Trenchant Governance

Tom Volgy writes about politics from the inside.

One of Tom Volgy's great personal--and political--virtues is self effacement. An illustration of that appears in a chapter called "A Week in the Life," where former Mayor Volgy (Tucson, 1987-1991) tells us just exactly what it is a public official does all day by giving us an abbreviated version of where he went and what he did for seven days running. At one point he tells us that he was one of the speakers at a dinner that goes on much too long. "[Each] speaker managed to talk twice as long as requested -- including me."

Tom Volgy bubbles with optimism about government. Part of that may stem from his own successes and failures as a mayor and city councilman, part from being a college professor of government or polisci or whatever it is now fashionably called, and part from working in foreign countries just now taking baby steps into self-government. He has written a delightful book using many of his own experiences to promote his genteel brand of political liberalism. It is a book that can be both deceptive and maddening.

Like Volgy himself, its modest and unpretentious tone masks much that is deep and controversial. And it is maddening to notice certain conclusions with which this reviewer totally disagrees presented as accepted gospel.

Volgy considers the founding fathers to be pragmatists, as opposed to that new liberal buzzword, "ideologues." Proclaiming those who made the American Revolution and wrote the Declaration and Constitution "non-ideological" is a major reach, runs contrary to the views of most first-rate historians, and requires more than a declaratory paragraph before it is used as a partial basis for what is presented further. Like some of his other conclusions it needs more backup material.

Volgy views government--particularly local government--as a vast laboratory for experimentation. While he recognizes the differences between political and real science, and the inherent problems with using humans in place of rats, the almost comprehensive list of why people are alienated by government he offers misses one further item.

There are a whole bunch of us who are fed up with being in the lab, Tom, and just choosing those who feed us and play with us and clean our cages is not what anybody had mind as the definition of "citizens."

Otherwise, Volgy has done an excellent job of expanding upon and augmenting the problems of democracy, particularly concerning local governance, that have been discussed by a host of liberal writers such as E.J. Dionne (with less vitriol than most) and conservatives ranging from Paul Johnson to P.J. O'Rourke. Volgy's effort is every bit as worthy as theirs in a discussion of contemporary American government.

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