Government at the Crossroads
THE most unregenerate of Bourbons and the most modern of those modernists who preach the gospel of change under the creed of ‘progressivism’ have reached the common conclusion that the old political order is passing. Upon this point, at least, clashing opinion converges, and the ultraconservative — such as former Representative Cannon, now enshrined in tradition as ‘Uncle Joe,’ the disciple and successor of‘Tsar’ Reed —and the ultraliberal — typified by Senator Smith Wildman Brookhart, who springs full-panoplied from the obscurity of the Iowa National Guard — are one. Behind the strange accord are conflicting emotions. Those whose faces are turned toward the past are aware only of the deepening shadows. Those who look to the future are on the alert to catch the first glimmering of the coming dawn. But, both admit, with equal candor, that something in the nature of a political Götterdämmerung is at hand. The old gods are tottering or have fallen. The. old reverence for established political institutions has given way to a clamorous outcry. The ‘normalcy’ of which the late President Harding once spoke, and for which those whose experience identifies them with the past rather than the present more ardently hope, has become a vanishing illusion.
The circumstances that have given rise to these forebodings, these inspiriting anticipations and high desires for peace, are but dimly outlined against a background of political restiveness characteristic of the time. In what measure they reflect the evolution of new processes of government, and in what measure only a passing popular mood, it is for the contemplative calm of later years to determine. But it is apparent that something has happened — one may suspect that a great deal has happened — to deflect government from its accustomed course. What might at close range seem a fleeting cloud of confusion takes on in larger perspective the aspect of a transition which, if it bears but generally in the direction of the disquieting unknown, bears unmistakably away from things as they are. Regularity and normality — the friendly wind and fair weather for which the polit ical helmsman yearns — may be attained in time, but it is becoming more and more doubtful that they will be attained by a reversion to old methods of direction and control. These have been wrecked beyond the probability of restoration. The course of the first two years of President Harding’s administration and the Sixtyseventh Congress was strewn witJi the debris.
If the causes are obscure, the effects are wait ten for anyone to read. One might count it a manifestation of the inevitable rise and fall of human fortunes in the flowing tide of political advancement that leaders should disappear, but not leadership; that parties should come and go, but not party; and that national policies should be taken up and discarded, but not national polity. Yet all these things have happened or are in process of happening. Controversy lias strayed from the normal course of debating what government shall accomplish, and has turned to the tortuous paths of the mechanism of accomplishment.
It is not by reason of a passing temperamental whim — post-war psychosis — that the House of Representatives has ceased to look upon the Senate as a council of elder statesmen; or that the Senate, itself riven by animosities, has hedged the president about with restrictions and subjected the members of his Cabinet to suspicious scrutiny; or that President Harding launched his legislative ent erprises with the air of one who was casting his bread upon the Congressional waters in the faint hope that it would be returned to him in the form of enactments ready for his signature.
Close scrutiny reveals a gradual transformation of parliamentary methods. The House has ceased to be a compact legislative organization subject to the control of the Speaker, as it was when Reed wielded an authority little short of despotic. The time has passed when the work of the Senate, as Senator Edmunds once said, was done by six men, instead of ninety-six. The President can no longer summon the leaders of the two legislative bodies to the White House and by taking counsel with them chart the course of public affairs. The day of ‘invisible government’ is done. The revolt against it, like most revolts of its kind, encompassed its destruction by obliterating the conditions under which it had thrived. But to get at the evil it had pulled down the house, and President Harding and those of his Administration upon whom the responsibilities of government devolved wandered in the litter of its ruins.
The transition has had a positive side. If popular activity has been absorbed for the most part in tearing down, there has been, at the same time, a feeble and rather instinctive attempt at setting up. Out of the turbulence have begun to emerge certain tendencies which, vague as they are, may in time mark the pattern to be followed in erecting a structure to take the place of that which has been destroyed. Without entirely abandoning party allegiance, members of Congress have shown a disposition to come together in blocs — what the old Federalists would have condemned as factions. As nationalism has waned, sectionalism has become more assertive. The decline of leadership has been followed by a multiplication of leaders, from the viewpoint of organization a riotous outburst of political individualism. Parliamentary majorities, no longer under the control of those who bend their energies to the single purpose of party domination, have become more or less casual combinations suited to the needs of varied enterprise.
