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Politics Without Party

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of political disarray, institutionalized stalemate, and governmental ineptitude and impotence.”2 “Our institutions are out of date,” says former congressman Richard Bolling.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 make up our pluralistic society increasingly fly about with no coherence or order. The parties seem no longer able to mediate between the American people and their national government. Nor are they able to forge consensus among the different parts of the government. The parties are losing their functions, and political action committees, single-issue movements, and public interest lobbies like Common Cause rush in to fill the void.

Maybe American parties never did any of these things well, but at least they used to control the nomination of presidential candidates. But with the proliferation of presidential primaries and the emergence of the direct public financing of candidates, the party organizations can no longer select and dominate national convention delegates and deliver them to a candidate in the way they used to do. Candidates for the presidency thus develop their own personal organizations and feel little obligation to the parties.

The press and especially television have made things worse: they create celebrity-candidates whose reputations owe little to the parties. Because such “King of the Rock” candidates (as Burns calls them) do not see themselves as heads of parties, once in office they attempt “to ‘rise above politics,’ transcend partisanship, and seek, as ‘President of all the people,’ ” to govern directly through the press and television. Such “plebiscitary leadership,” concludes Burns, “is classically short-run, unstable, ineffective, irresponsible.” But no matter: the parties are apparently not wanted by the people. Indeed, so irrelevant are the political parties becoming that some political scientists like Walter Dean Burnham are predicting the coming of “politics without party.”

Is this such a bad thing? After all, we weren’t supposed to have political parties in the first place. The Revolutionary leaders hated parties; they thought they were symptoms of disease in the body politic and did all they could to control or transcend parties. In fact, the founders wrote the Constitution in order to create a government that could somehow stand above the parties and factions that inevitably seemed to divide people. So all our current concern about the decline of parties would leave them bewildered: they thought that ideal presidential leadership had to be nonpartisan.

The anti-party feeling of the Founding Fathers and their classical nonpartisan conception of presidential leadership are the themes of the new book by Ralph Ketcham, professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University. Because of the present crisis over leadership and parties Ketcham’s book has a special significance and timeliness. In fact, Ketcham has written his study with our current political situation very much in mind. He wants us to take seriously the Founding Father’s concept of presidential leadership and their anti-party attitudes. “Might it be useful, possibly,” he asks,

to look once more at the views of the founders and to consider whether an effort at greater nonpartisanship by the executive could improve the public life of the nation? Must the president function openly, unashamedly, and enthusiastically as “the leader of his party”? Should the common judgment that it is impractical for an effective president to be, even in the Oval office, anything other than a zealous party leader, go unchallenged?

It is not easy, Ketcham writes, to take the founders’ scorn for party seriously. We have come to identify political parties so intimately with democracy that we can scarcely conceive of one without the other. Parties are regarded as so much the life-blood of self-government that the founders’ views have generally been dismissed as archaic holdovers from the colonial period. And because the Founding Fathers’ “idea of executive leadership was linked closely to their view of party,” says Ketcham, we have not been able clearly “to understand and appreciate what they sought to be as presidents.” Ketcham in his book aims to remedy all this. The first six presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams—shared a nonpartisan conception of presidential leadership, and this conception of the presidency decisively separated them from their successors. Whether today we can recapture something of their model of the presidency is the question that quietly pervades the book.

We have always known that the first presidents were very different from those that followed. Both Tocqueville and Lord Bryce thought that the Founding Fathers were statesmen; the rest were politicians. Ketcham thinks the first six presidents were different because they thought differently about leadership; they had different values from their successors—values inherited from the civic humanist tradition of eighteenth-century England. To explain these values of public leadership he therefore takes us through the ideas of their English proponents—particularly those of Bolingbroke, Swift, and other critics of Sir Robert Walpole, that pragmatic, hardnosed minister who dominated politics in Hanoverian England.

Actually the civic humanist tradition Ketcham describes was even broader and deeper than he tends to acknowledge. The eighteenth-century ideals of public leadership were rooted in the educated elite’s broad familiarity with the writings and values of classical antiquity. And scarcely any political leader, even court politicians like Walpole, could deny these ideals. As yet in the eighteenth century no equally forceful conception of political leadership had arisen to challenge the moral power of the classical ideal.

This classical ideal stressed the disinterested devotion of the political rulers to the public good. All private interests were to be put aside, even sacrificed, for the sake of the people’s welfare. Washington was so keen on being classically virtuous that he refused to accept his salary either as commander in chief or as president. The first six presidents saw themselves not as spokesmen or brokers for this or that party, class, or interest, but as active virtuous leaders like Bolingbroke’s “patriot king” impartially standing above all parties and interests.

Government in this classical view was designed not to satisfy the private desires and wants of the people but to make them better citizens. Jefferson, writes Ketcham, “led the people by asking them to share his aspirations, not by pandering to their special interests.” All of the first six presidents encouraged positive virtuous action on behalf of the public good. All six, for example, wanted a national university to train the people in citizenship.

Character in leaders counted for more than political promises. “The whole art of government,” said Jefferson, “consists in being honest.” Justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage were worth more than the ability to organize voters and win elections. Indeed, leaders were not supposed to do anything to promote their election. They were supposed to be called to office rather than run for it. And if they took up the burdens of public office with a sense of duty, they also believed that such offices were naturally their due because of their social preeminence or their contributions to the country. Washington was reluctant to assume the presidency, but he was not surprised that the office was offered him. Government was valued in an Aristotelian manner more for its moral than for its material benefits. Only by participating independently, freely, and disinterestedly in politics could citizens be regarded as living a good and complete life.

Given this classical conception of politics and leadership, it is not surprising that the Founding Fathers condemned political parties. Parties were partial by definition, self-interested, and therefore serving something other than the transcendent public good. Washington in his farewell address warned against not only the dangers of particular factions but also “the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” Parties were abhorrent and corrupting both because they divided public policy and because they degraded people’s morals. Individuals, groups, or classes who became consumed by their particular, narrow, self-serving interests were thereby morally diminished.

Of course, the Founding Fathers had experience with political parties, and even came to accept their inevitability, but they never celebrated them. The parties that emerged in the 1790s—the Federalists and the Republicans—were not, according to Ketcham, parties in any modern sense of the term. Neither the Fedralists nor the Republicans recognized the legitimacy of the other and neither sought to perpetuate its own existence. While the Federalists saw themselves not as a party but as the legitimate rulers, the Jeffersonian Republicans for their part saw themselves only as a revolutionary party made necessary by the monarchicalminded efforts of the Federalists to subvert the American Revolution; the Republicans intended to last as a party only so long as the Federalists posed a threat to the country. However keenly fought, their electoral competition hardly constituted a two-party system similar to those of later years.

  1. 1

    Theodore C. Sorensen, A Different Kind of Presidency: A Proposal for Breaking the Political Deadlock (Harper and Row, 1984).

  2. 2

    James MacGregor Burns, The Power to Lead: The Crisis of The American Presidency (Simon and Schuster, 1984).

  3. 3

    See, for example, Martin P. Wattenberg, The Decline of American Political Parties 1952–1980 (Harvard University Press, 1984).

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