The (political) world according to Karp

• Topics: USA & World, Elections,

Bo Richardson has guest written this article.

Almost a year ago I wrote a piece for Northwest Citizen outlining some political thoughts of the late Walter Karp. Karp was a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and has been an inspiration for writers such as Bill Moyers, Christopher Hitchens, and Greil Marcus. Moyers called Karp one of the six greats of American journalism.

Karp divided political actors into two, and only two, kinds of people: hacks and reformers. Hacks are people motivated by self-interest, while reformers are morally driven. Republican and Democratic Party hacks share the same goal of keeping reformers out of power, and they collude to achieve this goal.

Rich Austin wrote some useful comments to this piece and asked the perfect question, getting to the heart of Karp's analysis: “Why then, do we the people keep re-electing hack politicians who are part of the problem?”

Karp says the goal of party hacks is to make sure your ballot offers only a choice between two party hacks. And it doesn't matter much which hack wins.

The hard won political wisdom is that if you wait till after the nominations to become politically active, you have already lost. The hacks control the levers of power in both parties, in this case, the nominations. They use this institutional power skillfully to limit our ballot choices to two hacks. Being forced to choose between “the lesser of two evils” is not an unfortunate accident of democracy, it is the goal of our entire political system.

George Herbert Walker Bush or Bill Clinton? Choose Bill Clinton and you get NAAFTA, and GAAT, and Clinton does away with welfare while the country runs the greatest budget surplus anyone can remember.

After Clinton left office, the New York Times wrote admiring pieces about the quasi father/son relationship between Clinton and the elder Bush. More recently, the New York Times reported that hard-right Republicans have been saying embarrassingly nice things about Bill Clinton.

Any Martian with a sense of humor would have immediately grasped that Clinton and Bush were on the same team. Put that Martian in a ninth grade civics class and brainwash him into believing the two parties vie for power by winning elections, and suddenly American politics becomes very difficult to understand and explain.

One reason some of America's most astute political commentators are British, such as Christopher Hitchens and the Cockburn brothers, is that Brits have not been brainwashed by the American school system. They can look at reality with fewer filters and contrast it against the bizarro world of propagandized media commentary.

There were hard feelings among grassroots Democrats during the last presidential primary over whether Obama or Ms. Clinton would be the more progressive presidential candidate and eventual president. With both Obama and Ms. Clinton now fully committed to war-without-end in the Middle East, and seemingly all other odious Bush policies, finding distinctions between candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton, and indeed John McCain, is merely grist for The Daily Show.

In plotting a strategy for reform, it is necessary to understand where power lies in our political system. But if one asked most Americans where the actual power resides, I don't think most would even understand the question.

Karp tells us political power in the American system resides in the two parties. The two parties have a gateway monopoly on nominating candidates for government office. As long as both parties are controlled by the super rich and criminal corporations, no progressive candidate will be allowed to rise within the political system. Hence the marginalization of reformers such as Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, Mike Lowery, Deborah Senn, Jesse Jackson, Russ Feingold, Paul Wellstone…

Thus, if you want input in the political system, you must go to work years before the election and get control of the nominations. Lockheed and Goldman Sachs figured this out a long time ago. Karp can help us re-learn the path to reform.

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

The name "Guest Writer" is used on over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular contributors. Their name and a brief bio can be found at the top or bottom [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Mar 05, 2011


Karp is in good company when he argues that both parties are controlled by the super rich.  Virtually every President of the US since Woodrow Wilson (the exceptions being Kennedy and Reagan) was either a member of ? or approved by ? the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a membership organization, think tank and publisher serving the super rich.  CFR?s tentacles reach deep into the National Security Council (NSC) and the CIA.  Lockheed and Goldman Sachs are only part of the iceberg and not necessarily the tip.


Riley Sweeney

Mar 05, 2011

Good thoughts, I look forward to seeing you guys run for office or volunteering with a campaign of someone you trust to be a good reformer. To move the dial, you have to get out there, recruit some good candidates and stick with them. I can’t wait to see your efforts on the local level this year.


Larry Horowitz

Mar 06, 2011

Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, who do you trust to be a good reformer?

What?s ironic to me is how candidates vie for the support of active members of the community in order to get elected, but, once in office, shut out ?activists? as vehemently as the electeds they replaced.  I wouldn?t necessarily seek a good reformer; I?d seek someone who has a sincere interest in open, two-way, dialogue.  How many people get elected on a platform of change but end up fight tooth-and-nail to retain the status quo?


