In 1960, James Q. Wilson was 29 years old and wondering what topic he should choose for his second book. He had narrowed the options down to two, and although he had no way of knowing it at the time, he was extremely fortunate in choosing the one he did—had it gone the other way, Wilson would have antagonized the conservative movement whose favorite public intellectual he later became. Among those on the right who have eulogized James Q. Wilson since his death on Friday, I bet no more than a dozen realize how close he came to writing a 300-page book on why the Goldwaterites of the early Sixties were a dismal pack of clowns, naifs, and boobs. Taken on its own terms, the thesis would have been fair, but going on record with it might have proven inconvenient.
Instead, Wilson chose the luckier alternative and produced The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities — which, far from being the millstone around his neck that the Goldwater book would have been, has been out of print since 1970 and is nowadays read only by the minuscule sub-sub-subset of readers who combine neoconservative principles with hipster predilections. (“Bureaucracy was okay, but not as good as Amateur Democrat. It’s really obscure, you’ve probably never heard of it.”) The book is mostly forgotten because the phenomenon it examines — liberal anti-corruption groups in big-city politics — is several decades removed from being relevant. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, urban politics was all about bossism vs. reform, old Irish and Italian Catholics vs. young, mostly childless Jewish and WASP professionals. Then the bosses lost. Their liberal opponents moved on to national politics (mostly civil rights and Vietnam), the reform clubs ran out of steam, and Wilson’s book about the “amateur Democrats” who slew Tammany Hall started looking obsolete.
That is, it looked obsolete to those who failed to read the preface to the 1966 edition, where Wilson wrote: “If I had foreseen the Goldwater nomination (who did?), this book would have been about the amateur Republican, and would have said essentially the same things.” There’s a claim for you: The book that follows would have been the same whether it had been written about the heirs of Joe McCarthy or Adlai Stevenson.
Wilson was able to make such a claim because both movements were expressions of the thing he really wanted to write about: the political attitude he called amateurism. “The amateur politicians sees the political world more in terms of ideas and principles than in terms of persons,” goes the introduction. “He sees each battle as a ‘crisis,’ and each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.” His polar opposite is the professional, who “tends, by contrast, to develop a certain detachment toward politics and a certain immunity to its excitement and its outcomes . . . the same way that a mortician develops a professional attitude toward death, a scholar a professional attitude toward knowledge, and a prostitute a professional attitude toward love.” The professional Democrat’s short-term goal is to please enough constituencies to win the next election; he has no long-term goals. The last-ever boss of Tammany Hall, Carmine De Sapio, once declared in a speech that “there is no Mother’s Day behind the Iron Curtain,” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan judged this pronouncement to be “the extent of his ideological commitment.” Carmine De Sapio was a professional.
Wilson realized that his definitions stacked the deck against his favored side: “Politicians, one immediately feels, ought to be high-minded and committed to policies; they ought to ‘talk sense’ to voters rather than rely on empty slogans, selfish appeals, and political payoffs; elective officials ought to vote and act on the basis of conscience rather than at the dictate of party ‘bosses.’” But underneath those oughts, Wilson detected something like the political equivalent of socialism — which is where our hypothetical anti-Goldwater broadside would have started getting him into serious trouble.
“Although [amateurs] may not be economic socialists,” Wilson explains, “they act as if they desired to ‘socialize’ politics.”
The amateur subscribes, by and large, to the sometimes unspoken assumption that desirable social policy can only or best result from action undertaken out of a desire to see that policy realized. But there is no reason why this should always be the case. In fact, when one considers economic activity, most people will quickly agree that the desirable consequences of that activity (the distribution of goods and services) are usually the result of activity undertaken for self-serving reasons (the attempt to maximize individual utilities).
A socialist will argue that the best distribution of goods and services is only achieved when production and distribution are undertaken out of community-regarding rather than private-regarding motives; thus the slogans ‘production for use, not profit,’ and distribution ‘to each according to his needs (or abilities).’ But most amateur Democrats, though liberals, are not socialists . . . Obviously, they are convinced that politics must be based on principle even though economics is based on interest.
This anomaly is seen most clearly, of course, when the amateur politician is a conservative Republican rather than a liberal Democrat.
Maybe the socialism analogy is fair, and maybe it isn’t. If Wilson had written the Goldwater book, I’m certain that he would have explored the “anomaly” brilliantly, drawing out any dissonance it produced in the mind of the average Goldwaterite. On the other hand, half of his eulogists would then have felt obliged to mention that Wilson wasn’t always completely on side, and I’d just as soon be spared the perfunctory hedging. (I should talk — a great man just died, and here I am trying to get him into trouble with his ideological allies.) But considering Wilson’s output over his remarkable 50-year career, the last thing anyone should feel entitled to do is complain about the books he didn’t write.