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The Political Decline of America
Condensed from Harper's Magazine (December '25)
Frank R. Kent
INCE the founding of the nation one thing which really stirs public various persons, at irregular in- sentiment.
tervals, have felt it was headed That is, it was the one thing until downhill and could not be stopped. a short while ago. Now we have Somebow or other, it has managed to another, and capable of even more pull through, even growing bigger deeply stirring men and women--to and more indecently rich. Probably wit,
the Bible issue. Perhaps it it will continue to wobble along in would have come into politics withspite of its present disgracefully out the Dayton trial. It was on its diseased political condition. How- way, but the Bryan-Darrow trial has ever, there is no reason why the thrust this issue deep into our polisignificant symptoms of the present tics. Few political observers doubt should not be pointed out. For one that we are at the start of another thing, it may help a little in the such fight as we had over Prohibieure. For another, some time or tion. other one of these prophets of dis- It is hard to see how it can be other aster is going to be more or less than disheartening to thoughtful right.
persons to grasp the fact that these Speaking not at all from the par- two issues, neither one of which has ty but wholly from the public angle, the slightest business in politics, are this country is in a sorry, soggy, the only ones capable of striking a sloppy state, politically. It is hard spark from nine-tenths of the people to tell which is more discouraging: of the country today. Any politician the issues that do interest the in any state will tell you that on the people or the issues that do not in- World Court, the tariff, the League terest them.
of Nations, the railroads, water Take first the issues to which they power, agriculture, or any other item do respond-you can go across the of foreign or domestic policy, there country from coast to coast, stop- is among the masses a complete and ping in each state to talk and learn, profound indifference. They don't as I recently did, and you will strike know about them and they don't care. ire only when you touch one sub- If that is not a disheartening situaject-Prohibition. No man not tion to those who look ahead politicopenly professing to be a dry can cally, what would be? be elected to any conspicuous office Equally discouraging is the apin dry territory, and none not howl- parently unshakable determination lag wet can successfully aspire in the of half of the qualified voters not to Fet centers. The most degraded dry participate in the election of its can still beat the best wet in some government. The United States, in sections, and the most assinine wet the inatter of voting efficiency, is can still overwhelm the most deserv- practically at the very tail of the ing dry in the others. The merits long list of civilized nations. Forty of the men, their character and in- years ago 80 per cent of the Ameritelligence, their records and views can voters went regularly to the on every other issue are subordinated polls and we were in the first column to this one and every man in in point of voting efficiency. Now politics knows it. Prohibition is the we are last.
In the 1924 election for the House of Commons in England, 76 per cent of the total electorate voted in the preceding election 82 per cent went to the polls. In Germany in the 1924 election the vote exceeded 80 per cent. A 20-year average for the Australian and New Zealand States shows approximately 78 per cent voting. Belgium, Holland, and Denmark have an average over 20 years of 75 per cent. In Norway and Sweden approximately 76 per cent of the men vote consistently. On an average, the French vote is slightly above 70 per cent. In Switzerland the record for years shows better than 75 per cent, and in Canada the average is 70 per cent.
It is not a pleasant thing upon which to meditate—that we, who started out to show the world what a Democracy really ought to be and how beautifully a great people could govern themselves-should fall back so far that fully half of our population is so little concerned about its government that it does not go to the polls at all.
It isn't only that our people do not vote in the general election, but, what is worse-in very much greater numbers they do not vote in the primaries, which, under our political system are infinitely more vital. The primary in this country is really the key to all politics. It is the gate through which 99 per cent of all candidates must pass in order to get on the ticket. Control of the primaries is control of politics—it really is control of the country. Those who thus control are in a position to limit the choice of the general election voter to their choice in the primaries. And for the most part, primaries everywhere are a fareea mere ratification of a machine's choice, made by an absurdly small number of machine men. Thus is the country run-not by the people but by the politicians. Our political inertia can
be blamed on the movies, on the newspapers, on the politicians, on the
general prosperity, on sports, on any number of things. But the basic fact is that there is in the English people, the French, the German,
a political consciousness conspicuously lacking in the United States. The average European considers politics more seriously. There is inherent in him a deeper respect for law and a stronger desire to have some part in the selection of his government,
as to whom shail run things and bow. We, too, had real political consciousness once. Up to about 1890 the average American's conception of political duty and his interest in his government, city, state, and nation, left relatively little room for criticism.
