Decades ago, on a long car ride home from college, a friend of mine and I were talking about whether the liberal arts education we were getting had any practical use. He said he thought his might. He was majoring in medieval history, and in the event of a new Dark Age-- post-nuclear chaos or the aftermath of a huge natural catastrophe--he would know exactly what to do. He would do what people did during the first Dark Age. He would find somebody more powerful than he was, and swear loyalty to him. Then he would look for people less powerful, and offer to protect them--as long as they remained faithful to him and his boss. In stitching together a network of feudal loyalties, piece by piece, my friend thought, stable social life could be re-created even in the most perilous circumstances.
I was dubious at the time, and the ensuing years have not brought any disasters of sufficient magnitude to test the theory. But as time has gone by, it's occurred to me that my friend had stumbled on an insight that really did have practical value. He had come up with a succinct explanation of how political systems work--at the most elemental human level.
The 20th century produced a parade of theories to explain politics, from the Freudians who saw it as the re-channeling of sexual energy to the functionalists who perceived it as pragmatic problem-solving and the public-choice theorists who described it as the pursuit of individual gain at public expense.
There's little doubt, however, that all kinds of political institutions down through the ages functioned as intricate webs of loyalty, both person-to-person and group-to-group. And effective political power grew from the exercise of those loyalties in behalf of a desired end.
The smartest political leaders have always known this. In the 1940s, when Jacob Arvey was the political boss of Cook County in Illinois, a young alderman asked him how anyone could amass so much influence. "Let me put it in a crude way," Arvey told him. "Put people under obligation to you."
Arvey, of course, had a very simple way of doing that: He controlled thousands of jobs in city and county government, and he knew thousands of people who wanted those jobs--for themselves, their relatives or even just neighbors they hoped to impress.
In return for jobs, Arvey wanted political loyalty, not only from the people he hired but from those who would be dependent on the paycheck he was offering. If a patronage job carried with it the duties of a precinct captain, which it often did, then the precinct captain had to keep his vote totals up at election time. If he failed to deliver, his job and livelihood were in jeopardy. That was ordinary politics in Chicago in those years. But it's also ordinary feudalism. You just have to remind yourself to make the connection.
Arvey--and his legendary successor, Richard J. Daley--practiced the politics of obligation in a straightforward and, it might be said, a relatively benign way. They gave out something of value and demanded something of value in return. There were much more sinister ways to practice it. In New York City, during those same years, Robert Moses was accumulating enormous power through his interlocking control of public agencies that built highways, bridges, parks and housing projects. With that power, Moses was able to perform significant favors for people in New York public life--favors that sometimes seemed to reflect remarkable personal generosity.
But he collected on those favors in an excessive and sometimes cruel way. "I would never ask him--or permit him--to do anything of a personal nature for me," a mayor of the city once said. "Because a day will come when Bob will reach back in his file and throw this in your face, quietly if that will make you go along with him, publicly otherwise. And if he has to, he will destroy you with it." Feudalism worked, in its fashion; it certainly got expressways built. Nobody ever said it was always fair.
If it was correct in those days to describe politics in a complex urban system the size of Chicago or New York as a feudal enterprise, then politics in a small, confined legislative body could certainly be described that way.
As a member of Congress, Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the great feudal practitioners of all time, exhibiting conspicuous deference to those above him and dictatorial control over those below. Serving in the U.S. House in the 1940s, biographer Robert Caro tells us, Johnson was the most personally obsequious of vassals to then-speaker Sam Rayburn, to the point of kissing him on the head as a token of affection. As a junior U.S. senator in the 1950s, Johnson paid similar tribute to the most powerful man in the institution, Richard B. Russell, personally chauffeuring him to baseball games and military battlefields and virtually anywhere else Russell wanted to go.
Once he became Senate leader himself, in 1955, Johnson continued to distribute the favors and perquisites that members of any legislative body expect of their leadership. But as Caro and others have documented, Johnson was ruthless in the allegiance he demanded from his backbenchers in return. One disloyal vote on an important issue risked personal ostracism from the leader for months or even years.
The point is not that every congressional leader is a Lyndon Johnson, or that all legislative bodies are throwbacks to England in the days after the Norman conquest. The point is that old-fashioned rules of loyalty and obligation have remained a dominant force in our own governmental life much longer than most of us bother to contemplate.
Certainly they were the rules in the U.S. House up through the days of Tip O'Neill, who didn't retire as speaker until 1987. O'Neill is famous for having said that all politics was local, but if you quoted him as having said that all politics was feudal, you'd be capturing his philosophy just as well. O'Neill believed that personal loyalty trumped virtually every other commodity in pubic life, including, at times, logic itself. One of O'Neill's proteges used to recount the time the Speaker wanted his vote on an important issue, and he didn't want to give it. "I've studied this issue," he told O'Neill, "and I don't think you're right."
"I don't need your vote when I'm right," O'Neill replied. "I need it now."
One can spend hours debating whether political systems built on uncritical loyalty are a good or bad thing. Daley's enemies in Chicago complained that his politics of obedience robbed his vassals not only of their independence but of their humanity. "It makes robots," a dissident Democratic committeeman once declared in a fit of disgust. "They surrender their minds to the control of somebody else as surely as a horse surrenders his body."
On the other hand, it seems fair to point out that the U.S. Senate under LBJ's medieval personal control in the 1950s built one of the most impressive legislative records of modern times, judged not only by the volume of enactments but by their wisdom. They included the creation of a U.S. space program and the first civil rights legislation of the 20th century.
Or, to make the same point, one might simply cite the command of John Bailey, the longtime Democratic boss of Connecticut, when he decided the time had come for a fair housing law. "This bill is a must," he told his vassals in the legislature. "If this is not passed, you will suffer in the next election." And the legislation was passed.
In the end, the only sensible conclusion is that the politics of loyalty can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the motives and the self-restraint of the leader who is in a position to impose it. The really interesting question is whether the principle still applies--or whether the past generation has brought so many changes to the system at all levels that the analogy to feudalism has become obsolete.
Certainly the analogy doesn't apply today in the way it did in the 1950s. We all know that. Patronage is no longer an important ingredient in keeping political networks together. No local leader has jobs to pass around the way Arvey and Daley did. Nor do legislative bodies, at the local, state or even federal level, bring members together for the sort of intimate long-term contact that created a politics of loyalty as Lyndon Johnson practiced it. In term-limited legislatures--of which there are now more than 20 around the country-- members continually report that they scarcely know each other, let alone feel bound to each other by traditional ties of allegiance or friendship.
Watching all this, it's tempting to conclude that in the first decade of the 21st century, feudal values are no longer much help in trying to understand politics. Tempting--but I think wrong. The manifestations of loyalty have changed, but its importance as an organizing political principle is there waiting to be rediscovered.
Or perhaps it doesn't need to be rediscovered at all. At this very moment, legislative bodies all over the country are being led by people who maintain their power by trading in the currency that their members value: campaign contributions, favorable district lines, even jobs on the outside for those compelled by term limits to retire from office. None of them would want to be called bosses, let alone feudal barons; many would be appalled by comparisons to Richard J. Daley or Tip O'Neill. Some of them don't even profess to believe in government as a positive force in society. And yet they exercise power through the one expedient that always seems to work: They put people under obligation to them.
That hasn't changed since the 1950s. I don't think it's changed since the Dark Ages.