Political Responsibility of the Individual
WE have heard much of the failure of democratic government. This was indeed the key to the reputed popular cry for a Rising Man. Some attribute the assumed failure to universal suffrage, and in their opinion educated suffrage is the cure-all. Several of these live in Massachusetts, where suffrage is thus limited,— a condition which does not seem to have banished demagogues from that State. Such admit that less happy States cannot easily get back to this limitation; but this is not unwelcome confirmation of the general melancholy of their view. Others lay the evil to the existence of parties, and propose to abolish them,— they have not told us how. These and still other critics agree perfectly as to their own function in the government: they will let ill enough alone.
It is true that we do not live in Utopia. The evils of democratic government have been many, and particularly it has blossomed profusely into those flowers of tyranny and corruption which have domesticated into the American language such words as “ rings ” and ‘‘ bosses ” and “the machine.” But it is also true that previous governments had not been so completely successful but that modern democracy was devised as a means to enable the governed to do their own governing, which had been to their mind a “ failure ” at the hands of others. So far as our own system is a failure, it is not because the people do the governing, but because they do not do the governing; because the people are not enabled to express at the polls their own desires as to who shall administer their government, and on what principles it shall be administered.
It is the purpose of this paper to suggest that this failure is due not to the system, but to the individual voter under the system, particularly to the individual voter of intelligence and education. It goes without saying, in arithmetic, that a million is made up of ones. It requires a great deal of saying to emphasize this fact in politics. Nevertheless, it is there also a fact, and the most important fact. The political responsibility of the individual is still the basis of our government, and no other basis for it is possible.
It is at least questionable whether the first panacea of the Utopians would better things. It is the chief complaint of these gentlemen that men of education do not go to the polls. This is not found to be true, because the “ brown-stone districts ” of New York poll a large percentage of their voting population; but were it true, how will educated suffrage be better, if the educated do not go to the polls? It is replied that this is trifling with words ; that the educated would go to the polls, but that they know they would be out-voted by ignorance. The reply disregards the facts. The conditions of choice are not greatly different between universal and so-called educated or limited suffrage. The limitation can scarcely be beyond that existing in Massachusetts,— ability to read and write and the payment of a minimum tax, — and this excludes but a small share of our population. It is not this class that holds the balance of power. For it is remarkable that almost any given body of men divides itself on almost any question, so that a small proportion of the body, exercising deliberate choice, gives the decisive vote. This is shown to be peculiarly true in political elections: in those last occurring in Ohio and in New Hampshire the republicans were in the majority, and in Maine were in the minority by less than one half of one per cent.; and the election of Judge Morton to be governor of Massachusetts by only one vote is an often-quoted fact. It is the more unthinking class whose votes, in the normal state of things, make up the body of the parties on both sides, so that universal suffrage, by the subtraction of the fixed less-educated vote, is resolved to something very like educated suffrage. The politicians practice “gerrymandering” to evade this result. In individual instances, as in the city of New York, the ignorant vote will give a decided preponderance. But here comes into play a curious illustration of Mr. Spencer’s law of development,— from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, — in the inevitable tendency to divide overwhelming majorities into subordinate parties on subsidiary questions. This has in New York city again and again divided the dominant party, and in a choice between their candidates restored to the small, unattached vote its balance of power. It is because the voter of education has failed to see and seize the opportunity given him in the significance of this unattached vote that ignorance has out-voted him.
