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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 various persons, at irregular intervals, have felt it was headed downhill and could not be stopped. Somehow or other, it has managed to pull through, even growing bigger and more indecently rich. Probably it will continue to wobble along in spite of its present disgracefully diseased political condition. However, there is no reason why the significant symptoms of the present should not be pointed out. For one thing, it may help a little in the eure. For another, some time or other one of these prophets of disaster is going to be more or less right.
Speaking not at all from the party but wholly from the public angle, this country is in a sorry, soggy, sloppy state, politically. It is hard to tell which is more discouraging: the issues that do interest the people or the issues that do not interest them.
Take first the issues to which they do respond-you can go across the country from coast to coast, stopping in each state to talk and learn, as I recently did, and you will strike fire only when you touch one subjeet-Prohibition. No man not openly professing to be a dry can be elected to any conspicuous office in dry territory, and none not howling wet can successfully aspire in the wet centers. The most degraded dry can still beat the best wet in some sections, and the most assinine wet can still overwhelm the most deserving dry in the others. The merits of the men, their character and intelligence, their records and views on every other issue are subordinated to this one and every man in politics knows it. Prohibition is the
one thing which really stirs public sentiment.
That is, it was the one thing until a short while ago. Now we have another, and capable of even more deeply stirring men and women-to wit, the Bible issue. Perhaps it would have come into politics without the Dayton trial. It was on its way, but the Bryan-Darrow trial has thrust this issue deep into our politics. Few political observers doubt that we are at the start of another such fight as we had over Prohibition.
It is hard to see how it can be other than disheartening to thoughtful persons to grasp the fact that these two issues, neither one of which has the slightest business in politics, are the only ones capable of striking a spark from nine-tenths of the people of the country today. Any politician in any state will tell you that on the World Court, the tariff, the League of Nations, the railroads, water power, agriculture, or any other item of foreign or domestic policy, there is among the masses a complete and profound indifference. They don't know about them and they don't care. If that is not a disheartening situation to those who look ahead politiccally, what would be?
Equally discouraging is the apparently unshakable determination of half of the qualified voters not to participate in the election of its government. The United States, in the inatter of voting efficiency, is practically at the very tail of the long list of civilized nations. Forty years ago 80 per cent of the American voters went regularly to the polls and we were in the first column in point of voting efficiency. Now 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, some say as to whom shail run things and how. We, too, had a 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, no 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 his mother before they took him to the electric chair. In his last days his mother had written him a letter, reminding him of his innocent early boyhood and telling him to pray. And now, in his cell, he was answering her.
A warden saw that good-by letter; he told me about it because he was trying to make me understand how hard and cruel our new generation of toughs had become. The letter ran something like this:
"My Darling Mother: I thank you for all that you have done for me during my life"-several paragraphs of such thanks, and then this:
"You tell me to call upon Jesus as I did when I was young. Well, all I've got to say about this is that, if you mean the Jesus who they say was nailed to the Cross, there wasn't enough left of Him out in the big world where I went, when I left home, to wad a shotgun with."
Not all of that good-by letter reached the mother's eyes; the warden was too kind. "The boy had no heart," the prison official explained to me.
The only trouble with that boy was that he was one of America's new, unexplainable criminals. Penitentiary wardens all over America have tried to tell me lately how tough the new criminals are coming these days.
You and I, reading the newspapers, learning of the unexplainable crimes of some of our youth, have come to suspect or to believe that a new kind of criminal has arisen in America. But these penitentiary wardens know this new and unexplainable criminal is with us. They have him in their prisons.
Ask the warden to describe the hardness and the toughness of this new criminal and words fail him. He
falls back on concrete cases. you, puzzled, about this youth or that, and lets you draw your own conclu sions. And I must pass the puzzle on to America.
Here are stories of these new criminals that I have found during the past few weeks in some of our penitentiaries:
The other day an amazed and wideeyed prison official told me about a young convict I had seen an hour be fore sitting on a bench playing with another young fellow. I had picked this young convict out of a crowd, for he was a striking figure. And he was as full of play as & puppy. There were over 600 convicts sitting in that great, long room; they spend their days on the benches there doing nothing. To each of these criminals this boy was a criminal hero, the last word in devil-may-careness.
"What can you do with a fellow like that?" a prison official asked me. Then he told me the boy's story. "He is a lifer, and lucky to be alive. He comes of a good home in Ohio. One night he helped to murder a storekeeper in a robbery. He wanted dance and movie money. When the police caught him he kidded them. In court when he was tried he was arrogant to everybody. When the jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree he only smiled. He didn't turn a hair when the judge sentenced him to death. When they brought him here to the penitentiary he played the hero among the convicts. His mind was all right-he read plenty of books-but he didn't have any feeling.
"Well, the day for electrocution came. They took him to the death cell to get him ready."
I had seen that death cell. A man about to die who could keep his courage there would be superhuman.
A barber cut a patch of hair from the back of his head." (The electrode must touch the flesh, directly.) "The young fellow complained about that in a half-joking way. Just 13 minutes before he was to die a guard came running in with a reprieve from the governor. The governor had changed the sentence to life imprisonment.