Whatever the reasons, of this we can be sure—the evils of politics in every
community are exactly equal to the indifference of the voters in the primaries. That is a provable proposition and it is about all you can prove regarding the situation except that it exists.
Actually, when the vital nature of politics to every individual is considered, when it is reflected that it touches the lives of us all directly and indirectly in scores of ways, and that there is no possible escape from its influence and effect, the steady lessening of political interest and activity among the masses of people, and the unfavorable light in which the voting figures show us in comparison with other nations, are a distinct reflection upon our intelligence as a people, There isn't any doubt about that.
Of course. there is going to be no collapse of governmental machinery and, course, one need feel unduly alarmed about the country's future. It will wobble out of these depressing conditions as it has wobbled out of many others. However, these facts do make a joke out of the old doctrine that “the people rule." Also, they render rather ridiculous the idea that this is the most enlightened nation of them all.
Condensed from Colller's, The National Weekly (March 27, "26)
William G. Shepherd E was writing his last letter to falls back on concrete cases. He tells
his mother before they took him you, puzzled, about this youth or that,
to the electric chair. In his last and lets you draw your own conclu. days his mother had written him a sions. And I must pass the puzzle letter, reminding him of his innocent on to America. early boyhood and telling him to pray. Here are stories of these new crimiAnd now, in his cell, he was answer- nals that I have found during the ing her.
past few weeks in some of our peniA warden saw that good-by letter; tentiaries: he told me about it because he was The other day an amazed and wide. trying to make me understand how
eyed prison official told me about a hard and cruel our new generation
young convict I had seen an hour beof toughs had become. The letter ran
fore sitting on a bench playing with something like this:
another young fellow. I had picked “My Darling Mother: I thank you this young convict out of a crowd, for all that you have done for me
for he was a striking figure. And he during my life"-several paragraphs was as full of play as a puppy. There of such thanks, and then this:
were over 600 convicts sitting in that "You tell me to call upon Jesus as great, long room; they spend their I did when I was young. Well, all I've days on the benches there doing nothgot to say about this is that, if you ing. To each of these criminals this mean the Jesus who they say was boy was a criminal hero, the last word nailed to the Cross, there wasn't in devil-may-careness. enough left of Him out in the big "What can you do with a fellow like world where I went, when I left home, that?" a prison official asked
me. to wad a shotgun with,"
Then he told me the boy's story. “He Not all of that good-by letter reached is a lifer, and lucky to be alive. He the mother's eyes; the warden was comes of a good home in Ohio. One too kind. “The boy had no heart,” the night he helped to murder a store. prison official explained to me.
keeper in a robbery. He wanted dance The only trouble with that boy was and movie money. When the police that he was one of America's new, caught him he kidded them. In court unexplainable criminals. Penitentiary when he was tried he was arrogant Wardens all over America have tried to everybody. When the jury found to tell me lately how tough the new him guilty of murder in the first decriminals are coming these days. gree he only smiled. He didn't turn
You and I, reading the newspapers, a hair when the judge sentenced him learning of the unexplainable crimes to death. When they brought him of some of our youth, have come to here to the penitentiary he player! suspect or to believe that a new kind the hero among the convicts. His of criminal has arisen in America. mind was all right--he read plenty of But these penitentiary wardens know books—but he didn't have any feeling. this new and unexplainable criminal "Well, the day for electrocution is with us. They have him in their came. They took him to the death prisons.
cell to get him ready." Ask the warded to describe the I had seen that death cell. A man hardness and the toughness of this about to die who could keep his courDe criminal and words fail him. He age there would be superhuman.
«A barber cut a patch of hair from are restlegs and nervous. In some the back of his head." (The electrode prisons they wail in their cells dur. must touch the flesh, directly.) “The ing the killing. One of the most ter. young fellow complained about that in rible recollections of this writer's life a
hall-joking way. Just 13 minutes is of hearing some years ago the wails before he was to die a guard came of hundreds of cell inmates in the running in with a reprieve from the Cook County jail in Chicago while five governor. The governor had changed men were being hanged. The prisonthe sentence to life imprisonment. ers throughout the day imagine the
“What do you suppose that young terror of the man in the death house, fellow did? Well, sir, after they had living his last hours. Imagination read him the reprieve he turned has them in its grip. around to the man who had cut his
Such imaginings are almost basehair and said: 'Well, that's a hell of a
less, especially when one of our new fine haircut you gave me! It'll take
criminals is in the death house. Not six months to grow that out again.'