And here one thing more is to be said. The burden of leadership is not accepted by the educated class, upon whom it properly falls. The masses proverbially seek leaders. They ought to find them among men trained to take the broader, the far-looking, the less close and selfish view which education, if it means anything, should mean. As a matter of fact, it is from their selfishness that they are led, by leaders who share with them this selfishness. The farmer, with his load of debt, stumbles after the greenback demagogue, who leads him farther and farther into the mire, just as the day laborer in the cities gets his political gospel from the grog-shop keeper who can promise him a “ job ” out of the “ spoils.” These men should be led by those able to show them that the chance of clearing the farms is better under honest money, decent office-holders, and low taxes ; and the chance of steady work, good homes to live in, and clean streets about them is better the moment the “ spoils ” are swept away. Unhappily, they have too good reason to reject the leadership of the “ enlightened ” as that of a selfish and exclusive class. The cry of this class is a puling “Why don’t they better things?” instead of “ We will right this wrong.” Take away the “patronage” from the grog shop keepers (and this is civil-service reform), and let the educated accept the duty of the educated to replace selfishness with at least “enlightened self-interest,” and universal suffrage, like educated suffrage, is not simply a count of noses, but a balancing of brains. Despite the communistic tendencies that upperclass selfishness has helped to prevail, I venture to say that the employer of a hundred men, or the builder of a model tenement, who is seen by his acts to desire not so much his own selfish interests as the good of his community, will still have more political influence among his part of the masses, year in and year out, than the corner loafer who now rallies the mob. Here again it is not universal suffrage, but the educated class, that is at fault.
The remedy proposed by the next class of Utopians is to abolish parties. It will be long before we reach the millennium under their leadership. If this be the sole remedy, the disease will not be cured. To chop off a man’s head is not a satisfactory way to cure the toothache, nor is the reform of party government to be similarly brought about. So long as fifty million people are not of one mind, so long those who agree among themselves as to certain political ideas, and oppose the political ideas of others, will desire to coöperate in the expression of those ideas ; and this implies, where thousands and even millions of votes are involved, a very high degree of organization. This organized coöperation is party, and nothing has yet been suggested to take its place. No one objects to organization : it is the abuse of organization which is stigmatized as " the machine.” When a railroad train is wrecked by reckless driving, it is not proposed to abolish steam-engines, but to discharge drunken engineers. Moreover, party government, that is, modern government in general, requires as a rule the opposition of one great party to another great party, — two parties, and no more. Into our legislative assemblies we shall doubtless, some of these days, in one shape or another, introduce the practice of minority representation, and profit by it in breaking the reckless despotism of a legislative majority. (The French chamber of deputies is superior to our house of representatives in the particular of political elements, forming third and fourth and fifth party groups in many questions.) But this principle cannot operate in the case of most of our elective offices. When one man is to fill one place, neither minority representation nor third parties will help us much, and until human nature is much changed there will remain places where one man is twice as good as two. A third party is not a normal part of our system of government. It is a temporary expedient, with the purpose of becoming one of two great parties, — in itself a contradiction of terms, and produced only when the worst comes to the worst, as a " new departure,” which deliberately surrenders the present to the future.
Let us admit, then, that for some years yet this country will remain a democracy, to be governed by universal suffrage through the means of parties, and let us consider where the difficulties are, and whether a remedy is as hopeless as some would have us believe.
It is as true of good government as of other good things that it cannot be had without taking trouble for it. It is true, also, that the average citizen cannot take a great deal of trouble for it, because the thrust of every-day duties, in this thronged life of to-day, will not let him. The more valuable he is in the community, and the more useful as a factor in governing, the less likely he is to devote much of his force to governing, because his time is so much occupied with other affairs. He needs, therefore, a means of producing political results without much trouble. In the hope of this, he has here inclined to accept the modern principle of the division of labor, and let the “ politicians ” arrange his politics for him.
The results have not been satisfactory. The practice has not produced good government. While the business of this deputized class should have been to arrange political affairs so that the busy man might declare his opinion by his vote, it has labored chiefly to prevent the citizen from expressing his desires at the polls, presenting to him issues other than those on which he desires to give his opinion, and confining him to men for whom he does not want to vote. This remains true until a supreme issue forces itself upon the attention, or until the dissatisfaction with the dominant managers acquires the force to sweep them out of power and make room for another set. But healthful life is not procured by a series of crises or a succession of explosions; it consists in the quiet replacement, atom by atom, of bad and effete material by good and fresh material.
