Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLI: the actual working of the national and state governments - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XLI: the actual working of the national and state governments - 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 actual working of the national and state governments
We may now return to the legal frame of Government, examining each of its branches, and noting how the working of each has been modified, and to some extent warped from its original purpose, by the influence of the parallel non-legal government constituted by the Party Organization.
First, as the foundation of all else, comes the part assigned by the Constitutions, State and Federal, to the direct action of the People at elections.
The electoral suffrage is left by the Federal Constitution to the States. In them, it was at first limited to citizens possessed of some property, often freehold land or a house, but in the period of the great democratic wave which passed over the country between 1820 and 1840, it was almost everywhere extended to all adult men; and since 1869, when Wyoming (then a Territory) gave it to women, many States have followed that example.1 In 1919 Congress proposed an amendment to the Constitution granting equal suffrage everywhere to women, and this was ratified by the requisite number of State Legislatures in 1920. The change is the longest step towards pure democracy ever taken in America.
Whether the admission of women has made any, and if so what, practical difference remains still obscure, a matter for conjecture rather than proof, since under the ballot there is nothing to show how far women vote differently from men. It was, however, believed that, in 1916, the women electors (who voted in ten States) had turned the Presidential election, they being more eager than men to keep the United States out of the war then raging in Europe. Though it is often said that women generally vote for restricting or forbidding the sale of intoxicants, occasions are mentioned when this does not appear to have happened. Such evidence as is available indicates that women mostly vote much as men do, following the lead of their husbands or brothers and of the party organizations, that administrative government is in the woman suffrage States neither better nor worse than in others, and that the general character of legislation remains much the same. Nowhere does there seem to be any Women's Party, specially devoted to feminine aims. Only one woman has so far been elected to Congress, and few to State Legislatures.
In 1868 and 1870 Constitutional amendments were passed (Amendments XIV. and XV.) intended to secure the suffrage to the (then recently emancipated) negroes, but the apparently sweeping provisions of the latter enactment have been in nearly all of the former Slave States so far nullified by State Constitutions ingeniously contrived to exclude the coloured people, that less, perhaps much less, than one-fifth of these now enjoy voting rights. Members of Congress from the North and West at first resented, and sought means of defeating, these contrivances, but when a new generation arose, little influenced by memories of the Anti-Slavery struggle and the Civil War, interest in the question subsided. Common sense regained its power, and the doctrine that every adult human being has a natural right to a vote, though never formally abandoned, has been silently ignored.
The question whether any educational qualification should be prescribed, and how soon immigrants should be allowed to vote, is still discussed.1 Some States prescribe such a qualification, some fix a term during which the immigrant must have resided in America. Others register him as a voter even before he has been naturalized as a citizen, arguing that this tends to accelerate the process of Americanization. There is force in this view as respects rural areas and small towns, where the newcomer quickly learns English and acquires the habits and ideas of his native neighbours. But in great cities and thickly-peopled mining districts, where he remains one of a mass of Italians, or Greeks, or Serbs, or Finns, or Rumans, or Polish Jews, he learns far less readily how to use his new citizenship, and falls an easy victim to the party agents, often of his own race, who sweep him into their net and use him as so much voting stock.
The number of direct elections by the people is far larger in America than in any other country, (a) because there are three sets of elections, Local (in which many offices may have to be filled), State, and National; (b) because the terms of office are short, so that the elections to each post recur frequently; (c) because many offices (including judgeships), which in other countries are filled by Executive appointment, are here filled by the direct act of the People. This constant summoning of the citizens to vote has one of two results. If National and State and Local elections are held at different times, the elector, teased by these frequent calls, is apt to refuse to go to the poll. If, on the other hand, these elections are fixed for the same day, he is bewildered by the number of candidates for various posts between which he is expected to choose. The American practice has usually been for each party to put on one piece of paper, called a Slip Ticket, and often adorned with a party symbol, the names of all the candidates it nominated for the various offices to be filled at the election. The voter could mark with his cross all the names on the list, or could “vote the ticket” simply by dropping it as it stood into the ballot box. If, however, he approved, of some of the candidates, but disapproved of others, preferring some candidates appearing on another party ticket, he erased from his party slip ticket those names (this is called “scratching") and substituted other names from the other ticket or tickets. Where, however, as is now frequently done, the names of all the candidates of all the parties are printed upon one sheet, each name opposite the office for which each has been nominated, that sheet becomes enormous, and the voter cannot, with the best will in the world, exercise an intelligent choice by selecting the man he thinks best from the different party columns in which their names appear; so he usually abandons the task in despair and votes the names the party recommends. With the rise of every new party, however numerically weak, the confusion becomes greater by the addition of a new set of candidates. The result is to make all but impossible that judicious selection of the fittest men for each particular post which the system of popular elections was meant to secure, a result which has of course played into the hands of the party managers.
The gravity of the evil has provoked demands for curing it by expedients to be presently mentioned. Meantime note that a democratic principle may be so pushed to excess as to defeat itself. The more numerous are the nominations a party makes, the less likely are the bad to be detected. Where the voter is expected with scarcely any personal knowledge to select men fit for fifteen or twenty posts, he ceases to try. Had there been only five he might have succeeded. To ask too much may be to get nothing. A beast of burden that will carry half a ton's load to market will get nowhere if the load is doubled.
Elections are now quietly conducted, neither side disturbing the meetings of its opponents (as often happens in England), nor are voters at the polls molested, unless perhaps in a Ring-ruled city where the police are directed by an unscrupulous party superintendent. Personation and repeating used to be frequent in some States. Ballot-box stuffing and false counting were habitually employed in the South until less troublesome and more effective means were invented for reducing the negro vote. All these malpractices have diminished, except, perhaps, in a few ill-governed cities, in one of which an effective remedy was found by providing glass ballot-boxes, so that the voters who came as soon as the polls opened in the morning could assure themselves that the officials in charge had not been beforehand with them. The proportion of electors who vote, naturally much affected by the interest which the issues before the country excite, is highest in Presidential elections, and varies from 65 to 80 per cent, a figure which compares favourably with every other constitutional country except perhaps Switzerland. No State has adopted the plan of a Second Ballot, to be taken in case no candidate obtains an absolute majority of the votes cast, nor has proportional representation, though much discussed, already adopted in some cities, and regarded with growing favour, been tried long enough or on a large enough scale to enable its merits to be judged.
