Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 46: State Politics - The American Commonwealth, vol. 1
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chapter 46: State Politics - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 1 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995).
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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In the last preceding chapters I have attempted to describe first the structure of the machinery of state governments, and then this machinery in motion as well as at rest, that is to say, the actual working of the various departments in their relations to one another. We may now ask, What is the motive power which sets and keeps these wheels and pistons going? Where is the steam that drives the machine?
The steam is supplied by the political parties. In speaking of the parties I must, to some slight extent, anticipate what will be more fully explained in Part III; but it seems worth while to incur this inconvenience for the sake of bringing together all that refers specifically to the states, and of completing the picture of their political life.1
The states evidently present some singular conditions for the development of a party system. They are self-governing communities with large legislative and administrative powers, existing inside a much greater community of which they are for many purposes independent. They must have parties, and this community, the federal Union, has also parties. What is the relation of the one set of parties to the other?
There are three kinds of relations possible, viz.:
The nature of the state governments would lead us to expect to find the first of these relations existing. The sphere of the state is different, some few topics of concurrent jurisdiction excepted, from that of the national government. What the state can deal with, the national government cannot touch. What the national government can deal with lies beyond the province of the state.2 The state governor and legislature are elected without relation to the president and Congress, and when elected have nothing to do with those authorities. Hence a question fit to be debated and voted upon in Congress can seldom be a question fit to be also debated and voted upon in a state legislature, and the party formed for advocating its passage through Congress will have no scope for similar action within a state, while on the other hand a state party, seeking to carry some state law, will have no motive for approaching Congress, which can neither help it nor hurt it. The great questions which have divided the Union since its foundation, and on which national parties have been based, have been questions of foreign policy, of the creation of a national bank, of a protective tariff, of the extension of slavery, of the reconstruction of the South after the war. With none of these had a state legislature any title to deal; all lay within the federal sphere. So the questions of currency and tariff reform, which towards the close of the nineteenth century came to be among the most important questions before the country, were outside the province of the state governments. We might therefore expect that the state parties would be as distinct from the national parties as are the state governments from the federal.
The contrary has happened. The national parties have engulfed the state parties. The latter have disappeared absolutely as independent bodies, and survive merely as branches of the national parties, working each in its own state for the tenets and purposes which a national party professes and seeks to attain. So much is this the case that one may say that a state party has rarely (save to some extent in the South) any marked local colour, that it is seldom, and then but slightly, the result of a compromise between state issues and national issues, such as I have indicated in suggesting the second form of possible relation. The national issues have thrown matters of state competence entirely into the shade, and have done so almost from the foundation of the Republic. The local parties which existed in 1789 in most or all of the states were soon absorbed into the Federalists and Democratic Republicans who sprang into life after the adoption of the federal Constitution.
The results of this phenomenon have been so important that we may stop to examine its causes.
Within four years from their origin, the strife of the two great national parties became intense over the whole Union. From 1793 till 1815 grave issues of foreign policy, complicated with issues of domestic policy, stirred men to fierce passion and strenuous effort. State business, being more commonplace, exciting less feeling, awakening no interest outside state boundaries, fell into the background. The leaders who won fame and followers were national leaders; and a leader came to care for his influence within his state chiefly as a means of gaining strength in the wider national field. Even so restlessly active and versatile a people as the Americans cannot feel warmly about two sets of diverse interests at the same time, cannot create and work simultaneously two distinct and unconnected party organizations. The state, therefore, had, to use the transatlantic phrase, “to take the back seat.” Before 1815 the process was complete; the dividing lines between parties in every state were those drawn by national questions. And from 1827 down to the end of the century the renewed keenness of party warfare kept these parties constantly on the stretch, and forced them to use all the support they could win in a state for the purposes of the national struggle.