All of these may be largely symptomatic, passing ripples of disquiet and discontent, but they mark the shifting of the slow-moving political current from familiar channels. The drift is away from delegated political authority, in the direction of what, for lack of a better name, has been called ‘ progressive democracy’ or ‘direct popular control’; in larger view, a swing from the republican to the democratic theory of government.
Under the impetus of war and its aftermath of readjustment the dissolution of the old system came with startling rapidity, although it had begun long before the war was more than a fleck on the Balkan horizon. The cycle of reaction against ‘invisible government,’ to which it may be attributed, was concealed, if not halted, by the outburst of patriotic fervor which obliterated partisanship and lifted Congress high above the levels of contentiousness and discord. But the war had nothing to do with the political disintegration which was disclosed when the martial tumult had passed, except possibly to intensify the discontent at the bottom of it, which was asserted in undoing rather than in doing, in tearing down rather than in setting up. Perhaps, too, payment was being exacted for the unfulfilled promises that all the dross of political inequality was to be burned away in the crucible of conflict. The farmer and the laborer might be forgiven their assumption of credit lor victory in view of the reiterated assurances that it was dependent upon their effort before it was attained. In the first flush of enthusiasm democracy slipped its mooring of common responsibility and drifted out on a visionary sea of captivating desires.
When the shadow of war was lifted, President Harding and the dwindling group of leaders commissioned to direct the destinies of government found themselves confronted by a situation that had been in the making for more than a decade. Centralized political authority had been so weakened that it was little more than the inertia of tradition. Penrose, last of the ‘bosses,’ had lived just long enough to see his sceptre become a broken reed. There was none to succeed him — not because there was any lack of available candidates for the place, but because the ‘boss,’ as a symbol of organization and control, had passed out of existence. The party, as it was constituted, no longer served as the expression of a common purpose. The disciplinary machinery by which its decrees had been enforced had ceased to function. The political rank and file had taken a leaf out of the book of Bolshevist theory which prescribed that regimental privates might choose their own officers and formulate their own rules of conduct. The party recalcitrant no longer stood in fear of the drumhead court, composed of those vaguely known as party leaders, which could summarily order his decapitation. Stronger influences than party retribution had come into play — the demands of a truculent constituency, which conceived the paramount interest of the country to be that in which it was most interested.
Lack of the qualities of leadership alone does not account for the retrocession of the dominating figures set up under the old régime into the enshrouding mists of obscurity, or the sudden springing into view of such spokesmen as Senator Brookhart, who drapes the mantle of agrarian apostleship about him, with the self-possession of an office-boy suddenly elevated to the board of directors. Delegated political authority, the committing into the hands of the selected few of the fortunes of the many after they have served a long period of apprenticeship to prove their capacity as leaders, — if not to take orders, — has given way to a political sectionalism which sets up its minor prophets overnight. Penrose was ‘boss,’ not because he was Penrose, but because he had been tried in the old school of organization which, to him, was a governmental institution almost as fundamental as the Constitution itself. And whatever his defects might have been, this characteristic, so often and so unreservedly condemned as a fault, came more nearly being regarded as a virtue when he stood almost alone, an uncompromising but impressive figure, shorn of his power and with the system by which it was created crumbling about him, than at any other time in his long and noteworthy career.
Leadership is compounded of the quality of following as well as of leading, and what had happened was not so much that the leaders had ceased to lead as that the followers had ceased to follow. The latter, during the war, had adhered to the inevitable rule of setting up their’ big three’or their’big nine,’as the case might be, and investing them with power to reshape the destinies of the world.
But they went to the other extreme when the circumstances which called for their creation had passed. They made a clean sweep of the war oligarchy. Every leader tumbled from his pedestal, even Lloyd George yielding, not to another leader who had gradually tightened his grip on the reins of government, but to a party, or, to be even more specific, to a reversion of sentiment. People got tired of them.
