The Flaw in Our Democracy

“It is not in elections that the quality and character of our government are determined. That is done in party nominations.”

Representative government, entirely democratic, has been tried in the United States of America under conditions as favorable as can easily be conceived. Its beginnings were on virgin ground, clear of everything obstructive that could impair its foundations or narrow its plan. Its architects had no incongruous remains of old feudal institutions to build over and around. They were architects, too, from the best of preparatory schools. They were educated in the traditions and trained by the habits of the English race. There can never be a work of political construction undertaken more competently than theirs, nor executed with a freer hand. Nor can any political structure ever rise with less experience of disturbing influences from the outer world. It has practically possessed a continent of its own, and surrounding oceans have given their protection to it. Thus militarism, the great peril of democracy, has been excluded with a completeness unknown in previous history.

In a word, the American experiment of democratic republicanism has been tried with a fairness from circumstances that cannot be impeached, and it has gone far enough at the present day for its results to be fairly judged. That the results are satisfying, as they now appear, is probably more than any believer in republicanism can be willing to say. That they are painfully dissatisfying is the verdict that few will hesitate to pronounce. By more than a disappointment of hopes, and by worse than a realization of fears, the outcome is troubling to thoughtful minds because of the surprises it has brought. Threatening forces that were never suspected have come to light, and influences that roused no dread in early days are found to be the most sinister of all. On the other hand, it is true that some dangers which loomed large in former times have been diminished by the years, and seem to hold no serious threat. But, on the whole, it is difficult to believe that popular government in the American republic shows as favorably to-day, and gives a promise as fair, as it did when Washington left the presidency or when Lincoln was slain. It is more than difficult—it is impossible—not to feel that our country is farther from government by the fittest to govern than it ever was in any former time. When all reasonable allowance is made for the habitual discontent of mankind with that which is, and for its magnified remembrance of that which was, there remains an obstinate mass of disheartening fact. The decadence—the sickening decadence—of the Senate of the United States, once the pride of the nation; increasing venality in most legislative bodies, and a puppet-dancing quality in the men who make up their majorities; deepening corruption and extravagance in municipal government; a manifest deadening of opinion and spirit in politics, by methods of organization which convert parties into “machines” and the leader into a “boss;” the consequent exclusion, more and more, of superior men from public careers, and abandonment, more and more, of the political arena to self-seeking and vulgar crowds, — these are things that have come to be recognized beyond dispute. And the deplorable phenomena are no plainer than the causes that have worked to produce them.

Among the causes there are several conspicuous ones; but behind them all stands a master spirit of mischief, — the organizing politician. He is no new character, in America or elsewhere. He has always been with us, as he always will be. In the primitive days, say, of Aaron Burr or of Amos Kendall, he did his work, no doubt, with quite as much shrewdness and quite as little scruple as now; but he did it with scant resources and few agents. His “campaign funds” were meagre. Hopes of petty office, and sometimes the brief reality of it, were all the wages he had to offer for party service. He was a general commanding forces so small and so wretchedly paid that what he accomplished in organization and discipline is more wonderful than the finest machine work in politics to-day. Under that disadvantage he labored until times that are not remote. The spoils of office grew large, but they were never rich enough for the demands of his task. Yet always, as he persevered, the organizing politician must have watched the rise and experimented in the use of new resources that were destined to make him independent of mere patronage and official spoils. These came with the creation of capital interests and corporate combinations, in which both wants and fears of legislation are easily aroused. Within a few years past such combinations have had a tropical growth, and the perfecting of the party machine, the evolution of the omnipotent boss, coincided with the sudden spring of their fertility. If there be any limit to the draft which a master of legislatures and municipal councils can make on corporations or persons whose profits or taxes, or both, can be heavily increased or diminished by an ordinance or an act, it is not probable that the boss has yet found it out. The great scale and the perfection of his organizing work prove the magnitude of the staff employed in it, and the satisfying liberality with which it must necessarily be paid.

Along with these abounding subsidies from corporations that crave his friendship, there has been given to the party organizer in late years an extraordinary multiplication of instruments and facilities for his work. Everything that electricity and cheapened steam and cheapened print have been doing to put men into more communicable relations with one another has tended to make combination and organization easy, for every kind of purpose. The organizers of business, of industries, of religious movements, of reforms, of sports, have all profited immensely from these instruments, and the political organizer has not been behind. No other, indeed, has been helped so much. To what other, for example, could the value of a whisper from lips in New York to an ear at the Albany Capitol, with no syllable recorded, be so great?