There was one way in which predominance in a state could be so directly used. The federal senators are chosen by the state legislatures. The party therefore which gains a majority in the state legislature gains two seats in the smaller and more powerful branch of Congress. As parties in Congress are generally pretty equally balanced, this advantage is well worth fighting for and is a constant spur to the efforts of national politicians to carry the state elections in a particular state. Besides, in America, above all countries, nothing succeeds like success; and in each state the party which carries the state elections is held likely to carry the elections for the national House of Representatives, and for the president also.
Moreover, there are the offices. The federal offices in each state are very numerous. They are in the gift of whichever national party happens to be in power, i.e., counts among its members the president for the time being. He bestows them upon those who in each state have worked hardest for the national party there. Thus the influence of Washington and its presiding deities is everywhere felt, and even the party which is in a minority in a particular state, and therefore loses its share of the state offices, may be cheered and fed by morsels of patronage from the national table. The national parties are in fact all-pervasive, and leave little room for the growth of any other groupings or organizations. A purely state party, indifferent to national issues, would, if it were started now, have no support from outside, would have few posts to bestow, because the state offices are neither numerous nor well paid, could have no pledge of permanence such as the vast mechanism of the national parties provides, would offer little prospect of aiding its leaders to win wealth or fame in the wider theatre of Congress.
Accordingly the national parties have complete possession of the field. In every state from Maine to Texas all state elections for the governorship and other offices are fought on their lines; all state legislatures are divided into members belonging to one or other of them. Every trial of strength in a state election is assumed to presage a similar result in a national election. Every state office is deemed as fitting a reward for services to the national party as for services in state contests. In fact the whole machinery is worked exactly as if the state were merely a subdivision of the Union for electoral purposes. Yet nearly all the questions which come before state legislatures have nothing whatever to do with the tenets of the national parties, while votes of state legislatures, except in respect of the choice of senators, can neither advance nor retard the progress of any cause which lies within the competence of Congress.
How has this system affected the working of the state governments, and especially of their legislatures?
It has prevented the growth within a state of state parties addressing themselves to the questions which belong to its legislature, and really affect its welfare.
The natural source of a party is a common belief, a common aim and purpose. For this men league themselves together, and agree to act in concert. A state party ought therefore to be formed out of persons who desire the state to do something, or not to do it; to pass such and such a law, to grant money to such and such an object. It is, however, formed with reference to no such aim or purpose, but to matters which the state cannot influence. Hence a singular unreality in the state parties. In the legislatures as well as through the electoral districts they cohere very closely. But this cohesion is of no service or significance for nine-tenths of the questions that come before the legislature for its decision, seeing that such questions are not touched by the platform of either party. Party, therefore, does not fulfil its legitimate ends. It does not produce the cooperation of leaders in preparing, of followers in supporting, a measure or line of policy. It does not secure the keen criticism by either side of the measures or policy advocated by the other. It is an artificial aggregation of persons linked together for purposes unconnected with the work they have to do.
This state of things may seem to possess the advantage of permitting questions to be considered on their merits, apart from that spirit of faction which in England, for instance, disposes the men on one side to reject a proposal of the other side on the score, not of its demerits, but of the quarter it proceeds from. Such an advantage would certainly exist if members were elected to the state legislatures irrespective of party, if the practice was to look out for good men who would manage state business prudently and pass useful laws. This, however, is not the practice. The strength of the national parties prevents it. Every member is elected as a party man; and the experiment of legislatures working without parties has as little chance of being tried in the several states as in Congress itself. There is yet another benefit which the plan seems to promise. The state legislatures may seem a narrow sphere for an enterprising genius, and their work uninteresting to a superior mind. But if they lead into the larger field of national politics, if distinction in them opens the door to a fame and power extending over the country, able men will seek to enter and to shine in the legislatures of the states. This is the same argument as is used by those who defend the practice, now general in England, of fighting municipal and other local elections on party lines. Better men, it is said, are glad to enter the town councils than could otherwise be induced to do so, because in doing so they serve the party, and establish a claim on it; they commend themselves to their fellow citizens as fit candidates for Parliament. The possible loss of not getting a good set of town councillors irrespective of party lines is thought to be more than compensated by the certain gain of men whose ambition would overlook a town council, were it not thus made a stage in their political career. This case is the more like that of America because these English municipal bodies have rarely anything to do with the issues which divide the two great English parties. Men are elected to them as Tories or Liberals whose Toryism or Liberalism is utterly indifferent so far as the business of the council goes.
