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November 2022 Issue [Letter from Washington]

Party Walls

Walter Karp’s enduring view of the establishment
Collage by Lincoln Agnew

Collage by Lincoln Agnew

[Letter from Washington]

Party Walls

Walter Karp’s enduring view of the establishment

Conventional wisdom holds that our political moment is, in Joe Biden’s words, “not normal.” Thus, the usual political lessons to be drawn from such historical events as the New Deal or the United States’ entry into the world wars are supposedly irrelevant now. This is surely a dangerous misconception, especially when promoted by those who remember the past incorrectly. That is why the work of Walter Karp, a passionate scholar of American political history who offered a bracing antidote to the popular beliefs of his own era, is so useful today.

A generation ago, Karp served as a contributing editor of this magazine. In the words of his friend and longtime editor Lewis Lapham, he was “a stormy petrel of a man, small and excitable, delighting in the rush of his words and the energy of his ideas” who “believed that in America it is the people who have rights, not the state, and that the working of a democratic republic requires a raucous assembly of citizens unafraid to speak their minds.” For more than a decade, beginning in 1978, he focused on abuses of power in Washington for Harper’s Magazine, deriding Democrats who collaborated with Ronald Reagan, the elected officials behind failing school systems, and Capitol Hill controls on the press. While he lived before the limitless political spending and the egregiously partisan Supreme Court that mark our political landscape, Karp’s pungent analyses are entirely relevant at a time when true representation seems far removed from the minds of politicians.

Karp firmly believed that the actions of party leaders can be explained only if one understands that they are primarily motivated by the pursuit and retention of power; any suggestion that national interest, or even ideology, drives their decisions he considered delusional. Karp once wrote that “we can judge the character of public men only by what they actually do,” which all too often involved betraying the platform that got them elected, almost always to further their own political fortunes. In his estimation, Democrats and Republicans therefore had much in common; by prioritizing their own rule, the two parties operated on a principle of collusion—“for without it neither party organization could long survive.”

Karp’s analysis of the actions and motives of the Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson provide illuminating examples of his approach. Though each had been enthusiastically elected on the promise of far-reaching reform, they all took steps that effectively frustrated their professed reformist intent. Having kept afloat the system threatened by a Depression-ravaged populace, Roosevelt largely abandoned further reforms in his second term on the grounds that gathering war clouds in Europe mandated concentration on “national security.” A generation later, Kennedy, possessed of a congressional majority inclined to reform, announced that he would introduce no major legislation without the cooperation of the Senate Republican leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, who duly blocked measures seemingly dear to the president’s heart, such as a civil-rights bill, thus saving Kennedy from alienating the Southern racist wing of the Democratic Party. When it came to Johnson, Karp wrote, one could presume that he sent more troops to Vietnam in hopes that it would “kill reform,” “distract the citizenry from domestic concerns,” and “provide the means to suppress dissenters and insurgents in the name of wartime unity.”

Overall, Karp argued, the enduring goal of our dominant political institutions is to maintain control of the parties, a goal that can supersede even their supposed objective of winning elections. “The whole purpose of party organizations at every political level,” he wrote in his 1973 book Indispensable Enemies, “is to sift out, sidetrack and eliminate men of independent political ambition, men whom the party bosses cannot trust.” Karp predicted that his analysis would be deemed “grossly ‘conspiratorial’ ” or “paranoid.” He rebutted any critics thus:

When it can be established that a number of political acts work in concert to produce a certain result, the presumption is strong that the actors were aiming at the result in question. When it can be shown, in addition, that the actors have an interest in producing those results, the presumption becomes a fair certainty. No conspiracy theory is required.

Those who argued the contrary were suggesting that, regardless of their actions, those in high office are essentially “men of goodwill,” which he deemed a “farfetched theory indeed.”