The cost of elections varies greatly, but is in general lower than in England. Official expenses connected with the polling do not fall on the candidate, and he is seldom, unless personally wealthy, left to bear the whole of the other expenses. Each party is required by Federal law to render at all Federal elections a full official account of its “campaign expenditure,” with the names of the contributors and the sums they pay; while business corporations are now forbidden to subscribe to party funds. Similar legislation has been enacted in some States. The practice, now regrettably frequent in England, of gifts by members or candidates to various local purposes, such as charities and athletic clubs, gifts made at other times than elections, but with a purpose not purely altruistic, hardly exists in America.
Bribery is, or recently was, common in some districts,1 such as parts of Ohio and South-Eastern New York, as well as in some cities, where a section of the less intelligent voters, especially the negroes in the Middle States, have been corruptible. Though prosecutions are sometimes instituted, the offence more often goes unpunished, the two parties agreeing not to rip up one another's misdeeds. The commonest method of corruption has been to give an agent a lump sum for all the votes he can deliver, and many of these he got without payment, perhaps by persuasion, perhaps, until Prohibition began to conquer State after State, by drinks and cigars.
Regarding elections as the means by which the will of the sovereign people is expressed, we may say that in the United States that will is —
From the People, acting directly by their votes, we may now pass to those whom they choose as their representatives to act on their behalf, that is to say, to the Legislatures. Here there are four topics to be considered:
1. The Members of the Legislatures
These are a great multitude, for besides the two Houses of Congress there are forty-eight State Legislatures, each of two Chambers.
They are citizens little above their fellows in knowledge and intellectual gifts. The average is higher in Congress than in any State, because a seat in Congress has a higher salary, carries more power, opens a better career, draws to itself a much larger proportion of well-educated men. About one half of them are lawyers. But even Congress, drawn from more than one hundred and ten millions of people, and wielding wide authority, contains few men who, uniting conspicuous talents to a well-stored mind and width of view, possess the higher gifts of statesmanship. It is not that such men are wanting in the nation, for they abound. It is that they either do not wish, or are not able, to find their way into the National Legislature. The three reasons for this cast so much light on the working of democracy that they need to be stated.
A seat in Congress fails to attract many men of high intellectual quality because much of the work it involves is dull and tiresome, for it consists in satisfying the demands of constituents for places, pensions, and help in their business undertakings, as well as in trying to secure grants of public money for local objects. One who has experience of the British House of Commons, where few such services are expected, is astonished to find how many of the calls upon a Congressman, or even a Senator, have nothing to do with the work of legislation. Moreover, the methods by which business is conducted in Congress, nearly all of it in Committees whose proceedings are not reported, allow few opportunities for distinction and give a member, at least during his earlier legislative years, few chances of proving his powers. Add to this the fact that a man of eminence who follows a profession, such as that of law or university teaching or journalism, cannot leave the city where he practises or teaches to live in Washington. Such a man living at home in London or Paris may continue his profession with a seat in Parliament.
The obstacles that block the path by which Congress is entered have still more to do with reducing the quality of its members. A custom old, universal, and as strong as law itself, forbids any aspirant to offer himself for election in any Congressional district except that in which he resides, and the same rule obtains in elections to State Legislatures. It is mere usage that imposes the restriction, for legally any citizen resident within the State is eligible for Congress or for the State Legislature, but the electors hardly ever dream of going outside the district. To do so would be to give away a good thing, and would seem to cast a slur on the district, as implying there was no one in it fit for the post. Eloquence, wisdom, character, the fame of services rendered to the nation or the party, make no difference. Europeans are surprised at the strength of this habit, and Englishmen especially, for they remember that nearly all the most brilliant members of the House of Commons during the last two centuries had no connection of residence, perhaps not even of family or previous personal acquaintanceship, with the constituencies they represented, and they know also that even where local interests are concerned — little as these come up in British parliamentary life — a capable man residing elsewhere is quite as fit to understand and advocate such interests as a resident can be. In the United States, as in other countries, the ablest and most energetic men have been drawn to the cities, and especially to the great cities where opportunities for success abound. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, could furnish eminently gifted candidates for more than all the seats in the States in which these cities are respectively situated, but such men could be chosen only in those cities themselves. Moreover, the city where such men are obliged by their professions to reside may be so entirely in the hands of one party that no member of the other party can find in it a district offering a chance of success, so that half or more of the talent such a city contains is lost to political life. This is the result of a habit deemed democratic.
The habit is perhaps more natural in a Federation than in countries which have long had only one supreme legislative body, for in a Federal country each man is apt to feel it his first duty to represent his own State or Canton or Province, and this spirit of localism extends its influence to smaller divisions also. Where a State or a district thinks itself interested in a particular protective duty on imports, its representative is expected to fight hard for that object without regard to the general interest. There is said to be more of this spirit now than before the Civil War, when national issues filled men's minds. Local feeling disposes the member to deem himself a Delegate rather than a Representative. Being chosen not solely or chiefly because he is qualified by talent, but largely because his residence in his district enables him to declare its views and wishes, he comes to think that to “voice” them is his chief duty, and is all the more disposed to subordinate his independent judgment to what is called in America “the opinion of the corner store.” Yet with all this eagerness to catch and obey the slightest indication of public opinion, Congress is a less perfect mirror of the opinion of the nation than are some European Parliaments of countries, because its members have been not the spontaneous choice of their constituents but the nominees of party organizations with of the constituency as a whole, and feel a more direct responsibility to the party managers than they may do to their electors. The Organization is interposed as a sort of imperfectly conductive medium between the member and the citizens by whom he is chosen.