Whether or no this reasoning be sound as regards England, I doubt if the American legislatures gain in efficiency by having only party men in them, and whether the elections would be any worse cared for if party was a secondary idea in the voters’ minds. Already these elections are entirely in the hands of party managers, to whom intellect and knowledge do not commend an aspirant, any more than does character. Experience in a state legislature certainly gives a politician good chances of seeing behind the scenes, and makes him familiar with the methods employed by professionals. But it affords few opportunities for distinction in the higher walks of public life, and it is as likely to lower as to raise his aptitude for them. However, a good many men find their way into Congress through the state legislatures—though it is no longer the rule that persons chosen federal senators by those bodies must have served in them—and perhaps the average capacity of members is kept up by the presence of persons who seek to use the state legislature as a stepping-stone to something further. The question is purely speculative. Party has dominated and will dominate all state elections. Under existing conditions the thing cannot be otherwise.
It is, however, obviously impossible to treat as party matters many of the questions that come before the legislatures. Local and personal bills, which, it will be remembered, occupy by far the larger part of the time and labours of these bodies, do not fall within party lines at all. The only difference the party system makes to them is that a party leader who takes up such a bill has exceptional facilities for putting it through, and that a district which returns a member belonging to the majority has some advantage when trying to secure a benefit for itself. It is the same with appropriations of state funds to any local purpose. Members use their party influence and party affiliations; but the advocacy of such schemes and opposition to them have comparatively little to do with party divisions, and it constantly happens that men of both parties are found combining to carry some project by which they or their constituents will gain. Of course the less reputable a member is, the more apt will he be to enter into “rings” which have nothing to do with politics in their proper sense, the more ready to scheme with any trickster, to whichever party he adheres. Of measures belonging to what may be called genuine legislation, i.e., measures for improving the general law and administration of the state, some are so remote from any party issue, and so unlikely to enure to the credit of either party, that they are considered on their merits. A bill, for instance, for improving the state lunatic asylums, or forbidding lotteries, or restricting the freedom of divorce, would have nothing either to hope or to fear from party action. It would be introduced by some member who desired reform for its own sake, and would be passed if this member, having convinced the more enlightened among his colleagues that it would do good, or his colleagues generally that the people wished it, could overcome the difficulties which the pressure of a crowd of competing bills is sure to place in its way. Other public measures, however, may excite popular feeling, may be demanded by one class or section of opinion and resisted by another. Bills dealing with the sale of intoxicants, or regulating the hours of labour, or attacking railway companies, or prohibiting the sale of oleomargarine as butter, are matters of such keen interest to some one section of the population, that a party will gain support from many citizens by espousing them, and may possibly estrange others. Hence, though such bills have rarely any connection with the tenets of either party, it is worth the while of a party to win votes by throwing its weight for or against them, according as it judges that there is more to gain by taking the one course or the other. In the case of oleomargarine, for instance, there was clearly more to be gained by supporting than by opposing, because the farmers, especially in the agricultural Northwest, constitute a much stronger vote than any persons who could suffer by restricting the sale of the substance. We should accordingly expect to find, and observers did in fact find, both parties competing for the honour of passing such a bill. There was a race between a number of members, anxious to gain credit for themselves and their friends. Intoxicants open up a more difficult problem. Strong as the Prohibitionists and local option men are in all the Northern and Western, and, recently, in the Southern states also, the Germans, not to speak of the Irish and the liquor dealers, are in many states also so strong, and so fond of their beer, that it is a hazardous thing for a party to hoist the anti-liquor flag. Accordingly both parties are apt to fence with this question. Speaking broadly, therefore, these questions of general state legislation are not party questions, though liable at any moment to become so, if one or other party takes them up.
