Tears in Heaven

This conversation between Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE and Chris Matthews shows what a system losing legitimacy looks like. Welch doesn’t believe the latest upbeat official job statistics because they are at complete variance with his own observations. He didn’t see any unicorns running in the streets whatever the papers said. Matthews retorts by demanding that Welch ‘prove that the Bureau of Labor statics lied’.

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A society with ample legitimacy doesn’t ask those questions. The official statistics are almost universally believed. People take what they read in the newspapers to be fact. They follow the orders of law enforcement officers by long habit. They would no more doubt the solemn pronouncements of high officials like the Secretary of State than their own eyes.

Legitimacy means trust.

But a system in crisis must resort to increasing levels of hectoring and coercion to get what used to be given. In this case the administration needs Chris Matthews to try and browbeat Jack Welch into believing the BLS. This is costly per unit effort because individual intimidation costs more than simply announcing the report.

The Chinese called legitimacy the Mandate of Heaven. A ruler could lose it by screwing up. “Severe floods or famines were considered portents and monitions indicating divine disapproval of the recent activities of the ruler … Although the Mandate had no time limitation, it held rulers to a clear standard. Over the passage of time, there would inevitably arise a ruler who would cause Heaven to withdraw its Mandate. As the Mandate of Heaven emphasized the performance of the ruler, the social background of the ruler became less important.”

This was the Chinese version of what Clint Eastwood tried to talk about during his “empty chair” speech at the Republican convention. If the leader doesn’t perform, if he’s an empty chair then fire him. He’s lost the Mandate of Heaven. Or at least the mandate of Clint.

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Some people however believe in a Permanent Mandate of Heaven. In that world screwups have no bearing on anything. In Chicago the Democratic Party has come close to the ideal.

In that city the question is never “do you have the Mandate of Heaven”. It is always “who sent you?”.

The Cook County Democratic Organization is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. Historically called the “Chicago Democratic machine”, or simply the “Chicago Machine”, the organization has dominated Chicago politics (and consequently, Illinois politics) since the 1930s. It relies on a tight organizational structure of ward committeemen and precinct captains to elect candidates….

The most famous example of the Chicago machine in action was in the 1960 presidential election. Daley believed John F. Kennedy would be a tremendous help to Democratic candidates on the ticket, and so he used all the machine’s power to turn out the vote for Kennedy. Kennedy won Illinois by only 9,000 votes, yet won Cook County by 450,000 votes, with some Chicago precincts going to Kennedy by over 10 to 1 margins. Illinois’ 27 electoral votes helped give Kennedy the majority he needed.

Today it is pretty widely acknowledged that the Daley’s electoral practices fell short of the Platonic idea.
But as Chris Matthews might put it at the time: prove Daley cheated. ‘Come on Jack, I double-dog dare you to produce independent evidence that John Kennedy didn’t win Cook County by 450,000 votes.’ And so Chicago continues to cling to the Mandate of Heaven. For now.

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