Mayor Murphy and half-a-loaf politics

This might be the time to take another look at Mayor Murphy. We have all the True Believers and hyperpatriots we really need right now. We have a Congress full of people who have signed pledges of ideological purity and have promised not to compromise with the enemy—ordinarily, that’s the other party but sometimes another faction in your own party—no matter how bad the outcome looks to be. So maybe it’s time to reconsider Mayor Murphy.

I have three goals in mind for this essay. First, obviously, I am going to have to tell you about Mayor Murphy. Second, I am going to pose the question of democratic accountability as Edward C. Banfield has illustrated it. [1] Third, I am going to argue for the crucial necessity, in our time, of the kind of leadership Murphy illustrates.

mayor 1

The character himself is taken from Banfield’s pamphlet. In that little story, he is called “the Mayor,” but, in the words of the fictional journalist who interviewed him, the Mayor was “a little roly-poly fellow, very jolly and red-faced, and a real pro.” That, and the legendary success of Irish politicians in city politics, was enough for me to decide that I might as well name him Murphy.  I think this is actually Jack Germond, but his face fits the type perfectly.

The newspaper reporter in this case study is Banfield’s tool for collecting information about all the relevant players in an urban development drama. There are four principal positions [2] and the reporter’s job, as Banfield deploys him, is to show that each of them is inadequate. As a practical matter, however, we, in the Trump era, have only two choices as they bear on these positions. We could choose to adopt one of these four perspectives and go to war with the others. Or we could admit that we need them all and try to find some way of balancing their strengths and weaknesses.

The Problem the Mayor Faces.

Here is the nub of it.

“Well, we might as well talk frankly,” the Mayor said. “The reason I didn’t do it the way it ought to be done was that I just couldn’t. The people wouldn’t stand for it. I would have been out on my ear if I had tried to tear down that slum. I would have been right square in the middle of the worst row you ever saw.

The Mayor had the chance to tear down a slum, bring back the suburbanites who had left, increase the urban tax base, and redevelop the core of the city. Instead, he put the federally funded redevelopment project in an old warehouse district, and tastefully “refurbished” a small fraction of the old slum.

And he did that because “the people” wouldn’t stand for it. When I hear a phrase like that, I wonder the same thing you do. “What people are we talking about?” [3] Murphy has two kinds of people in mind:

  • those who are making profits from slum properties—“[that includes] some churches too” the Mayor adds,
  • the working class whites who just moved to the suburbs and don’t want public housing built next door to them—the classic NIMBY position.
  • Besides that, the Mayor is concerned about the racial unrest these public housing projects might cause and is not eager to put his town through that.

That’s what he means by “the people wouldn’t stand for it.”

The Reporter Pushes Back

mayor 5This is the “Profiles in Courage” rebuttal. The Mayor has said that he couldn’t “do the right thing” because it would cost him his office. The reporter comes back hard, “Maybe you should have made your fight and taken your licking,”

The Mayor comes back at the reporter just as hard and this rationale is the main reason I wanted to spend some time with him.

“Personally, I don’t look at it that way,” he said. “I don’t have any respect for a politician with such high principles that he can’t get re-elected. In this game you got to do what it takes to win. Either that or let somebody else play in your place. If you’ve got such a sensitive conscience that you can never make any compromises, you’re too good for politics. You owe it to your party to step aside for someone else. After all, the party wants to win, not just make your conscience feel good”.

I don’t know anyone who talks like that, even off the record, and I’m not sure I know anyone who would accept the Mayor’s case as he makes it. The people who populate my circle are more apt to say what the reporter said, viz. do the right thing and whatever happens happens.

I think there are four separate kinds of justification in the Mayor’s response, counting the snarky phrasing as one of the points. The first point, the most general one, is that getting re-elected is his job. Things that get in the way of his doing his job—“high principles” is the example he gives—need to be put aside in the present instance.

The second is that from the standpoint of the party, he is taking up space. The party wants whoever is in the Mayor’s office to do what is necessary to keep the party in control of the office. [3] If he can’t do it, he needs to get out of the way so someone else can. The Mayor owes the party something as well as owing the people something.

The third is that what he has done is “make compromises.” That’s what politics is about. It is not a place for True Believers (remember Eric Hoffer’s book?)—but a place for politicians who can get the best deal available for their supporters. And “the best deal” includes keeping potential disasters at an arm’s length.

The fourth “point”—the snarky one—comprises the language the Mayor chooses to demean the alternatives. “Such high principles” does that; so does “such a sensitive conscience;” and so does “too good for politics.” These are all disqualifications from the Mayor’s perspective. They might be virtues in private life, but they are vices in public life.

I think the Mayor makes a very strong case, but it is all phrased as a response to the reporter. Let me take a shot at phrasing it more generally.

mayor 2The Mayor is the exemplar of “democratic accountability” as Banfield sees it. There is no way for voters to choose a party (and the party’s nominee) unless the party makes good on its promises. There is no way for the party to make good on its promises unless its officeholders “do the right thing.” Being so committed to the revitalization of downtown that you cause a race riot is not the right thing. Alienating the working class voters in the inner suburbs and turning the Mayor’s office over to the other party is also “not the right thing.”

So the point is that if you believe in “the sovereignty of the people” in any practical way, you need to believe that there is a way for the people to choose a government that will do what needs to be done. Not a party strangled by its own “high principles,” but a party willing to cut the deals that serve its own base. The old notion was that “half a loaf is better than no bread at all,” but, of course, those alternatives require a particular kind of context.  That is how voters can affect policy, which is the heart of democratic accountability, which is the mechanism by which the sovereignty of the people means anything at all. It all links together and none of it allows a free-lancing Mayor.


My pitch, above, was that we might need to take all four of the positions and try to balance them. Today’s job was just to present the Mayor’s case as one that ought not be thrown out. Somebody needs to exercise the discipline that keeps the worst from happening and maintains the stability that will allow further steps to be taken later on. I am sure that is what Mayor Murphy thinks he is doing and he may be right.

[1]This was taken from pamphlet called “The Case of the Blighted City.” Banfield, later in mayor 4his career, became famous for such books as The Unheavenly City, The Unheavenly City Revisited, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Here the People Rule, Political Influence, Civility and Citizenship, and City Politics  .Here,very early in his career,  I think he was just trying to make a buck. This was written in 1959, which accounts for some of the ethnic stereotypes and some old words (“Negro”), but the political principles work just the same way now that they did then.  Here is Banfield as a very young academic.
[2] There is an economist, who represents the “free market” perspective, the city engineer, who represents the efficiency standard, and the citizen activist who represents the goals of a well-informed and highly motivated citizen. The mayor is the foil to all three of these.
[3] At some point, I need to say that the relationship between the party and the incumbent presupposed throughout this little study is that the party is dominant and the Mayor is their current representative. The party guarantees the Mayor a majority of the votes in “the organization precincts” of the city by exchanging job for votes. Given this relationship, it is not implausible that the Mayor would defer to the party’s interests.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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