Is there then no such thing as a real state party, agitating or working solely within state limits, and inscribing on its banner a principle or project which state legislation can advance?
Such a party does sometimes arise. In California, for instance, there has long been a strong feeling against the Chinese, and a desire to exclude them. Both Republicans and Democrats were affected by the feeling, and fell in with it. But there sprang up a little later a third party, which claimed to be specially “anti-Mongolian,” while also attacking capitalists and railways; and it lasted for some time, confusing the politics of the state. Questions affecting the canals of the state became at one time a powerful factor in the parties of New York. In Virginia the question of repudiating the state debt gave birth some time after the Civil War to a party which called itself the “Readjusters,” and by the help of Negro votes carried the state at several elections. In some of the Northwestern states the farmers associated themselves in societies called “Granges,” purporting to be formed for the promotion of agriculture, and created a Granger party, which secured drastic legislation against the railroad companies and other so-called monopolists. The same forces acting over a still wider area produced more recently the so-called Farmers’ Alliance, which figured so prominently in the congressional elections of 1890, and under the name of the People’s Party, in those of 1892. And in most states there now exists an active Prohibitionist party, which agitates for the strengthening and better enforcement of laws restricting or forbidding the sale of intoxicants. It deems itself also a national party, since it has an organization which covers a great part of the Union. But its operations are far more active in the states, because the liquor traffic belongs to state legislation, although the victories recently won for the anti-liquor cause have not usually been won by its own direct party action, but by the acceptance of the doctrine by one other of the regular parties.3 Since, however, it can rarely secure many members in a state legislature, it acts chiefly by influencing the existing parties, and frightening them into pretending to meet its wishes.
All these groups or factions were or are associated on the basis of some doctrine or practical proposal which they put forward. But it sometimes also happens that, without any such basis, a party is formed in a state inside one of the regular national parties; or, in other words, that the national party in the state splits up into two factions, probably more embittered against each other than against the other regular party. Such state factions, for they hardly deserve to be called parties, generally arise from, or soon become coloured by, the rivalries of leaders, each of whom draws a certain number of politicians with him. New York is the state that has seen most of them; and in it they have tended of late years to grow more distinctly personal. The Hunkers and Barnburners who divided the Democratic party many years ago, and subsequently passed into the “Hards” and the “Softs,” began in genuine differences of opinion about canal management and other state questions.4 The “Stalwart” and “Half-breed” sections of the Republican party in the same state, whose bitter feuds amused the country a few years ago, were mere factions, each attached to a leader, or group of leaders, but without distinctive principles. Still more purely personal were the factions of “Regular” and “Union” Republicans in Delaware, due to the efforts of a single politician to secure a seat in the United States Senate.
It will be seen from this fact, as well as from others given in the preceding chapter, that the dignity and magnitude of state politics have declined. They have become more pacific in methods, but less serious and more personal in their aims. In old days the state had real political struggles, in which men sometimes took up arms. There was a rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786–87, which it needed some smart fighting to put down, and another in Rhode Island in 1842, due to the discontent of the masses with the then existing constitution.5 The battles of later generations have been fought at the polling booths, though sometimes won in the rooms where the votes are counted by partisan officials. That heads are counted instead of being broken is no doubt an improvement. But these struggles do not always stir the blood of the people as those of the old time did: they seem to evoke less patriotic interest in the state, less public spirit for securing her good government.
