The Causes of Political Indifference to-Day


THE record shows that in the last campaign President Coolidge appealed twice to the voters. Once he asked them to vote, to go to the polls and vote, to mark ballots for somebody. And once he emerged from behind the veil of the official spokesman’s unofficial and indirect discourse to plead with the people of Massachusetts for his friend and campaign manager, Senator Butler. This attitude was a fair sample of how the country felt about the election. A voter ought to vote. That was generally admitted in theory. But in practice the private citizen, like the President of the United States, was interested only in some one local election.

Mr. Coolidge was interested in Massachusetts. Mr. Smith was interested in New York; Mr. Ritchie was interested in Maryland. Nobody was very much interested in the nation. Investigation would show, I am told, that the Republican National Committee was never called into action during the campaign, and that most of its energies since 1924 have been devoted to celebrating the personal virtues of Mr. Coolidge and to repairing the deficiencies of Senator Butler in Alassachuset.ts. The Republican Party in 1926 had neither national leadership nor platform nor strategy. It was not like Cæsar’s wife, and it was all things to all men. Its component factions engaged in a series of local elections from which not only Mr. Coolidge, but the national organization as well, held aloof. The party as a national organ abdicated, and either the voter had to follow Mr. Coolidge’s example and excite himself about a local issue or he had not to excite himself at all.

The principles of the Democratic Party were likewise determined by geography. This party, too, had no national policy whatever. It too conducted a series of local campaigns, which were not only independent one of the other, but contradictory. Mr. Wagner ran in New York as a wet Democrat and Mr. Wilson ran in Pennsylvania as a dry. Mr. Brookhart ran in Iowa as an antitrust Republican and Mr. Butler ran in Massachusetts as the devoted slave of all business everywhere. Mr. Brennan in Illinois had about as much in common with Mr. Barkeley of Kentucky as Mr. Wadsworth of New York had with Mr. Willis of Ohio. The only difference between the Republicans and the Democrats was that the Republicans were split apart and did n’t know it, whereas the Democrats were split apart and knew it. They could not help knowing it after the convention of 1924 in Madison Square Garden.

In fact, as one contemplates the activities of politicians there is little doubt that, if only there were voters somewhere who wanted it, Republican and Democratic principles could be accommodated locally to polygamy, foot binding, or voodooism. The rule is simply this: anything which helps you to carry your state is the immortal principles of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

It is not surprising, then, that national partisan politics should have come to mean so little to the ordinary voter. There are no parties, there are no leaders, there are no issues. There are parties only in the states, there are leaders only of sections, there are issues, but they are either evaded by national public men or carefully confined to the localities. There is nobody in American public life to-day who, like Roosevelt or Wilson, is really a leader in all parts of the country. Mr. Coolidge has enjoyed popularity and confidence for two years, but the record of his leadership of Congress shows that he is essentially the representative of the Eastern tariff-protected interests. Neither Western agriculture nor the Eastern exporting interests have ever laid much of a hold on his mind. Mr. Lowden, undoubtedly the most powerful figure in the background of Republican politics, is devoting himself wholly to that agricultural interest which Mr. Coolidge has ignored. Senator Borah has touched almost every question and has come to grips with none; with all his great promise and immense personal opportunity he has failed to transform an attractive provincial insurgency into any sort of coherent national policy. There is no need to dwell upon Messrs. Dawes, Watson, Johnson. On the Democratic side there is Governor Smith, idol of the urban Democrats of the Northeast, but as yet wholly unknown, untried, and unexpressed on national questions. There is Governor Ritchie in Maryland, who may fairly claim to have a set of Democratic national principles, but who has not as yet a Democratic national following. And there is Senator Reed of Missouri, who has at least got this far nationally: he has made himself a holy terror to Republicans and Democrats alike.


The effect of these political disharmonies is to bewilder the electorate and to make the voters feel that politics is an elaborate game which has no serious and immediate consequences. This bewilderment manifests itself as complacency or as cynicism. Since 1920 the country has witnessed brazen and expensive corruption. In the amount of money involved the corruption is without parallel in our history. In its sordidness it is surely as bad as and probably a little worse than the scandals of the Grant administration. This generation has known nothing so disgraceful as the carryings on of Fall, Daugherty, and Forbes, nor anything like the Smith primary in Illinois and the Pepper-Vare primary in Pennsylvania. Fall has just been brought to trial; Daugherty was brought to trial only three or four months ago because of the exceptional energy of United States Attorney Buckner; the primary scandals were never rebuked by the leader of the Republican Party. In their public speech public men have been as complacent as possible about it all, and privately they have been prepared to explain that ‘ Well — oh well, you know, politics is a dirty game.’ Maybe it is. But only a few years ago the country was still naïve enough, was still sentimental enough, to have become violently indignant over a cabinet officer accused of bribery. Indignation of this sort we have not known during these last few years. That too perhaps helps to explain why the interest in politics is at such low ebb, and why voting is not looked upon as such a very high duty. The impression has gone out from the White House that there is no use caring too much whether public officials are honest or whether elections are bought.