To understand what organization in this matter of the action of political parties means, we must consider the elements of which political society is composed. In every democratic body politic there are not less than four well-marked classes of citizens, whose conduct as such will be actuated very differently. There are (1) those citizens who desire good government, and who interest themselves in public affairs simply because of that desire, having no personal objects of place or profit in view; (2) those citizens who are too sordidly absorbed in pursuits of gain, or too frivolously absorbed in pursuits of pleasure, or otherwise too much occupied, to give attention to public concerns; (3) those in the unfortunate social grade where ignorance is so gross, or character so shallow or so debased, that political opinion and independent conduct are out of the question; (4) those who are actively self-seeking in partisan politics, with keen eyes on something that will bring a reward. Of these four classes of citizens, I am sure that the one first described is larger than any other, and that the last in the list is the least of all; and it is between those two that the great, momentous standing issue in politics—the issue that is determining, not of party questions, but of the quality and character of government—lies always. The remaining two classes count in results only by the weight of their indifferent votes, as they are acted upon and used by the other two. In the real forces of the battle, numbers are on the side of good government almost unfailingly, and what has been wanting when victory fails is, not number, nor will, nor courage, nor intelligence, but organization. The little band of the self-seekers—the professionals of politics—harvest the fruit of elections by controlling the nominations of parties, and control the nominations of parties by perfect manipulation of a small minority of votes, directed with precision to a definite end, systematically planned.

To the mastery and management of all controllable elements in the body politic the professional politicians bring training, experience, constant thought, ceaseless labor, systematic combination and organization among themselves. They can afford to give time, thought, and energy without reserve to the work; it is their vocation; it is what they live for, — commonly what they live by; and the vast tribute levied for their “committee funds” puts every possibility of action and influence into their hands. The Tammany organization in New York maintains, as is well known, a paid captain in each election district, whose business is to know each voter in the district; to establish friendly relations with him; to flatter him with attentions; to bring all appropriate influences to bear on him; to enlist him, if possible, as a recognized Tammany man; and to foster an effective esprit de corps among such supporters by means of social clubs, balls in winter, excursions in summer, and the like. For the fruit of his exertions, gathered in substantial votes, each captain is responsible to a responsible committee in his assembly district. He is liberally supplied with funds and with bits of petty patronage, for use in employing assistants and covering his expenditures. His position depends on his success. He loses it if he fails to keep the Tammany vote of his district up to an expected mark. His superiors in the assembly district committee are similarly accountable, in their turn, for the work of all their captains, to the executive committee of Tammany Hall, which is made up of district leaders. It is a system of more precision and more efficiency than that of the city government. The discipline maintained is stricter than in the military organization of the state. At every moment the forces of Tammany are ready for call; for every need they are exactly known. This is the perfected machine organization of party in American politics, — the model to which all of its kind, state or municipal, are more or less closely conformed. It is a costly piece of administrative mechanism. It involves the employment of an army of paid agents, picked for cleverness and energy, with a great staff of able chiefs, whose services claim high rewards. The maintenance of such a system demands the revenues of a state and the taxing power of a state; and it is precisely because the machine and the boss have acquired that power and those revenues, under conditions lately developed, that they have become what they are.

To resist the self-seeking, the deluding, the corrupt and corrupting labors for which combinations so extraordinary in effectiveness as these are formed, we have an admirable multitude of honest citizens, whose interest in politics is their common interest in the public welfare; who snatch occasional time and thought from their daily occupations for their performance of political duty; who come together once a year, at the best, picking up on the eve of an election the threads of combination that they dropped at the last one, and tying them as they can; who rally for the work of a campaign such agents as they find at the moment, and equip them with such resources as they can beg. What chance have they against the compact “regulars” of politics, who never quit the field from November to November? Just the chance of militia trainbands against a standing army.