long ago a guard in a death house be"What can you do with a fello'y like
came suspicious because the nian in that?" asked the jailer. “And we're
the death cell was so quiet. He ingetting a lot of his kind these days.
vestigated. His prisoner, who was to He wasn't any more excited by his
die for murder within six hours, was reprieve than he was by his sentence.
busy lettering a cardboard sign with The trouble with these young fellows
charred matches. He was marking these days is that they have no emo
out these letters: “Room to Let." tions." As clean cut a young fellow as you
In a penitentiary tailor shop I saw could want to see plays a saxophone
a young man of less than 20 sitting in the band of one of our penitenti
on a table, tearing apart an old coat. aries. He reads inodern novels; he
His fingers were long, slender, sensi.
tive. His black shoes were carefully writes rather well. As he stood in the band handling his instrument like
polished; his trousers were pressed;
his hair properly combed. an expert he attracted my attention
He had a because of his evident refinement. He
whole lifetime ahead of him in :
for he had been convicted of -
town and had jd
in i family. The father of the household
for over a mon
other youth ha
rides. For gas fired his revolver and killed the citizen money the two with one shot. Then he ran away,
volvers, had ta *
gan changed his sentence to life imprisonment he showed no great joy.
T "I didn't worry very much in the out death house," he told an official visitor. des “I used to say to myself: 'Well, I've th had about every sort of a kick I could to get in this life. Maybe there's a kick ar
0 in going over the other side'."
A hush always falls over a prison a the day a man is to die. Prisoners
Why I Live in Tahiti
Condensed from The Atlantic Monthly (April '26)
James Norman Hall
for the most part, in solitude. I have America my Aunt Harriet showed such a trade. It is journalism. deep concern as to my reasons for
How does one play at anarchy? One cboosing a small tropical island in the
simply lives as though there were no mid-Pacific as a place in which to live.
government in existence. The condi. We talked through dinner, after din.
tions are almost ideal in a small island ner, and until far into the night-I
colony. But you must have no axes warming to my theme, becoming all
of any sort to grind, or exchange, or but eloquent regarding the advantages
expose for sale. When that is the of solitude and a simple, fairly primi.
case you may have very pleasant retive way of living; my aunt asking lationships with those who do. They from time to time very pertinent realize that you are not competing or questions. At length she brought the
trying to compete with them; there. discussion round to the question of fore they reveal to you only the best one's duties, rights and privileges as sides of their natures, and at length an American citizen. I said that I
you are all but convinced that they would always recognize my duty to have no other sides to reveal. go to the aid of the country in time
"But you must find time hanging of war; as for the rights and privi
very heavily on your hands,” you may leges, I was willing to forgo them in
say. order that I might live according to Never-but for the sake of absolute my own ideas of what constitute3 liv.
veracity it is well to quality that. ing. My aunt was surprised that I
Boredom is a universal spiritual di. had no deep feeling of patriotism
sease and all men suffer from it at toward America as a whole, but this
times, no matter where they may be. seems to me natural, inevitable. Pa.
But I can say, truthfully, that attacks triotism is based upon community of
of it grow increasingly rare in Tablood, language, tradition, ideals; and,
hiti. In America, the most virulent needless to say, there is no longer
cause of boredom, in my own case, such community in the United States,
was to see multitudes of people ennor can it be again for centuries to
gaged in useless, joyless occupations. come if ever.
To be sure, many of them did not "I see now what is wrong," my aunt
appear to be aware of the awful tedi. said. "You're an anarchist! You may um of their lives, but, being a sensi. not admit it, but it's true. If you had
tive man, I suffered vicariously for your way you would live in a place them. This is the least endurable where there is no government at all!" of all suffering. In Tahiti I escape
But is there any reason why one it, for, with the exception of the gove should not seek out a place where ernment employees, there is no one one may at least play at anarchy? engaged in joyless work. This is possible in Tahiti, which is After a month or two of this quiet, one of the reasons why I live there. uneventful life you find that you are
In order to play at anarchy with losing your old conception of time. It any success, two conditions are essen- never intrudes itself as something not tial: one must follow an art or pro- to be wasted You do waste it,-prodi. fession or trade which provides the gally, I suppose, in the high-latitude Decessities of life; and it must be of sense: that 18, you no longer make such a kind that it may be practised, unremitting use of it to your own ma