November 13, 2015

The continuing saga of a Unites States Attorney hunting a Massachusetts House Speaker involves more than the present combatants. It also encompasses a culture that has engulfed the commonwealth for over a hundred and fifty years: moralists vs. individualists, managers vs. workers, purists vs. pragmatists. It’s the organized system of hatreds played out in court rooms and back rooms.

I’ve mixed political culture methods here but they all fit the Massachusetts scene and each other. Students of state politics are familiar with Daniel Elazar’s Marketplace, Commonwealth, and the Three Political Cultures, in which he describes moralistic and individualistic cultures, which apply to Massachusetts. The two cultures are in tension here, with individualistic securing the upper hand. In an individualistic political culture mutual obligations and personal relationships are important. “[T]here is likely to be an easy attitude toward the limits of the professionals’ perquisites. … [T]here is relatively little popular excitement when (corruption) is found unless it is of extraordinary character.” In a moralistic environment though, there is “less tolerance of those actions which are considered corrupt.”

Edgar Litt used four categories in The Political Cultures of Massachusetts; managers, workers, patricians, and yeomen. The two still in wide operation are managers and workers. The key to the worker culture is “the intricate pattern of familial, social, and ethnic relationships.” Workers often have less than a college degree and are unionized. They see themselves as the underdog. The managers are educated and have professional status. They are highly rational, reform minded, and “their political emphasis is on merit rather than personalized reward.” Managers have post-graduate degrees and are worldly. We elect only managers as governor but workers usually lead the legislature.

In the legislature, relationships and loyalty are crucial. Members are elected and are conscious of the wishes of their constituents. Compromise, negotiation, and yes, logrolling and favors are crucial to the process of professional ambition and policy making. If you’d like purity, try the Tea Party. The Unites States Congress has become a tribune of dysfunctional purity.

Prosecutors’ offices, by contrast, are built on the rule making rationality of the managerial elite. The U.S. Attorney’s Office attracts top performers from leading law schools who can deconstruct any law, court decision, or regulation down to its finest particle. They are the meritorious, not the elected. They strive to please judges – a more refined and elevated reflection of themselves – and not the rambunctious diversity of figures that the politician must expose herself to.

The U.S. Attorney's world is rule-defined, rational, settled; the politician's world is contingent, emotional, turbulent.

Small wonder then that professional politicians and appointed or career prosecutors have a different understanding of corruption. These conflicts are built into Massachusetts. Recently state level prosecutions of Tim Cahill and John O’Brien ended in compromise or not guilty findings. The federal trial of O’Brien, after a lengthy jury deliberation, ended in guilty findings and the judge – at the high end of the managerial class for sure – seemed ready to throw the book at O’Brien until the jurist considered the reality of Massachusetts politics. He imposed a light sentence instead.

Harvey Silverglate and I have both taken slightly different paths recently to criticize the U.S. Attorney’s pursuit of Speaker Robert DeLeo (here and here). We agree though that it is not the job of the U.S. Attorney to purify Massachusetts politics. Legislators’ conduct “unless it is of extraordinary character” should be left to the people who elect them.

Robert DeLeo, Carmen Ortiz

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