The League as a Political Instrument
THE simple conception of a political party is of a union of men holding common political principles and seeking common political ends. As an organization, and not a mob, it must have not only leaders, but rules of action and a definite policy. In its most elemental constitution, party life in a free state clusters about the two opposite poles of conservatism and radicalism. In the highly organized community of the United States, with its balance of union and parts, the tendency always has been to centrifugal and centripetal political forces.
In point of fact, our parties are as complex as the ingenuity of man can devise, and must be considered less as instruments than as results. The political sense has been more keenly developed in the United States than anywhere else. Practiced as it has been, in rudimentary forms before the formation of the Union, and since in the multiform expression of federal, state, municipal, and oppidan elections, and in the exercise of an enormous variety of governmental functions, it is no wonder that the political sense of the people is almost a second nature. Moreover, it is not in the field of the state alone that this political sense has heen cultivated. It should never be forgotten that the expression of the popular will has at the same time found exercise in the field of the church, and that there has been in this organization, too, the constant practice of the power of choice, as well as, in a minor way, the exercise of governmental functions.
With this cultivation of the political sense there has been also the high development of the organizing power. This has had its stimulus in the freedom of conditions under which men have worked, in the absence in the earlier days of large vested interests, and, above all, in the presence of the political sense itself, which is conscious of power, and not in the habit of looking higher than itself for the source of power. The people, thrown on their own resources largely in colonial days and in the early days of the republic, acquired the habit of relying on themselves for much that in older countries proceeds from the governing class. The most signal instance of this is in the system of public education, in which the state has been scarcely more than the convenient agency for the people acting with the least restriction of freedom in the organization of schools. The voluntary action which finds expression in all the forms of religious life is another notable illustration of the activity and ease of the people in forming combinations.
In the pathology of politics, it may be said that the most morbid exercise of the political sense is in the tinkering of constitutions, and the inability to distinguish between the law as a register of the enlightened will of the people and the law as an instrument to accomplish reforms. In an analysis of the organizing power when exercised in the political field, the construction of the convention, with its discipline, its severity of rule, its assumption of authority, may be regarded as the most complete product. Here the political sense and the faculty for organization meet to produce the most thorough-going result.
Now, given a vigorous controlling idea, a political party with its Frankenstein of a convention becomes a tremendous force, and this controlling idea is not always to be read in the official declarations of the party. A reader ignorant of history might fancy, from the platform of the Republican party as set forth in 1860, that its members had a variety of principles under which it was demanding the government. In reality it was because the free thinking of its members had been fused into a single controlling purpose — namely, to check the advance of slavery — that the party forced its way against the divided opposition. The Democratic party, in like manner, though scarcely ready for the conflict, went into the field four years ago inspired for whatever success it could achieve by the controlling idea of tariff reform as formulated by its aggressive leader.
Yet these controlling ideas rarely have a dominating power in a party, and the reason lies, not in the decay of moral sense in the people, as sometimes averred, but in the gradual substitution of the notion of a party as containing a life of its own for the notion of a party as an exponent of ideas. A party gathers to itself traditions, associations, a history ; it is the immediate creation of the political sense acting along the lines of organization, and it comes to stand for an independent entity, although it may in reality be nothing more than a Feathertop. The more complete its apparatus, the more do those whose own existence is involved in it insist on regarding it, and compelling others to regard it, as self-centred, — something to be perpetuated, and hence to be guarded against too rough handling by its creators. There is a slight analogy to be found in the attitude of men toward the party and that taken toward the Constitution. The Constitution was designedly an instrument, and in the early process was regarded by those who made it as a somewhat imperfect instrument, so that the first thing to be done with it was to make amendments to it. But the time came when the Constitution was held up by the men who denied its spirit as a sacred object to be interposed as a barrier against the incursion of a healthy moral force, To-day allegiance to party is made a test of political virtue. The substitution of self-perpetuation for the accomplishment of an explicit political purpose as the spring of party life has led from time to time to revolt from the great parties, and the formation of minor parties having eager hopes of securing through polities certain specific results. The Prohibition party has been the longest-lived, because it has been dominated by a moral idea, but its strength has always been local; it has failed to have national significance, because the problem with which it is concerned comes within the scope of state, and not federal legislation. Its real contribution to our political history has been in its witness to the power which lies in moral ideas when active in politics ; but it has also illustrated the tendency, already noticed, to confuse the distinction which exists between the law as a register of the enlightened will of the people and the law as an instrument to accomplish reforms.