This spirit of localism becomes explicable when one remembers the circumstances of the early colonies and States. In New England the Towns were autonomous communities out of which the State was built up. The settlers who went West carried their local feelings with them, and similar conditions strengthened the original habit So too the County meant a great deal to the men of the South and they did not think of going outside it for a representative. Perhaps it is rather the English habit of going outside than the opposite American habit which is exceptional, and the habit did not, till recently, hold good in the English counties. It is right to add that although American localism excludes many of the best men from politics, it may be credited with also excluding such undesirable adventurers — city demagogues, for instance — as might by money or by plausible rhetoric win support from electors who knew little of their character, and thereby obtain access to legislatures they would be ill fitted to adorn. In the United States the constituency, however far away from Washington, expects the member to keep a residence within its bounds, and thus, having him among them for a part of the year, can form a personal judgment of his quality. If they wish him to be as like themselves as possible, thinking less of the interests of the United States than of what is desired in Oshkosh, Wis., they attain that end. There may be less knowledge and wisdom in the legislature, but they may deem it a more exact sample of the electors as a whole.
I do not suggest that a great deal of first-rate talent is needed to make a good legislature, for such a body might easily have too much of some kinds of talent. An assembly composed of orators all wishing to speak could ruin any country. But Congress has not enough either of that high statesmanship which only the few attain, or of those sensible men, mostly silent, who listen with open yet critical minds, and reach sound conclusions upon arguments presented.
2. Methods of Legislation
The methods by which legislation is conducted in Congress require a brief notice, not because they are specifically due to democratic principles, but because their defects have reduced the effectiveness of Congress, exposing it, and the whole Frame of Government, to strictures which ought to be directed rather against the methods than against these principles.
The mass of work which the National Legislature has to deal with, and the want in it of any leadership such as the President or his Ministers could give if present, has made it necessary to conduct all business by means of Committees. Many of these are small, consisting of from seven to fifteen members, and they are usually smaller in the Senate than in the House. They deliberate in private. The party which has a majority in the Chamber has always a majority in the Committee, and the Chairman belongs to that party, so that a sort of party colour is given to all Bills into which any controversial issue may enter, while even in dealing with non-partisan Bills there is a tendency for the members of each party to act together. Ministers are sometimes asked to appear before these Committees to explain their views on bills, and especially on the estimates for the public services, such as the army and navy, and on any administrative matters falling within the sphere of a Committee. But the Committee need not follow the advice tendered by the Minister nor grant his request for an appropriation, and it can recommend appropriations for which he has not asked. The Chairman, usually a man of some experience, enjoys a larger power than is yielded to the Chairman of a Parliamentary Committee in England or even to the rapporteur in a French Commission. He always belongs to the party holding a majority in the House (or Senate), and, in the case of some important Committees, practically occupies the position of a minister, independent of the President's ministers, and sometimes quite as powerful, because he can influence Congress more than it may be possible for a Minister to do, especially if the party opposed to the President has a majority in either House. Thus the Chairmen of the Committees on Ways and Means and on Appropriations have at times more control of finance than the Secretary of the Treasury or the heads of the spending departments, a consequence of the disjunction of the Executive from the Legislature.
Another consequence is the want of that official leadership which in parliamentary countries such as England, France, Canada, and Australia is given by the Ministry. Since every legislative Chamber would without guidance be a helpless mob, means have been found in Congress for providing a sort of leadership. In the House of Representatives the Speaker, who is always not only chosen by the majority but allowed to act as a party man even in the Chair (though required by usage to give a fair share of debate to the minority), was formerly allowed to exercise great power over the course of business, especially in and since the days of Thomas B. Reed, an exceptionally able and resolute man. In 1910, however, the stringent rule of one of his successors provoked a revolt, which transferred the arrangement of business to the Committee on Rules (familiarly called the Steering Committee), while also transferring the selection of members of the Committees to the House itself. Another figure, now almost as prominent as the Speaker, is the Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, who is recognized by the Majority Party as their “floor leader,” though they do not always follow him. Finally, when a question of importance arises on which the members of either party are not agreed, they meet in a separate room to debate it among themselves and decide on their course. This is called “going into caucus,” and the decision arrived at is usually respected and given effect to by a vote in the Chamber. In these ways a general direction is given to the majority's action, and business goes on, though with a loss of time and waste of energy which the existence of a recognized and permanent leadership vested in a Cabinet might avoid. The rules for closing debate and for limiting the length of speeches are in constant use, being an indispensable instrument against obstruction, here called “filibustering.”
3. The Quality of Legislation
Few Bills, except those relating to finance, are adequately debated, and the opportunities for members to distinguish themselves are scanty. All have a chance of doing useful work in Committees, but it is work unknown to the public.
The great majority of the Bills introduced1 are what would be called in England “private,” i.e. they have a local or personal object; and most of these used to be “Pension Bills” to confer war pensions upon persons who had, or were alleged to have, served in, or had perhaps deserted from, the Northern armies in the Civil War, and who for some reason or other did not come within the scope of the general Pension Acts, wide as that scope was. Members found in such a Bill an easy way of gratifying a constituent and his relatives. The practice was grossly abused, and indeed the Pension Acts as a whole, both general and special, have been a public scandal. In the fifty years that followed the Civil War (1865–1915) more than $4,000,-000,000 (£800,000,000 sterling) were expended in this way. Nothing like this could have happened had there been in Congress any Minister of Finance charged with the duty of protecting the public treasury. Private Bills in general have been a source of endless waste and jobbery, because regulations similar to those which exist in England have not been prescribed for examining into their provisions and for securing their impartial consideration by a small Committee which no lobbyist and not even a Parliamentary colleague should be permitted to approach.
As in most modern countries, many public bills are unsound in principle and meant to earn credit for their introducer from some section of the people.
