Government and Opposition

THE difficulty of distinguishing between the major American parties on any other basis than that of the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’ has become proverbial. The absence of a recognized political opposition is inevitable in America so long as we retain our present governmental structure. The system of checks and balances was put into the Constitution because its makers were looking backward toward absolutism, not forward toward impotence; it was impossible for them to know that the early democratic measures taken against autocracy in kings might paralyze all governmental action and in the end bring back autocracy in the form of dictators.

At the time when the founding fathers were writing, the legislative estates of the realm collaborated in a system which reached its apex in a powerful king. In England the germ of the new order was growing, but it was difficult to see the prime minister of the future in the foremost minister of His Majesty; the sovereign was still the king, not the people. The Whigs and Tories were yet vacillating between being parties and being factions; and the principle of ostracism of the party out of favor was whole-heartedly enforced. Party government was therefore in its infancy, and an opposition in the modern parliamentary sense unknown. And by an unfortunate accident Montesquieu had just looked at the English government with a too intellectual eye, and schematized its structure with an inaccurate precision that attracted the constitution-making American lawyers. The model of political structure which the Constitutional Convention made was therefore balanced and symmetrical enough to conform to every requirement of the classical revival, but, unfortunately, too rigid to permit the subsequent development of a technique of responsible party government.

As a result of our ancestors’ choice, the elements which would normally make up a party government are, in our system, separated from each other by the thin steel walls of constitutional requirements. Messages are indeed conveyed from one compartment to another by means of tapping, but more or less surreptitiously. The President and his Cabinet are on one side of a wall; the House and Senate and their Committees on the other. Constitutionally these party elements may not become cohesive; no wonder, therefore, that they are incoherent. Each is separate from the other, and each has the impunity of fixed tenure.

Responsibility on the part of the legislative is lightened because the execution of the laws it declares is somebody else’s affair. Responsibility on the part of the executive is lightened because its initiative is strictly limited; in most cases it must accept what is passed on to it to execute. Responsibility on the part of both is lightened because accountability for what they do may be as much as four years off. The sensitivity of a cabinet which may be brought down to-morrow because of errors in either legislation or execution is wholly absent. And the impunity provided by the once-in-four-years rule is, so far as specific issues are concerned, a permanent impunity. Since governments are not put out for a specific issue, a favorable vote is at best a mandate for a multitude of measures — it is more likely due to a desire to ‘ keep the outs out,’ to foster ‘continued prosperity,’or to some other such general urge.

The lack of coordination and of clear-cut party purpose shows most plainly in the realm of foreign affairs. The President and the Department of Slate are under no obligation to discover what support they can obtain for their acts before acting; the Senate, in reviewing the agreements they make, is under no obligation to consider the position of the Secretary of State with regard to further foreign relations after the Senate’s decision. During colonial times the fact that the executive was appointed in England and the legislative chosen by the colonists created a tradition of hostility and irrelevant utterance by the latter in regard to the acts of the former. This tradition survived the break with England, to be directed against our own State Department. And whereas in the colonial situation the executive received his support from a higher authority, which left the resolutions of the legislative without effect, and the system continued to work, the present executive depends on legislative ratification, so that sabotage and stalemate become not only practicable but practised. We disregarded this possibility in the days of our isolation because foreign relations were normally few, and we approved of their being kept at a minimum; now that foreign relations are increasingly numerous we are still trying to handle them with the old technique.

Our party organization reflects the looseness of our governmental structure. We have no parties in the sense of cohesive and coherent bodies of men coöperating in the accomplishment of a chosen series of policies. The irrelevance of everything except logrolling has divided the figures of our political life into the academic and the selfseeking (as the boss understands the word ‘self’). We have no leaders. We have candidates, chairmen, committeemen, favorite sons, and bosses, but we do not have leaders. Occasionally a ‘nation-wide figure’ appears, but he is hastily transformed into a candidate by the rest. And, once a successful candidate, his active influence is confined to the compartment into which he has been voted. We have no unsuccessful candidates. The ‘man who didn’t get in’ fades back into private life. Likewise the ‘man who has had two terms.’ The system has no place for them. We are utterly wasteful of political brains. The presidential candidate who fails of election, instead of becoming the leader of the opposition, looks for suitable private occupation. The man who has had the experience of the office of chief executive passes quietly from the political scene. Responsible party government — where the executive is a committee of the legislature, where each measure as it appears, and the manner of execution of each measure as it takes place, are debated singly and on their merits on the floor of the house — is unknown to us. The only time we have a coherent party, either as the government or as the opposition, is for a brief moment prior to elect ions once in four years, and at that time anything in the nature of genuine discussion is drowned by the ‘ballyhoo’ of the brass band.

Our present governmental technique thus prevents us from ever having a genuine political discussion, carried on by fully responsible persons whose tenure depends on their ability to make good their case and, therefore, gives it reality. The Speaker of our House rules, but does not govern, and even his rulings are only locally applicable. We provide no opportunity for the development of coherent alternative policies, followed through over long periods, tempered by continual debate with other equally coherent policies, and rendering alternate periods of national service as the government and as the opposition.

The compartmentalizing of the means of government has prevented the development of general philosophical points of view on the treatment of public affairs. We have no body that incorporates the Conservative way of looking at things, or the Liberal way, or the Labor way (for our various leftwing ’iists’ are mere formularians, puritanically conning their texts). We take our public life in morsels; we never have an opportunity to get a broad view of different possible standpoints. Segregated on the islands of this jurisdiction and tenure, the elements of public life are disjoined; the manner of their present arrangement prevents them from ever coming to grips with the fundamentals of political reality.

In the economic world, questions of practice, problems of how best to organize the elements at our disposal, interest us intensely, and we have never hesitated to replace a machine that at the time of its invention was indeed remarkable by a model which proved better in the light of later experience and events. But we have not yet come to this point of view with regard to the machinery of government.