Politics Without Party

Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829

by Ralph Ketcham
University of North Carolina Press, 269 pp., $24.95

It is always the best of times, the worst of times. The noisiest authorities never change their tunes. But during this election year the authorities telling us about the worst of times seem to mean what they say. It is not just the prospect of President Reagan’s reelection that bothers them (although that’s a good part of it); it is the nature of America’s political system itself. Political experts of all sorts—scholars, government officials, journalists, ex-politicians—are wringing their hands over our political structure and are offering a variety of breathtaking remedies, including a call for an emergency bipartisan coalition government and wholesale amending of the Constitution. If they weren’t so serious, one would think they were merely celebrating the bicentennial of “The Critical Period” of the 1780s, out of which the Constitution of 1787 was created.

The country is “in deep trouble,” former presidential adviser Theodore Sorensen writes, and “only effective presidential leadership can end these troubles before their consequences become irreversible.” But the prospect of our getting such leadership is not good. “A whole generation of young Americans cannot remember life under a President whom they truly respected.”1 James MacGregor Burns is even gloomier. “The American political system faces a pervasive crisis of self-confidence that only the rarest kind of leadership can overcome,” Burns writes in the most recent of his many jeremiads. “The symptoms of the crisis take the long-observed form of political disarray, institutionalized stalemate, and governmental ineptitude and impotence.”2 “Our institutions are out of date,” says former congressman Richard Bolling. “They are not organized in a way that enables them to deal well with our problems.” Meanwhile, a 250-member Committee on the Constitutional System, whose co-chairmen are former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, former Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, and Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum, is hard at work drafting recommendations to be presented to the country next year.

What’s wrong? What’s causing this unusually strong sense of political crisis? The critics see a number of different problems, but nearly all of them believe that one major source of our present troubles lies in what is happening to the political parties. If institutions have weakened, political leadership is stymied, and power is more dispersed, it is because our political parties are not performing their proper functions.

The party may not yet be over, as David Broder warned more than a decade ago, but it does seem to be petering out. The titles of recent books by political scientists indicate as much.3 Political parties, critics say, are losing the loyalty and respect of the American people and the capacity to organize and control our politics. Less and less do voters identify themselves as members of one party or another. The independence and volatility of voters have greatly increased; the proportion of voters splitting tickets has nearly doubled in the past thirty years. The decline of the parties has meant a decline of their role as brokers, so that the great numbers of special interests that…

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