So far I have spoken of Congress as a whole, and in its character of a legislative body. The Senate, however, enjoys executive functions also, and is so peculiar and important a part of the general frame of government as to need a more particular description, being indeed the most original of American institutions, and one whose example has influenced other countries. It owes its origin to the Federal character of the United States, and was created primarily in order to allay the fears of the States that they would be absorbed or overridden by the National Government, partly also from a wish to provide a check both upon the imagined impetuosity of the popular House and upon the possible ambitions of a President trying to make himself a dictator. It was meant to be a cool, calm, cautious, conservative body composed of elder statesmen, and chosen not by the people but by the legislatures of the States who, being themselves picked men, would be qualified to choose as Senators their own best citizens. This mode of choice was supposed by European observers, following Tocqueville, to have been the cause of its superiority in personal quality to the House, and thereby also of the preponderance over the House which it acquired. This superiority was, however, really due not to the mode of choice but to the fact that its longer term of service, six years instead of two, its continuity, for it is a permanent body, constantly renewed but never dissolved, and its wider powers, made a seat in it specially desirable, and therefore drew to it the best talent that entered political life. In course of time the plan of choice by State legislatures disclosed unforeseen evils. It brought national politics into those bodies, dividing them on partisan lines which had little or nothing to do with State issues. It produced bitter and often long-protracted struggles in the legislatures over a senatorial election, so that many months might pass before a choice could be made. It led to the bribery of venal legislators by wealthy candidates or by the great incorporated companies which desired to have in the Senate supporters sure to defend their interests. Thus after long agitation an amendment to the Constitution was carried (in 1913) which transferred the election to the citizens of each State, voting at the polls.1 This change has been deemed likely to reduce the partisan character of the State legislatures. But this may not happen: habits often outlive their original causes. Whether popular election will fill the Senate with better men remains to be seen. The labour and cost of an election campaign conducted over a large State is heavy, and gives an advantage to wealthy men and to those who command the support of powerful newspapers.1
The strength of the Senate consists not only in the higher average talent in its members, but also in their longer experience, for they have not only a six-years' term, but are more likely to be re-elected than are members of the House, while the small size of the body offers to able and pushful men better opportunities for displaying their gifts. There was no closure of debate until, in 1917, a rule was passed permitting it to be imposed by a two-thirds majority.2 Real debate, which in the House is practically confined to financial Bills, exists upon all Bills in the smaller Chamber, and attracts some attention from the public Even in finance the Senate has established itself as at least equally powerful with the House, although this does not seem to have been contemplated by the Constitution. Leadership belongs not to the presiding officer, who is the Vice-President of the United States, nor to any officially designated leader of either party, but falls to the man or the group deemed best able to lead, seniority being also regarded. Important issues are debated in a party caucus, while much influence is exercised by the chairmen of the principal Committees, who have now and then, when they added capacity to experience, become a sort of ruling oligarchy. The deference paid to seniority in the United States is a product of the respect professed for the principle of Equality. To prefer one man to another on the ground of superior ability would seem to offend against that principle, so length of service in a Committee gives, often with regrettable results, a title to its Chairmanship. That which makes a seat in the Senate the goal of a politician's hopes is the wider range of its powers, which are executive as well as legislative, since the more important administrative and judicial appointments made by the President require its concurrence. A Senator has thus a means of asserting his position in his State and in his party by threatening to “hold up” the President's nominations unless a certain number of these go to the persons whom he recommends. This control of patronage is the subject of a constant process either of bickerings or more frequently of what is called a “trade,” i.e. a give and take between the President and the Senators of his own party. Every treaty negotiated by the Executive is laid before the Senate, and requires for its validity the approval of two-thirds of the Senators. Here is another engine of power, which can be effectively wielded to induce the President to oblige the Senators in various ways.
Though the Senate has filled a useful part in the constitutional scheme, it has never been, and is certainly not now, an assembly of sages. Jealous of its own power, it often allows that power to be misused by Senators who care more for the interests or demands of their own State than they do for the common good. It is as much moved by partisanship as is the House, and just as ready to “play politics,” even in the sphere of foreign relations, when some party gain is expected. But the critics who have drawn from these defects conclusions adverse to the principle of a Second Chamber ought to consider what might have happened had there been no Senate. Neither the exercise of patronaw nor the conduct of foreign affairs could safely have been left to a President irremovable (except by impeachment) for four years, and whose Ministers do not sit in the Legislature and are not answerable to it, nor could those matters have been assigned to a body so large and so short-lived as the House, which would have been even less responsible to the nation, and which is, under its stringent rules, unable to debate either Bills or current administrative issues with a thoroughness sufficient to enlighten the country. It is no more conservative in spirit than the House, contains fewer rich men than it did twenty years ago, and is no longer in marked sympathy with wealth. While with its smaller size, it gives men of talent more chance of showing their mettle and becoming known to the nation at large, it also does something to steady the working of the machinery of government, because a majority of its members, safe in their seats for four or six years, are less easily moved by the shifting gusts of public feeling. Whatever its faults, it is indispensable.
4. Position and Influence of Congress, and the feeling of the People towards it
How far has the Federal Legislature, considered as a whole, lived up to the ideal of a body which shall represent the best mind of a democratic nation? Does it give the kind of legislation that the people desire? Does it duly supervise administration, advising, co-operating, restraining, as the case may require? Does it truly mirror the opinion of the people, and enjoy their respect?
It is not that hasty and turbulent body which the Fathers of the Constitution feared they might be creating. Storms of passion rarely sweep over it. Scenes of disorder are now unknown. Party discipline is strict, an atmosphere of good-fellowship prevails, the rules of procedure are obeyed, power rests with comparatively few persons. It is eager, even unduly eager, to discover and obey the wishes of its constituents, or at least of the party organizations. Partisanship is no stronger than in Canada, and apparently weaker than in England. The tendency to split up into groups, marked in France, and now visible in England, hardly exists, for the two great parties have held the field. Though there is plenty of jobbery and log-rolling, the latter not necessarily corrupt, but mischievous and wasteful even when no bad motive is present, and though some members are under suspicion of being influenced by wealthy corporations, there is little direct corruption and the standard of purity has risen in recent years.
Nevertheless Congress does not receive the attention and enjoy the confidence which ought to belong to a central organ of national life. It is not, so to speak, the heart into which blood should flow from all sections of the people represented in it, and whence the blood needed to nourish all the parts should be constantly propelled to every part of the body.
Why is this?