"What do you suppose that young fellow did? Well, sir, after they had read him the reprieve he turned around to the man who had cut his hair and said: 'Well, that's a hell of a fine haircut you gave me! It'll take six months to grow that out again.' "What can you do with a fellow like that?" asked the jailer. "And we're getting a lot of his kind these days. He wasn't any more excited by his reprieve than he was by his sentence. The trouble with these young fellows these days is that they have no emotions."
As clean cut a young fellow as you could want to see plays a saxophone in the band of one of our penitentiaries. He reads inodern novels; he writes rather well. As he stood in the band handling his instrument like an expert he attracted my attention because of his evident refinement. He had poise and assurance.
He's there for life. He tried to rob the home of a well-to-do and respected family. The father of the household bravely arose from his bed and went out in the hallway to defend his family. Out there he found this young man, heroin-crazy. The young man fired his revolver and killed the citizen with one shot. Then he ran away, but he was later caught.
He was buried in the death cell for weeks-in a room next to the electric chair. His plight never seemed to worry him. When the governor changed his sentence to life imprisonment he showed no great joy.
"I didn't worry very much in the death house," he told an official visitor. "I used to say to myself: 'Well, I've had about every sort of a kick I could get in this life. Maybe there's a kick in going over the other side'."
A hush always falls over a prison the day a man is to die. Prisoners
are restless and nervous. In some prisons they wail in their cells during the killing. One of the most terrible recollections of this writer's life is of hearing some years ago the wails of hundreds of cell inmates in the Cook County jail in Chicago while five men were being hanged. The prisoners throughout the day imagine the terror of the man in the death house, living his last hours. Imagination has them in its grip.
Such imaginings are almost baseless, especially when one of our new criminals is in the death house. Not long ago a guard in a death house became suspicious because the man in the death cell was so quiet. He investigated. His prisoner, who was to die for murder within six hours, was busy lettering a cardboard sign with charred matches. He was marking
out these letters: "Room to Let."
In a penitentiary tailor shop I saw a young man of less than 20 sitting on a table, tearing apart an old coat. His fingers were long, slender, sensitive. His black shoes were carefully polished; his trousers were pressed; his hair properly combed. He had a whole lifetime ahead of him in for he had been convicted of
Why I Live in Tahiti
Condensed from The Atlantic Monthly (April '26)
URING a recent brief visit to America my Aunt Harriet showed deep concern as to my reasons for choosing a small tropical island in the mid-Pacific as a place in which to live. We talked through dinner, after dinner, and until far into the night-I warming to my theme, becoming all but eloquent regarding the advantages of solitude and a simple, fairly primitive way of living; my aunt asking from time to time very pertinent questions. At length she brought the discussion round to the question of one's duties, rights and privileges as an American citizen. I said that I would always recognize my duty to go to the aid of the country in time of war; as for the rights and privileges, I was willing to forgo them in order that I might live according to my own ideas of what constitutes living. My aunt was surprised that I had no deep feeling of patriotism toward America as a whole, but this seems to me natural, inevitable. triotism is based upon community of blood, language, tradition, ideals; and, needless to say, there is no longer such community in the United States, nor can it be again for centuries to come if ever.
"I see now what is wrong," my aunt said. "You're an anarchist! You may not admit it, but it's true. If you had your way you would live in a place where there is no government at all!"
But is there any reason why one should not seek out a place where one may at least play at anarchy? This is possible in Tahiti, which is one of the reasons why I live there.
In order to play at anarchy with any success, two conditions are essential: one must follow an art or profession or trade which provides the necessities of life; and it must be of such a kind that it may be practised,
for the most part, in solitude. I have such a trade. It is journalism.
How does one play at anarchy? One simply lives as though there were no government in existence. The conditions are almost ideal in a small island colony. But you must have no axes of any sort to grind, or exchange, or expose for sale. When that is the case you may have very pleasant relationships with those who do. They realize that you are not competing or trying to compete with them; therefore they reveal to you only the best sides of their natures, and at length you are all but convinced that they have no other sides to reveal.
"But you must find time hanging very heavily on your hands," you may say.
Never-but for the sake of absolute veracity it is well to qualify that. Boredom is a universal spiritual disease and all men suffer from it at times, no matter where they may be. But I can say, truthfully, that attacks of it grow increasingly rare in Tahiti. In America, the most virulent cause of boredom, in my own case, was to see multitudes of people engaged in useless, joyless occupations. To be sure, many of them did not appear to be aware of the awful tedium of their lives, but, being a sensitive man, I suffered vicariously for them. This is the least endurable of all suffering. In Tahiti I escape it, for, with the exception of the gov. ernment employees, there is no one engaged in joyless work.
After a month or two of this quiet, uneventful life you find that you are losing your old conception of time. It never intrudes itself as something not to be wasted You do waste it,-prodigally, I suppose, in the high-latitude sense: that is, you no longer make unremitting use of it to your own ma