This change does not necessarily indicate a feebler sense of political duty. It is due to that shrivelling up of the state to which I referred in the last chapter. A century ago the state was a commonwealth comparable to an Italian republic like Bologna or Siena, or one of the German free imperial cities of the Middle Ages, to Lübeck, for instance, or to Nürnberg, which, though it formed part of the Empire, had a genuine and vigorous political life of its own, in which the faiths, hopes, passions of the citizens were involved. Nowadays the facilities of communication, the movements of trade, the unprecedented diffusion of literature, and, perhaps not least, the dominance of the great national parties, whose full tide swells all the creeks and inlets of a state no less than the mid channel of national politics at Washington, have drawn the minds of the masses as well as of the more enlightened citizens away from the state legislatures, whose functions have come to seem trivial and their strifes petty.6
In saying this I do not mean to withdraw or modify what was said, in an earlier chapter, of the greatness of an American state, and the attachment of its inhabitants to it. Those propositions are, I believe, true of a state as compared to any local division of any European country, the cantons of Switzerland excepted. I am here speaking of a state as compared with the nation, and of men’s feelings towards their state today as compared with the feelings of a century ago. I am, moreover, speaking not so much of sentimental loyalty to the state, considered as a whole, for this is still strong, but of the practical interest taken in its government. Even in Great Britain many a man is proud of his city, of Edinburgh say, or of Manchester, who takes only the slenderest interest in the management of its current business.
There is indeed some resemblance between the attitude of the inhabitants of a great English town towards their municipal government and that of the people of a state to their state government. The proceedings of English town councils are little followed or regarded either by the wealthier or the poorer residents. The humble voter does not know or care who is mayor. The head of a great mercantile house never thinks of offering himself for such a post. In London the Metropolitan Board of Works raised and spent a vast revenue; but its discussions were seldom commented on in the newspapers and very few persons of good social standing were to be found among it members. Even the London County Council attracts less attention than the magnitude of its operations deserves. Allowing for the contrast between the English bodies, with their strictly limited powers, and the immense competence of an American state legislature, this English phenomenon is sufficiently like those of America to be worth taking as an illustration.
We may accordingly say that the average American voter, belonging to the labouring or farming or shopkeeping class, troubles himself little about the conduct of state business. He votes the party ticket at elections as a good party man, and is pleased when his party wins. When a question comes up which interests him, like that of canal management, or the regulation of railway rates, or a limitation of the hours of labour, he is eager to use his vote, and watches what passes in the legislature. He is sometimes excited over a contest for the governorship, and if the candidate of the other party is a stronger and more honest man, may possibly desert his party on that one issue. But in ordinary times he follows the proceedings of the legislature so little that an American humourist, describing the initial stages of dotage, observes that the poor old man took to filing the reports of the debates in his state legislature. The politics which the voter reads by preference are national politics; and especially whatever touches the next presidential election. In state contests that which chiefly fixes his attention is the influence of a state victory on an approaching national contest.
The more educated and thoughtful citizen, especially in great states, like New York and Pennsylvania, is apt to be disgusted by the sordidness of many state politicians and the pettiness of most. He regards Albany and Harrisburg much as he regards a wasps’ nest in one of the trees of his suburban garden. The insects eat his fruit, and may sting his children; but it is too much trouble to set up a ladder and try to reach them. Some public-spirited young men have, however, occasionally thrown themselves into the muddy whirlpool of the New York legislature, chiefly for the sake of carrying acts for the better government of cities. When the tenacity of such men proves equal to their courage, they gain in time the active support of those who have hitherto stood aloof, regarding state politics as a squabble over offices and jobs. With the help of the press they were able to carry measures such as an improved Ballot Act, or Civil Service Act, or an act for checking expenditure at elections, reforms not only valuable in their own state but setting an example which other states are apt to follow. But the prevalence of the rule that a man can be elected only in the district where he lives, renders it difficult permanently to maintain a reforming party in a legislature, so those who, instead of shrugging their shoulders, put them to the wheel, generally prefer to carry their energies into the field of national politics, thinking that larger and swifter results are to be obtained there, because victories achieved in and through the national government have an immediate moral influence upon the country at large.