President Wilson, as well, went down before the engulfing wave; and however much one might be inclined to attribute his overthrow to rebellion against his leadership, one cannot quite escape the conclusion that it was due in no small measure to the fact that the people declined any longer to be led. In this respect his career runs parallel to that of Penrose. Just as the late Senator from Pennsylvania came nearer being recognized for what he was when the system which he had upheld began to totter to its collapse, so President Wilson emerged from the defeat of Wilsonism, — an autocracy bred of war as well as of his own inclination, — if not a more heroic figure than he had been before, certainly one who in the more kindly light of a purely human relationship held to ideals for which he suffered much.
President Harding, and those with whom he was surrounded, soon discovered that they had risen high, not on an incoming but on an outgoing wave of popular reaction. It was toppling not merely leaders but leadership, and those of the post-war as well as of the war period have had to struggle to keep abreast of the following trough of obscurity. The dust of indifference has begun to settle upon those who have taken up the burdens of peace. Even the older Progressives, who were incessantly clutching at the fringes of the future, found themselves slipping into the past with the corroding film of venerability upon them.
It was a temperamental characteristic of President Harding to observe scrupulously what he regarded the constitutional balance between the legislative and executive branches of the government, but it explains only in part the cross-purposes at which they labored. It was not altogether the fault of Mr. Wilson that a recalcitrant Congress was his undoing. He had survived the war and the artificial stimulus it gave to leadership long enough to reap some of the harvest of revolt, the seeds of which had been planted before he was elected. Both men discovered that Congress and the President had grown apart, not only by reason of differences of opinion, but because the political ties which bound them together had been loosened. The strands had been cut by those insurrectionists who were determined to defeat, if not to destroy, an organization the leaders of which would not admit them to its inner sanctuary. Their motives might have been of the highest. Their aim might have been to destroy corruption and special privilege, but the fact remains that they undermined the citadel of government. In purging leadership, as it was constituted, of the evil that was in it, they sapped its strength. The operation was successful but the patient died.
By force of circumstance the Chief Executive now has no choice but to abandon his legislative programme to the fortuity of congressional fate. President Harding could gather about him the ' best minds,’— one of the innovations in political nomenclature which stamps the word ‘boss’ as archaic, — but these were nothing more in the aggregate than a consulting body, with no more direct influence upon Congress than a society for the promotion of psychic research. They were not in any sense a board of party strategy, such as that which had once forgathered in the Senate Chamber. President Harding could and did make personal appeals to members of Congress,— rather as a citizen than as President,— but he had no thunderbolts to launch. Whether he would have launched them or not is beside the mark. All that was left to him was to let Congress take its own course, hoping that an enlightened public opinion would fix the responsibility for whatever happened where it belonged. In other words, the short cut. between Capitol and White House which party afforded had fallen into disuse. The Chief Executive was obliged to take the roundabout way from the White House to the people, — the swing around the circle, — hoping that the people would see to it that Congress should fall in with his legislative plans. This way is a lane of many turnings. It involves the loss of time, the waiting upon the slow development of popular approval or disapproval; but it is the only course left open to a President when he faces the storm of controversy.
The same influences that had clipped the wings of presidential leadership had tethered leadership in Congress. The majority was no longer the servant of leadership, but leadership was the creature of the majority. And the majority was not an organized group, but a coalescence of ideas as inconstant and as elusive as a shimmering moonpath on the sea. Authority no longer reposed in the hands of the inner few who guided legislative deliberations, but had been diffused among the many, becoming a controlling influence, if it was called into play at all, only by combination and compromise until it was reduced to terms of action.
