BY DAVID A. REED
WE need not pause to explain or justify the existence of the party system. Our nation accepts as axiomatic the need of organization in war, in religion, in business, and in sport. Inevitably the same need exists in politics.
The persons who are thus organized have come together because they agree upon what seem to them to be principles or purposes of first importance. We expect them at the same time to differ very often upon matters of secondary importance. Our army was a unit in its desire to defeat the German army, yet every individual in it doubtless felt that in one way or another he would go about it differently from the method adopted by General Pershing. And so we expect to find a political party united by common acceptance of a few fundamental principles, but disagreeing and wrangling constantly about lesser matters. Nevertheless, as in an army, a church, an industry, or an athletic team, the efficiency of a political party is generally directly proportioned to its discipline, and total lack of discipline spells inevitable defeat.
Internal Party Strife
In our political experience inAmerica, and in our observation of parliamentary government elsewhere, we have seen that the party in power usually appears to be riven by dissension to a greater extent than the opposition or minority party. We have seen also that this contrast increases as the same party continues in power for a prolonged period. Long-continued success brings decay to political parties in just the same way that it does to nearly everybody and everything in this frail world of ours.
Conversely, the party that is out of power, and is without responsibility for carrying on the business of government, finds that differences of opinion among its members have become less important, and it finds a greater coherence and unity in its task of criticism and opposition. Hence the paradox that defeat increases party solidarity.
The Republican Party has now been in control of our national government for about ten years. Its previous tenure lasted sixteen years — from 1897 to 1913. The resemblance between the two periods is quite marked. Each began with the party chastened by recent defeat, reasonably well disciplined, reasonably unanimous upon cardinal principles. Each period was marked by a growing dissension within the party, a growing restlessness and impatience and intolerance. The same phenomena would have been observed among the Democrats if they had held power during those years, and were beginning to be evident among Democrats before the outbreak of the war.
Copyright 1931, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, All rights reserved.
The disagreements at the present time between a Republican of New England and a Republican of the wheat belt are no more marked than those between a Tammany Democrat and a Democrat whose home looks out upon the Gulf of Mexico. The difference is that one is a riot in the ship’s crew, while the other is just a schism among the passengers.
Economic differences make political differences. Comparatively few men are sufficiently broad of vision to see each problem from the standpoint of the nation as a whole, and still fewer are the constituencies who are willing to continue such representatives in office.
If self-interest be the glue that holds civilization together, it also binds most of us pretty tightly to our own locality and our own occupational group. So we need not be surprised to find that the men of the upper Mississippi think that our national government has been diverted to be the support solely of the industrial East, while the citizen of the Atlantic seaboard believes that it has become merely an engine for pumping public money from Eastern taxpayers to insatiable Mid-Western farmers. Neither is right, but neither is likely to change his opinion. And as the Republican Party has remained dominant for a decade, it is not in the least strange that within that dominant party there have occurred sharp clashes between these two groups, exceeding in bitterness any conflict between Republican and Democrat. To a certain extent, it is a healthy condition. At least it is preferable to an overwhelming preponderance of either sectional group.
The Popular Primary
As a people we are sometimes capable of great folly in the name of ‘reform.’ We re-form things, but the new form is often worse than the old. In my judgment, this is what happened when we established the popular primary system, and, as far as the United States Senate is concerned, it happened again when we adopted the Seventeenth Amendment and began the election of Senators by direct vote of the people.
Isolated instances prove nothing, one way or the other. It is my sincere belief, however, that the last twenty years have proved on the whole that the ‘ reformed ’ method of selecting public officials presents a similar opportunity for corruption, provides a greater field for demagogy, gives us a group of officials of lower average ability, and — what alone concerns us at the moment — nearly obliterates party discipline. At the present time an avowed Republican may oppose his party’s candidates, attack their character and motives, and upset their campaigns, may ridicule or vilify a Republican President and his Cabinet and vote against his every recommendation, yet by shrewd appeals to sectional or occupational prejudice obtain by popular vote a renomination for himself which no convention of true party men would dream of giving him.
