Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLII: the state governments in their working - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XLII: the state governments in their working - 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 state governments in their working
From the National Government let us turn to the State Governments and observe how the democratic principles on which they were constructed have worked out in practice. Though the earliest State Constitutions existed before the Federal Constitution, they have been so often amended and so many new Constitutions have been enacted for both the older and the newer States, that the State Constitutions as a whole are now of a more democratic colour than is that National constitutional system whose workings have just been examined.
We have already seen that every State Legislature is elected either by manhood suffrage (except so far as coloured citizens are excluded1 ) or by universal suffrage, that each has two Houses, with practically equal legislative powers, and that neither the Governor nor any other official can sit in either. The men who compose the smaller House (Senate) and the larger one, both of them selected by the party Machines, are of the same quality, a quality nowhere high, but in which three grades of merit, or demerit, may be distinguished.2 The legislatures of some of the older Eastern States where there is a large rural element are respectable, with a small proportion of half-educated men and a still smaller one of corrupt men. This grade shades off into a second, including the newer States in the Middle West and North-west. Their legislatures contain many farmers and many petty lawyers from the smaller towns, who are mostly honest, well-meaning persons, but of a limited outlook and a proneness to be captured by plausible phrases and to rush into doubtful experiments. Here, too, the quality of the legislatures is highest where the rural element is largest, and the party machines are least powerful. The third class, more distinct from the second than is the second from the first, includes States whose politics have been demoralized by large cities where Kings flourish and party Bosses distribute spoils to their adherents. Six or seven State Legislatures, among which those of Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois are the worst, belong to this category. In these the level of honour and probity is low, for few men of public spirit, likely to disobey the party organization, would be permitted to enter them wherever the Bosses could close the door. Still their virtue has risen a little of late years, and in some of them a group of reformers may be found.
Legislation is conducted by a system of Committees resembling that of Congress, which in most States gives little opportunity for debate in public, though in many (as in Massachusetts) a Committee sits with open doors and receives evidence from all who come to offer it.1 Debates excite little interest. Finance plays a smaller part here than in Congress, for the State revenue is not large, local requirements being provided for by county and municipal taxes. The tendency to borrow recklessly for public improvements, marked at one time, was checked by amendments to the State Constitutions. The stream of statutes flows freely, especially in the Western States, where new ideas “catch on” readily, the ardour of philanthropic progress being much in evidence. These social reform Acts are better than the men who pass them, because they are often dictated by groups of moral reformers whose zeal, though it outruns their discretion, is a wholesome factor in the community. If not defeated by the covert arts of persons interested in defending the abuses they are aimed at, they are passed with a glow of conscious virtue by those who find this kind of virtue easy; but such laws often fail to be enforced, sometimes because it is the business of nobody in particular, sometimes because they are practically unenforceable, so that, as an American philosopher has observed, “Western statute books are a record rather of aspiration than of achievement.”
It is the special or “private Bill” legislation (to use the English term) which is the happy hunting-ground of the professional politicians who mostly compose the membership of these bodies, especially those of the six or seven States above mentioned. This is what draws most of these professionals into the Legislature, for it is in this quarter that the opportunities for illicit gain are to be found. The special or private Bills confer privileges or exemptions upon particular individuals or corporate bodies, authorizing them to do things the general law might not permit, as for instance to take private property for a public utility. Such Bills are brought in and put through by any member, just as are public Bills of general operation, being subject to no such provisions for a quasi-judicial scrutiny of their preambles and enacting clauses as the system of Standing Orders and the rules of Private Bill Committees established long ago in England. In these legislatures there is no duty thrown on any one to criticize faults or secure protection for any interest which the Bill may affect, so the door stands wide open to abuses of legislative power for the benefit of private persons or companies. Through that door many filch their gains.1
The carnival of jobbery and corruption which such Bills have induced in State legislatures has done more than anything else to discredit those bodies. Secret arrangements are made between the lobbyists who act for the promoters of the Bill, the members whom these lobbyists approach, and other members who usually have similar jobs of their own, and thus by the system called “log-rolling” support is obtained sufficient to put the Bills through. Unscrupulous members use their powers in another way, introducing Bills designed to injure some railway company or other wealthy corporation, and then demanding to be bought off. This form of blackmail is called a Strike, and has been frequent in almost every State where there are large corporations to be squeezed. The threatened interests, obliged to defend themselves, justify their methods by the plea that their shareholders must be protected; and when legitimate means fail, because the composition and rules of the legislatures afford no protection, illegitimate means must be employed. When a Governor happens to be upright, courageous, and vigilant, he applies a remedy by vetoing the Bills he knows to be bad. But not all States have such Governors, nor can the most vigilant keep an eye upon every trick. In States where on the one side stand railway companies, street-car companies, and other great corporate undertakings commanding immense capital and anxious to obtain from the State what the Americans call “public franchises,” rights of immense pecuniary value, and on the other side a crowd of men, mostly obscure, from whose votes these rights can be purchased with scant risk of detection and little social slur upon either the briber or the bribed if detection should follow, corruption must be looked for. The best evidence of the gravity of these evils is to be found in the attempts made by the better citizens to extirpate them, efforts which began many years ago and have taken more and more drastic forms. I reserve an account of these for the general survey of reform movements on a later page.
