Mayor for life.

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A Defense of Marion Barry's Politics

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Councilman Marion Barry died this weekend.  He was colorful, a bit larger than life, flawed, a man of fierce determination and great appetites, an indelible part of the history of Washington. But I come neither to bury Barry, nor to praise him. Instead, I think it's worth talking about the historical forces that made Marion Barry what he was -- and the long war for the soul of the Democratic Party that his death illuminates.

You should read three pieces today if you want to understand more about who Barry was, and what he meant to the city. The first is Franklin Foer's piece from the 2004 New Republic, which encapsulates how nice White Washingtonian Democrats usually view the former mayor -- as the fabulously corrupt avatar of some of Washington's worst moments, as the guy who wouldn't send snowplows to the streets in the affluent white precincts of Upper Northwest. The second is by Mark Kleiman, who offers a less personal, but no less searing indictment:

Of course the racial composition of the DC police needed to change; but too-rapid hiring with too-low standards meant building a force full of incompetent and sometimes brutal grifters, and not having enough senior folks around to train and control them. It’s hard to guess how many Washingtonians who died of homicide would be alive today if DC had had a different mayor, but the number isn’t small. And let’s not forget that DC Statehood was a live issue until Marion Barry turned the District government into a work-free drug place and a national joke.

How bad was the looting? At one point, DC General Hospital ran out of pharmaceuticals because the distributors who supplied the drugs refused to offer the bribes City Hall demanded simply to get their invoices paid, and eventually cut off the hospital when the balance due got too high. That’s right: Marion Barry was prepared to have sick people go without medicine if his cronies didn’t get their slice of the action.

Adam Serwer, meanwhile, makes the (nuanced) case for the defense:

Despite his reputation for daishiki-clad raised-fist radicalism, Jaffe and Sherwood wrote that the true beneficiaries of Barry’s terms in office were wealthy business interests, particularly in real estate. “No matter how many millions of dollars in city contracts flowed to Barry’s friends, it was chump change compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that enriched the white community during the real estate boom,” they wrote.

Nevertheless, for the first time, black residents of the District were receiving some of the spoils. Barry’s administration was the first time blacks took leadership of a city in which they had been a majority for years.

For thousands of people in the District, Marion Barry was the reason they had a job, which meant he was the reason they could keep their home, feed their children, or keep their lights on. Poor and working-class kids in the city have been getting their first jobs from Barry’s summer jobs program for thirty-five years. His administration increased assistance to the elderly and the poor. If you didn’t personally benefit from the way Barry ran the city, you probably knew someone who did. People in D.C. loved Marion Barry because they felt like he made their lives better.

This should sound familiar, because the tricklings of New Deal initiatives that reached the black community in the 1930s and ’40s were the reason black voters suddenly invested in a party that, up until then, had been defined largely by its implacable devotion to white supremacy. If people believe a politician has materially improved their lives, it establishes a loyalty that is hard to break.

I guess I'm supposed to take a position on this, and so here it is: They're both right. Marion Barry kept getting elected because he was a great ethnic retail politician who made his constituents feel that he cared about them, and was making their lives better. With a name like "Megan McArdle," and my roots in Boston and Charlestown, I'm predisposed to a certain affection for the type. I've even been known to have a good word for Tammany Hall, which for all its undoubted abuses, also presided over the construction of the New York we know today, including the great public works projects, like the subway system, that make the city-as-we-know-it possible.

But Marion Barry was practicing ethnic retail politics in a time and a place where they had greater costs, and fewer benefits, than in turn-of-the-century New York. In the Washington of the 1980s, those benefits were dubious -- there was a real estate boom, yes, but that owed at least as much to the long bull market in debt as it did to anything Marion Barry did. And the costs were very high, not just for the angry citizens of Cleveland Park, but even for the constituents whom Barry was trying to help. Some people benefited, certainly, especially those close to the mayor, and those who got government jobs. But that was never the majority of Washingtonians, or even black Washingtonians. For the rest of the city, Barry's style of politics arguably created more problems than it solved.