One cause is to be found in its imperfect discharge of the functions allotted to it. It seldom “faces right up” to the great problems, not even always to the lesser problems of legislation. It fumbles with them, does not get to the root of the matter, seems to be moved rather by considerations of temporary expediency and the wish to catch every passing breeze of popular demand than by a settled purpose to meet the larger national needs. In the handling of national finance it is alternately narrow-minded in its parsimony and extravagant in its efforts to propitiate some class or locality. The monstrous waste of money on war pensions, a waste for which both parties are almost equally to blame, was prompted by mere vote-catching. Every year sees the distribution from what is called “the Pork Barrel” of grants of money to particular districts or cities for so-called “local public works"— it may be for making a harbour which is sure to be silted up, or improving the navigation of a stream where there is just enough water to float a canoe.1 These things bring money to the neighbourhood, and “make work,” so a member earns merit with his constituency by procuring for them all he can. It is nobody's business to stop him; and others who wish to earn merit in a like way would resent the discourteous act. Another cause may be found in the fact that Congress does not impress the nation by its intellectual power any more than by its moral dignity. Men who care for the welfare of the country as a whole — perhaps more numerous in the United States than in any other free country — do not look to it for guidance. The House scarcely ever enlightens them by its debates, and the Senate less now than formerly. Its proceedings, largely conducted in the dim recesses of committee rooms, do not greatly interest the educated classes, and still less the multitude. The Legislatures of France and England and Canada, whatever their defects, have a dramatic quality, and can be watched with ceaseless attention. They bring striking personalities to the front, turning on them a light which makes the people know them and take them for leaders. The House and Senate want that scenic attraction; and they have a rival in the President. The people read his speeches and do not read the Congressional Record. He is a Personality, a single figure on whom the fierce light beats.
We must also remember that Congress does not draw into itself enough of the best political talent of the nation. How often is the observer surprised to find that in the House there is a difficulty in finding any men marked out for the posts of Floor-leader or Speaker? How often do the parties realize, when the time for presidential nominations comes, that neither in the House nor perhaps even in the Senate do they discover more than two or three persons who can be thought of as candidates available for the great post, though Congress ought to be the arena in which the champions of parties or causes might have been expected to display their gifts? Why, then, does a Congressional career fail to attract?
One explanation has already been indicated. In no country are there so many other careers which open so many doors to men of ambition, energy, and practical capacity. The opportunities for power, as well as for winning wealth in the world of business, are proportionate to the size and resources of the United States, that is to say, they are unequalled in the world. To be president of a great railway system, covering many States, or of some vast manufacturing industrial company, gives a scope for financial and administrative talent which touches the imagination. The Bar is another career in which the pecuniary prizes, as well as the fame, are immense, and it can seldom be combined with political distinction, as it so frequently and successfully is in Europe. If a man who loves study feels that he has also the power of attracting and guiding young men, the large number of the American universities and the influence their leading figures can exert as presidents or professors, an influence greater than anywhere in Europe, offers another attractive prospect to one who desires to serve his country. In America political life can hardly be called a career, for it is liable to be interrupted by causes, irrespective of personal merits, which the lawyer, the university teacher, and the man of business have not to reckon with.
It is also a career the entrance to which is in most places neither easy nor agreeable. Services are exacted, pledges are demanded, which a man of high spirit does not like to render or to give. The aspirant to a seat in Congress, unable to make his way alone with a constituency, must get the party nomination, which is generally obtainable only by the favour of a Boss. The path is sentinelled by the party machine, which values party loyalty more than ability, and usually selects in each district the man who either possesses local influence or has earned his place by local party service.
It may seem paradoxical to suggest that in a country where every representative comes from the place of his residence, and he is eager to win favour by deference to every local wish, there is nevertheless a certain want of contact between the member and his constituents. Yet this impression does rise to the mind of whoever, having sat for many years in the British House of Commons, compares the relation a member holds towards his electors with that which seems to exist between the American Congressman and his district. The former is in direct touch with his constituents, holds his own meetings, manages his own canvas, and though of course on good terms with the local party organization, need not cringe to it. Many a Congressman seems to feel himself responsible primarily and directly to the Organization, and only secondarily to his constituents.
European critics used to attribute the defects of American legislatures in Nation, State, and City to the fact that the members, instead of working from motives of patriotism or ambition, receive salaries. Though it might be wished that no temptation of personal interest should draw a man to politics, or influence him there, it is doubtful whether, other things being what they are, the United States legislatures would be better if unpaid. Cynics used to say “Perhaps they would steal worse.” Anyhow, the question is purely academic. In a country so large, and with a leisured class so relatively small, men could not be expected to quit their homes and avocations to reside in Washington without a remuneration to compensate for the loss of their means of livelihood as well as to defray the cost of residence in one of the most expensive places in the world. Even in the State legislatures the farmer or lawyer who leaves his work for weeks or months to do the business of the State must be paid for his time.
That popular election has not succeeded in producing efficient legislative bodies is undeniable. But in America the people have other means of showing their capacity as judges of men. They elect the heads of the Executive, a President for the nation, a Governor in every State. To these let us pass, enquiring what it is that they look for in a high executive official, how they proceed to find what they desire, how they treat the man of their choice when they have found him, and what place he fills in the working of their system. The Presidency is one of the two or three greatest offices in the world; for only to the Pope do a greater number of human beings look, and it is the only office to which a man is chosen by popular vote. What are the gifts which commend a man to the people, and to those party managers who search for a candidate likely to please the people? These are matters in which we may study the tastes and discernment of the nation as a whole.
That which most attracts the people is the thing we call a Strong Personality. They want a Man, some one who is to be more than a name or a bundle of estimable qualities, a living reality whom they can get to know, to whom they can attach themselves, with whom they can sympathize, whom they can follow because they trust his ability to lead. Courage and energy are accordingly the gifts that most attract them. Some measure of intellectual power, some cleverness and command of language, are required, for without these qualities no man could have got high enough to come into the running. But neither statesmanlike wisdom, nor eloquence, though often deemed the road to power in popular governments, is essential. The average citizen has seldom either the materials or the insight that would enable him to judge the presence of the former. He does not think of his statesmen as above his own level. Eloquence he can feel, and by eloquence he is sometimes captivated. Yet it is not indispensable. No President, except Lincoln, has been a true orator: many, and good ones too, have not risen above the level of sensible and effective talk.