A European observer, sympathetic with the aims of the reformers, is inclined to think that the battle for honest government ought to be fought everywhere, in state legislatures and city councils as well as in the national elections and in the press, and is at first surprised that so much effort should be needed to secure what all good citizens, to whichever party they belong, might be expected to work for. But he would be indeed a self-confident European who should fancy he had discovered anything which had not already occurred to his shrewd American friends; and the longer such an observer studies the problem, the better does he learn to appreciate the difficulties which the system of party organization, which I must presently proceed to describe, throws in the way of all reforming efforts.
Note to the Edition of 1910
RECENT TENDENCIES IN STATE POLITICS
Upon a review of the last twenty years, I am led to believe that state legislatures, which had in most parts of the country lost some of the respect formerly entertained for them, have not declined any further in intellectual quality, and are on the whole less open to moral censure than they were in 1888. In some states, especially in the West, they are believed to have improved. Nevertheless the disposition of the people to distrust them continues. This appears not only in the restriction of their powers and the shortening of their sessions but also in two other noteworthy forms.
One is the tendency to turn from the legislature to the governor and encourage him to take the initiative and assert himself as a motive power leading the legislature and appealing directly to the people for their support. The difficulty of fixing responsibility upon large representative bodies seems both in states and in cities to be inducing the people to invest the executive head of the state or city with a discretion wider than would have formerly been allowed to him or than is allowed to executive officials in Great Britain. This is now visible not so much in the widening of his legal functions (although his power of appointing to posts has been in some states extended), as in the kind of authority which the governor is able, when personally capable, firm and upright, to exert.
The other form is the introduction of those highly democratic institutions, the referendum and the initiative. These, though as yet established in only a few of the Western states, give evidence of the desire which is spreading in the West for the people to take power out of the hands of the legislature and wield it themselves. The source of this desire probably lies not so much in the eagerness of the masses to carry further the principle of popular sovereignty, as in a certain impatience with the representative assemblies, which are supposed to be too largely the creatures of the party organizations and to be liable to yield to the influences which powerful financial interests can bring to bear. Such impatience is not always justified, for the masses sometimes expect from legislation benefits which no legislation can give and blame their representatives when the fault lies not in the latter but in the nature of things. But the people will in trying to do themselves the work they desire to have done doubtless come to learn in time how much harder that work is than they had believed, and how much more skill it needs than either they or their legislators have yet acquired.
 Many readers may find it better to skip this chapter until they have read those which follow (Chapters 53–56) upon the history, tenets, and present condition of the great national parties.
 Some topics, such as legislation relating to railways and to corporations generally, lie partly in one sphere, partly in the other, and much inconvenience has thence resulted. See Chapter 29 supra.
 Congress has of course power to impose, and has imposed, an excise upon liquor, but this is far from meeting the demands of the temperance party.
 The names of these factions, the changes they pass through, and the way in which they immediately get involved with the ambitions and antipathies of particular leaders, recall the factions in the Italian cities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the White and Black Guelfs of Florence in the time of Dante.
 In these miniature civil wars there was a tendency for the city folk to be on one side and the agriculturists on the other, a phenomenon which was observed long ago in Greece, where the aristocratic party lived in the city and the poor in the fields. In the sixth century B.C. the oligarchic poet Theognis mourned over the degradation of political life which had followed the intrusion of the country churls. The hostility of the urban and rural population sometimes recurs in Switzerland. The country people of the canton of Basel fought a bloody battle some years ago with the people of the city, and the little commonwealth had to be subdivided into two, Basel City and Basel Country.
 Similar feelings made the three last surviving Hanseatic free cities willingly resign their independence to become members of the new German Empire, because the sentiment of pan-Germanic patriotism had so overborne the old fondness for local independence, that no regret was felt in resigning part of the latter in order to secure a share in the fuller national life of the great German state.