In the House of Representatives the reformation took on the guise of an open and spectacular mutiny, a parliamentary insurrection. The Speaker, the deus ex machina under the old order, who in the days of Reed and Cannon had exercised absolute sway, setting up the legislative committees and the powerful Committee on Rules, which mapped the course of legislative progress, was stripped of the trappings of authority. He became merely a presiding officer, necessary for the conduct of the business of the House as the gavel he wields is necessary for the preservation of order. A modicum of his power was transferred to the floor-leader, but it became the business of the floorleader, not to bend the majority to his will, but to shape his course to its demands. He led, not by virtue of his leadership, but because he contrived to keep ahead. He and his associates of the steering committee are engaged chiefly, not in telling their followers what is to be done, but in discovering what they wish to do and setting their course accordingly. They not only find it necessary to compromise, to alter and recast legislative projects, to muster a preponderance of the voting strength sufficient for the needs of the day and hour only, but in not a few instances have discovered to their discomfiture that, when the roll is called, their adherents have gone over to the other side.
In the Senate, which clings Niobelike to the dead ashes of its past, the old forms of leadership and control are retained, but they are little more than the husks of a vanished power. What in the more popular branch had flamed into revolt, in the upper house has taken the quiet course of decay. It has become a habit to lay upon the slender patrician shoulders of the Senator from Massachusetts the burden of the sins of governmental omission because he did not hold his colleagues consistently to their task. Even his colleagues have had their misgivings, and have forced upon him assistant leaders, a curious confession of the incompetency of leadership.
There were times when the Senator from Massachusetts pleased nobody, not because he lacked the art of pleasing, but because his colleagues were not to be pleased. To the liberals he was too rigid, to the conservativ es too compromising. He stood, like Catherine de’ Medici, in the midst of hostile factions, each one of which believed that the ultimate good was to be attained chiefly by cutting the throats of all the others. But the striking fact of his leadership was not that he failed to lead, but that he was able to keep alive at all an office which had become little more than a shadowy tradition.
There is a very soothing theory that political leadership will revive when issues are evolved — a theory that springs from the complacent philosophy that when the house takes fire someone will come forward to put the fire out. Washington was at hand to save the Confederation and set government upon a firm foundation. Lincoln maintained it in security when it was threatened by disruption from within. Presumptively there are no leaders now at hand because there is no occasion for leadership.
The people are absorbed in the diverting experiment of Prohibition because there is nothing more important to occupy their attention. Or, as Mr. Hughes has said, with the prayerlike appeal that characterized President Harding’s exhortation, ‘Would that the spirit of America had one voice, one message! But there is a babel of voices, a confusion of tongues. If danger threatens us, we happily stand united; but when we are least concerned as to our own safety we are most divided in our counsels.’
It is true that national issues were noticeably lacking in the Congress that has just closed. Having put aside the things of war, the politicians dragged out of the cupboard the old banners of peace. But they had ceased to be political standards. The tariff fell apart into a multitude of local issues, permeated by the same dry rot which had eaten its way into most of the issues that had done service in past conflicts — sectionalism. If national policies had almost disappeared, it was not because they had ceased to exist, but because they had been obscured by lesser controversies. They might have withstood the storm of many an election, but they succumbed to a change in the political point of view. Most members of Congress were no longer concerned about national affairs, but about the interests of their own neighborhoods.
Perhaps the most misleading thing about Congress is the arbitrary classification of its membership as Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Republican and Progressive. The last two are of no consequence because there is only one of each. In the Sixty-seventh Congress Meyer London was the lone Socialist, and Senator Hiram Johnson was the only Republican who had the courage to put himself down also as a Progressive. Senator Ladd did not go quite so far; he dropped the conjunction, merely qualifying himself as a Nonpartisan Republican — a strange flower in the garden of political terminology.
In the forthcoming Congress the Farmer-Labor Party achieves official existence. This, at least, is an attempt to fit classification to actual conditions, and incidentally illustrates how far the Senate has strayed from the path marked out for it by the constitutional fathers. Its members are no longer ambassadors of states, spokesmen of lesser sovereignties which once overshadowed the Federal existence, but representatives of a class. Calling things by their real names is a step in the direction of clarity; but whether it heralds the division of Congress into the minorities of which it is actually composed remains to be seen.