Honesty, or at least a reputation for honesty, there must be. It is assumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and rightly assumed. A few Presidents have been surrounded by corrupt men, and have been too lenient to their faults. But against none has any charge of personal turpitude or of making any gain out of his office been seriously pressed. Such an offence would destroy him. Not far behind these prime essentials of Honesty and Force comes what is called Geniality, the qualities whether of heart or only of manner which make a man popular — the cheery smile, the warm handshake, the sympathetic tone in the voice. This gift seems to count for so much in England as well as in American electoral campaigns that people are apt to deem its absence fatal. Nevertheless, there have been Presidents who wanted it, and some who failed even in the tact which, if it cannot always make friends, can at least avoid making enemies.
A forceful will, honesty, and practical sense being the chief qualities needed, what evidence of fitness do the Parties look for, since some is required, whatever the field of action whence it is drawn? The candidate must be a man known as having “made good” in some branch of public life — it may be in Congress, it may be as State Governor, or Mayor of a great city, or a Cabinet Minister, or possibly even as an ambassador or a judge, or as an unusually prominent journalist. The two first-named careers provide the best training for the Presidency, and the best test of fitness for it. To be successful, a State Governor needs firmness, judgment, leadership, and the skill required for dealing with that troublesome body, his State legislature. A man who has had experience and won authority in Congress has the advantage of knowing its ways. Of the Presidents chosen since Lincoln only four (Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley) sat there. Hayes, Cleveland, Eoosevelt, and Wilson had been State Governors.
These being the merits looked for, the party leaders proceed to make their selections of candidates by searching not so much for a good President as for a good candidate, i.e. a man likely to rope in votes in the largest measure from the largest number of quarters. To ascertain this vote-gathering quality other things have to be considered besides talent and experience, so the choice may fall on a person with neither force nor brilliance. There is the reputation already acquired or the hostility a man may have incurred, according to the French dictum, “It is an advantage to have done nothing, but one does not abuse it.” There are the popular gifts summed up in the word “magnetism.” There is also the hold which a man may possess over a particular State which has a special importance for the election, because its electoral vote is large, or because the parties in it are so equally divided that if one of its citizens is selected as candidate he will make sure of its vote.1 These considerations may militate against the selection of the person fittest in respect of character and talents, and often draw the selection to States like Ohio and New York.
It goes without saying that the party must be united on its candidate, for division would mean defeat. Who then shall decide between the various aspirants? In the early days of the Republic this function was assumed by the members of Congress who belonged to each party, and their decision was acquiesced in. But presently this assumption was resented as an usurpation of the rights of the people. In 1828 extra-Congressional gatherings began to make nominations, and ever since 1840 party conventions of delegates from the whole country have met, discussed the claims of their respective party aspirants, and nominated the man whom they preferred. The plan is so plainly conformable to democratic doctrine that it is accepted as inevitable. The power of the people would not be complete if it failed to include not only the right of choosing its Chief but also the right for the members of any section to determine on whom the section should concentrate its voting force. Thus the Party Convention which nominates a candidate has become as real and effective a part of the constitutional machinery as if it had formed a part of the Constitution.
The framers of the Constitution contemplated nothing like this. They committed the election of the President to a College of Electors specially elected for this sole purpose, men who, possessed of wisdom and experience and animated by pure patriotism, would be likely to select the citizen whom their impartial judgment preferred. Boards of this type were twice elected, and on both occasions chose George Washington, who was the obvious and indeed the inevitable person. But the third College was elected (in 1796) largely, and the fourth (1800) wholly on party lines, and being expected to choose a party leader acted in a partisan spirit. Their example has been followed ever since, and what was to have been a council of impartial sages has consisted of nonentities, a mere cogwheel in the machinery of election, recording mechanically the wishes of the people.
Much depends on the questions before the nation at the time when the election approaches, and the amount of interest these questions evoke from those who think seriously about them, and influence their fellow-citizens. Such men desire to have in the Head of the Nation some one who will worthily represent their ideals, not merely a skilful party leader or administrator, but a man likely to guide the nation by his wisdom and courage along the lines which its needs prescribe. The mood of the nation influences its judgment on the candidates presented to it.1
During two years or more before each election of a President, rumour and criticism are busy with the names of those persons in each party who are deemed “available,” or to use the popular term, “Presidential Timber.”1 Sometimes there is one leader who so overtops the rest that his adoption is a foregone conclusion. But more frequently party opinion divides itself between several competitors, the adherents of each drawn to him either by sympathy with his views or by something captivating in his personality. Thus before the moment for choice arrives there are practically several factions within the party, each working for its own favourite.
