Government activism: from the ward bosses to FDR... to Obama?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 12, 2008

 Fifty years ago today James Michael Curley died, and the curtain fell on one of the most fascinating lives in American political history. For all his faults Curley-- who was Mayor of Boston, US Representative, and Governor of Massachusetts during his long checkered career-- was the quintessential representative of old-school politics. A feisty Irish Catholic who rose up through a system dominated by ward bosses, in which political alliances were often based on personal favors, Curley succeeded in politics because he convinced voters-- especially Irish Catholics like himself-- that he was working for them. When he was first convicted of a federal crime, having taken the Civil Service test for another job applicant, his supporters were quick to forgive him because he had a ready explanation: "I did it for a friend." Curley did things for his friends, and those friends kept voting for Curley. But the system didn't last forever.

The best analysis of Curley's political life is, fittingly, a work of fiction: The Last Hurrah. Toward the end of Edwin O'Connor's novel, a wizened political observer explains why Skeffington (the character based on Curley) had lost his electoral appeal. With his New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt had persuaded the people that the federal government could "do things" for them; the ward bosses and urban machines were no longer necessary. Since the federal government had much more money, much more power, the old-style politics became obsolete.

That political analysis is dead on target. The New Deal sapped the power of the big urban political machines-- which were, as it happens, run predominantly by Catholics. The power of the middle-class Catholic voting bloc-- traditionally Democratic, union-friendly, but instinctively conservative-- was vitiated. Not coincidentally, the appeal of Catholic social teaching-- in particular, the principle of subsidiarity-- also waned.

All that happened in the mid-20th century. Now at the dawn of the 21st, a new activist president-elect promises to bring a new style of government to Washington, and I believe we may witness another step toward the use of federal power as an engine of social change: another loss for the influence of Catholic social teaching.

Political analysts say that President Obama will encourage young and old Americans to join volunteer corps, for which various federal incentives will be made available. These groups, inspired by Obama's past history as a "community organizer," will no doubt press for social change. We can safely assume, for instance, that the volunteer corps will support efforts to encourage acceptance of homosexuals in the public schools. Just as safely, we can assume that they will not support the efforts of crisis-pregnancy centers. The federal government will become actively involved in the drive to change opinions-- perhaps even to change human nature. From "doing things" for people, the government may take that fateful step toward "doing things" to people.

I can't help thinking of another novel that offers remarkable insights into the life of politics: That Hideous Strength, the dystopian finale to the "space trilogy" by C.S. Lewis. The early chapters show how an activist government can mold, cajole, hoodwick, hector, and ultimately bully public opinion. It's a frightening prospect, and one against which we should all be on guard. An effort begun with the best of professed intentions can quickly be transformed into something far more sinister.

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan drew laughs from campaign audiences by saying that the most frightening sentence in the English language is: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." I'm not laughing anymore. 


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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