Meanwhile, there has been coming into existence, through the native political sense of the people and the faculty for organization, an instrument of power in public, affairs, independent of party, and for the most part sedulously free from complication with party. This power, whatever its specific title, may be called by the name most naturally assumed by it, the League. It is, in brief, a return, for definite political purposes, to the simpler conception of the party as of a union of men holding common principles and seeking common ends. It expresses the healthy reaction of the higher political sense of the people, which has come to regard party as a perfect machine for self-perpetuation, but a very imperfect mode for securing an advance in free institutions.
The example of the American Copyright League may first be cited. Here was an organization planned for the accomplishment of a specific reform. Neither of the great parties could be relied upon to carry out its design. Indeed, one of the perils which had to be avoided was that of identifying the league with one party or the other. For more than fifty years the reform had been urged in Congress and out of Congress, but it had no place in party economy, and itwas not until a league was formed, working outside of party lines, that the reform was accomplished. The league still exists, but it is safe to say that, until another exigency arises, it will be as inoperative as the American Antislavery Society was after the war.
The Civil Service Reform Association, again, illustrates the action of the league ; and it is the more interesting because it has demonstrated the possibility of taking up a peculiarly political measure and pushing it forward not only independently of party, but with a vigorous handling of party itself. Every one recognizes the peril with which this reform has had to contend through party jealousy and suspicion, but there is no greater victory to be chronicled in political action in America than when a handful of courageous men have forced this reform down the throat of each of the great parties. The association is a signal instance of the absolute failure of party to effect the reform, and yet the final obedience of party to the reform when a higher power has compelled it.
Still another pregnant illustration of the function of the league is seen in the work of the Indian Rights Association. Here the problem is of another sort. The United States has escaped the colonial problem ; the nearest approach to such a relation is in the connection between the administration and the Territories, and this relation so readily becomes transmuted into the organic one of the Union and States that there is not time for conditions of principal and subordinate to become permanent conditions. But in its relation to the Indians within its borders the United States government, as is well known, has repeatedly shifted its ground, and has yielded now to this, now to that exigency. Neither party has framed a policy as a practical part of its political creed. Under the conditions of our public life, it is questionable if either party is likely to frame a policy. What is the consequence ? Until the formation of the associations concerned with the civilization of the Indian and his absorption into the political organism, the Indian had only individual advocates at court. Now, through its conferences, its compact organization, its resolute agreement on certain distinct lines of conduct, the Indian Rights Association, in open and frank ways, has already made its impress, first on the popular mind, and then on Congress and the administration. In its expanding influence we perceive another declaration of political independence.
The truth is that, with these and other object lessons before him, the American citizen who does not purpose to abandon his political birthright, and finds no satisfaction in being a political Ishmaelite, takes courage. He does not undervalue the use of party, but he refuses to surrender his principles to party, or to make a Mumbo Jumbo of it. He intends to think politically, but he knows that, when it comes to action, the combination of a few possessed by a common high purpose is worth more than a complicated, delicate machine with innumerable adjustments like a highly organized party. The ballot reform has already strengthened his hands ; civil service reform, gaining ground inch by inch, will still further put power into the hands of the person and take it out of the cohort. The league offers him free opportunity for the exercise of an unselfish patriotism, and he can listen imperturbably to the jeers with which party organs salute him.