This persistent dampening down of popular interest in popular government has been the calculated policy of Mr. Coolidge ever since he became President. The reason given for it is that nothing must be done to distract business. The other reason for it, not given, but perfectly well understood, is that it is good politics when you are in power to discourage all manifestations of discontent. Mr. Coolidge is not exactly an ardent spirit. He is contented with little things; he is hardly suited to large thoughts and large deeds. He has not attempted them. On the contrary he has devoted himself to encouraging the people to turn their eyes away from the government. In peaceful, prosperous times not much encouragement is needed. Public spirit is at best a fragile thing when it comes into competition with the urgent demands of our private lives for money, for power, and for pleasure. So it has not been difficult for Mr. Coolidge to persuade the country that it need not take a vivid interest in public affairs.


Yet neither the personality of Mr. Coolidge nor the very special political strategy which he adopted will by itself account for the lethargy of spirit which has prevailed during his administration. Under different circumstances the virtues of Mr. Coolidge would almost certainly have been looked upon as vices. Mr. Coolidge has been praised for failing to lead Congress, for failing to lead his party, for refusing to become indignant at abuses, for not having a positive policy and a constructive programme. He would not have received this praise had the country not been in the mood for a negative administration.

It is the fashion to explain this mood by saying that after all the tall talk heard under Roosevelt and Wilson the country was exhausted emotionally and needed a rest. It had had its fill of idealism, of prophecy, of adventure, and of public action. It needed to forget Washington and the White House and the President, and tend to its private affairs. There is something in this explanation, of course, as there is also in the theory that the war brought a deep disenchantment with politicians, policies, and with what used to be called ‘progressivism.’ But all these explanations are obviously incomplete. For when you have said that men were tired of public affairs you have still to explain why, being tired of public affairs, they are able to indulge themselves by neglecting public affairs.

With this question we come, I think, nearer to the root of the matter. The American people, since the industrial recovery of 1922, has enjoyed an amazing prosperity. Except here and there in a few spots there has been such a surplus of wealth that practically the whole people has raised its standard of life. It was obvious that the opportunities to make money were so ample that it was a waste of time to think about politics. Nothing a man could hope to gain by voting for politicians, and by agitating for laws, was likely to be half so profitable as what he could make by participating in the boom.

The interested motives which are the driving force of political agitation were diverted to direct profit making. Now progressivism, as we have known it in the past, has arisen out of the belief of the debtors, the employees, the consumers, the farmers, that they could by changing the laws obtain a larger share of the national income.

With the stupendous surplus available these last years, it has seemed to most men quicker and easier to go out and make money than to work through the cumbersome indirect processes of political action. Thus there has been no political discontent, except in a few farming states where the new surplus of wealth was not available, and where in consequence the old progressive motives and traditions survived. The common people looked to Roosevelt and to Wilson (before 1914) for relief from poverty and economic servitude. They did not look to Mr. Coolidge for relief because they were finding it by themselves. I am not attempting to say, of course, how real or how permanent is this relief; the fact which counts is that from about 1922 on almost everybody has had the feeling that he had a lot of money in his pocket, and would soon have more. It was this feeling which robbed progressive idealism of its urgency, and made it appear abstract and unimportant.

Together with this diffused prosperity, I should set down as a fundamental cause of political indifference the rise of what may be called the New Capitalism. There is no doubt that the large corporations are now under the control of a very different kind of man than they were when Roosevelt and Bryan and LaFoIlette were on the warpath. The new executive has learned a great deal that his predecessor would have thought was tommyrot. His attitude toward labor, toward the public, toward his customers and his stockholders, is different. His behavior is different. His manner is different. His press agents are different. I am far from thinking he is perfect even now, but I am certain that he is vastly more enlightened and that he will take ever so much more trouble to please. He is no doubt as powerful as he ever was, but his bearing is less autocratic. He does not arouse the old antagonism, the old bitter-end fury, the old feeling that he has to be clubbed into a sense of public responsibility. He will listen to an argument where formerly he was deaf to an agitation.

Whatever may be the intrinsic good and evil of such things as the wide distribution of securities, however questionable may be some of the practices to which Professor Ripley has called attention in this magazine, the net result of the new attitude on the part of capital has been to create a new attitude on the part of the public. The press agents of the corporations have been told to woo the public, and their wooing has been successful. Suspicion has died down. Yet here again we must recognize that it would not have died down if capitalism as we know it were not making most people feel quite comfortably well off.

