November 28, 2020
New Orleans The term “logrolling” has always fascinated me. It seems so authentically American, speaking of a time when the country was mainly frontier. Logrolling also speaks to the solidarity so appreciated by any of us who have had to move what might be left of a tree by ourselves, running from one end to another to pick it up and move it forward, or futilely trying to kick it along with your foot.
Davey Crockett, the famous colonial frontiersman and later Congressman, supposedly used the term first in a political context referring to a quid pro quo exchange of favors. In his case the expression drew from the practice of neighbors helping each other build houses, like a barn-raising. Richard Ford, the well-known American novelist, volunteered with ACORN’s Katrina recovery efforts and made some remarks at the opening of the first two houses we built in the lower 9th ward. At one point, he told me he didn’t get involved in logrolling, by which he meant the practice, of one author touting the book of another author in the expectation that they would then also tout your book.
Logrolling seems everywhere these days. Ford is certainly right, but he didn’t go far enough. Top authors will publish a book, fiction or nonfiction, and suddenly there will be one or two reviews in the Times, maybe one in the Journal, and the obligatory interview on various public radio shows. If the book was a work of nonfiction by a journalist, she will appear in all those venues as well as being a temporary member of discussion panels on this or that on radio and television in something of a tsunami of sales and promotion, disguised as insightful, learned commentary. Not to mention that they will suddenly turn up excerpted as authors to get their names and books out there in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harpers, and the New York or London Review of Books. Who you know, quid pro quo? How does someone break into that mutual aid system?
Trump has taught us that logrolling is even worse in politics. It’s not just a matter of Davey Crockett’s vote trading. I’m not sure there’s much of that anymore between the parties, though behind the scenes, bill to bill, appropriation to appropriation, it probably is as common as always. In Trump-time, he would recruit from the stable of commentators he would see on Fox, who might have been cooks, bakers or candle-stick makers, but could then find themselves elevated to government appointments by the jib of their jaws and cut of their suits. Or not, as the story goes that one of the reasons that Janet Yellen didn’t get the usual second term appointment as chair of the Federal Reserve was because Trump thought she was “too short.”
Who knew that the “unintended consequence” of show bookers, public relations folks, book reviewers, and interviewer hosts might find that they had inadvertently put someone in a critical job in the White House, Defense Department, or god knows where else? When this happens, it’s a long way from the frontier and mutual aid, it’s a closed loop, whether right or left, high culture or low brow, and the quid pro quo of logrolling may be the way “things work,” but it doesn’t serve us well, or allow the people to speak and have other voices heard.