Events this year confirm that Karp’s theories remain roundly applicable. The Democratic response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade serves as a prime example. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, it rapidly became clear that party leadership had readied no campaign to capitalize on the outrage triggered by the court’s Catholic fanatics, despite the opinion’s leak seven weeks prior. Reacting to complaints from the abortion rights movement—a key component of the Democratic base—the White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told the Washington Post that “Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.” Her remark, undoubtedly representing Oval Office sentiment, would have come as no surprise to Karp. Nor would the reports that, following Kansas voters’ rejection of a proposed abortion ban by an eighteen-point landslide, White House advisers reportedly urged a position of “modesty and nuance.”

Ever since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, Democratic Party leadership has made it abundantly clear that eliminating the leftist insurgency is perhaps its highest priority. Examples abound, ranging from the brutal tactics deployed to prevent the popular progressive congressman Keith Ellison’s election as party chairman in 2017, to the full-court press assembled against Sanders in favor of nominating Biden in 2020. Earlier this year, the Democrats, reaping the consequences of their lackluster choice, resigned themselves to a crushing defeat in the midterms. But then the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin voted to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, replete with climate funding; gas prices fell, thanks in part to Vladimir Putin selling large quantities of oil despite sanctions; and Biden, appealing to younger, progressive voters,canceled a portion of the $1.6 trillion federal student-loan debt burdening millions of graduates. These developments enabled Biden and his team to gain favor with progressives, but they in no way indicate a leftward shift that will last beyond November. Karp, for his part, would likely predict the opposite.

In keeping with his gloomy assessment of our political leaders, Karp described them in trenchant terms: “oligarchs” and “bosses” servicing “machines.” Such language is generally absent in the more decorous prose of punditry today, as is any echo of Karp’s thesis that all political decisions, even when labeled as acts of statesmanship, are adopted to serve the interests of the relevant players. Oligarchs, bosses, and machines are rampant in today’s political system. On the “left,” one need look no further than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the body that oversees election efforts for the House of Representatives.

Its chair, always a Democratic House member chosen by party leadership, selects the DCCC’s executive director and other senior staff. This little-known group exercises immense power in deciding which campaigns receive the party’s blessing and, no less importantly, who gets campaign consultancy work—ever more lucrative regardless of who wins. The list of recent executive directors and their subsequent employment support Karp’s depiction of such machines as self-perpetuating: In 2005, Rahm Emanuel, then a congressman and chairman of the DCCC, hired the political consultant John Lapp as executive director ahead of the 2006 midterms. At a time of rising discontent with the Bush Administration, the team sought out centrist candidates supportive of the disastrous Iraq War. The Democrats won the House, by thirty-one seats, for which Emanuel took full credit. But many of the winning candidates were those—such as Steve Cohen in Memphis and John Yarmuth in Louisville—to whom the Emanuel–Lapp team had refused support.

While Emanuel went on to serve as chief of staff to Barack Obama—whose progressive campaign platform was soon neutered with the help of “moderates” ushered into Congress by Emanuel—Lapp co-founded the political consultancy Ralston Lapp Media. In 2010, as detailed by Ryan Grim and Rachel Cohen in a 2021 investigation for The Intercept, the firm reaped $3 million in contracts from the DCCC and House Democrats, where the executive director was now Lapp’s former deputy Jon Vogel. Following the party’s losses in the 2010 midterms amid the Tea Party surge, Vogel set up MVAR Media, which continues to gain lucrative DCCC contracts. Vogel was succeeded by Robby Mook, who later ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Despite frustration over his inept performance, Mook retained party favor. By 2019, he was running House Majority PAC, the independent expenditure arm of the Democratic House leadership, founded by Ali Lapp, wife of John.

