Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XL: the party system - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XL: the party system - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the party system
The three chief contributions which the United States has made to political science regarded as an Applied Science or Practical Art have been:
Rigid or so-called Written Constitutions, which, as being the expressions of the supreme will of the people, limit the powers of the different branches of government.
The use of Courts of Law to interpret Rigid Constitutions and secure their authority by placing their provisions out of the reach of legislative or executive action.
The organization of political parties.
Of these the first two are precautions against, or mitigations of, faults to which democracy is liable; while the third has proved to be an aggravation of those faults, undoing part of the good which the two former were doing, and impairing popular sovereignty itself. Yet party organization is a natural and probably an inevitable incident of democratic government. It has in itself nothing pernicious. Its evils have sprung from its abuses. We can now perceive that these evils are an outgrowth of the system likely to appear wherever it attains full development. But are they inevitable evils? Could they have been prevented if foreseen? Can they now be cut away without impairing such utility as the system possesses? This is a problem the American people have been trying to solve; and their efforts deserve to be studied.
Before describing the structure of the Organizations, let us enquire how Party came to cover the field and affect the working of politics more widely in America than elsewhere.
The political issues on which parties formed themselves after the establishment of the Federal Constitution were Rational issues. The first of these arose between those who sought to give full scope to Federal power and those who sought to limit it in the interest of the rights of the States. This issue presently became entangled with that of the tariff; some groups desiring to use import duties for the protection of home industries, others preferring a tariff for revenue only. The question of the extension of slavery into the States which were from time to time formed out of the unorganized territories of the Union induced that bitter antagonism which ultimately led to the war of Secession. These issues overtopped and practically superseded all State and other local issues, and marked the lines of division between parties over the whole country. The fact that the Federal senators were chosen by the legislatures of the States made it the interest of each National party to fight every election of a State legislature on party lines, in order to obtain in that body a majority which would secure the choice of senators of its own persuasion, so State legislatures came to be divided on strict party lines, i.e. the lines of the National parties, though nearly all the questions which these legislatures dealt with had nothing to do with National issues. From the States the same habit spread into local elections, so that contests in cities and counties were also fought on party lines, though the work of these local bodies lay even more apart than did that of the States from the questions which divided the nation. It became a principle to maintain the power of the National parties in all elected bodies and by all means available, for the more the party was kept together in every place and on every occasion for voting, so much the stronger would it be for national purposes.1
Thus the partisan spirit extended itself to the choice of those administrative officials who were directly elected by the citizens, such as the State Governor and State Treasurer, the mayor of a city, the county commissioners. These elections also were fought on party lines, for a victory redounded to the credit and strength of the National party. Personal character and capacity were' little regarded. The candidate was selected, in manner to be presently described, by the Primary or the Nominating Convention (as the case might be), as a party man, entitled to party recognition; and the party machinery worked for him as zealously as it did for the candidate seeking election to Congress.
A further downward step was to require any official who had to appoint subordinate officers, or even to employ persons for some humble public service, to prefer members of his party for selection to the office or work. The official, himself chosen as a party man, was expected to serve the party by filling every place he could with men bound to vote for party candidates and otherwise serve the party. Even a labourer paid by weekly wages got employment on the condition of his voting and working for the party. Thus politics came to mean party politics and little else. People thought of party success as an end in itself, irrespective of the effect it would have upon the administration of many matters into which no party principle could enter. These evils were aggravated by the fact that the public service was not permanent. As the elected officials served for short terms, posts became frequently vacant. The tenure of those who were not directly elected but appointed lasted no longer than that of the authority who had appointed them, so when power passed from one party to another after an election, the employees appointed by the outgoing party had, however efficient they might be, no claim to be continued. They were dismissed, and their places given to successors appointed by the incoming party, which thus rewarded its friends and strengthened its influence. This practice, known as the Spoils System,1 began in the State of New York early in the nineteenth century, and thence spread not only to other States but into the National Government also, so that the President, who by this time had an enormous number of posts at his disposal, was expected to use them as rewards for party services.