Nice upper-middle-class people have always recoiled from ethnic retail politics. It's so ... grubby. There's too much naked quid pro quo, not enough objective rule-making that only coincidentally has the effect of ensuring that public services are disproportionately showered on the economically vital precincts of the upper middle class. (I kid -- but not really.) The lofty technocrats may be willing to cut deals with special interests in the name of achieving some important public purpose -- see Obamacare. But with ethnic retail politics, the deals with special interests are the point.

The defense of old-school ethnic retail politics is that it often got things done. Everyone got their cut, and things happened, often things that made everyone better off. Tammany got the New York subway system started after the earnest urban reformers who proposed it had so surrounded themselves with protections against corruption that the initial commissioners-for-life spent eight years issuing a report on how to go about building the subway system. Its build-out continued under Tammany men like McClellan, Hylan, and Walker. The entire process took less time than it will end up taking to build a single new line, the Second Avenue Subway, under modern progressive proceduralism. When people wonder why racial and ethnic groups keep returning beloved politicians to office, even in the face of setbacks like felony convictions, this is one of the big answers: They get things done, and if they are self-dealing, they are also deeply aware of the need to return benefits to their constituent clientele. Tammany's contracts may have produced windfall profits for the political machine, but much of that windfall arguably ended up finding its way back into the pockets of Tammany voters--as did the paychecks from the thousands of jobs they created, and the various benefits from the public works they supported. 

As the example of the subways suggests, the other defense of this sort of politics is that the procedural reforms put in place to guard against it are often more expensive than the money lost to the former corruption.  When you ask yourself why there were so few "shovel ready projects" for Obama's stimulus to undertake, why the country could build the Hoover Dam in a decade but has spent twice that long attempting to modestly upgrade some railroad tracks to support the "Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor," why it is so hard to hold bureaucrats accountable for making terrible decisions with their sweeping powers, this is the answer. We tried so hard to make sure that no one could personally benefit from politics, that we ended up creating an unaccountable elite of judges and civil servants who feel little connection to the voters, or urgency about progress--at least not compared with the all-important task of preserving their prerogatives and ensuring that no project presents any significant political risk to the technocratic stewards of our modern system.  

The architectural epitome of the old machine politics is probably the fantastically overpriced marble lining the walls of the Tweed Courthouse, a beloved public landmark that took forever to build at some amazing multiple of the cost the city should have paid. The architectural epitome of progressive politics is probably something more like Boston's current City Hall, a Brutalist design carefully selected from a two-stage international competition by a panel of local architects and businessmen, which is beloved of no one except maybe architecture critics.

The defense of progressive politics is that the idea of politics as a fundamentally transactional allocation of benefits to favored groups is harsh and repugnant. It may be a good description of how things often actually work, even under progressive regimes, but we don't have to enthusiastically endorse it. Especially since naked ethnic retail politics has often run amok, destroying large swathes of the cities where it is practiced. If the allegations about snowplowing and similar slights are true, Marion Barry was not the first such mayor to punish the city's progressive elite by deliberately stinting on their services; Boston's James Curley brought this to such a high art that the practice is now named after him. It cemented his own base at the cost of economic growth for his city, which stunted the economic base on which his constituents depended, and cost his own machine the tax base to continue the patronage.

You can view the history of the Democratic Party over the last hundred years as a war between these two views of how politics should work. I'm simplifying here more than a bit, as one has to do in a blog post. Nonetheless, I think it captures something important about the political currents within the party, and the current politics of Washington.  One reason that Democrats are having problems with the white working class, even within their traditional base in the northeast and the rust belt, is that this group, which used to be known as "white ethnics," often perceive themselves as the targets of a long war by affluent WASP elites to reclaim their territory and subdue the unruly, self-interested denizens of the old immigrant communities.  Perhaps I'm projecting my own history, but I feel a similar tension in my current history between the black plurality and the affluent newcomers.