Party nomenclature as it is now applied to the legislative branch is all but obsolete. It would mean just as much and serve just as practical a purpose to call the majority and the minority the Blues and the Reds, or the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The only certainty one has about a Republican is that he is not a Democrat, and about a Democrat, that he is not a Republican; and that distinction is not very illuminating to the bewildered voter. A North Dakota Republican is as different from an Ohio Republican as a wild horse of the Central Asian plateau is from a hackney. The character or degree of Republicanism is determined by each constituency in the light of its own requirements and traditions. Parties as they exist in Congress are an agglomeration of heterogeneous notions, and each member is as free as the wind to follow his own impulses so long as he keeps within the limitations prescribed by those to whom he owes his election, and, which is more important, to whom he will look for reëlection.
Both of the old parties are in the same plight, and the only positive quality of ‘ Progressivism ‘ is that it is negative. It is the apotheosis of discord, political individualism run to seed. In a broad and charitable perspective it might be considered a revolt against the capitalistic or materialistic conception of government, which sets property above persons, creates a hierarchy of business, and subordinates social justice to money-making. It is a fine and idealistic impulse, as universal as Christendom. But it is a state of mind rather than a party, or even a political faction. No one has been able to compress its loftiness of purpose into the vernacular of a legislative programme. No two adherents of the cause have been able to agree upon, or even to formulate, constructive policies founded upon the principles of which its creed is compounded. The object of its solicitude is, according to one, the ultimate consumer; according to another, the laborer or the farmer; according to a third, the downtrodden and oppressed. Wall Street and finance are anathema to it. But in spite of their zeal, its neophytes are not drawn together by any spirit of brotherly love. There are as many diff erent degrees of Progressivism as there are Progressives. Each chooses his own path. If the older parties have, in the larger view, become a political babel, Progressivism has become a bedlam.
The theory of direct representation must be weighed no longer as a theory but as an accomplished fact. It is a distinctive tenet of the Progressive faith, but it is observed no less by many of the conservatives. Senator Ashurst carried it to a logical extremity a few years ago by broadcasting telegrams to selected constituents in his state, asking how he should vote on specific measures. Senator Capper has devised an elaborate system by which he sounds agrarian sentiment. Many, perhaps most, of the members of the House of Representatives await the crystallization of public opinion in their districts before striking an attitude toward a legislative question, whether propounded by the majority leadership or not; and to vote against one’s convictions is at times even haloed with the mystical light of self-sacrifice, as if the greatest good were to be achieved by having no opinions at all. The system might be good or it might be bad, but it has in large measure taken the place of that older system by which a member was earmarked before he was elected, committing himself to certain general policies and obligating himself in advance to follow a course defined in his party manifestoes.
The national platform was never more than a feeble structure, a cautiously drawn bill of particulars, filed either by the administration in power to justify the continuation of its control, or by the party out of power to fortify its claims for precedence. But, with the more important pronouncements of the candidates, it served the purpose of defining in general terms the issue over which the impending struggle was to be fought. At national conventions proponents of legislation sat patiently outside the locked doors behind which the committees on resolutions deliberated, oftentimes far into the small hours of the morning, awaiting an opportunity to make their pleas. This was, for the most part, a futile proceeding. More often than not the platform was drafted before the committee met, but that did not make it the less important. It was the expression of a purpose.
Under the present system neither the platform nor the utterances of the party candidate can carry any assurance of fulfillment. Members of Congress are not elected upon the national platform. It is beyond the province of party either to approve or to disapprove of them. The national considerations which prevail in the selection of a President have little weight in Congress, and Congress is the main scene of legislative conflict.
The proponents of legislation find it no longer necessary to wait in patience at the door of the resolutions committee. They are no longer solicitous about party indorsement, but set to work upon the constituent Member of Congress, whose predicament is not unlike that of the man with the seven devils. At the outset of the Wilson administration Congress drove out the satanic ‘lobby,’ to the beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets, only to find since that it has returned with numerous companions who have made its last state worse than the first. The legislative agent is persistent and ubiquitous, He speaks for countless organizations created for countless purposes, from the enactment of ‘blue laws’ to the amendment of the Constitution to discourage further amendment.