The decision between these favourites is entrusted to a body called the National Convention, which meets about four months before the Presidential election in some great city, and consists of more than one thousand delegates from State Conventions. These State Conventions, it will be remembered, themselves consist of delegates from smaller local conventions or from those Primary meetings which have been already described, so the National Convention is a body representing the party over the whole United States, and representing it upon a population basis just as Congress does. It is in fact a sort of Congress, not of the nation but of a Party, charged with the double function of selecting a candidate and of discussing and enouncing that legislative and administrative programme upon which the party makes its appeal to the nation.2 Most of the delegates come instructed by their respective State Conventions, or by so-called Direct Presidential Primaries, to vote for some particular person, since the merits of each aspirant have been already canvassed in those Conventions; but if they find themselves unable to carry their own favourite, they must ultimately turn over their support to some other aspirant, perhaps under instructions from their State Convention, or from the Direct Primaries,3 perhaps at their own discretion, because not all the contingencies that may arise can be foreseen. All the delegates from a State are expected to vote together, but do not always follow this rule. They meet from time to time in secret to review the situation and discuss their course, for the situation changes from hour to hour, according to the rising or declining prospects of each aspirant. In the hall the proceedings are public — secrecy would be impossible with such numbers — and are watched by some ten thousand eager spectators. The presence of the multitude, acclaiming everything said in praise of the aspirant in whom each section rejoices, adds to the excitement which prevails, an excitement which, stimulated by bands of music and by displays of colours, badges, and emblems, grows hotter the longer the contest lasts and the more doubtful its issue appears. Sometimes this excitement, blazing into enthusiasm for one name proposed, sweeps like a prairie fire over the crowd and makes his nomination inevitable. But more frequently each faction persists in fighting hard for its favourite, so ballotings may continue for days or even weeks. As many as forty-nine and even fifty-three have been taken in the Convention of one or other party. When the struggle is thus prolonged, and it is seen that the knot cannot be cut but must be untied, efforts are made to reconcile the opposing factions and effect an arrangement which may unite them in the support either of one or other of the leading aspirants or of some other person not objectionable to either. Negotiations proceed in the vacant hours before and after the forenoon and afternoon sittings of the Convention, sometimes even within the hall while speech-making goes on. Compromises which might be impracticable if principles were at stake become possible because the party managers who support one or other aspirant have a personal interest in the unity of the party stronger even than their attachment to their own man, since a disruption of the party would in destroying its chance of success shake their own influence and extinguish their hopes for all that victory could bring them. Each (or at least most) of the influential party chiefs commands a large number of delegates from one or more States, and can turn over a number of their votes to the aspirant who seems most likely to be either acceptable to the party as a whole, or to have a good chance of winning the election. Thus the few leading men — for here, as always and everywhere, real direction rests with a few — usually arrive, in secret conclave, at some sort of settlement, even if the candidate ultimately nominated be one for whom at the opening of the Convention no one prophesied victory. That such a method of choice, a strange mixture of Impulse and Intrigue, should not have borne worse fruit than it has in fact produced, may excite surprise. Now and then a Convention has seemed to be drifting straight on to the rocks. There have been cases when a majority of the delegates persisted in voting for an aspirant whom all men of discernment knew to be unfit to be President, and hardly fit to be even talked of as a candidate. But somehow or other the minority, just strong enough to hold out, prevailed at last and averted a disastrous choice. Sometimes the need for a compromise gives the prize to a mediocre, but never to a palpably incompetent man, nearly all having had a creditable if possibly commonplace record: and when the selections have been least happy, the candidate has been rejected by the people.
I have gone into these details because they show how the power of the party machine is limited by the need for pleasing the People, and show also how out of all the confused cross-currents of sentiment and interest, patriotism, selfishness, and partisanship, there may emerge a tolerably good result. A nominating Convention is the supreme effort a vast democracy makes to find its leader, and the difficulties of the process are instructive. The experience of eighty years has not lessened them.
It is a fear of the people that deters Conventions, bodies mainly composed of professionals, from nominating persons whom the more unscrupulous among the party manager would prefer. The delegates may be subservient or short-sighted, but the people have a sort of instinct which, asserting itself when a serious issue arises, saves the nation from windy demagogues and plausible impostors. The choice purporting to be democratic, because made by the citizens through their delegates, is at least as much oligarchic, arranged by a few skilful wire-pullers. In each delegation there are a very few only who count, and real control may rest with one man, perhaps belonging to another delegation or to none. Yet the influence of public opinion remains in the fact that no one can be chosen to be candidate who is not likely to attract the people. He must be a man to win with. Thus things have on the whole gone better than might have been predicted. Not many Presidents have been brilliant, some have not risen to the full moral height of the position. But none has been base or unfaithful to his trust, none has tarnished the honour of the nation.
The fear, once loudly expressed, that the President might become a despot has proved groundless, and this is due, not merely to the fact that he has no great standing army at his command but rather to the skill with which the framers of the Constitution defined his powers, and above all to the force of general opinion which guards the Constitution. The principles of the American Government are so deeply rooted in the national mind that an attempt to violate them would raise a storm of disapproval. It may seem unfortunate that the head of the nation, having been elected by a party, is obliged to be also that party's chief, and to look specially to it for support.1 He is, however, expected not to let his duty to the party prejudice his higher duty to the nation; and a politic President will try to win from the public opinion of both parties the backing he may need to overcome sectional opposition within his own. When he gives bold leadership in an evidently patriotic spirit he will find that backing, sometimes even among those who voted against him. The nation values initiative, loves courage, likes to be led, as indeed does every assembly, every party, every multitude.
The power which the Executive can exert over legislation is conditioned by the party situation in Congress. If his own party controls both Houses he can accomplish much; if either House is hostile, and especially if there is a strong hostile group in the Senate, comparatively little, so far as regards controversial topics. But in any event he possesses five important powers.
He is Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy.
He suggests to Congress topics on which legislation is required, setting forth in his message or in speeches the substance of the measures needful, and getting some member to embody them in a Bill. This function, little used previously, has become frequent within the last twenty years, and helps to cure defects in the frame of government due to a too rigid deference to the doctrine of the Separation of Powers.
He has, and uses freely, the right of Veto, i.e. of refusing to sign Bills passed by Congress. His dissent can be overridden if the Bill is repassed by a two-thirds majority in each House, but as such a majority is seldom attainable, and the President is likely to have some good reason for his action, he is rarely overruled.
He has the function of nominating to the more important administrative diplomatic and judicial posts in the National Government.
Lastly, he has the conduct of foreign affairs. In these two last-mentioned functions, however, his power is limited by the right of the Senate to refuse its consent to appointments, and by the provision that the consent of two-thirds shall be needed for the approval of a treaty. The power of declaring war is reserved to Congress, but the Senate cannot prevent Executive action dangerous to peace from being taken, or negotiations from being brought to a point where war becomes almost inevitable.1
Into questions bearing on the personal relations of the President to Congress I need not enter, for they throw no direct light on those aspects of democracy which concern us. It may suffice to say that both the want of co-operation between the administrative departments and the Committees of Congress and the imperfect touch between the President himself and Congress as a whole have come to be recognized as defects to be cured. President Roosevelt was more active than his predecessors in pressing Congress to deal with matters he deemed urgent. President Wilson went further, for he frequently addressed Congress in person. In both cases the nation showed no disapproval. There is nothing in the Constitution to limit the interchange of views between the Executive and the Legislature. Congress has been jealous of its rights, but it might well gain rather than lose by more frequent personal intercourse with the President.