Which brings me to Serwer's piece, which you should really read in full--along with two books, Dream City, and the Washington Post's oral history of the 1968 riots (which have shaped much of the city for the last 40 years).  All three highlight something  often forgotten in discussing the seamy underside of the old ethnic politics: their roots in brutal discrimination by the affluent elites.  

I want to tread carefully here, because I want to discuss a few of the parallels between Irish and Black urban politics.

Most people are simply not aware of how bad the discrimination was against the Irish in America, or just how long it went on.  For example, you usually hear about Federal Housing Administration redlining as it affected African-Americans, but Irish neighborhoods were also viewed as undesirable, because they were, well, filled with Irish people.  Who drink, don't you know.  

Whether or not anyone ever posted "No Irish Need Apply" in want ads, the truth for many, many jobs was that Irish shouldn't bother to apply, because they weren't going to get hired.  Many of the "gentleman's agreements" that applied to blacks and Jews also applied to Catholics.  And passing wasn't the option that modern Americans seem to think, even beyond the fact that it's as repugnant to demand that someone abandon their religion and their heritage as it is to demand that they pretend to be white, if they can manage it.  Most Irish people look Irish, which doesn't matter now, so most people have forgotten how to tell.   But it mattered a lot when Irish people weren't exactly what we now think of as white.   It meant that when two white candidates showed up for the same job, it was pretty easy to tell which one you wanted to hire.  And understandably, the Irish resented this.  The idea that the white ethnics were just awfully grateful to be in this amazing land of opportunity is happy dappy malarkey created by Hollywood a few decades after politicians from the Protestant heartland had basically put a stop to immigration.  It's not a good record of how immigrants actually felt about the matter.   

One Mayor Curley moment really sticks out for me: When someone proposed a Brahmin for a higher public office, he replied that he'd be happy to oblige if the proposer could find, in city files, a record of one Irishman who had been allowed to hold any public job higher than policeman before Hugh O'Brien was elected to the Mayor's office in 1885.  You cannot understand Mayor Curley without understanding why this mattered so much, to him and to his constituents--which is the same reason that similar aggressions, "micro" and "macro", matter so much to white people outside of the coastal professional elites.

But I say I want to tread carefully here, and I do, because pointing out these abuses can be perceived--and used--as a way of  telling  blacks to get over it, they're not going through anything that the rest of us did not experience. That's not what I'm saying. The Irish faced hardships, but they weren't legally enslaved, they did not suffer under the system of slave laws and Jim Crow. Any equation of their respective sufferings would be absurd, and I'm not trying to do that. I'm simply drawing on the community I do know to point out that there is a pattern to where these sorts of systems emerge: they spring up where you have large groups of ethnically distinct people who face significant barriers to economic advancement, due to the bigotry of the natives, and particularly, the native economic elite.  History may not repeat itself, but it stutters like hell.

So, to Washington, then: you cannot understand Marion Barry without understanding just how disgusting, repellent, and repulsive was their treatment by the government prior to Home Rule.  Washington has had a large black population since the Civil War, when free slaves flocked here.  By the middle of the 20th century, the city was flipping from majority white to majority black.  But discrimination was still rampant.  One telling anecdote, which I recently heard from a historian: Barry Goldwater (yes, that Barry Goldwater) employed as his legislative aide a black woman.  When she went to the employee cafeteria to get some lunch, they told her that she couldn't eat there; it was as segregated as a Selma lunch counter.  This is a U.S. government facility, paid for by government taxes, in the 1950s.  I have met people, still alive, who remember coming to the city on a tourist trip and accidentally drinking from the "colored" drinking fountains.  They describe being pulled away by horrified bystanders.

Eisenhower desegregated public facilities, but the government committee that oversaw the District government was still run by and for segregationists.  Literally.  Some of the most appalling racists in the government were in charge of deciding what should happen in a city that was trending, and then trended, majority black.  As you can imagine, their top priority was making sure that the blacks didn't get too above themselves.  In this they were aided by nice white progressives who were all for racial progress, but nothing radical, you understand.  As Serwer chronicles, when Lyndon Johnson started the first steps toward Home Rule, the white elite, including Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, petitioned him to make sure that a white mayor was appointed.  I'm not going to detail all the abuses here; you should read Dream City to get the full flavor of just how many legitimate grievances blacks had, and why they probably didn't find the gradualist technocratic politics of nice middle-class white people all that appealing.