The Frame of Government, the outlines of which have been already described, was constructed in the belief that the people, desiring, and knowing how to secure, their own good, would easily effect their purposes by choosing honest legislators, and also by choosing officials who would be trustworthy agents, administering public affairs in accordance with the people's wishes. In a New England township, and even in the far larger county area of Virginia, the men of the eighteenth century knew personally the fellow-citizens whom they trusted, and could select those whose opinions they approved and whom they deemed capable; so, though the existence of parties was recognized, as were also the dangers of party spirit, the choice of legislators and officials seems to have been regarded as a simple matter, and it was not perceived that when population increased and offices became more important the old simple methods would not suffice, since elections must involve more and more work, and the selection of candidates be more difficult. Party organizations grew up unnoticed because unforeseen. There had been none in England, the only country where popular elections were known and party spirit had sometimes been furious. Thus it befell that in the United States, though parties appeared from the early days of the National Government, and their antagonisms were already fierce when the fourth presidential election was held in 1800, party organizations grew slowly, and attracted little attention. Tocqueville, writing in 1832, never mentions them, yet they were already strong in his day, and had covered the whole country before the Civil War broke out in 1861.
Some sort of associated action is incidental to every representative government, for wherever power is given to elected persons, those citizens who desire their particular views to prevail must band themselves together to secure the choice of the persons best fitted both to express their own views and to attract the votes of other citizens. Whether they devise a method for selecting a candidate or simply accept the man who presents himself, they must work in unison to recommend him to the voters generally, canvassing for him and bringing up their friends to the poll. Without concerted action there will be confusion, disorder, loss of voting power. An Election Committee formed to help a candidate pledged to its cause is the simplest form of party organization, legitimate and possibly inexpensive. Beyond this form party organization in England did not advance till our own time.
In the United States it was found necessary to go further. Under the constitutions of the several States elections were frequent, because many administrative as well as all legislative posts, both State and municipal, were filled by popular vote, and because these posts were held for short terms. As the population of cities and electoral areas generally grew larger, so that most citizens ceased to have personal knowledge of the candidates, it became more needful to inform them of the merits of those who sought their suffrages; more needful also to have lists of the voters and to provide for “getting out the vote.” The selection of candidates also became important In England, so long as the structure of rural society retained an old-fashioned semi-feudal character, some one belonging to an important land-owning family was usually accepted, while in the towns (after pocket boroughs had vanished) a wealthy merchant or manufacturer, especially if he had filled some municipal office, was likely to find favour. But in America, where Equality prevailed, neither wealth nor rank gave a claim to any post. The principle of Popular Sovereignty suggested that it was for the citizens not only to choose members or officials by their votes, but to say for what persons votes should be cast. Hence where any post was to be filled by local election, the local adherents of the party were deemed entitled to select the man on whom their voting force was to be concentrated. This was a logical development of the principle. Instead of letting a clique of influential men thrust a candidate upon them, or allowing a number of candidates to start in rivalry and so divide their votes, the party met before the election to choose the man they preferred to be their local standard-bearer, and it was understood that the votes of all would be given to whomsoever the majority chose. A meeting of this kind was called a Party Primary, and it became the duty of the party committee which managed elections to make the arrangements for summoning, and naturally also for advising, the Primary.
These being the two aims which called party organization into being, I pass to its main features, substantially, though not in minor details, the same over the whole country, and will describe it as it stood in 1888, before recent changes which cannot be understood till an account has been given of the system as it existed before their adoption. Though it has been almost everywhere altered, it may revert to type, and in any case it has been a product of democracy too remarkable to be ignored, for it showed how organizations essentially oligarchic in structure, though professing to be democratic, can become tyrannical under democratic forms.
The work of every Party Organization is twofold, corresponding to the two aims aforesaid. One branch of it was to select party candidates by the process called Nomination, as practised before the recent changes. The other is to promote the general interests of the party in every electoral area. Each party has, in most States, a party Committee in every city ward, in every city, in every township and State Assembly district and Congressional district, in every county, in every State, and at the head of all a National Committee for the whole United States, appointed to fight the approaching Presidential Election.1 Each of these Committees is elected either by those who are enrolled as members of the party in its meeting in a Primary (to be presently described) or else by a Convention composed of delegates from the Primaries. The Committees are appointed annually, the same persons, and especially the Chairman, being usually continued from year to year. They have plenty to do, for the winning of elections is a toilsome and costly business. Funds have to be raised, meetings organized, immigrants recruited for the party and enrolled as its members, lists of voters and their residences prepared, literature produced and diffused, and other forms of party propaganda attended to, and when the day of election arrives party tickets must be provided and distributed,2 canvassers and other election workers organized and paid, voters brought up to the polls. Each Committee keeps touch with the Committee next above it in a larger electoral area, and with that below it in a smaller, so that, taken together, these bodies constitute a network, strong. and flexible, stretching over the whole Union. They are an army kept on a war footing, always ready for action when each election comes round; and everything except the nomination of candidates and formulation of party programmes is within their competence.