Chuck Rocha, a Democratic consultant, summarized the issue bluntly. “Many of the firms that are servicing the DCCC are made up of the former executive directors who used to run the DCCC,” he said. “Once you run it as an executive director, then you become a media consultant, and the DCCC will hire you then to work on all of these races across the country.” For much of the period discussed above, the DCCC leadership has been determinedly white and overwhelmingly male—this for a party utterly reliant on black, Hispanic, and women voters. Complaints grew from minority lawmakers, as well as from consultants like Rocha, after which Lucinda Guinn, who identifies as Latina, was appointed as executive director in 2019. Following the party’s poor showing in the 2020 congressional races, Guinn left the job to become a partner at Ralston Lapp, which had billed the DCCC more than $760,000 over the course of the campaign. Rocha concedes that the leadership situation has improved somewhat, especially on the Senate side, but maintains that problems persist. When he met with four different Latino or black congressional candidates this summer, he told me, they claimed that the list of approved consultants given them by the DCCC did not include any black- or brown-majority-owned consulting firms.

There is a financial imperative to these arrangements. Consultants are rewarded for failure partly thanks to the importance of media buying to their business model. Media buyers charge a hefty commission in the form of kickbacks from TV networks and other media companies. The consultant wings of party machines are therefore naturally disposed to favor paid media, as opposed to grassroots efforts propelled by enthusiastic volunteers. Much of the time, Democratic grassroots campaigns are led by progressives—those mobilizing the exact voters Karp once described as unwanted “active citizens.”

While the Democrats regularly provide textbook confirmation of Karp’s relevance, the Republicans’ record appears more complicated, given that their insurgency has seemingly triumphed. Mitch McConnell and the establishment he represents have long struggled to quell the mutiny that flowered in the 2010 election and continued through Donald Trump’s presidency. The effort continues to falter, partly thanks to the Democratic establishment’s failure to convict Trump, no matter the production value of the January 6 hearings. (However, criminal charges related to the alleged theft of documents could yield different results.) Part of the insurgents’ success may be attributed to a factor that Karp did not anticipate: the enabling of dark-money mega-donors, such as the Koch brothers and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, thereby loosening party control over finances, a vital tool for enforcing discipline. Nevertheless, the beleaguered leadership has done its best to combat what former house speaker John Boehner derides in his memoir On the House as a “freak show” of “lunatics” overly endowed with independent political ambition and difficult to control. Boehner and his colleagues attempted to corral the upstarts into the Republican Study Committee under leadership they selected. Among other efforts to stem the tide, they recruited a primary opponent to run against the Michigan congressman Justin Amash, an irksomely principled member of the conservative faction—the exact kind of meddling Karp would expect from party leadership. Nevertheless, Amash won, and in 2015 Boehner was overthrown as house speaker by the Freedom Caucus.

The year before, disaffected Republican voters in central Virginia defeated the House majority leader Eric Cantor, an oligarch if ever there was one, in a primary upset. The victor, the conservative college professor David Brat, outspent forty times over by his well-heeled opponent according to some calculations, ran a populist grassroots campaign focused on the federal deficit, opposition to “crony capitalists” in politics, and immigration. Few outside the district had paid much attention. One who did was Donald Trump, who arrived via helicopter at a Brat fundraiser around six weeks before he himself unveiled his presidential run. “Dave Brat is onto something,” he told organizers.

The Republican establishment reacted with fury to the defeat of one of its favorite sons. “They really hated Brat,” recalls a former Republican staffer who requested anonymity, “especially after he was a ringleader in overthrowing Boehner.” In 2016, Brat’s constituency was redistricted, losing Hanover, a Republican county. The machinations that led to this rearrangement were complicated, involving a legal battle over statewide Republican gerrymandering, but Brat supporters had little doubt about who was behind it. “It was all part of [the leadership’s] effort to take Dave Brat out,” Dale Swanson, co-founder of the district’s Conservative Women’s Coalition, told me.