That doesn't, however, mean that Marion Barry was a net positive for the city.  His mayoralty had all the problems that Kleiman describes.  Some of those arose from his personal flaws, and some of this arose from the fact that Washington in the second half of the 20th century was not a place where his sort of politics was likely to work very well.  Geography, politics, and economics all conspired to make it pretty dysfunctional.

First geography: Washington is very small.  That makes it easy to play the Curley move: Encourage the elites to move beyond your border in order to tilt the city's demographics further toward your constituents.  In their paper on the Curley Effecrt, Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer point out that New York and Chicago didn't see a similar dynamic, because those cities are just too darn big; the affluent elites don't want to move, because the commute's too long.  Ultimately, that's a good thing; it restrains the temptation to use services as a weapon.

Second, economics: The Curley effect is costly.  It hinders investment, economic growth, and ultimately, the tax base you have with which to service your constituents.  Curley probably cost his constituents something in the way of lower growth, but he kind of got away with it, because he was dealing with a prewar economy, in which cities had large concentrations of manufacturing, shipping, and other enterprises that couldn't readily be moved.  That wasn't true anywhere by the 1980s, and the District never had much of a manufacturing base to begin with; it had the federal government, which couldn't really be moved, but also didn't pay much in the way of taxes.  As the elites fled, that meant that most of what the District's government had to distribute came either from federal coffers--an unreliable source of income that came with a lot of strings attached--or the constituents he was supposed to be using city funds to help.

Third, politics: Washington has less control over its own operations than any other city that is not actually in receivership.  That severely constrained what Barry could have accomplished under any circumstances.  Especially since the city was run by the federal government, which has in many ways been designed by progressives over the years precisely for the purpose of thwarting the sort of politics that Barry represented.  The sting that brought him down was, as Kleiman notes, a wild overreach that turned a somewhat sordid search for illicit sex into a federal drug charge, and while I'm not arguing that this was actually a product of the progressive elite making further war on ethnic retail politics, it's not surprising to me that many of his constituents saw it that way.

All these things conspired to make Barry the right man for the wrong job.  Even if you respect the decades and centuries of grievance that made him kind of inevitable, which I do, and even if you believe that his sort of politics has more to like about it than modern political ideals commonly allow, which is a proposition that I am at least willing to consider.  He was certainly good to many of his cronies, and there may be many individual Washingtonians in his constituency benefitted from things like his summer jobs program.  But he was not really good for the city, and it's hard to say that he even provided a net benefit for the people I actually truly believe he was trying to serve: the hundreds of thousands of poor black Washingtonians who had been brutalized by the long depredations of America's racial caste system, and left stranded in a failing city.

  1. Like many Irish Americans, I can pick out other Irish people, even though I often can't quite explain why.  Others could pick us out too; as late as the 1990s, on two separate occasions, nice old ladies identified me as an Irish girl, and proceeded to utter some astonishing piece of bigotry that struck me as amazing and funny, but probably wouldn't have seemed nearly as funny if it had meant I wasn't going to law school.  

    True story: while working at a hotel, an elderly lady confused my name with that of a servant her family had had in the 1920s sometime.  When one of her party gently said "I don't think that's her name," she replied "Oh, the Irish don't care about things like that."  My father, who attended the Catholic college of a larger school in the 1960s, recalls routine remarks denigrating Catholics from the students of other colleges.  And not because of the Church's stance on gay marriage or abortion.

  2. Immigrants were, of course, very happy to be away from the famines and pograms, the Prussian draft and the Irish penal laws.  They loved free land and the freer economy.  They did not love the way they were treated by the people who were already here, and they did not perceive it as a great level playing field, because it wasn't one.

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Megan McArdle at

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at