What we know as " the machine ” is in fact the trades-union of politicians, banded together to keep outsiders from interference with their business. Indeed, to such a pitch is this motive carried that the performers on the stage of active politics, who call earth and heaven to witness that the country is lost if the other party have a remnant of power left them, will be found presently in the green-room making an even dicker of the spoils. The trades-union proper has its justification and its usefulness; that of the politicians copies only its abuses, and is chronically on strike. Skill in the actual calling, which with the politician should be the business of conducting government, is a secondary matter to skill in making fiery orations, for instance, that will hold the union together, and so prevent outsiders from taking any part in the work. It is thus that dexterity in defeating or obscuring the desire of the body of voters becomes the chief political value in a country of universal suffrage.
Nor is this question of the machine a question of one party or the other. It is a question of class inside of party, and inside of any party. The evolution of such a class would probably begin, under present circumstances, in any new party that might be formed. A reform party is not least apt, unfortunately, to practice any means toward “reform.”
This trades-unionism involves a curious professional habit of mind : there is no longer moral perspective, and means are mistaken for ends. Parties and measures and men are not means for good government, but government is the means for obtaining party success, which is the chief end of man. This sometimes rises to sincere conviction. Providence is called in ; a Southern outrage is an interposition against the democrats. Men who are not corrupt begin unconsciously to accept this view of the party. They will be “ loyal ” to party leaders who are unloyal to everything but their own interests. They will look with complacency upon that consuming patriotism which will buy up every voter in the district before it will let the opposition defile the purity of the ballot. While the “ henchmen ” are held together by the “ cohesive force of public plunder,” the more honest party men are kept in the traces through what may be called the party state of mind. Men think only in the terms of their own party. Good government depends on “ the success of the party,” whether the party carries its principles into practice or not. The politicians find it easy to renew the moral sense of their side of the community, so that every lapse of virtue on the part of the other side becomes a moral gain. Thus they obtain a factitious morality for their own party, which is subjected to none of the tests of actual morality. The other party is a bogy, to be exorcised. The superstition of the nursery dominates grown men. In the decadence of a faith, religion becomes a name to cloak the absence of it; to doubt the priests who make a living out of the relics of the saints is to question the existence of the gods. So party becomes a name, and the absence of purpose is forgotten : deceived by dead bones and living hucksters of them, educated voters are enslaved by a superstition.
We want a vigorous Protestantism in our politics, — a new reformation, appealing from creeds that mean nothing in practice to the individual conscience of right and wrong ; a new emancipation from the hierarchy of office-holders and the slavocracy of party whips.
There is, indeed, now a crisis in this country, which demands a new antislavery crusade. It is a struggle of the people against the politicians, not easy to fight, and with none of the heroics about it. Civil-service reform is at this moment a more important national question than the success of either of the two existing parties, because in the abuse of the civil service the politicians of either side are intrenched. So long as the bread and butter of a great body of men, extending all through the public offices and the public works, depends upon keeping their own party and particular managers of their own party “ in,” so long every effort will be made not to express the desires of the voters through the party, but to keep the party and its managers “ in ” against the desires of the voters. So long as the politicians can control “ patronage,” — whether they be republican senators or democratic bosses, — so long they will prevent either party from presenting issues on which the people wish to vote. So long as there is this temptation to a large class to conspire against the voter’s expressing his real desires at the polls, so long the machinery of government will be used for the opposite purpose from that for which it was intended. But that civil-service reform is the “ paramount necessity ” we have heard before. The question is how we are to get it. Both parties will oblige us, though not cheerfully, by putting fine generalities about it into their platforms, and both are quite as ready to leave it out of their practice. Especially it is a stock in trade with the “ outs,” who whack vigorously with this plank at the “ins.” The trick is transparent, and the “ ins ” know that the people know it. “ O dear public,” they have only to cry, “ the other fellows will be worse than we are, and what is the use of putting us out and them in?” On either side, the voter is made to cast his vote for the principle of civil-service reform, and against the practice of it. Civil-service reform, in a word, cannot be reached directly: it must be got at in some other way.