John Servais

Mar 06, 2011

Ahh, Riley, you make it too easy.  You’re too young to be cynical.  And you have not been around enough years to know the efforts some of us have gone through to get reform candidates into local offices.  We have lost most but won a few.  Here are two wins.  We welcome you to the political effort to improve our community, but you might want to learn more about the history of local political efforts before you mock us.

Dan Pike is a perfect example of an outsider whom the Ds and Rs had no use for and who was strongly supported by those of us who wanted reform in city hall.  He came to us and asked for our support and promised reforms.  He had no support from the Ds.  Pike would call some of us every day - literally -  for advice and help during the campaign. The day after the election, all communications stopped and he started kissing up to the Ds and all those establishment city liberals who had opposed his election. He ignored his campaign promises.  He joined the group that Karp wrote about.  We all volunteered and no one paid any of us to support him.  We tried. 

A good result trying to “move the dial” was our support for Mike McAuley for Port Commissioner.  He was a reform candidate and was supported strongly by those of us who feel the Ds and Rs are way too much in bed with each other.  Indeed, the story of how we elected a reform Port Commissioner has not yet been told - but it was a group effort and it was carefully planned.  As a Port Commissioner he is working well with everyone to bring positive change to the Port.  By the way, no one paid me to support him. 

Riley, I can go back to the 70s with names of candidates that many of us have worked very hard every year to get elected.  Maybe you don’t like Karp’s view of the political parties - but to many of us who have worked to get good reform candidates elected, Karp makes a lot of sense.  The Ds and Rs work together to keep real reform candidates out of office.  And if you want to challenge myself or Tip or Marian or any number of others to “get out there” then we are more than happy to compare notes with you.  You know where to find us.


Riley Sweeney

Mar 06, 2011

John, I know that you and many of the people here at Northwest Citizen continue to do the hard work of organizing for campaigns, that’s why I cheer you on. You took my point to the negative, my point is that this is solid, yes we need better candidates. My point is that we also need to put them in office and keep them honest. That’s all I’m saying.


David Camp

Mar 07, 2011

Here’s the problem as I see it - why would anyone run for office, put themselves through the wringer, become a lightning rod for ideological hate, unless they are in it for personal gain? How else could the federal legislative branch have become what it is: a calcified club of careerists doing the bidding of those who purchased their sinecures for them.

I mean, the secret government that really holds power in this country actually hired an actor to play the President! (I mentioned this to a young friend the other day and he thought I was talking about a science-fiction story!). And among a significant faction, this actor is revered, he read his lines so well.

To an outsider, this must appear to be a nation of morons and dupes.


Riley Sweeney

Mar 07, 2011

“calcified club of careerists” - You sir, just made my day. Love that line.


Bo Richardson

Mar 07, 2011

John Servais and Larry Horowitz write about reformers or seeming reformers who solicit the support of reform activists and then stop returning their calls the day after the election.

I saw that locally with the selection of Dick McKinley as Public Works Director. I was on the Mayor’s Bike Ped Committee at the time.

It looked to me as though there was only one candidate for the position. This implies the deck was stacked, because there are a lot of small city Public Works employees across this great country and just statistically some would make world class directors, even if they put some serious time into soliciting public input.

Dick was charming as could be during the selection process, but not so much afterwards. But a committee of activists could mess up even a slam dunk appointment, but could do no real harm afterwards. Evidently that is how elected officials feel about the electorate as well.

Obama and Bill Clinton were breathtaking in their abadonment of their supporters.

Karp says the first goal of the party hack is to drive smart capable ambitious people out of politics. Raising hope and then dashing it is one of the most powerful ways to drive good people out of politics. Disappointment leading to cynicism is makes people give up. The Buddhists teach us to abandon all hope of fruition and do the work anyway. Buddhists teach that hope and fear are our great obstacles.

Someone smart once pointed out that effective politicians abhor leadership or leading in any positive way. Elected politicians adjudicate between power groups according to the amount of power the group has and how effectively they use it.

The Chicago mob has huge clout because of gambling and drug revenues and influence in labor unions and the entertainment industry. Would we expect the mob to be listened to more carefully by a Chicago politician like Obama, than Obama listens to Code Pink?

If people are interested it might be useful to look at Obama through the Karpian lens. Obama, hack or reformer, and could we have seen this coming?


Tip Johnson

Mar 08, 2011

It’s working!

To comment, Log In or Register
©1995-2020 Northwest Citizen LLC | Each writer retains the copyright to their articles. Copyright & Contact