Back in the late 19th century, the Progressives, great-grandparents of today's liberals, were all agreed in substituting a civil service system, with promotion examinations, for the evils of the spoils system. They wanted to purge the governmental apparatus of political corruption and favoritism.
That was then. This is now.
In 2009 we have a liberal Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, according to Michael Barone, discussing the blatant manipulation of civil service procedures as just the workings of politics. For Ginsburg it is not outrageous that, in the New Haven firefighter case, city officials pressured the civil service commission to disregard the results of a promotion examination for city firefighters. Comments Barone:
It may remind some of us old enough to remember of the machinations and contrivances of Southern white officials and agitators employed to prevent blacks from registering and voting.
Then there are liberals like Yale Law faculty member Emily Bazelon.
She laments that the promotion test rewarded memorization and that it favored " 'fire buffs' -- guys who read fire suppression manuals on their down time." She is outraged that a fire department might want to promote firefighters who know more about suppressing fires, rescuing victims and protecting their colleagues rather than simply promote a predetermined number of members of specific racial groups whose self-appointed political spokesmen back the politicians in office.
The irony is that the civil service movement of a century ago argued precisely in favor of this kind of professionalization. They insisted on objective criteria for hiring and promotion in government service.
It is indeed astonishing that liberals should have strayed so far from the principles of the clean government Progressives. Except that it is not.
You'd expect that, after a century, a political movement like the Progressive movement would have become corrupted. You would expect that their political activists and office holders would start to believe in themselves rather than their ideas. You would expect that they would start to favor their friends rather than their principles.
But is still shocking to see law professors and Supreme Court justices descending to their level.
That's the way a proud political movement loses its moral authority. Every political movement has plenty of bad apples and corner cutters. But things really start to go bad when the good people give in to the temptations of power and condone the cheap betrayals of once noble principles.
Still, it's good to see that the Supreme Court still believes, 5-4, in equal justice under law, and that it has ruled in favor of the firefighters.
But it's only 5-4. The Supreme Court is one vote away from an endorsement of a racial spoils system.