Party disloyalty no longer means political punishment. In sober truth, there seem to be in America to-day communities in which party disloyalty is esteemed to be the greatest of political virtues. Not court-martial, but promotion, awaits the soldier who shoots down his own comrades. In the middle of the ball game, the shortstop announces that he has become ‘ progressive’ and throws the ball into the grandstand. He subsequently justifies this by proclaiming his own moral superiority, and many of his hometown folk are gullible enough to accept the explanation. So they reelect him to the team. And we call that ‘reform.’
Small wonder that party discipline has weakened, and that party functioning is badly performed. No army, no church, no business, no baseball team, could achieve success under such conditions.
What then? Will new parties arise? It seems improbable to me within the near future. Parties come into being when citizens, thinking much and feeling deeply, find themselves fairly evenly divided upon questions that concern the very integrity of our system of economics and government. Such a question, for example, as faced us at the end of the eighteenth century, when we had to decide almost each day whether this power or that should be, or had been, given to the Federal government or retained by the states. Such questions as the right of secession by individual states, the integrity of our national monetary system, the attitude of the nation toward the flow of goods or the migration of persons from abroad to our shores. The whole future of America was to be determined by the decision of those questions. But no such essential problem seems to divide us to-day, and therefore I cannot see a probability of the birth of new parties in the next few years.
Prohibition arouses a wide enough interest, I admit, but it seems to me that it cannot be the issue upon which new party alignments will be created. However extravagantly we may praise or attack it, it remains a mere by-law for the regulation of a comparatively small part of our daily affairs. I cannot picture to myself a time when all party distinction save ‘Wet’ or ‘Dry’ shall have disappeared from our political life. We have exterminated the legalized open saloon, and presently we shall attack its descendants, — the speak-easy and the bootlegger, — not after the manner of Mr. Volstead, but in a more realistic and effective way. I can see no party division there, but rather a continuous process of trialand-error that will get us at last to a practical result. ‘Muddling through,’ perhaps, but that is the way our forefathers solved some of their toughest problems. Concisely, I am confident that neither Republican nor Democratic Party will definitely be wet or dry. Each will ‘straddle,’ not so much because of cowardice as because the members of each party will themselves be divided upon the question.
Some day it may well be that new parties will arise, or that the present parties will be reborn, in a division upon the question of local self-government. The process of overloading the national government has gone on for several decades and shows no sign of cessation. Each war accelerates it, for centralization of power in war time becomes a matter of life and death for the nation. But, as the process goes on, bureaucracy grows apace. More and more, unseen and unknown men in Washington are doing for us those things that we ought to be doing for ourselves.
Our states and towns grow steadily weaker, the national government grows stronger. Our President and the more active men in the Cabinet and in Congress are overloaded with responsibilities and besieged with importunities, to such a degree that brain and sinew approach the point of collapse. Soon the trend must be reversed, or local self-government will have disappeared and the national government will have become as inefficient as all busybodies are. But here again I see no present likelihood of the emergence of new parties. This question, unlike prohibition, goes to the very foundation stones of our system of government, but, again unlike prohibition, enjoys a very slight amount of national thought and concern.
Any new party, moreover, must certainly suffer from the same absence of discipline that plagues the existing parties. After the honeymoon of its first great campaign, it would find its internal strife raging with the same ferocity as in the old parties. It would be but giving a new name to an old situation.
It seems probable, therefore, that, we shall continue to see our people divided between Republican and Democratic parties. The issues between them are very faint at this moment. Free coinage of silver, imperialism, the League of Nations — all are disposed of, and no longer offer live political issues. Even the tariff policy of the Republicans seems now to have become the policy of the Democrats as well, although occasionally one is saddened to discover that Democrats are more ready to ask protection for their own constituents than they arc to grant it to others.
But the fact that at the moment the issues arc faint gives us no reason to believe that that state of affairs will continue indefinitely. Free silver, as well as the League, was not long foreseen as an issue. It may well be that in 1932, to say nothing of 1936, an issue now obscure will engross the interest of every American. And when that time comes, I venture to think that it will be the Republican Party that will, as in the past, advocate that solution which most exactly conforms to the common sense and patriotism of the average American. The party, for some reason, has a habit of being right.