Nominations belong to the other set of party authorities. These are either Primaries or Conventions. The Primary was — until recent legislation, of which more hereafter — the party meeting for the smaller election areas, in which a large proportion of the voters belonging to the party could be brought together in one room. It had two duties. One was to select a candidate or candidates for any elective office within its area, thereby putting its official stamp upon each person chosen as being the “regular candidate” entitled to the votes of all good and true members of the party. The other duty was to choose delegates to proceed to, and represent it in, a Nominating Convention for some larger election area or areas within which its own area lay. Thus a Ward Primary in a city would send delegates to a City Convention which nominates candidates for the mayoralty and other municipal offices, and also to a State Assembly District Convention, a State Senatorial District Convention, a Congressional District Convention, which nominates a candidate for Congress, and a State Convention which nominates a candidate for the Governorship and other elective State offices.1
The Nominating Convention consists (for Conventions are not extinct) of the delegates from the Primaries (or minor Conventions) within some large election area. Its function is to select candidates for elective offices within that area, such as members of the State Legislature, members of the Federal House of Representatives, the Governor and higher judges of the State. It selects and stamps as “regular” the candidate it prefers, and in some cases it also selects delegates to proceed from it to a Convention of higher rank and wider compass, viz. a State Convention or the National Convention which nominates the party candidate for the Presidency. A Convention also passes resolutions enouncing the views and aims of the party. These, however, being usually cut and dried, seldom arouse discussion.
All these arrangements scrupulously respected the Sovereignty of the People. No member of a Committee, no delegate to a Convention, was self-appointed. All were chosen by the members of the party. Nobody was recognized as a candidate unless he had been chosen by a party meeting. In theory, nothing could be more correct. Now let us look at the practice.
Even before the system had matured and still more after its full development, tendencies appeared disclosing inherent dangers. Those new phenomena, due to the growth of population and wealth, which have been already described, strengthened these tendencies, giving rise to grave perversions.
The Primary was in theory open to all members of the party resident within its area, but in order to prevent persons who did not belong to the party from entering and turning it into a public instead of a private party meeting, it became necessary to have a roll of party members, so that every one claiming to vote could prove his title. Now the rolls were kept by the local party Committee already referred to, a body composed of the most active and thoroughly partisan local politicians. Wishing to make sure of a subservient primary, this Committee took care to place on the rolls only those whom it deemed to be trusty party men, so any citizen suspected of independence was not likely to be enrolled. If he were alleged to have failed to vote for the “regular” party candidate at the last preceding election, that might be taken as a ground for omitting him, and if, discovering that he was not on the roll, he demanded to be entered, the demand might be evaded. Prima facie, therefore, the Committee could make pretty sure that when a Primary was held, it would choose the persons they desired to have nominated.
Now the Primaries were usually held in the evening, especially in the cities, and it was chiefly in the cities that the nomination methods here described were employed. The attendance was seldom large, but it was sure to include all the local party “workers,” and others on whose votes the managing Committee could count. Often it consisted entirely of persons belonging to the humbler strata of the party. The richer sort, including the larger taxpayers, though they had the strongest interest in entrusting administration to men who would conduct it economically, seldom attended, preferring their social engagements, or a quiet evening at home with their families. Few troubled themselves to see that their names were on the roll. Still fewer desired the local posts, or cared to serve as delegates to a Convention, so the choice of nominees for the offices, and for the function of delegate, was usually left to the Committee, who bringing their list cut and dried, proposed and carried it without trouble. Now and then there was opposition, if there happened to be a feud within the party, or if some among the better sort of citizens, fearing the nomination of exceptionally unfit men, thought it worth while to make a fight. However, the Committee could usually command a majority, and as the chairman was ready to rule every question in their favour, opposition rarely succeeded. Thus the Committee, being master of the situation, almost always put through its nominations both for the local posts and for the choice of delegates. That having been done, the Committee itself was reappointed, and the rule of the local managers thereby duly prolonged from one year to another.
