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of political disarray, institutionalized stalemate, and governmental ineptitude and impotence.”2 “Our institutions are out of date,” says former congressman Richard Bolling.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.
Even as Washington was taking up the mantle of the first presidency, however, this classical conception of virtuous leadership and politics was being undermined by commercial forces that in the English-speaking world had been gathering since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century. Commerce and all the private and selfish interests it stood for became the enemy of these classical ideals. And the struggle of values that arose out of this antagonism is essentially the same struggle that has been carried on ever since throughout the world. Commerce—its profit-making, its self-interestedness, its individualism—somehow or other had to find legitimacy in a moral order that had condemned it from the beginning of civilization.
Although Ketcham does not always picture the struggle in quite this way, he does rightly see the Jacksonian era as the culmination in America of the acceptance of party, commerce, and individualism. For the Jacksonians, nonpartisanship lost its meaning, and under the direction of Van Buren party gained a new significance and legitimacy. The classical ideals of the Founding Fathers were now identified with those of a privileged patronizing aristocracy that had to be smashed in order to free individuals and groups for self-fulfillment. Every person was equal to all others, and each had the same right to promote his own interest. (Of course, Americans then meant only white adult males, but once the logic of individual equal rights was accepted there could be no permanent stopping of its relentless application to all members of the society.) Competition among these people and groups, in parties and other institutions, became vital to a free democratic society. The moral character of the nation no longer depended on the virtuous leadership of its natural aristocracy but, as Ketcham says, “was allowed to rest simply on the energies and enterprise of the individuals and groups” within the country. The presidency was degraded, as Washington had predicted it would be in 1799, just before his death: with parties, he said, a broomstick could be put up as a candidate and get elected.
The cost of this democratic revolution was high, as we continually remind ourselves—in vulgarity, in materialism, in mediocrity of leadership, in the exploitative selfishness of American energy and enterprise. The day of Jackson’s inauguration, John Quincy Adams correctly predicted, will be “the day of small things. There will be neither lofty meditations nor comprehensive foresight, nor magnanimous purpose.” It was after all a day for common ordinary people, and these common people had small and ordinary interests, usually pecuniary. The day of the natural aristocrats and classical disinterestedness was over.
The cost was high, but was it worth it? What Americans eventually bought with the destruction of the classical ideals of politics was our modern notions of democracy, equality, and freedom. So committed is Ketcham to describing and justifying the classical ideals of politics that he never makes anything of these tradeoffs. For example, the classical conception of leadership and the founders’ abhorrence of party did not, as Leonard Levy has superbly told us, allow any real place for our modern understanding of the freedoms of speech and press, freedoms intimately associated with the legitimacy of opposition parties.4 When the country was beset by enemies, most of the Revolutionary leaders, including at times even Jefferson, believed they could not afford the free public discussion of both sides of a question. “Truth has but one side,” said a judge of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court during the crisis of 1798, “and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth.”
It still seems a strange way to discover truth for most leaders in the world. And consequently most governments allow neither a free press nor competing political parties. In a world of a hundred and sixty or so states only about thirty are truly open democracies where the government stands a chance of being peacefully displaced by an opposition party at the ballot box. If America’s first presidents had difficulty accepting the legitimacy of party and opposition politics, then we can perhaps more easily understand why the Marcoses and Mugabes of the world see truth as unitary and opposition parties as repugnant. This is the other, dark side of the founders’ virtuous nonpartisanship, a side that Ketcham does not acknowledge. Liberalism and parties grew up together and their fate seems inextricably linked.
Yet despite the victory of Jacksonian liberalism and the emergence of a party system in America, the legacy of the founders’ dislike and suspicion of political parties was never lost. Classically educated gentlemen were never at ease with political parties and sporadically throughout the nineteenth century they tried to find a way around them. Both the Liberal Republican revolt of the 1870s and the Mugwump movement of the 1880s were essentially protests against party. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century revulsion against the confused, corrupt, and partisan nature of American politics was never greater, and responsibility for the political mess was laid at the doors of the political parties.
Our present concern with the political system seems tame compared to what was felt a century ago. Nothing today could be worse than it was then. A century ago Americans had even less respect for their politicians than we have. “Suppose you were an idiot,” said Mark Twain. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Charges against patronage-ridden and corrupt politics were everyday occurrences. More people voted then than do today, but maybe it was worth their while to do so. “Nothing can be meaner than to sell a vote, unless it is to buy one,” advised a civics text written in 1885 for the instruction of young people. Everywhere lobbyists and special interests seemed to overawe legislatures. And political parties? For most they were the very sources of the evils. They were either too strong or too weak; they were parochial, decentralized, unrepresentative, unresponsible, and dominated by rings, bosses, and machines.
All this criticism of the political process and the parties set the stage for the emergence of the Progressive movement at the turn of the twentieth century. The result was the greatest period of reform of the political parties in American history. Proposals for party reform exploded in two very different directions, and our present outcries for party reform are really reverberations of these two initial Progressive impulses.
One line of reform took off from the opinion, expressed most imaginatively by Lord Bryce, that America’s political parties were not real parties. They were, wrote Bryce, like “two bottles. Each wore a label denoting the kind of liquor it contained, but each was empty.” Beginning with Woodrow Wilson, scholars and intellectuals argued that American politics could be cleaned up and made effective if the parties were made more centralized, cohesive, and programmatic. They needed to be made to stand for something so that voters could have a real choice. And they needed to be disciplined so that voters could hold them accountable for governmental decisions. The model these reformers had in mind was the European or English parliamentary system that tied the executive, legislature, and party together in a responsible partnership.
