The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

HL Mencken and the Reform/Tammany cycle

Atlantic Monthly provides an overlong but suitably salty treatment of journalistic practice from the great man, taken from the March 1914 issue of the mag.

He says that readers were much more interested in feeling than understanding. And there was nothing they liked more than to be hunting with the hounds of righteous vengeance on machines and bosses filling their own pockets whilst the city goes to pot. (And very much more in similar vein!)

The cause of selling papers explains - in part - the peculiar role of the Reform (or Goo-Goo) candidate. The newspaper magnate, in setting in train his carefully calibrated crescendo of calumny [I can't believe I just wrote that!] against the Black Hat in charge needs a White Hat to come in once the exposure is complete.

At that point, sales go into decline. There is no intrinsic merit in the White Hat: he is there merely to fill the void. In due season, another campaign will run against the new guy, and, by and by, the machine will be back, albeit under new management.

And the cycle begins again.

The newspaper relied on the inherent instability of the political system - the voters knew it was corrupt, but felt obliged to act on that knowledge only when the press rubbed their noses in it. Goo-goos were essentially un-American, being dedicated to
  1. principles; and

  2. stopping folks having a good time.

The voters could only tolerate so much clean living before their appetites got the better of them.

So far as I'm aware, this particular see-saw is unique to the US. There certainly were reformers in British local politics back in Mencken's era [1]. Temperance was big here as well as across the pond.

But - I'm no expert here - I don't believe there was no equivalent to the machine with which British reformers were in perpetual strife.

  1. The name of Laura Ormiston-Chant, scourge of the music-halls - including Marie Lloyd - sticks in the mind.

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