Yet, for all the furor, the Republican insurgency never quite achieved its stated goals. Obamacare was never repealed, even when Republicans held power in Congress and in the White House under Trump. The Kochs, who had funded Freedom Caucus campaigns with the expectation that the recipients would honor pledges to shrink government spending, watched unfaithful beneficiaries vote to raise the debt ceiling and swell the deficit. Even with Trump’s arrival at the White House, apparently the culminating insurgent triumph, followers’ hopes remained unfulfilled. Wall Street and corporations still ruled the roost. “It’s still a government of the people, not for the people,” Swanson complained to me, “a government repping lobbyists, not us.” Trump’s diatribes against McConnell, the ultimate Republican establishment leader—“a broken-down hack” with “a crazy wife”—denote his failure to subdue the establishment. A striking number of GOP candidates, however, owe their primary victories to Trump’s endorsement. A Republican civil war may be the Democrats’ best hope for victory in the midterms and beyond—especially if establishment leaders continue to oppose candidates who could actually win.

In their shared determination to exclude dissidents, both parties inevitably drive many such to secede and operate independently. This does not shield them, however, from the meddling of major party leaders. This year, for example, Texas Republicans brought suit, albeit unsuccessfully, to exclude a raft of Libertarian candidates from the ballot. Democrats have been equally ruthless in their efforts to banish at least one Green Party candidate seeking election: Matthew Hoh, a Marine combat veteran who quit a foreign service career in 2009 to protest America’s war in Afghanistan, who is campaigning for a Senate seat in North Carolina. His platform is unreservedly progressive; among other leftist positions, he promotes universal health care, workers’ rights, and an end to America’s aggressive militarism. In North Carolina, as in many other states, minor parties are often enjoined to gather a set number of signatures from registered voters spread across a specified number of congressional districts, which are then validated by county election boards before routine certification by the state board of elections. The state board, made up of five members, is appointed by the governor, currently Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and consists of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Although the North Carolina Greens fulfilled the deliberately cumbersome requirements for signatures supporting a minor party petition—the bulk of which were certified by election board officials—the state board refused to validate them. They claimed, on the day before the statutory deadline to file as a candidate, that some of the signatures could be fraudulent and required further investigation. At the virtual board meeting, the Greens’ attorney asked whether any of the potentially tainted signatures were among those already verified by the county election boards, at which point the chairman, a Democrat, curtly declined to answer, then muted the attorney’s microphone. It took a federal appeals court decision to finally allow Hoh’s name on the ballot. Meanwhile, both state and federal Democratic groups participated in several lawsuits against the North Carolina Greens that were overseen by the Elias Law Group, a go-to law firm for the Democrats, generally acclaimed for its efforts to counter Republican voter-suppression initiatives and Trump’s election-fraud charges. The Greens have alleged that Elias operatives targeted voters on the Greens’ ballot petition, often falsely identifying themselves as Green Party officials, in order to persuade them to withdraw their names. Such insidious subterfuge would fit well with Karp’s proposition that “the grassroots political activity of the citizenry and its inseparable adjunct, the entry into political life of non-organization politicians, is a constant threat to party organizations.”

Karp’s political prognoses tend to be most vividly demonstrated in races within a given party. Take Philadelphia. The city has been a showcase for urban renewal in recent decades, complete with gentrification, an attrited public school system, and austerity in public services—attributes that leftists deride as free-market neoliberalism. These developments also run alongside gross inequality and outright poverty, notably among the majority-black population which suffers a poverty rate double that of white residents. The city has long been a Democratic fiefdom, and despite changing demographics—the current mayor is white, for the first time since 2000—the city council is majority black. “The political machine is still Democrat,” the Philadelphia activist Robert Saleem Holbrook told me. “Old-school Democrats: pro-development, pro-gentrification, pro-charter school, paying lip service to unions only at election time.”