These ideas about party reform, created out of disgust with the decentralized, inefficient, and stalemated nature of American politics, gathered strength among political scientists, led by E. E. Schattschneider. His book, Party Government, published in 1942, was the strongest defense of party government ever made in America, and it led directly to the 1950 report of the American Political Science Association, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” Beginning in the mid-1950s the national organizations of the parties began asserting a more centralized authority over the loose alliance of state parties that had hitherto constituted the national party. The Democratic National Convention in particular wrested control from the states over who were to be delegates and how they were to be selected, and had its assertion of national authority backed up by the Supreme Court, even against contrary state laws. Not since the beginning days of the Republic have the parties been so centralized.
These party changes, however, scarcely grew out of any desire to create parties of the parliamentary type. Generally the politicians paid very little attention to the calls of the political scientists for more disciplined and programmatic parties. Which is why James MacGregor Burns continues to promote the idea of responsible party government with undiminished vigor. His latest book, The Power to Lead, unabashedly recommends that America adopt something akin to a European parliamentary system in order to solve what he sees is “the political malaise in America today.” It is perhaps a measure of Burns’s sense of desperation that, because he doubts that we would ever adopt “the pure, classic form of parliamentarianism” of Great Britain, “the remarkable French combination of presidential and parliamentary government” may have to do. Just how the divided Democratic party would be transformed into the unified group that could carry out a program to conquer “malaise,” he does not make clear.
Another, bigger, and far more important party reform movement came out of the Progressive era, and it too continues to have its present-day proponents. But unlike the “responsible party government” reformers, this movement, sustained by the anti-party ideals passed on by the Founding Fathers, has had decisive and far-reaching effects on America’s parties and politics. Indeed, many of the party reforms of the past fifteen years are essentially updated versions of what the Progressive reformers were after.
These Progressive reformers, in contrast to those who wanted more disciplined and ideologically coherent parties, were not really happy with parties at all. They pushed for a series of measures designed to bypass the parties and allow the people to rule directly: initiative, referendum, and recall; the short ballot; the direct election of senators; and nonpartisan municipal elections. Always the aim of these middle-class white-collar reformers—the forerunners of today’s young urban professionals or “yuppies”—was to give “the people,” and not the party bosses, control of government. Each citizen, declared the great Wisconsin Progressive Robert La Follette, was a rational independent person who had a “sovereign right” to exercise the choice of the officials who were to govern “by direct vote, without the intervention or interference of any political agency.”
But the Progressive reformers realized that, though parties might be bypassed, they would not disappear and therefore had to be rigidly controlled. The result at the beginning of the twentieth century was a spate of state legal rules and regulations that severely circumscribed every important aspect of the parties’ structure and operations, including even who could participate in party decisions and how the party committees and conventions would be organized. The decisive effort to break the hold of the bosses over the party came with the introduction of the direct primary: the parties were not even to have the power to control their own nominees. No other democracy in the modern world has ever regulated its political parties in these remarkable ways.
The suspicion of parties and bosses has not died. Many of the party reforms coming out of the experience of the 1968 Democratic National Convention were essentially continuations of these Progressive reforms. The recommendations of the McGovern–Fraser reform commission appointed in 1969 aimed to open up the party to new groups and to weaken the control of the bosses over the nomination process. The 1972 convention consequently had a larger proportion of women, blacks, and young people at the expense of party regulars and office holders. These new delegates were generally better educated and better off than earlier delegates and more of them came from professional “service” occupations—law, teaching, journalism—than the groups that had previously been represented. Like the Progressives of the 1900s these middle-class activists were no lovers of traditional political parties and backroom politicking. Consequently the number of presidential primaries grew from seventeen in 1968 to thirty-four by 1980. The proportion of party delegates selected by primaries rose from about 35 percent in 1968 to nearly 80 percent in 1980. Not since the Progressive era had the parties and party politics been so dramatically transformed.
Although Byron Shafer in a recent and richly detailed book about this “quiet revolution” between 1968 and 1972—“the greatest systematically planned and centrally imposed shift in the institutions of delegate selection in all of American history”—concentrates almost exclusively on the transforming effects of the party reforms, surely fundamental changes in American society as a whole were equally important in explaining what has happened—not least the shift to service occupations and the decline in the power of the old industrial unions that command influence in the Democratic party organization.5
The professional politicians were horrified by this “quiet revolution” and no doubt felt pretty much the way George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall felt back at the end of the nineteenth century when he contemplated the implication of all those Progressive reforms: “Have you ever thought what would become of the country if the bosses were put out of business, and their places were taken by a lot of cart-tail orators and college graduates? It would mean chaos.” In reaction to the results of the McGovern–Fraser reforms carried out between 1969 and 1972, the Democratic party made a series of adjustments, the latest being the recommendations of the Hunt Commission for 1984. This year the number of primaries was cut back to twenty-six, about 550 delegates were set aside for party and elected officials, and the proportionality of representation was diluted by allowing winner-take-all primary elections in some districts. But obviously the tension between party professionals and independent-minded activists is far from over—as the challenges to the primary system during the recent campaign make clear.
The parties are not about to die away, but their roles are changing; and no one knows precisely what is going to happen to them or to American politics. In the meantime, with the approaching bicentennial celebration of the Constitution, we will have to stand back and ponder exactly what it was the Founding Fathers in 1787 did to us.
October 11, 1984
Theodore C. Sorensen, A Different Kind of Presidency: A Proposal for Breaking the Political Deadlock (Harper and Row, 1984). ↩
James MacGregor Burns, The Power to Lead: The Crisis of The American Presidency (Simon and Schuster, 1984). ↩
See, for example, Martin P. Wattenberg, The Decline of American Political Parties 1952–1980 (Harvard University Press, 1984). ↩
Leonard Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960). ↩
Byron E. Shafer, Quiet Revolution: The Struggle for the Democratic Party and the Shaping of Post-Reform Politics (Russell Sage Foundation, 1983). ↩