If nothing but elections were involved in this matter, the situation would not be hopeless. Elections are decided, in the main, by majorities, and the citizens whose votes are aimed, with more or less intelligence, at no end but the public good are always a large majority. But it is not in elections that the quality and character of our government are determined. That is done in party nominations. There only is selection exercised, and it is there that the machine organization of politicians finds its chief end. There they triumph, almost inevitably; for they do not depend on majorities in a party to control the choice of party nominees. Minorities, handled with organized precision, have a wonderful potency in this primary, selective suffrage, compared with which the elective suffrage has small importance. The trick of it, which a territorial or district system of representation makes possible, is seldom noticed and is little understood. A bare majority of bare majorities, in caucusing and delegating, under that system, may be a small minority of the total party vote, but it will control the resultant nominations. This fact van be shown most plainly, perhaps, in an imagined situation. Suppose a state to be divided into one hundred districts for representation in one branch of its legislature, each district containing twenty towns or city wards, in each of which there are 200 voters of a given party. That would make the total vote of the party in the state 400,000. One hundred and one votes in each of eleven out of the twenty towns or wards composing a district (being 1111 votes in all) will elect a majority of delegates to the district convention and control the nomination of a legislative candidate. If this is done in fifty-one of the hundred districts of the state, by bare majorities in each (that is, by 56,661 of the 400,000 voters of the party), it will insure the nomination of a majority of legislative candidates in the interest of the leagued politicians who organize their efforts to that end. In other words, the legislative representation of a party, in this illustrative situation, could be controlled by less than one seventh of its members, even if the whole strength of opposition to that fraction were brought to the primaries. A much smaller minority would suffice, if opposition became discouraged and negligent of the ineffectual vote, as it usually does. The possibilities are the same in all political action that is districted or broken up by geographical lines.

Picking the needed number of districts in which its work is surest of success, the organization can cheerfully permit opposing majorities to waste themselves in the remainder. It can cheerfully put itself under strict surveillance of law, as it has recently done in the state of New York. The day of its dependence on packed caucuses and fraudulent primaries may be looked upon as substantially past. The system of the machine, at its best, is refined beyond so gross a need. With nice distribution and manipulation, it can shuffle its little minority into the top of the great party pack, and deal out delegates and nominees at will, while it seems to be playing the fairest of games.

Now, this is the situation at which we have arrived in the evolution of representative democracy, and it looks lasting. What can change it for the better? It is the product of conditions that appear to lie beyond the reach of any possible reform in parties, — any possible awakening of political earnestness among the people who desire to be better represented in their government. Is escape from it possible?

It is manifest that an organic weakness in the constitution of representative democracy, by which it is betrayed almost hopelessly to self-seeking and demagogical politicians, is found in the system of territorial or district representation. At the best, that system is incapable of realizing the end for which it was designed. It mixes in one heterogeneous constituency all the differences of will and opinion which pure accident of residence has neighbored within some given geographical boundary, and leaves them to scramble for a single “representative.” There are no circumstances conceivable under which a true representation of the people could be attained by that method. But under the circumstances that actually exist, as we have seen, its almost certain effect is to give a majority of the representation to the most self-seeking and unscrupulous minority in the whole body of the citizenship.

Considering the facts without prejudice of mind, may we not reasonably suspect that the sending of men to Congress, to state legislatures, and to municipal councils, as representatives of the mixed total population of given areas of land, will some day—perhaps soon—be looked upon very much as we now look on the “rotten borough” representation of England before 1832, wondering that it could be endured so long?

Theory would seek an ideal of perfected representation in some plan of free but strictly regulated association, whereby people might be grouped together, in appropriate numbers, according to their affinities in opinion and character, and more or less independently of residence, for the purpose of choosing the representatives who shall act for them in government. Is there anything except the historical habit of voting by wards and towns that discredits such a plan? At least, let theory suggest the mode of it for consideration!

A voluntary association of, say, 200 electors is as well defined and controllable a unit of political action in suffrage proceedings as an election district containing the same number of voters. Its members can be registered and identified as such just as easily and certainly as they are now registered and identified in the character of district residents. They can be certificated, if needful, at each registration, as French voters are, and allowed to vote only on the production of a certificate. They can have the same freedom of change from one association to another that they now have in their changes of residence from district to district. By proper provisions of law, to regulate the formation and registration of such associated bodies of citizens, to keep them within right limits of least and greatest number, and to formulate the mode of their combination in constituencies, for this and that purpose of representation, the whole system can, apparently, be made as manageable and as practicable as the present territorial system, and better secured against irregularities and fraud.