During the last four years the actual prosperity of the people, combined with the greater enlightenment of the industrial leaders, has removed from politics all serious economic causes of agitation. There has been no pressing reason for an alignment of ‘haves’ and of ‘have nots,’ and no reader of history needs to be told that when you remove economic discontent you remove what is certainly the greatest cause, if it is not the mainspring, of political activity. Politics carried on for justice, for liberty, for prestige, is never more than the affair of a minority. For the great majority of men political ideals are almost always based upon and inspired by some kind of economic necessity and ambition.

These circumstances account for the striking differences between European and American politics. The European finance ministers have had to struggle with deficits, ours with a surplus; they have had to impose taxes, ours to reduce taxes. The European nations have had to borrow, we to lend; they to devise means of payment, we to find ways of receiving payments. They have had to struggle to raise a low standard of living, and we to protect a high standard. They have had to reconstruct and restore; we have had only to perfect and expand. To Europeans, therefore, the American situation has seemed almost idyllic, and there has appeared a great literature in Europe which discusses the American economic system, often with admiration, sometimes with envy, always with the implication that it is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in history. Here in the United States during the last few years capitalism has worked in a way which confounds those who, like most educated Europeans, were brought up to think of it according to the socialistic formula, as an industrial system destined soon to be superseded by some kind of collectivism. Events have taken a wholly unexpected turn in the United States, and the advanced thinker here and abroad suddenly finds that he is no longer advanced. His descriptions, his analyses, his programmes, all assume a different course of evolution. The more or less unconscious and unplanned activities of business men are for once more novel, more daring, and in a sense more revolutionary, than the theories of the progressives. Action has moved faster than thought in these last few years, and practice is ahead of the programmes.

This lag in the development of theory has had a curious effect on political discussion. Public speakers, if they are conservative, will usually be found defending practices that their supposed clients are rapidly abandoning; if they are progressive, they will be found rather wearily and half-heartedly repeating the charges and the idealisms that were current a decade ago. The real industrial development of the day, with its momentous social consequences, hardly figures at all in public discussion. The philosophy of it is not yet understood; we have not yet learned how to talk about it. The good and the evil it contains have not yet been registered and assayed. And as a result most public controversy seems not so much like hot air as stale air. Without knowing just why, most of us feel, I think, that the current conservatism and progressivism are irrelevant. They do not satisfy our minds or grip our emotions.


The questions which really engage the emotions of the masses of the people are of a quite different order. They manifest themselves in the controversies over prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, Romanism, Fundamentalism, immigration. These, rather than the tariff, taxation, credit, and corporate control, are the issues which divide the American people. These are the issues men care about. They are just beneath the surface of political discussion. In theory they are not. supposed to be issues. The party platforms and the official pronouncements deal with them obliquely, if at all. But they are the issues men talk about privately, and they are, above all, the issues about which men have deep personal feelings.

These questions are diverse, but they all arise out of the same general circumstances. They arise out of the great migration of the last fifty years, out of the growth of cities, and out of the spread of that rationalism and the deepening of that breach with tradition which invariably accompany the development of a metropolitan civilization. Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, Fundamentalism, and xenophobia are an extreme but authentic expression of the politics, the social outlook, and the religion of the older American village civilization making its last stand against what looks to it like an alien invasion. The alien invasion is in fact the new America produced by the growth and the prosperity of America.

The evil which the old-fashioned preachers ascribe to the Pope, to Babylon, to atheists, and to the Devil is simply the new urban civilization, with its irresistible economic and scientific and mass power. The Pope, the Devil, jazz, the bootleggers, are a mythology which expresses symbolically the impact of a vast and dreaded social change. The change is real enough. The language in which it is discussed is preposterous only as all mythology is preposterous if you accept it literally. The mythology of the Ku Klux Klan is a kind of primitive science, an animistic and dramatized projection of the fears of a large section of our people who have yet to accommodate themselves to the strange new social order which has arisen in their midst.

This new social order is dominated by metropolitan cities of which New York is the largest and most highly developed. Therefore New York has become the symbol of all that is most wicked and of all that is most alluring in modern America. But New York to-day is only what Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Miami expect to be to-morrow. It is the seat of a vast population, mixed in its origins, uncertain of its social status, rather vague about the moral code. In these metropolitan centres the ancient social bonds are loosened. The patriarchal family, the well-established social hierarchy, the old roots of belief, and the grooves of custom are all obscured by new human relationships based on a certain kind of personal independence, on individual experiment and adventure, which are yet somehow deeply controlled by fads and fashions and great mass movements.