It is upon the moral confusion above noted, and the perplexity and hesitancy of the educated voter in view of it, that the politicians of the winning side have long relied. They have seen that with no class of men is party superstition stronger, the dread greater of what the other party may do. They have come to look upon the educated vote as cowardly, and of this as a working principle they have had abundant confirmation. They have heard time and time again fine speeches of independence at conventions : they have beaten the orators and sent them home in the absolute certainty that the “fear of consequences” would whip them into line with the party before it should come time for the polls. “ I wish we had the bull-dog jaw back again in our educated men ! ” cried one disheartened reformer. But it is not bull-dog jaws that conquer the world in these days ; it is firm-set lips. It is purpose made resolute by the determination to fight for the future, if in the present it may not prevail. The politician appals your educated man with the fear of remote consequences, which his education has trained him peculiarly to understand ; but his education has taught him something more, and this it is time for the politican to understand. It has taught him that the present and the immediate future must sometimes be sacrificed for the remoter future ; that results cannot be had without risks ; that, in a word, it pays to be far-sighted. This is the philosophy of history applied to the present. As soon as the individual voter gives the politician to understand that, in this larger view, he will disregard the combination of circumstances purposely planned to restrain him, that moment the politician must begin to give way.
It has been well said that the one thing for the honest voter to do is to make the politician’s trade uncertain. This is in fact the key to the situation. It is by the free flux of votes on the edge of party lines, the fluidity of parties, so to speak, that politicians can most practically be controlled and politics be most effectually reformed. The independent voter is the the strong man. If the parties will not apply civil-service reform for him, let him apply it for himself to the parties.
In fine, the educated voter, if he wants to better parties and to better politics, must resolutely refuse to cast his vote for a bad or unfit candidate, or for a candidate representing bad practice, because the candidate is nominated by the party whose professed principles he desires to support, and by whose name he calls himself. If a more fit man is nominated for the same place by the opposing party, he will vote directly for him. If there is but a choice of evils, he will refuse to cast his vote for either, not by staying away from the polls, but by leaving the objectionable name off his party ticket, whether or not he replaces it by a good name, which he cannot expect to see chosen, but which offers a warning and a protest to his party managers.
This at once involves the dilemma of the undesired election, by default, of the bad candidate of the worse party; but this is a dilemma which must be resolutely met. It is the game of the politicians on both sides to keep the voter in this dilemma. They can be checkmated only by peremptory notification that at any hazard this kind of game must be stopped. The responsibility of party defeat is not with the voter, but with the party manager who has deliberately defied him.
For a political party, also, must be known by its fruits : if it produces bad candidates, it is not a good party ; nor is it any longer “ our ” party if it rejects in its nominations and its administration the avowed principles which make it “ ours.” It cannot be too often repeated that party is only the coöperation of voters to put into practice given principles, and that there is nothing but fetichism in the worship of a party name. It is notorious at this time that neither great national party represents either its avowed principles or the better men in it. Each party subsists chiefly on the blunders, or worse than blunders, of its opponents, and finds its political capital not in its own usefulness, but in the dread of the worse possibilities of the other side. The cry of " Principles, not men ” — which represents the true conflict of real parties — is a mockery in these days. This is the reason that the fight must be made first on men, before we can get back again to the conflict of principles. The way to stop stealing is not to pass resolutions against it, but to punish the particular men who steal. The way to make a party represent principle is to reject the men in it who have no principle. If the worst comes, and the party is captured by unprincipled men for their own ends, then their defeat is the only method of reform within the party, because by such purification only can it again rise to its true power. If party managers invite this, this they must have.
