An unfortunate lesson that many people learn too late in their careers is that “who you know” is sometimes — or often — more important than “what you know.” This lesson comes painfully, and often at just the wrong time, for people who aren’t schmoozers by nature and who were raised to believe that if you work hard, remain loyal and play by the rules, you’ll get ahead. We live in a society that pretends to be largely a meritocracy. About the only concession we make to the reality of schmoozing is what we tell college students: Network, network, network. Most ambitious students do this dutifully; but I’m not sure they understand why they must, or that they have to keep doing it, not just to initially get a job, but to survive on-the-job politics.

In the workplace, this isn’t a reality we can easily escape. But it’s also possible to get too cynical about it based on your experience in one environment. It is possible to be in a workplace where the veneer of meritocracy has completely broken down, and has been replaced by a great deal of excessive chumminess or even nepotism (sometimes in the name of very high goals). In such situations, there’s not much you can do if you’re on the thin end of the political stick except seek employment elsewhere, or “wait for the thud” from upstairs.

What can eat away at the stability of companies can also be seen eating away at governments. We are not so naive not to sense that our democracy, like meritocracy in the workplace, is more of an ideal than a bedrock principle. Replace “meritocracy” with “democracy,” and then step back and take a look at what’s happening to the Bush Administration (and what we know has been happening in Albany). The opposite, the enemy of democracy is not communism, socialism, terrorism or any particular religious worldview. The opposite of democracy is cronyism.

Cronyism used to be the way the world’s great powers were run, as instituted in feudalism and monarchies. The European brand grew out of the fall of the Roman empire, which used to be a sort of democracy. In the 18th century, leaders in America decided to kill the overt European-style cronyism and foster a new attitude toward government. It was now not quite so important who you KNEW, but it was more important who you WERE – a common man, a citizen – the Declaration of Independence being a declaration of the inherit merit of all men. Later, our constitution enumerated certain rights of all men, and gave a legal framework by which people could control their own destiny without having to be One of the Family.

Cronyism, however, is back and better than ever in American government, and unfortunately the crony-riddled Bush Administration is just an endgame. We now live in the age of “political dynasties” of Clintons and Bushes; the annual selection of the Cabinetry is a big guessing game about which “Friends of So-and-So” will be rewarded in each new administration. So we end up with incompetent chums in high places, like Michael Brown at FEMA, and the ill-regarded Harriet Miers on the verge of joining the highest court in the land for the rest of her life. (I firmly believe that FEMA handled Hurricane Katrina so incompetently not because of a lack of experience, but because of too many contacts in the White House and a lack of contacts on the ground; again, Brown’s appointment to this position being just the endgame.)

Our participation in government has become nothing but a spectator sport as we ponder which dynasties will win the next battle. Cronyism is not a game that the vast majority of citizens are in a position to play, and even less so now that we work so hard for so little. Exhortations to “get more involved in civic life” tend to ring hollow. If you don’t have connections to the ruling class by blood or marriage, you have limited choices if you wish to join the club: you can pony up a lot of cash, like any number of aspiring politicos – or aspiring blogger/organizers — or you can become a social climbing journalist, like Judith Miller and most of the Washington press corps.

Eventually — as we are now apparently seeing with the Bush Administration — cronyism eats itself. The latest buzz is that the White House is beginning to turn on itself over the Valerie Plame case, the war in Iraq, and all the Harriet Miers stuff. The buddy system, in the end, doesn’t last. Unfortunately, it often leaves a wrecked meritocracy/democracy behind, where genuinely good public servants, burned out, have long since retired to other pursuits or private life. (Sadly, this happens to companies as well.) Who’s left to clean up the mess? Another crowd of doers — who, whatever their laudable aspirations, are also forced to operate on the crony system because the public servants have all disappeared. And thus the decay perpetuates itself, even if it has an ideological face that we might like.

What is someone to do when they realize they are in the cellar of a crony system? Unfortunately, most of the people at the bottom — average citizens like you and me — don’t have too many options (and there are many people who have even less options than I do). You can attempt escape, but that usually takes a lot of financial resources that few have. You can hope for things to get better, “file your nails and wait for the thud,” and hope the new boss isn’t the same as the old boss. Or, you can start your own group of friends, with the sincere hope that when the thud happens, you can move in and take over and not be as destructively chummy-wummy as the previous regime.

A fourth option might be preferable, but I don’t know if it exists. In any case, I believe America at large is stuck on options 1 and 2 and largely failing at them. The third option means revolution, and it’s the option that the people who started American democracy took. They did a damn good job, all things considered, but they knew they were not starting a thousand-year Reich, and in fact they stressed the conditional: “A democracy, IF you can keep it.”

Beware of people who talk too incessantly about glowing sweeping thousand-year visions for the future. They may be spending a little too much time around their friends.

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