We all know that struggle between the President and Congress has been a constant of American political history and that only the strongest Presidents have managed to win Congressional acceptance of domestic programs which were at all bold. This is, in fact, what defines a “strong” President. One of them, Woodrow Wilson, said that the real rulers of the country were the chairman of the standing committees of Congress. Other observers have referred to our double party system: one system operating in Presidential elections and the other in Congressional elections. The logical corollary of such a double system, each with two competing parties, is a national four-party system of Presidential Democrats and Republicans and Congressional Democrats and Republicans. The subject of James MacGregor Burns’s new book is this four-party system, and the ways in which it frustrates Presidential leadership.

For this is a book with a thesis. Though Burns’s view of Congressional parties is always temperate , he advocates stronger Presidential leadership, more cohesive and truly national Presidential parties. He wants Kennedy to break the grip of Congress on domestic legislation. He has written a highly effective brief for Presidential leadership at a moment when Kennedy stands high with the public, while liberal-left opinion has become disenchanted with his cautious politicking.

The Deadlock of Democracy will probably have great influence. It can be compared with Samuel Lubell’s The Future of American Politics, published in 1952. Burns tries to do for the politics of the sixties what Lubell tried to do for the fifties: define the kind of national leadership demanded by the times; draw on recent trends to outline the party realignment needed to sustain such leadership; and without surrendering to partisanship, tell a popular new President what he can do. Lubell’s book was written before Eisenhower won the Republican nomination, but the author already saw in Eisenhower the unifying national leader he felt the country needed. Lubell was a spokesman for what Burns would call the Presidential Republican party, whereas Burns is a Presidential Democrat, the biographer of Kennedy, moving with the New Frontier.

In spite of these similarities, Lubell and Burns excel at the kind of political analysis in which the other is most deficient. Like Burns, Lubell offered a new theory of American party politics: that each era is dominated by a majority party which wins new voting groups and unites them with its old followers in a durable electoral coalition. The ideas that American parties are coalitions of often antagonistic groups is an old one—a central feature of what Burns calls the Jeffersonian model of political balance—but Lubell breathed new life into it by showing how the Democrats from Smith to Truman built up a coalition which by 1950 was subjected to increasing strains.

Lubell’s door-to-door surveys at the precinct and Congressional district level, combined with his knowledge of local voting history, gave his book a relevance to politics beyond that of the usual opinion polls. But he identified the political divisions he found at the precinct level with “public opinion,” and concluded that Congress “mirrored” the American people, reflecting a stalemate in the country.

Here Burns, the political scientist, corrects Lubell by focusing on the ways in which the Presidential and Congressional parties organize themselves in Washington, deriving their strength from essentially different electorates. The Congressional parties are led by men from one-party districts, usually rural, whose tenure gives them control of the Senate and House Committees under the seniority rule. The “swing” Congressional districts on which Lubell concentrated are in fact no more than a small minority. Half of the Congressional seats never change hands between the parties, even when there is a close popular vote in the Presidential elections.

State legislatures, of course draw the districts to create safe party strongholds; the recent Supreme Court decision requiring districts equal in population will not prevent legislators from devising geographical boundary lines to preserve one-party seats, although it may tax their ingenuity a bit. The one-party South, the far smaller turnout in off-year Congressional elections, and the reverse gerrymandering of the Electoral College to favor the big urban states increase the disparity between the source of Congressional and Presidential power.

The fracturing of power between Congress and the executive is the substance of what Burns calls the Madisonian model of political balance. But “today, when many people want protection by or through government, and not just protection from government, the power of a minority to stop the majority from acting through government may be as arbitrary as majority rule seemed to Madison.” The rival Jeffersonian model of political balance is, therefore, more relevant to the present age because it does not fear majority rule: any majority must necessarily find representation in a moderate coalition, given the size and diversity of the nation, and it is always subject to the check of a vigorous opposition party. “Majoritarian strategy assumes that in the end politicians will rise above principle in order to win an election.”


Burns’s proposals for party and Congressional reforms depend on this view. They include ways to strengthen the Presidential parties, to establish national control over national elections in order to enlarge the electorate—by eliminating state-imposed residential voting barriers—and to link the Presidential and Congressional parties by abolishing the Congressional seniority rule, the Rules Committee veto, and malapportioned and gerrymandered districts in the states. Several constitutional amendments would, he feels, be helpful—for example, a four-year term for representatives coincident with Presidential terms.

While the case for tighter national parties has seldom been better argued, would the reforms Burns suggests awaken the electorate, break the deadlock with Congress and “get the country moving again”? He evidently thinks that they are the prerequisites for a strong Presidential program which would mobilize popular support on issues of urgency. But is it not more likely that pressure for these reforms will come as the result of such a program? Political reform has sometimes been a major popular issue in the past, but usually when people were aroused against the strength of government rather than its weakness.

What is missing in The Deadlock of Democracy is a sustained discussion of those issues on which the President might rally a national majority. Burns gives only cursory attention to the process of building a coalition—Lubell’s subject in The Future of American Politics. To be sure, Lubell’s emphasis on the need for a majority party to win the allegiance of new voting groups is reflected in Burns’s proposals for enlarging the electorate. But except for a discussion of the consequences of enfranchising Southern Negroes, he does not go beyond a critical review of legal voting regulations. Residence rules, the long ballot and certain campaign practices undoubtedly keep voters from the polls, but who are these new voters, and what do they want politically? Here political science needs the aid of political sociology.

When issues of foreign policy affecting the country’s security have been dominant, Presidential leadership has nearly always managed to prevail, despite the Madisonian splintering of power. It did so under Lincoln, under F.D.R., and under all three cold-war Presidents. Refreshingly, Burns scarcely mentions the cold war, except to note the readiness of Congress to pass without debate huge defense appropriations while boggling over the most elementary welfare measures which other countries adopted long ago. But surely the cold war has stifled the vigorous domestic politics Burns wants at least as much as the four-party system. Since the late forties the cold war has been a substitute for politics and has created its own vested interests. And yet, in spite of “new left” rhetoric in favor of “ending” it—as if it were a bus trip—the cold war remains a condition rather than a policy.

Burns affirms Arthur Schlesinger’s notion that we need a “qualitative liberalism” to supplant the “quantitative liberalism” of the Progressives and the New Deal. The idea is appealing. But it is going to be harder to create popular demands for action on such “way-of-life” issues (to use Burns’s term) as education, the relation of government to the arts, control of the mass media and urban planning than it was to mobilize people on “class struggle” economic questions. Burns has made the case for revitalizing our party system so well that it will not have to be made again; but his proposals are no substitute for the arduous task of stirring the public to raise new political demands—a task that may require a kind of leadership that must be detached from elections and party battles.

This Issue

February 1, 1963