It is to be noted, however, that the entire defeat of the party is not likely to be found needful. At most elections there are fit men and unfit men joined on our too comprehensive tickets. It is not necessary to reject the whole ticket, that is, to “ bolt,” but only to reject the bad men,—in which event, if the practice becomes chronic, there will not be many elections before bad men will be left off the ticket, and decent men made the rule. The machine knows that after all it must elect its man, and it will not long persist in putting up men whom the voters will not elect. If it is known that a considerable class of voters, whatever their party name, are unlikely to vote for a man who has no fitness for his office, whatever his party name, the managers will take this fact into their very practical calculations. There is no danger of “ provoking ” them to ignore it, — that is not the way in which the mind of the politician works. If tools or dupes of the machine are thus rejected from elective offices, its control over appointive offices will be weakened and the system ultimately broken up. Civil-service reform will be no longer a “ plank,” but a possibility, and the influences on legislation which have hitherto prevented its permanent adoption by law will no longer be adequate. The men elected will set themselves honestly to putting into practice the principles they were elected to represent, and the men appointed to doing the business they were appointed to do. Parties will not lose their organization,— there is no danger of that in this self-organizing country, —but they will resume their normal function of making party machinery the means of expressing the popular will as guided by enlightened opinion. This is a simple process, which does not attempt a great deal, but it is effective, and effective with little machinery. It is not even necessary that the revolters should agree on any candidate of their own. The managers, however defiant they may be, cannot get along without votes, and the easy check is to give them not enough votes to elect their man. If the first result is to elect by default a man who is not desired, the second and most permanent is to obtain from the party a candidate who will be elected, because he will represent the principles the party professes to represent.
It is objected that this remedy is not adequate, because it produces only negative and not positive results. It is in fact the exercise of the veto power of the individual voter, and no more. It does not select good men, but only defeats bad ones. But we have here an evil to be cured, and destruction is the first and necessary step to construction. Positive results will follow, for when the heavy hand of the boss is off the party organization, the individual voter can again take part at the “primaries ” in selecting his candidate. At present this is not practicable. The good citizen is urged to go into the party machinery and do his little best there. The trouble here is that his little best is so very little. The primaries offer no more freedom of choice than the polls. They are wheels within wheels of the machine. The citizen plays against loaded dice. Results may be obtained, but by an outlay of force entirely disproportionate to the results. The organization is against the individual, until it is forced to accept him as a part of it; and to attain this is to devote time and skill and other values which a busied man cannot afford.
This remedy is no new thing. For years men on both sides have voted a discriminating ticket. But there have not been enough of them to disturb the politicians, and it is only recently that the evils of machine domination have attained such dimensions, and the policy of reform within the party by a forgiving trust in the penitence of managers in " off years ” has so conspicuously failed, as to emphasize the necessity of enrolling men of this mind into a visible and adequate force. The movement which embodies it is based essentially on the power of ideas and appeals to the individual sense of right and wrong in political matters. It is, in a word, political Protestantism. It strives to produce a habit of mind in the community differing from the present habit of mind in political matters, and indeed reversing it. A voter is now called upon to show why he should not vote with “ his party,” whereas the party ought to show why he should vote with it. But concert of action is greatly promotive of independence in thinking, and ideas are much more effective in the concrete form of organization. Among the class of men likely to think and act for themselves, the American faculty of organization might indeed be expected to show itself. Common-sense suggestion, publicly made, by a few men who come together to represent a purpose has a considerable power in shaping public opinion and modifying action, and the conscience vote will be the more effective if individual consciences know that others are concentrated on the same aim. But the principle remains the same: reliance on the individual voter and his balance-of-power vote.
Nothing is more illogical than to call voters of this mind traitors, dictators, impracticables, or irreconcilables. They are not traitors, for they say, We want to support the principles avowed by our party, and the candidate you offer does not support them. It is he and you who are traitors. They are not dictators, for they say, We do not desire to name a candidate of our own ; we want a good candidate, that is all, and we will not vote for one whom we think bad. They are not impracticables, for they are doing the very practicable thing of fighting the politician with his own methods ; they accept his challenge. They are not irreconcilables if, as between Jack Sheppard and Fra Diavolo, they venture to express a desire for some other kind of man. These all are but variations of the cry for “ harmony,” when harmony means the surrender of everything for which a party is useful.
