A True Republic
NOTWITHSTANDING the proverbial devotion of Americans to politics, the study of political science cannot be said to absorb many of our citizens, and there is not only no noticeable interest here in the study of the science of government, but an actual lack of vigorous interest even in the concrete questions of public policy.
To the American citizen politics have come to mean elections, and elections mean periodical convulsions, occurring at very short intervals, when business is interrupted, the public press monopolized, and the whole community plunged into a furious canvass, first for the nomination, and then for the election of candidates for office. In such a state of things a thoughtful, impartial interest in public measures stands a poor chance of living and growing. These exciting contests absorb the attention, and the interest is in the struggle purely as as truggle. Generally there is no pretense of any issue of principles. The stated times for a party tussle having come, each party calls out its forces to the battle. There may not be much else to fight about, but there is always the office itself, and this is quite enough to arouse the ever-ready party hostility, and the fight does not lack fury, though it may lack pur pose. There may, of course, be a crisis, for good men may preponderate on one side or the other ; but the crisis, if there is one, comes because there is a contest, not the contest because there is a crisis.
And the party fury which rages during elections hardly subsides in the short intervals between. It is inevitably carried by the successful candidates into their official work, and the office is understood to get a large part of its value from the opportunity of party work which goes with it.
Every one who makes any observation upon the practical workings of our system of government observes this exaggerated prominence of party work. It has become not only the most absorbing, but well-nigh the only, occupation of our public men. It has overshadowed and obscured the real concerns of government, and has made irksome the laborious study of public questions and attention to details of legislative work. One looking calmly on this endless agitation, and observing how measures of real importance are hidden in the dust of incessant party manoeuvring, is inclined to denounce the whole business of party organization as blinding, mischievous, and destructive.
It is in such a spirit of disgusted impatience that Mr. Stickney has written his book,1 which is an attack upon party influence in politics; his principal and particular complaint being that parties have abused and corrupted the public offices, until good administrative work is almost impossible.
The great problem of government, our author says, is this: How shall we get the public work most efficiently done? And his answer is ready. The rules which should be followed are not doubtful. Experience has settled them in all private business, until they are accepted as axiomatic. We must choose men for fitness alone, and keep them as long as they do their work well. This is the homely maxim wdiich, says Mr. Stickney, is the secret of statecraft as it is of success in every private enterprise. Who, in managing his farm or his merchan-
dise, needs to be taught on this point? Who ever chooses his farm hands because they are active in town meeting, or shifts them in order to get rotation in office ? Such matters need no discussion where men aim only at good business organization and success.
But in the public business the thing is turned upside down. We put men in office as a reward for political service, though their duties when in office should be as far as possible from political. We reward and promote them (consistently for that matter) for party service; we discharge them that we may use the office again as a reward for political work.
This vicious practice applied to all the subordinate offices is to-day keeping us in such a ferment of useless political worry that it is a wonder we submit to it so tamely. Nobody defends it, though many cling to it. We do not remember ever to have heard an argument seriously advanced in its favor. The evil is generally admitted, and the facts are so plain that we have got beyond the need of argument to the need of preaching. A reform in this particular is next, perhaps, to a settlement of the new and portentous question of electoral counts, the thing most imperatively needed in our system of government. But the reform lags, in spite of much progress during the present administration. This is much to the discredit of our popular sagacity and strength of purpose, and the cause is humiliating. We are thwarted by politicians who will not let go their hold upon the offices which are so substantial a part of their privilege.
Mr. Stickney’s determined attack on party will, we hope, encourage us to cast off this bondage; and so far we approve and applaud his work. It is well and vigorously done. The story of party misdeeds is painted in dark colors, — selfishness, corruption, the sacrifice of public business, the confusion of true standards of merit, the exaggeration of petty partisan work, the fighting over false and the shirking of true issues, and so on through a black catalogue. At every page the common party practices appear less respectable.
The style is strong, virile, and terse even to abruptness. The facts are arranged in a telling way. It is the work of one who has seen and touched the abuses he is denouncing, and will no longer hold back his indignation and contempt.
We believe that such an attack must do good. It strikes at one, and just now a great, obstacle to reform, namely, our exaggerated notion of party discipline. Until this overstrained allegiance to party is loosened we cannot help ourselves, but shall continue to be gagged by the supposed paramount importance of party subordination. We need more freedom; we must stiffen the knees of the judicious “bolter” and “ scratcher ” if we are ever to muster courage to insist upon a change. Men with any instinct of loyalty shrink from doing anything to weaken their party in its struggle with its opponent, not considering that the struggles are generally so devoid of real importance that the sacrifice is made for very trivial results.