It used to be feared that a President, moved by personal ambition, or desiring to strengthen his position at home, might lead the nation into a policy of aggression abroad. That danger seems to have vanished. More recently alarm has been expressed that his influence might be used to bring about projects of sweeping constitutional or legislative change. This, however, he could not do without the support of Congress and of public opinion. In all these matters public opinion must be the ultimate safeguard.
The powers of the Executive, considerable at all times, are of course most important in a crisis of domestic strife or foreign war, when prompt and decisive action, such as an assembly can rarely take, is demanded from the executive head of the nation, and is acquiesced in, even if it seems to go beyond the lines of the Constitution. At all times, however, much depends on the personal character of the President. It might almost be said that his powers are what his employment of them makes them. Looking at the succession of Presidents, and noticing how the nation is influenced by a chief magistrate whose energy impresses it or whose gifts take its fancy, we are reminded of the great emperors of the Middle Ages, such as Henry the Third and the two Fredericks of Hohenstaufen, whose personal character made all the difference to the support they could evoke, and still more reminded of those monarchs who ruled by the Word and not by the Sword, such as Pope Gregory the Seventh and Pope Innocent the Third. These latter ruled because they could command spiritual allegiance. A President prevails just so far as he can carry public opinion with him, according to the familiar dictum, “With the people everything succeeds: without the people, nothing.” With opinion behind him, he may prove stronger than both Houses of Congress. Cases have arisen in which, when a Congress and the President were at variance, the sympathy of the people seemed to go more to the latter than to the former. Both he and they are the choice of the people, but if he is forceful and attractive, they take a personal interest in him which they do not feel for a large number of elected representatives, the vast majority of whom are to them mere names. If the elected king who governs as well as reigns during his allotted term shows himself worthy of the great position, he draws to himself, as personifying the Nation, something of that reverent regard which monarchs used to inspire in Europe.
In 1919 eleven States had given the suffrage to women, viz. Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, California, New York, Massachusetts.
As a rule, a citizen can in the United States vote only in one place, that where he resides and pays local taxes.
A remarkable instance occurred very recently at a senatorial election.
This number is enormous. In the sixty-second Congress (1913) it had reached 29,000 in the House of Representatives and 9000 in the Senate. Few pass.
As is well observed by Prof. Gannaway (Comparative Free Government, pp. 129–130), this 17th Amendment finally disposed of the old theory, which, however, had scarcely counted in later practice, that a Senator represents his State as a distinct political entity. But it does not affect the justice of Mr. Woodrow Wilson's remark that the equal representation of States in the Senate has had the excellent result of securing full expression of the wishes of the less populous and especially the newer regions of the country. Under an election by large districts based on population these regions would have been virtually swamped.
The “senatorial primaries” to be hereafter mentioned have increased the fatigue and expense of a candidacy.
After closure has been imposed each speech is limited to one hour. This rule leaves an opening for filibustering when undertaken in the interests of a minority amounting to one-third.
Some instructive facts regarding the Pork Barrel and the amazing expenditure of public money in appropriations for local purposes and in the distribution of pensions by private or special Bills (as distinct from the general Pensions Acts) may be found in the National Municipal Review for December 1919 in an article entitled Pork.
The voting is by States, each having as many votes as it has representatives and senators, and the smallest majority in a State is sufficient to give all the votes of that State (New York has 45 and Pennsylvania 38) to the candidate who has carried it; New York and Ohio have long been doubtful States: Pennsylvania safely Republican ever since the Civil War.
“The Convention picks out a party leader from the body of the nation, not that it expects its nominee to direct the interior government of the party, but that it expects him to represent it before public opinion and to stand before the country as its represenative man, a true type of what the country may expect of the party itself in purpose and principle. … There is no national party choice except that of President. No one else represents the people as a whole, exercising a national choice, and inasmuch as his strictly executive duties are in fact subordinated so far as all detail is concerned, the President represents not so much the party's governing efficiency as its controlling ideas and principles. He is not so much part of its organization as its vital link of connection with the thinking nation. … His is the only national voice in affairs. … His position takes the imagination of the country."—Constitutional Government in the United States by Mr. Woodrow Wilson (then President of Princeton University), published in 1908.
This term conveys the same idea as the Italian word papabili, used of men who may be thought of for the Popedom.
A full description of the National Convention may be found in American Commonwealth, vol. ii. chaps, lxix. and lxx.
Recently the laws of some States have superseded the choice of delegates by a State Convention, and have provided for “Preferential Primary” elections, which are not private party meetings but public votings by ballot, at which the party voters in the State are given an opportunity of declaring their preference for a particular aspirant as the person to be chosen by their delegates as the party candidate. This effort to place the choice of a candidate in the people's hands has, however, not so far worked perfectly, for, apart from other objections, it does not meet the difficulty that circumstances may so change before, or in the course of, the sittings of the National Convention that the chances of the aspirant indicated may have been reduced, perhaps to a vanishing point. It has, moreover, developed the practice of starting preliminary popular campaigns in behalf of particular aspirants, a process which may involve heavy expenditure. In the National Convention of 1916 not much regard, and in that of 1920 (when these Primaries were used in twenty States) still less regard was paid to the preferences declared. Many think the plan a failure.
“In the view of the makers of the Constitution the President was to be legal executive; perhaps the leader of the nations; certainly not the leader of the party, at any rate while in office. But by the operation of forces inherent in the very nature of Government he has become all three, and by inevitable consequence the most heavily burdened officer in the world” (Constitutional Government in the U.S., already quoted).
As to the conduct of foreign affairs by the joint action of the President and the Senate, see American Commowealth, vol. i. chaps. vi. and xi. The plan of the U.S. Constitution does not work smoothly, for the Senate has frequently rejected treaties negotiated by Presidents, but neither has any other plan given satisfaction in other constitutional countries, for though wherever, as in France, Italy and England, a Ministry leads a Parliamentary majority, that majority almost invariably accepts the engagements contracted by the Ministry, these engagements are sometimes distasteful to the people, and shake such confidence as it may have in the Ministry.