Lately, however, a threat to the machine has emerged. In recent elections, Philadelphians have been voting for progressives in both city and state races. Anthony H. Williams, a state senator for the past twenty-four years, had, until this year, never faced a serious opponent. Responding to a union activist endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Paul Prescod, running against him, Williams called the news “insulting.” To fight the challenge, he garnered hefty financial support not only from his Democratic colleagues, but also from Republican mega-donor Jeffrey Yass, a former professional gambler who made his billions as a Wall Street trader and is currently the richest man in Pennsylvania; Yass pours his money into his favorite free-market causes in the United States—especially when it comes to so-called school choice. Williams’s response perfectly confirms Karp’s point about the dedicated self-interest of party machines: “Don’t criticize me because of where I get money to run a campaign,” he told a reporter. “You want me to tie both hands behind my back and hamper myself to run an effective election? I’m not going to do that.” Williams won the Democratic primary in May, ensuring his reelection this fall, though Prescod received almost 40 percent of the vote. “Think about that,” Holbrook said. “The Democratic machine was willing to go to Republican PACs to hold off a progressive challenger.”

The machine also put considerable energy into an effort to derail another unwelcome progressive candidate. Summer Lee, a Democratic Socialist and a longtime supporter of Sanders, challenged and defeated an incumbent Democratic state representative in Pittsburgh in 2018 with 68 percent of the vote, becoming the first black woman from western Pennsylvania to sit in the statehouse. Two years later, she won reelection. A vocal proponent of universal health care, the Green New Deal, Palestinian rights, and criminal justice reform, Lee announced her intent to run for Congress in a district that historically favors Democrats. To oppose her, the party recruited Steve Irwin, a rich white attorney who attracted a torrent of money, not least from pro-Israel PACs such as AIPAC’s United Democracy Project and Democratic Majority for Israel—a lobby that has been an especially useful ally in beating back progressive challengers this cycle.

Some in Lee’s circle discerned a more underhanded effort to derail her election. During her primary race, Pennsylvania’s state and congressional districts were being redrawn, and political parties and citizen groups had submitted redistricting proposals. The mapping issue was ultimately decided by the State Supreme Court, where liberals hold the majority, and where justices had previously thrown out a former map, put in place by the Republican legislature and an example of egregious gerrymandering. The court-blessed map has been generally commended as bipartisan, but it did exhibit one curious feature: Lee’s home address was cut out of the district in which she intended to run, along with other portions of her voter base. This rearrangement was mostly a detriment to Lee, having far less of an effect on her primary opponents, and thereby generating suspicion among her campaign staff that she had been deliberately targeted. At the very least, Karp would likely have seen the redistricting as a thumb on the scale.

Lee won her primary race, and is expected to win the general. Meanwhile, in this year’s Senate Democratic primary, the city machine endorsed Conor Lamb, a corporate-friendly congressman beloved by the national party. Lamb ran unsuccessfully against John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor. Fetterman, a Sanders supporter, ran on a progressive social platform, supporting government-funded health care, legalized cannabis, and a reformed immigration system. (Fetterman has dodged attacks from pro-Israel PACs, having promised to “lean in” and strengthen relations with Israel.) His success, as well as Lee’s, surely gives the lie to the mantra that “progressives can’t win.” If successful, they pose a potential threat to establishment control. They can, however, be warded off by invoking existential menace. This “indispensable enemy” was one of Karp’s central concepts: a potent opponent that justifies shameful compromises and betrayals of the sort seen in the FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies.

Trump has been the most indispensable of enemies for the Democrats, so corrupt and clownish that Clinton hoped he would be her opponent in 2016. That hope has endured, as Biden’s September speech in Philadelphia once again confirmed, with its dark invocations of “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans” who “embrace anger,” “thrive on chaos,” and live “not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.” Meanwhile, his own Democratic allies had been pouring millions of dollars into Trump-backed primary campaigns around the country, from Colorado to New Hampshire, in a cynical effort to further split Republican factions. This strategy may yield success, especially since it has dawned on Democrats that support of abortion rights is a winning ticket. But an indispensable enemy can turn into something much more dangerous. It may evolve into a figure less fallible than Trump: a sharper, more presentable candidate such as the Florida governor Ron DeSantis, capable of summoning the MAGA army while maintaining support from supposedly moderate Republicans. Democrats still strive to suppress their own insurgents, but the day may come when they regret following their instincts. Of course, by then it may be too late. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

 is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book is The Spoils of War.

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