A book like Mr. Stickney’s is a blow at such unquestioning devotion. The reader feels his party reverence loosen as he reads. He sees that our servant has become our master, and that we have, at great cost, been managing the state for parties, not parties for the state. Such wholesome service we believe Mr. Stickney’s hook can do, and we welcome it for that reason.
If, however, we regard it as a contribution to a philosophical study of politics, it is disappointing.
Such an out-and-out denunciation of party may be invigorating while there is so much false worship, but it takes no account of the real significance of parties. To treat political parties as a great absurdity, into which men have ignorantly or willfully fallen, and which they can summarily walk out of, is not philosophical. Parties are not accidental, nor are they wholly a contrivance of artful men. They are, in some measure at least, great manifestations of popular sentiment. They are born and grow, live and die, according to some laws of social life. They cannot be ridiculed away. Nor has experience yet worked out any method by which a free state can be managed without them. “When bad men combine,” says Burke, in his famous defense of party, “ the good must associate: else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
The really instructive thing for the student of politics is to search out the origin and growth of parties in the popular ideas which they exist to express, to treat their varying phases as symptoms in the diagnosis of the social condition, to recognize their benefits and define their mischief. Some change in their methods of action may be made. To consider what improvement is possible is of the greatest service. To propose to drop parties entirely, to treat them as purely arbitrary, external, and to be sloughed off at will, is unreasonable.
Mr. Stickney has not contented himself with criticism. He has, in the latter part of the hook, gone on to construct that ideal true republic which his title leads us to expect. This is nothing more nor less than a republic built up on business rules, as its main foundation, — a sort of factory state.
The grand purpose of government being, says Mr. Stickney, to get the most efficient public work, and the practical rules of success in this particular being well known, to get your model state simply apply them. Nothing is plainer. Choose the most talented men, and keep them in office as long as they do well, — president, heads of departments, subordinates, members of Congress, judges, all on the life or good-behavior tenure of office. There you have party disposed of and the golden age returned.
To such a plan it is enough to say at the outset that, even if plausible, it is not, in such wholesale proportions, worth considering, because any scheme of reform which proposes for the first step the overturning of the structure of a great government stands self-condemned. The only suggestions ever worth making in such matters are practicable suggestions, and to propose such a plan, expecting any one to advocate it seriously, is out of the question. It would be a misfortune if it could get serious consideration, for it is no good sign when a people regards its government as a fit subject for radical experiment, or will listen to a suggestion of any but gradual and cautious change.
It would be hard to find a more radical innovation than this, which abolishes the regularly recurring appeal to the people, and sets up a tenure of legislative office unheard of in any representative system. Furthermore it is based upon a most inadequate idea of the state. The state is not a big counting-room. Good administrative work, efficient officers, and promotion for merit are not all that is needed, though wrn have suffered so much for the want of these things that we may sometimes be tempted to think so. The constant participation of the people in its government is the great political principle of the English-speaking race, and in spite of the disorder such interference works we cannot yet afford to abandon it to the extent Mr. Stickney advises. It is not by the judicious care of the best rulers, or the most efficient work of political bureaus, that our race has made its way, but by its self - helping, self - asserting, town-meeting habits. It will be a faint heart that is already driven, by the troubles and perplexities of our popular government, into surrendering itself outright to such permanent legislatures, where vacancies occur only through expulsion, death, or voluntary resignation.
It has been sententiously said that “ what most commends party government is that it enables us to slander our rulers without sedition, and overthrow them without treason.” We must have this chance to overthrow. It is our birthright.
The details of Mr. Stickney’s plan it will not be worth while to discuss. They are corollaries from his simple rules of business economy, not much elaborated, and open, as it seems to us, to so much criticism that brief discussion is hardly possible. Those who like Utopian geography can study Mr. Stickney’s map for themselves.
We regret that the author did not end his book with the telling criticism of party methods to which the first portion is devoted, or, better still, go on to make a pointed and definite application to the civil - service reforms which are now practicable and actually in demand. We fear that the latter part of the book may lessen the good effect of the former. The Anglo-Saxon people is everywhere indifferent to constitution-making, and has a wholesome prejudice against visionary schemes of government. It will be a pity if this condemnation falls upon the whole book, and destroys the effect of the strong array of facts, the trenchant strictures, and the righteous indignation of the earlier chapters.
- A True Republic. By ALBERT STICKNEY. New York : Harper and Brothers, 1879.↩