When the delegates proceeded to the Convention they met other delegates from other Primaries within the Convention area, persons similarly chosen, and similarly bound to carry out the instructions which their respective Primaries had given them. Sometimes these instructions directed them to vote in the Convention for the nomination of the person whom the party managers had already fixed on as the party candidate for any particular office, but even if no direction had been given, they followed the managers' lead. It need hardly be said that the petty local politicians who managed the Primaries were in close touch with the larger political figures in charge of the party business of the county, and with the still more exalted beings similarly charged with its interests in the State. If the Primary elections had been well handled, there was little trouble in getting the Convention to accept the list of nominations prepared by the managers, and this list, being official, then commanded the votes of all sound party men. The whole procedure was, in point of form, strictly democratic. The Voice of the People rang out in the Primaries. The delegates transmitted it to the Convention; so those whom the Convention nominated as party candidates were the people's choice. Hence the trouble taken to secure the Primaries was none too great. They were the key of the position.
Why did these methods succeed? Since about 1870, if not earlier, the more observant and thoughtful citizens had known the realities which previously, cloaked under democratic forms, had passed almost unnoticed. Yet for many a year they submitted tamely to the perversion of those forms, taking no pains to have good candidates selected, and voting for whatsoever candidates the Organization presented to them.
Several reasons may be assigned for this tolerance:
All this implies that the citizens did not live up to the standard of civic duty which their democratic system contemplated. It does not mean that they were below the level of citizens elsewhere. On the contrary, they were probably above the point at which that level stands in Europe. What it does mean is that the legal duty imposed on them of voting frequently and the non-legal duty of sharing in party management were, taken together, too numerous and troublesome for average human nature. Overmuch was demanded from them. If less had been asked, more might have been given.
Nevertheless a time came when the combined influence of all these causes could no longer stifle discontent. The worm turned. From about 1890 onwards, dissatisfaction grew so strong that a demand for a reform of the Primaries, beginning in the great Eastern cities, spread over the country and secured in nearly every State the enactment of statutes intended to root out the abuses described and deliver the party voter from his tyrants. These changes will be described when we come to a general survey of the efforts recently made to improve the working of American institutions.
These vast party organizations, covering the country from ocean to ocean with a network of Committees, managing Primaries and Conventions, fighting the endless elections, raising and spending large sums of money, needed, and still need, a number of men to work them said to exceed that of all the elected officials of the country, if we omit those of ward and township. “The machinery of [party] control in American Government probably requires more people to tend and work it than all other political machinery in the rest of the civilized world.”1 These workers, except the secretaries and clerks, are almost all unpaid. Many chairmen of the more important Committees give their whole time to the work. Many of the humbler sort, who look after voters in the wards of crowded cities, throw zeal as well as labour into the duties assigned to them. What are the inducements? Whence comes the remuneration? One must distinguish three classes of persons.
From time to time, when some exciting issue rouses hope or alarm, men will work out of disinterested attachment to party doctrines. Many more, especially among the humble and less educated, are stirred by party spirit pure and simple, fighting for victory as in a football match. Keen is the pleasure of strife and competition, especially in America. The sympathy that springs from co-operation feeds this spirit. It is a joy to stand shoulder to shoulder, especially with a prospect of success. But the largest number of workers in all ranks work for their own interests, those at the top aiming at high political office, which may carry with it opportunities of gain exceeding its salary, those lower down desiring either a humbler public post or perhaps a profit to be made out of the Administration when their friends are installed in it, those at the bottom seeking employment in the police, or the fire service, or the gas service, or some other department of municipal work.
Thus the main inducement is Office, or the assured prospect of receiving an office when the party one serves is in power. “What are we here for except the offices?” was the oft-quoted deliverance of a politician at a National Convention. The Organization can confer the office and recognizes the obligation to do so, because it controls nominations and can require its nominees, when elected, to reward service rendered to it by bestowing any emolument, legitimate or illegitimate, that lies within the range of their official power or covert influence. It is largely self-supporting, like an army that lives off the country it is conquering, but while the party forces are paid by salaried posts, legislative, administrative, or judicial, the funds of the Organization are also replenished by contributions exacted from business firms or corporations which its power over legislation and administration can benefit or injure. In this material aspect, the Organization is called by Americans the Machine, because it is a well compacted and efficient set of contrivances which in its ordered working provides places for the professional staff who serve its purposes by helping to win elections.
Who were responsible for the rule of professional politicians? Where were the good citizens while all these things were going on? Why did they vote at State and City elections for candidates of whom they knew nothing except that they were the Machine nominees?