In spite of the changes that have so profoundly affected the business of governing, methods of administration are still cut after the old pattern. The organization of Congress is based upon the theory that the majority party rules. It chooses the presiding officers, organizes the committees, and sets up the legislative mechanism. This is the one moment, and the only moment, in the life of a Congress when partisan allegiance shines as a virtue. There is a clamorous unanimity. Everyone claims a voice in the management of the affairs of the majority as a staunch party adherent.
This, together with the very human propensity to run in grooves, explains the reluctance of the recalcitrants to efface the party label. To declare openly their apostasy and hoist their own colors would involve the forfeiture of their claims for preference. It is one thing to share in the official emoluments of the majority, it is quite another to face the lean larder of the minority. Mere dissent does not impose the privations that would follow on the heels of revolt.
A third party offers no way out. It would encounter the same disintegrating forces that have permeated those already in existence, and add to the confusion. The problem which confronts the government is not the failure of parties, but party. Politicians, who in no derogatory sense may be called practical, contend generally that a third party is a mirage of well-meaning malcontents. There is room for only two, the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs,’ by whatever names they may be called. A third party may begin as third, but it succeeds as one of two. Experience justifies this conclusion. From the days of the ‘Quids’ and ‘Locofocos’ to the ‘Bull Moose’ there has been a series of them, but they have not long survived a general election. Whatever virtues they have are promptly absorbed by their elder brethren. In Congress there are now well-defined factions which have some of the characteristics of parliamentary parties, but none of their members have cast off entirely their allegiance to the old organizations, however tepid it has grown.
The parliamentary system in the United States cannot very well be adapted to a profusion of parties. The Chief Executive exercises also a legislative function. If not the alpha, he is at least the omega of the legislative process, sometimes initiating it and always approving or disapproving its results. He is the head of the government as well as of the state, prime minister and president in one.
Congress might evolve a majority out of a number of minorities. That procedure is already followed to some extent in both the House and the Senate; but there is no place for a leader who might be able so to compose differences as to ensure the adoption of a legislative programme, because his place is already taken by the President. In such a situation the President would have the choice either of opposing Congress and taking the fight to the people, or of relinquishing his ministerial functions, becoming simply the President, content to serve his four years and to retire into the obscurity which would inevitably await him when they were at an end.
All this might seem to be the attenuated thread-spinning to which politicians are given, and of little concern to the private citizen who is not brought into contact with government. But no one to whose lot it has fallen to follow the tortuous course of legislation — from committee to House, from House to Senate, from Senate to committee, and back again, running the rapids of factional tumult, skirting the shoals of indifference, or stagnating in the murky pools of aimless oratory — can long escape the misgiving that there is something back of it to which the private citizen must, sooner or later, give his attention.
It is not simply that the old days have gone, — there was much in them the passing of which one need not regret, — or that the glamour of parliamentary jousting and the clashing of party champions, behind whom their followers arrayed themselves with flaunting colors, have disappeared. The real work of Congress has nearly always been done inconspicuously.
Yet the changes that have occurred are not so subtle that they must be probed for under a glass, or so slight that they may be regarded as mere political fretwork on the larger design of national purpose. They are obvious enough to one who sits in the gallery of the Senate and watches the weaving and interweaving of personal ambitions, animosities, contentiousness, and purposeless discord, even a flippant casualness, which mark the pattern of its deliberations.
For the conclusion is inevitable that Congress has become less a national workshop than a debating ground, a hustings whence appeals are made, not to the common intelligence, but to limited constituencies. Much of its time is wasted in the campaigning which formerly was over and done when election day arrived, and the party to which the conduct of government was committed sought to justify itself by its accomplishments until the next election day came.
These changes are not an indictment of the character of most of the men who constitute the legislative body. They are individually probably as highminded as those who have gone before them. Many have served under the old régime as well as the new. Even the best of them must adapt themselves in some degree to the shifting of responsibility and control from the parties to which they have given their allegiance more directly to the people who elect them. They must conform to a political system by which the pulse of Congress has been made to beat to the emotional and sentimental vagaries of subordinate groups, representing everything from a pious aspiration to a sectional bloc, and by which its attention has been fixed upon the passing ripples of popular whim rather than upon the ground swell of popular accord.