The campaign in certain localities to forbid the teaching of ‘Darwinism’ is an attempt to stem the tide of the metropolitan spirit, to erect a spiritual tariff against an alien rationalism which threatens to dissolve the mores of the village civilization. To many of us the effort seems quixotic, as indeed it is, judged by the intellectual standards of metropolitan life. But if we look at the matter objectively, disregarding the petty mannerisms of the movement, there is a pathos about it which always adheres to the last struggle of an authentic type of human living. The anti-evolutionists are usually less charming than Don Quixote. Perhaps that is because they have not been transfigured by an artist. They are at any rate fighting for the memory of a civilization which in its own heyday, and by its own criteria, was as valid as any other.

The anti-evolution bills are, of course, a comparatively trivial symptom of this profound maladjustment. The overt struggle turns politically on two questions: on the Eighteenth Amendment and on the nomination of Governor Alfred E. Smith. The struggle over these two issues implicates all the antagonisms between the older America and the new. The Eighteenth Amendment is a piece of legislation embodied in the Constitution which attempts to impose the moral ideals of the villages upon the whole nation. The force behind the Eighteenth Amendment is the Anti-Saloon League, which is the political arm of the evangelical churches in the small communities. The financial and political strength of the Anti-Saloon League is derived from the members of these churches, chiefly Methodist and Baptist, with other denominations divided but following these militant sects. And the strength of these sects in the last analysis arises from the spiritual isolation of communities which have not yet been radically invaded by the metropolitan spirit.

The defense of the Eighteenth Amendment has, therefore, become much more than a mere question of regulating the liquor traffic. It involves a test of strength between social orders, and when that test is concluded, and if, as seems probable, the Amendment breaks down, the fall will bring down with it the dominion of the older civilization. The Eighteenth Amendment is the rock on which the evangelical church militant is founded, and with it are involved a whole way of life and an ancient tradition. The overcoming of the Eighteenth Amendment would mean the emergence of the cities as the dominant force in America, dominant politically and socially as they are already dominant economically.


The alignment of the new cities against the older villages traverses the nominal political alignment of the two great parties. In New York State, for example, it has divided and broken the Republican Party as a state organization. There is much more community of thought and feeling between Republicans and Democrats in New York City, in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany, than there is between the urban and the rural Republicans. The unity of the Republican Party in New York is like the unity of the Democrats in the nation: a unity of politicians interested in offices supplemented by the prestige of a name and a tradition. There is no unity of interest, of principle, or of programme.

A similar condition exists in almost every state where there are powerful cities — in Massachusetts for Boston, in Pennsylvania for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in Ohio for Cleveland and Cincinnati, in Illinois for Chicago, in New Jersey for that urban conglomeration known as Hudson County, in Missouri for St. Louis. Both parties are cracking under the strain. Both maintain the appearance of unity by political deals and the compromise of principles. The well-known fact that parties have become meaningless is due to this internal division. They dare not take definite positions for fear of alienating one or the other of their irreconcilable factions.

For reasons which are not altogether clear the conflict has first become overt in the Democratic Party. The convention of 1924 was the scene of the first great, though inconclusive, phase of the struggle. All the signs indicate that the next phase, in 1928, will be at least as sharp and perhaps more decisive. In 1924 the urban democracy rallied around Governor Smith of New York, the village democracy around Mr. McAdoo. The urban Democrats in 1924 controlled a little more than one third of that convention. Since 1924 they have gained in strength and by 1928 they should control at least half of the convention. This change of their position from a minority to a majority faction is not due to the personality or to the leadership of Governor Smith. It is due to a growth of self-consciousness which is developing the latent strength of the city electorates. They are beginning to feel their oats. They are throwing off their sense of inferiority. They are beginning to demand the recognition which is due their intrinsic importance.

The outcome of the struggle within the Democratic Party is, of course, obscure. One can be certain of nothing except that the rapid growth of the cities at the expense of the countryside is bound at last to result in the political domination of the cities. This may come soon. It may be somewhat delayed. It will come. The first great result may be the disunion of the Democratic Party and perhaps even the rupture of the Solid South. If that is the result the ascendancy of the Republicans may be temporarily confirmed, but it will be followed almost certainly by a realignment of Republicans as well as of Democrats.

For the two parties live by taking in each other’s washing. The unity of the one is dependent upon the unity of the other. The grip of the Eastern industrial Republicans on the national organization rests at last on the fact that in the South there is a Republican machine but no Republican electorate. If ever the South should break away from the Democrats, a Republican Party would appear in the South. The appearance of a Republican Party in the South would make the South as unmanageable to the Republicans of the Northeast as the Republican Party of the West now is.

These prospects are not alluring to men whose lives are bound up with the existing party system. They promise nothing but trouble for them personally. They call for an effort of thought which is distressing, and they open up issues for which political leaders, trained between 1890 and 1910, are not prepared. It is not surprising, then, that our political leaders are greatly occupied in dampening down interest, in obscuring issues, and in attempting to distract attention from the realities of American life.