up the center there has to be excess of anger against the what the other pole has been doing while in charge.Those that are positively driven by either conservative or liberal wonk policy or ideology are actually very few in number. It is the whole dragging the Overton window thing, and it happens when the center feels things have gone too far the other way and they join in the anger.


    To nitpick, Soros' initial foray was the Open Society Foundation to ensure a smoother transition from communism post-wall. It had none of the anti- trappings of these other movements - it was simply filling the vacuum of our government's "peace dividend"


    Actually fits what I was saying, I'm just having a hard time saying it. Deep pockets of some kind are required to back small passionate movements about positive actions or changes, precisely because these are hardly ever "popular" Changes only become popular (as in: large numbers of people would give their time and/ot money or even get out to vote) when it's about anger about what those in power are doing or those out of power but reaching for it would like to do.

    For example I would argue that the excitement and turnout of 2008 and activism for Obama fits this, as underlying it all was not Obama's white paper policy positions, but that the person of Obama was a symbol that soothed long simmering anger about racism and inequity et. al. And then there were just the self-deluded like the angry anti-Bush-warmonger bunch  who convinced themselves that Obama was a peacenik. While the Overton window movers wanting moderation bet he was not, and they were right.


    P.S. Flip side: the Tea Party was not created from support for William F. Buckley's positive conservative vision of the world. It was created by riling people up about things their supposed enemy was doing. Being passionate about positive change is rare and limited to special people, most people only get passionate when angered about something that is supposedly happening already.


    It was created from a growing number of people who felt the GOP had betrayed Buckley's and Reagan's vision. Yes, it was angry and anti, but underneath, they were guided by the positive vision they felt had been betrayed. IMHO.


    AA, I agree that anger is a powerful, galvanizing force, but angry is not the same as anti. The early progressives were angry at corrupt politicians and industrialists, and the anger fueled the movement, yet they channeled it into constructive, pro-gressive policies. By contrast, Republicans have largely failed to channel Tea Party anger into constructive policies, which is why they're flailing so badly now that they've achieved a majority.


    Yes, and no. To be sure "anger against" is a huge motivating force and may be necessary to move large numbers of people. The movement conservatism that emerged was "for" many things. They wrote and spoke about it a lot and they spent a lot of time spreading the gospel. And they did it bit by bit for DECADES.

    Some people say that Reagan's victories was the apotheosis of this effort and what it stood for. Again, without being for or against Reagan here, my memory of Reagan wasn't that he stirred up a lot of anger. "Morning In America" isn't an angry slogan. They had a clear and compelling, if mistaken, economic theory and foreign policy. I doubt Reagan would've won over so many people, including the famous Reagan Democrats, if he'd just been angry and against.

    Republicans spent the 1990s and 00s trying to recapture Reagan's magic sauce. They still believe that Reaganomics worked (why? because predicted outcomes came to pass), and still think that he won the Cold War. They're angry because they feel that Clinton stole what should've been a 1000-year Reagan Reich out from under them and that the Bush's betrayed conservatism's ideals as expressed by Reagan.

    The Tea Party was mostly a reaction to Bush's and the GOP's betrayal of conservative principles and a revolt against the elites in the GOP whom they came to see as having gone off the rails with Iraq and all the spending of GWB.

    The multi-decade effort WAS conducted by a relatively small group of people, but they did a lot to spread their gospel beyond their numbers and convince broad swaths of the public that they had the correct views on how the economy works and how foreign policy should be conducted. So their influence--and they did this on purpose-- was felt way beyond the few who were leading the charge.

     


    They think Reaganomics worked because they ignore his increase of taxes and other reversals. Reagan was the good cop, the smiley actor face on top of Goldwater/John Birch bad cop conservatism. That said, he largely finished off the Cold War by playing dare with the Russians on nukes in Europe and a very slight bit of military intrigue (Grenada & Nicaragua, firmly under the Monroe Doctrine, along with continuing Brzezinski's arming of the Mujahadeen.)  The left still has trouble living that one down. Additionally, Clinton showed that you didn't need pre-Reagan 72% tax rates to make a functional government. Unfortunately, you *do* need 38% or more, not the mythical 'tax revenues will grow as you cut tax rates" off of some rarely visited range of the Laffer Curve.


    PP, I'm honored that you read the book and humbled by this eloquent and insightful review. Thank you.

    (I'm particularly delighted that you picked up on the tragedy. I felt that each major character was undone by his own tragic flaw, and Woodrow Wilson's inaugural after the Republicans destroyed themselves made me think of Prince Fortinbras's arrival in the final scene of Hamlet.)


    Great review Peracles! Sounds like an excellent book Michael. 

    I've ordered the book but since I'm cheap on shipping costs it won't arrive til May. Otherwise, a thought might be to organize book-club type setups for such reviews. Give us a heads-up if someone intends to do one, so others can order and read it. 

    Anyway I would be open to any suggestions, and I like to hear and think about the view-points of our local mega-minds on books I've had a chance to read. Don't know if there are any other takers?


    Thanks, Obey! Some dagbloggers wrote reviews when the book came out, but we've never done a book club. It's a great idea if people are into it.


    I support the book club proposal.
    The selection process alone would be worth the price of admission.


    Moi aussi.


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