The system had grown up naturally as the business of winning elections became more and more a matter needing constant attention and labour. Those who had created the original Committees came to be permanent party managers, and had worked out of party spirit before they began to work for their selfish interests. The “good citizens,” occupied in making money and developing the resources of the country, acquiesced and became unconscious accomplices. Many of the urban constituencies had grown so large by the increase of population that very few of the voters knew, or could know, who were the fittest candidates. The bulk were too much engrossed with their own business to be at the trouble of enquiring for themselves, so when the party gave them guidance by nominating candidates, they took thankfully what was given. In exciting times the vehemence of their party spirit disposed them to overlook a candidate's defects and accept any one who had received the party stamp from nomination by the Primary or the Convention. In duller times, they cared so little about the matter that while many stayed away from the polls, others voted the ticket like automata. Seldom was any protest raised in a Primary or Convention.
From time to time questions arose which so deeply touched either the emotions or the pocket of the good citizen as to make him ready to swallow any candidate and turn a blind eye to a want of honour in party leaders. The zealous Anti-Slavery men of New England pardoned everything for the sake of that cause; and in later days the Protectionists of Pennsylvania allowed their State to be dominated by a succession of unscrupulous chiefs because the unity of the high tariff party must be at all costs maintained, and, even apart from any such motives, the loyalty to his old historic party was more deeply ingrained in the American nature than it had ever been in any other country where Party had no racial or religious basis. Thus it befell that party spirit supported the Organization through evil-doing and well-doing. Without such a spirit the Machine could not have won and kept power. But neither could the spirit have shown such tenacity of life without the Organization which gathered in and drilled recruits from the masses, turning into fervent Republicans or Democrats crowds of brand-new citizens who, neither knowing nor caring what the tenets of their party were, liked to be associated in a body which brought them into the life of their adopted country. They became partisans without principles, the solidest kind of voters. It must also be remembered that the party managers were not all professionals, at least in the lower sense of the term. Some were eminent statesmen who loved the party for the party's sake, and who, though not soiling their own hands, could not afford to scrutinize too closely the methods of the Bosses who controlled the votes which the party needed.
This brings us to another aspect of the subject. Who were those that led and ruled each Party, not as a professional machine with pecuniary aims, but as an association of citizens desiring to shape the policy of the nation? Who determined in what wise its traditional principles should be from time to time adapted to the circumstances and needs of the moment? Since a main object of every party is to foresee and follow the public opinion of the majority so as to catch votes at elections, it must, for this purpose, consider what views on current issues should be announced beforehand, what plans formulated and promises made.
The fundamental doctrine of democracy prescribes that the only authorized exponent of the views of the people is the People itself, and this means, for a party, all its members assembled by their representatives in a Convention. Accordingly every State Convention held before a State election adopted a Platform, which, though it might touch upon any important State issue, was chiefly concerned with national issues, and professed to express the national policy of the party. Still more authoritative of course is the platform adopted by the National Convention when it selects the party candidate for the Presidency. But in neither body is there any real discussion of the planks in the platform. There is not time enough, and a National Convention is a body of more than a thousand delegates meeting in the presence of ten thousand spectators. The State Committee or National Committee (as the case may be) prepares the platform in advance, and the Convention usually adopts it after two or three declamatory speeches, though alterations are often made especially if needed to “placate” any critical or possibly recalcitrant section of the party that may be represented in the hall. The part played by the Convention is formal.1 Those who determine beforehand the contents of the platform are, though the real leaders of the party, persons whom it is hard to define and impossible to enumerate. In England the Prime Minister and Cabinet declare the policy of the party in power, and are usually accepted as speaking on its behalf; while the leader of the parliamentary Opposition and the ex-Cabinet do the like for the party in opposition. But the existing Cabinet in America counts for little in such a matter, and the last preceding Cabinet for nothing at all. So far as there is a leader of the “party in power,” it is the President, because he is the choice of the people, assumed to retain their confidence till some event shows that he has lost it. Next to him in authority would come the Speaker of the House of Representatives, but only if personally influential, together with a few of the leading senators of the party, and some other adroit and experienced politicians, especially if they are in touch with the President. But with such men leadership depends on personal qualities and reputation, not upon any official position. They will often be found in the permanent Congressional party Committee, which includes the shrewdest of the party men in the House of Representatives; and also in the National Committee, which though formed only for the temporary purpose of each Presidential election, has become a sort of permanent party executive. But the public, knowing little of many among the members of these two Committees, is disposed to look chiefly to the President for leadership. Congress is not the centre of America's political life, as the House of Commons still is in England, and as are the Chambers in France, while the rank and file of those who fill the Conventions are not primarily concerned with policy but with the getting and keeping of places.