With what probable results? Certainly one of prime importance, to begin with, — namely, proportional representation of parties. Of many elaborate plans that have been contrived for the accomplishment of that just end, this would seem to be the simplest and most easily carried out. Any party of agreeing citizens, sufficient in number to make up a constituency, as determined in number by law, could readily unite in one, first by the forming of their primary associations, which would be of a neighborhood character, and then by federating these to the number desired. One group of such associations would form a municipal constituency larger groupings would produce assembly and senatorial constituencies, for representation in the state legislature; a still larger combination would give the constituency for congressional representation. Each constituency, thus voluntarily made up, would be, as nearly as possible, a unit of political opinion and of character in the citizenship. The representative chosen by it would necessarily be as nearly representative of the whole as one man can be representative of many. All parties in the state would make up constituencies and elect representatives, therefore, exactly in the proportion of their several numbers, and by no possibility otherwise. Of “gerrymandering” there would be no more.

Not only would the representation be proportional as between political parties, but it could not fail to be likewise proportional, within parties, to an inevitable classification of character and quality among the people composing them. Those in each party who aim at higher standards, of purity, of dignity, of ability in government, would come together in the same associations and constituencies, controlling the representation of these, and bringing the full weight of their numbers to bear in pressing men of the higher stamp into public life. Even a few such constituencies, inviting and attracting the best brain and character into politics, — even a few protected shelters, where the finer fruits of a democratic franchise might have opportunity to ripen and be tasted by the people, — would be worth a revolution. But we have no good reason to believe that they would be few. The desire for these better things is not limited to some small number of our population. It is probably more widespread than any present manifestation of it could lead us to suspect. It has been dulled by discouragement; it has not been killed. Give it free exercise, and it will have the growth which opportunity produces in any human desire, evil or good. Our present system gives that stimulant to the meaner pursuits in politics. A reversal of the conditions would change the face of the political world.

Moreover, if those citizens who are thoughtful of the public good and high-minded in their views of it could mass themselves, in the manner suggested, and act together, who can doubt that they would draw a great part of their more careless fellows into association with them, by an influence that is nearly powerless now?

Of course, it may be objected that nothing would prevent the politicians who now construct political machines from constructing associations and constituencies under the system proposed. True; there is nothing to prevent, except the inefficacy of the work. The machine of their present construction is an apparatus for the conversion of a minority of votes into a majority of nominating delegates and elected representatives. Of that profitable product there would be nothing more. Majorities alone will weigh, when the districting of representation is done away with; the votes that elect will then be the votes that select; and if there is the making of a political boss in those conditions, then our democracy is hopelessly servile indeed.

All that I suggest is consistent with the doctrine that the true ground of political constitutions and political systems is in expediency. The acceptance and admittance of this doctrine into the habits of our political thought would open, I am sure, many new and more hopeful possibilities in the future of democracy. The franchises of our democratic citizenship would then take on an aspect of privilege rather than of right, with a deepened sense of responsibility attaching to them. They could not seem to be, so much as now, a personal possession of the citizen, to be exercised carelessly, selfishly, ignorantly, corruptly, as he will. They would have to be recognized for what they ought to be, and are, — a trust with which each is invested for the good of all, and for which the accountability of each to all is beyond dispute.

If we came, in this view, to a purely rational dealing with political franchises, we should deny them alike to the incoming alien and to the native young man who gave no fair evidence of political intelligence and reputable character; we should withdraw them, unfailingly and forever, from the man who sold his vote and from him who bought it, and equally from the man who attempted to coerce the suffrage of another. As for the citizen who neglected his electoral privilege, showing no consciousness of the duty that reasonably binds him to the exercise of it, we should take it from him, at the least, until he had learned its significance and value.

These are some of the possibilities that seem discernible to me in the future of democracy. If they are not possibilities, I do not know how to look hopefully into coming time. I see no other escape from the mean tyranny of the organizing politician, — the meanest tyranny known to history, and the most disgraceful to its submissive subjects. The old, crude system of territorial representation, historically venerable, but practically delusive and logically absurd, has betrayed us into his power. Unless we break from it, what can deliver us?