Every Governor is elected by the people of the whole State, having been nominated by a party convention. The qualities he ought to possess, while generally similar to such as are required in a President, are more distinctly those of a good man of business, viz. firmness, tact, common sense, alert watchfulness, and of course a pleasant manner, which helps to soften his refusals of the insidious requests that beset him. He need not have a creative mind, but must have a strong will. His chief tasks are those of vetoing bad private Bills, and inducing the legislature to pass good public Bills. His activity in this direction has recently increased in many States, and with good results, for legislatures need leading, and what he gives is likely to be better than that of party Bosses. The temptation to abuse his patronage is not great, since the chief State officials and Boards are directly elected by the citizens, and appoint their own subordinates, but that system is faulty, for it impairs administration, which might be more efficient if the Governor were to appoint the heads of the chief departments and use them as a sort of Cabinet. As head of the Executive he is responsible for the maintenance of order, no easy function when industrial disputes lead to rioting, and he has to choose between doing his duty under the law and the anger which his enforcement of it will rouse in a large section of the voters. Most Governors have done their duty. So in the Southern States the merit of a Governor is tested by his determination to protect the coloured population and enjoin a spirit of good feeling towards them.
As in these various ways a strong man may show his mettle, the office attracts those who have begun to dream of the Presidency of the United States, the possibility of reaching that giddy eminence being always in the background of ambitious minds. It trains a man for the post, for it needs, though in a narrower sphere, the same gifts of leadership, firmness, and insight into men, coupled with the skill needed in dealing with legislatures, singular bodies which are both better and worse than are the individuals who compose them. The judgment of the citizens on a Governor after his first year of office is almost always fair and sound.
The tendency for the State Governor to overshadow his legislature illustrates afresh the disposition of the masses to look to and be interested in a Man rather than an Assembly. The Man becomes real to them, gets credit for what he accomplishes, can be held accountable for failure or neglect. Much is gained by fixing on a conspicuous official the responsibility which a hundred inconspicuous representatives elude. When he appeals to the people against the politicians, the politicians may complain of his autocratic ways, but the people are pleased and generally side with him, as they did with Mr. Hughes when he defied the powerful party machine which controlled his own party in New York State. As he was their own direct choice, they did not care how much he threatened legislators who had been forced upon them by the Organization rather than chosen by themselves.
Yet the Governor may not be the chief power. States could be named in which there may stand above him, as there has often stood in New York and has stood for many a year in Pennsylvania, the mightier figure of the Boss, who as head of the Machine commands the Legislature, its members sitting by his favour. His extra-legal power is greater than any the laws of the State confer. So the State of California was ruled for a generation by a railway company, one of whose officials exercised the authority though he did not bear the name of a Boss; and that yoke lasted unbroken into the present century, till at last the Company grew tired of maintaining it.
A very recent decision of the Supreme Court has declared invalid one of the laws, adopted in some Southern States, which had the effect of excluding a number of coloured citizens from the Suffrage, but it remains to be seen what practical effect this decision will have in increasing the coloured vote.
The new Direct Primaries (see Chap. XLV., pp. 141–145) have improved matters a little, but in most States there is a large “professional” element, and as the other members, especially the often inexperienced and credulous farmers, hold their seats for a short time only, the professionals have everywhere an influence disproportionate to their numbers.
This plan is most fully applied in Massachusetts, where it has worked usefully. See Mr. A. L. Lowell's book, Public Opinion and Popular Government, p. 250, for an instructive description and estimate.
I describe these evils, as they were twenty years ago, because they indicate one of democracy's diseases, but they have now been reduced in many States.