Two phenomena that have struck European observers deserve only a passing mention, because they are due to causes which have little or nothing to do with democracy. One is the fact that two great parties have since 1836 maintained themselves (except, of course, during the Civil War) in tolerably equal strength, neither able to disregard its opponent.1 The other is that the minor parties which have been from time to time created have either died down or been pretty quickly reabsorbed, like the Know Nothings of 1852, the Populists of 1890-96, and the Progressives of 1912, or else have failed to attain truly national importance. This latter fact shows that democratic governments do not invariably, as some have inferred from the cases of France and Italy, cause the splitting up of parties into groups.
Note that this party organization forms another government, unknown to the law, side by side with the legal government established by the Constitution. It holds together an immense number of citizens in small party aggregates all over the country, each subordinated to and represented in larger State aggregates, and these in their turn represented in one huge party meeting, the National Convention which assembles once in four years to declare party policy and choose a presidential candidate. Thus the whole vast body is induced to follow a few leaders and to concentrate its voting power upon the aims and purposes which the majority prescribe. Though Bills are sometimes mentioned in a platform, legislation is not one of the chief aims of party, and many of the most important measures, such as the Prohibition amendment and the Woman Suffrage amendment, have had no party character.2 Its chief purpose is to capture, and to hold when captured, the machinery, legislative and administrative, of the legal government established by the Constitution. That machinery, when captured, is used, mainly of course for discharging the normal routine work of legislation and administration, most of which has nothing to do with party doctrines and proposals, to some extent also for carrying out those doctrines by legislative action, but largely also for putting into public office “sound men,” being those who profess the tenets of the party, and have rendered service to it. If the constitutional government of the country be compared to a vast machine set up in a factory to be worked by electric power, the party system may be likened to the dynamo engine that makes the electric current which, when turned on, sets all the machinery in motion. The two governments, the legal and the party, are in their structure very different things, but it is from the non-legal party machinery that the legal machinery of government derives its motive power.
Party organization has done much to unify the people of the United States and make them homogeneous, for it has brought city and country, rich and poor, native American and Old World immigrant into a common allegiance, which has helped them to know, and taught them to cooperate with, one another. Had the parties been based on differences of race or religion, those elements of antagonism which existed in the population would have been intensified. But they have been in fact reduced. Most of the Irish immigrants joined the Democratic party, most of the German the Republicans, but there were always plenty of German Protestants among the Democrats and of Irish Catholics among the Republicans. So, too, the Organizations have mitigated such inconveniences as arise from the provisions of the Constitution which disjoin the Executive from the Legislative power, for when the President belongs to the same party as the majority in Congress, he and the latter, having a common interest in the prestige of the party, are likely to work well together, though, conversely, when they belong to different parties, the majority in Congress become the more disposed to “play politics” against him.
As compared with the legal Frame of National Government, the party system is more compactly built together and attains a completer concentration of power. It is an admirable contrivance for centralizing control and making effective the rule of a majority, and indeed the best instrument for the suppression of dissident minorities democracy has yet devised. Thus it has generally shown itself a conservative force, for in order to command a majority at elections, it is obliged — except when it can take advantage of some sudden impulse sweeping over the country — to conciliate various sections of opinion and try to keep them within its fold. It will even condescend to suffer cranks gladly, or to exploit temporary fads and follies, so long as it can do so without alienating its saner members. When a new question emerges, raising serious differences of opinion, the Organization usually tries to hedge. It fumbles and quibbles and faces both ways as long as it can. But when one section has gained the mastery of the party, the Organization may become almost ferociously intolerant, and enforce by the threat of excommunication1 whatever it then declares to be its orthodoxy. It is conservative in another sense also, for it tends to restrain personal ambition and imposes a check upon the too obtrusive selfishness of prominent men. One who has risen by party support is rarely so indispensable, or so great a hero to the mass of voters, as to become dangerous by leading his party into violent courses or making it the accomplice in his schemes of personal ambition. He will have learnt that only by watching and following general opinion can power be retained.