The last resource of the party managers is the cry, All this is very well for ordinary occasions, but you must not jeopardize your party on great issues. This is the whip which drives in the independent voter, for the argument is specious and effective. They are perfectly willing to have reform in off years. But it is as occasions rise to state and national importance that the people have most need to be entirely bold against machine conspiracies. The stream cannot be purified from below. A dishonest town clerk we may easily get rid of, but a demagogue governor or a questionable president is another affair. It is the supreme mockery of the machine that, with scornful contempt, it tells the people that in matters of such importance it must be let alone. Its stock in trade is “ supreme issues,” and it is here, if anywhere, that its challenge must be defiantly accepted.
The answer to this is that many people believe that there are certain principles paramount to party which it is vitally necessary to put into practice in this country, and which neither party is willing to put into practice. Wherever neither party as a party seems worthy of of support, they will vote for the man whose character, record, and surroundings promise best. When both candidates are bad, they are willing to cast a conscience vote, because they think the danger of misgovernment for a year or two ahead is less than the danger of permanent misgovernment by the final victory of party schemers. In this dilemma of parties, there remains the clear question of good or bad men.
The class of men who, counting themselves republicans, hold this view already find in the results of the national convention of their party happy confirmation of the efficacy of the remedy here set forth. They believe that the practical expression of these views, in the preliminary campaign of last fall and in the canvass before the convention, have had their positive effect in procuring a candidate under whose leadership party principles will mean something. They will be glad indeed to see a campaign fought between candidates on the two sides both of whom can be relied upon to make promises practice. But no mistake can be greater than to suppose that by any temporary success everything is achieved. Party names are yet stronger than party principles, and the citizen cannot afford to flatter himself that the beginning is the end.
We have naturally heard much, since the war, of military metaphors. We have become accustomed to look upon a political “ campaign ” as the grand battle of two opposing armies, with their officers and their generals disdainfully regarding their privates as ammunition to be fired against the enemy, and nothing more. On the contrary, the truest thing about a political party is that it is not an army, and that military parallels do not apply. The situation is exactly opposite, — except in one particular. This particular is that in war as in politics everything depends finally on the fibre of the individual privates. But in war it is the private’s business to go into the battle massed with other men, with no idea but to do as his general bids, and if he deserts he is rightly shot. In politics the citizens go to the polls one by one ; each casts his ballot by himself and for himself, without the knowledge of others as to its direction, and the very act of voting is the invitation to use his individual judgment as between the opposing forces. Without enough of these votes, no man, or machine, or party can win.
The men who recognize the force of this axiom challenge each party to declare, not through the farce of platform promises, but by the nomination of men who will put principles into practice, whether they desire the support of those who think for themselves before they go to the polls. If party managers take the hint, the real issues on which voters desire from time to time to express their opinions are likely to be met as they come up by the modification of present parties under present names. Otherwise the recourse of purposeful men is a conscience vote that will begin to provide a better instrument for the future.
Results are not achieved in a day, and in the face of present and prospective discouragements there must be that faith in works which has been so marked a characteristic of the American people. Persistent fearlessness will overcome even the superb organization and scornful power of this new slavocracy of the machine. The responsibility of the individual, not to a party cry, but to the principles of political morality, is still the basis of American government, and the independent voter must keep at his work, if need be, as his grandsires fought the first battle of the Revolution, — each from behind his own tree. There is an increasing company coming to their support in the generation which has been growing up since the war, those who believe that the men of the war died for liberty ; it is their less heroic duty to live for honesty, — to “ highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain ; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that the government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
R. R. Bowker.