Thus it may be said that Party Organization, which has done some great disservices to America, shows also a good side. It has, so far as concerns the lower strata, demoralized politics, and made them sordid. It has fallen under the control of an oligarchy. But it has also steadied the working of government over a vast country wherein are many diverse elements, by giving an authoritative solidity to popular majorities. The tendency to abuse power, frequent in small communities, is reduced in this large country, because the party majority is held together by respecting the various elements of which it is composed, while as the party for the time being in the minority has also a strength and cohesion through its organization, it can criticize those who hold the reins of power and deter them from extreme courses. The greatest fault of the system, next to the selfishness and corruption its perversions have bred, has lain in the irresponsible secrecy of its influence over the official organs of government. An American party is, in one sense, so far made responsible that when its policy has been condemned by the results, it loses support, and may suffer defeat But the leaders who direct its policy are usually so numerous, and some of them so little known, and the share of each in a misdeed committed so unascertainable, that it is hardly too much to say that in the State Governments only one person can be held responsible as a party leader, the Governor,1 and in the National Government only one person, the President.
It may be thought that the description here given exaggerates the novelty of the American party system, seeing that Party rules both in Britain and her self-governing Dominions, and in France, and in some of the smaller free countries. But it must be remembered not only that the American Organization is incomparably more fully developed, but also that it stands forth more conspicuously as a system standing quite outside of the legal Government. In France, legislation and administration are carried on not by one party but by combinations of groups frequently formed, dissolved, and then re-formed. In England party conflicts fought all over the country, come only once in three, four, or five years, at a General Election; and when one party goes under and another comes to the top, only some thirty or forty persons change places, so the general machine of administration seems but slightly affected, and few are those who directly lose or gain. Party policy, moreover, rests with a half-dozen Parliamentary figures on each side, i.e. the leaders of the two Houses and their closest advisers and associates, whereas in the United States the National Convention is the supreme exponent of party doctrine and policy, universally recognized as the party oracle, though its deliverances may in practice be conveniently forgotten. Thus the American system, though it purports to regard measures rather than men, expends nearly all its efforts and its funds in getting men into places, and though it claims to give voice to the views and will of the whole party does in reality express those of an oligarchy which becomes, subject to the necessity of regarding public opinion, the effective ruler of the country, whenever the party holds both the Legislature and the Executive.
This was, however, never the ease in the “Towns,” the smallest areas of local self-government, and is not so generally the case in local bodies to-day as it was forty years ago.
The phrase, “the spoils to the victors,” was first used by Marcy of New York, who described it as the practice in force in his State. It had been disapproved of in principle by the statesmen of the first generation, such as Jefferson and Madison, who saw its dangers, and desired to give the holders of Federal offices a permanent tenure. But President Jackson employed it freely, and the general treatment of offices as spoils dates from his time, 1829–1837.
In some States it is only the larger areas that have Committees, the county being the most important one after that for the State. There is also a permanent Congressional Committee appointed by members of the two Houses from their own number.
This part of the work has, however, now generally passed to the officials who superintend elections. Party processions, once extensively used, are obsolescent.
The State Convention has now been in many States abolished by recent legislation, but while it existed it was an important part of the machinery. Sometimes, as in New York City, there may be a Primary for an Assembly District and in small cities a Primary may suffice for the whole city. It would be impossible to present, within reasonable limits, an account of the arrangements now in force in the several States, for these are nearly everywhere regulated by statutes, which vary from State to State. Federal legislation does not touch the subject.
Professor H. J. Ford, Rise and Growth of American Politics, p. 312.
Although large gatherings claiming to speak on behalf of each party meet annually, little weight attaches (except in the case of the Labour or Socialist parties, virtually without authoritative personal leadership) to their deliverances.
The Republican party was founded in 1854 on the ruins of the crumbling Whig party, and maintained the two-party tradition.
It is related that a noted politician, who was surveying the landscape from the back platform of a railroad car in motion, was warned by the coloured porter that he must not stand there, and when he remarked that he thought a platform was meant to stand on, the darky replied, “Oh no, sah, a platform ain't meant to stand on. It's meant to get in on.”
Thus in 1896 the “Free Silver” Democrats crushed opposition, and (for a time) drove the Gold Standard men out of the party, just as, after 1903, the Protectionists expelled the Free Trade men from the Conservative party in England.
Nevertheless, a State Governor, though the choice of his party and presumably entitled to the support of his party friends in the legislature, may have less power than the State Boss who holds in his hands the threads of the Organization.