Two-Party Stalemate: The Crisis in Our Politics
Professor of political science at Williams College, who served as a combat historian in the Pacific during the war, JAME MACGREGOR BURNShas been active in Massachusetts and national politics since his college days. He is the author of ROOSEVELT: THE LION VND THE FOX, and his rune book, JOHN KENNEDY: A POLITICAL PROFILE, has just been published by Harcourt, Brace.
A CENTURY ago, pressures in the Democratic Party were nearing the bursting point. “We are for principles — damn the party!” proclaimed a Mississippi delegate to the Democratic National Convention in the soft Charleston spring of 1860. A Northern delegate, spurning a Southern demand for a proslavery platform, declared, “Gentlemen of the South, you mistake us, you mistake us — we will not do it.” The pressure mounted; soon the party burst into pieces. Waiting to pick some of them up was a young, virile party that would capture the presidency behind Abraham Lincoln and hold it, with few interruptions, for seven decades.
A hundred years later, new pressures are coming to a head in our politics and parties. There are clear signs that the 1960s, like the 1860s, will see major transformations in our political life. We need not fear the bloodshed of civil war; still, the American political scene may change as much by the 1970s as it did during the decade of Lincoln and Johnson.
Three things cause the stream of events to cut new channels across the political landscape: 1) intensifying economic and social changes; 2) the new ideas and expectations accompanying those changes; 3) the sensitivity of political leaders to what is happening.
Consider first the population explosion. Barring depression or war, our population will increase by 30 million in the next ten years. Our birth rate has accelerated the process of urbanization. Almost two out of every three Americans now live in urban or near-urban areas. Urbanization will bring profound political changes here, as it did in Britain. Many more Americans will be facing city problems that can be met only through government action. As people move to the outer suburbs, they will find city problems following them.
Inevitably the South must fall into step: the mighty changes there are making it more like the rest of the nation. Negroes are migrating from Southern farms to Southern cities; many of them are moving out of the South and heading North and West. The school desegregation issue may slow down this whole process, but only for a time.
Bigness is on the increase: it appears to be an irresistible tendency in our national economy. The trend toward business centralization is continuing, and perhaps intensifying. The merger of the two great wings of national labor has been followed by union consolidation at the state and local levels. In agriculture we see the supremacy of the big mechanized farm with its hundreds of hired hands. The Organization Man is not confined to corporations alone; he is staffing the bureaucracies of bigness everywhere. Even churches are holding unity talks at the summit.
Finally, observe the impact of the mass media in nationalizing our political attitudes. The magazines manufactured in New York and Chicago that pour into tens of millions of homes across the country: the role of a single journal, the New York Times, that has become virtually a national daily; the editorials and features canned in some word factory and gulped down straight by once proudly independent local newspapers; syndicated national columnists, political or gossip or both– these and other forces are having a pervasive influence on American opinion.
All of this tends to nationalize American politics. As sectionalism declines, as religions and nationality groups are blended into the whole of American life, as the new melting pot of suburbia expands, we are being subjected to enormous homogenizing forces. Many of us will show little enthusiasm for this drift toward national Togetherness; we fear a gray, drab society that rejects not only the unadjusted man but the unadjusted group as well. But for good or for ill, these trends exist, and they will have their influence in the world of the 1960s.
THE trend toward “a mass society living in congested urban agglomerations,” as Walter Lippmann has called it, is nothing new. Why, then, should we expect precipitate political changes in the new decade? One answer is that of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In a memorandum privately circulated last summer, Mr. Schlesinger contended that two decades of depression, reform, and wars hot and cold had left the American people, by 1950, morally and emotionally exhausted; that the Eisenhower Administration had been an expression of this ennui; that ferment and unrest were now growing, “batteries are being recharged,” to be soon followed by a “breakthrough into a new political epoch.” To confirm this probability, Schlesinger quoted the cyclical theories of his father, who had found that liberal and conservative periods succeeded one another in our national life without demonstrable correlations with economic or any other particular circumstances. “If past rhythms hold,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., concluded, “the conservative period should run its course by about 1961-1962.”
Unhappily, an inspection of the cycles worked out by the elder Schlesinger reveals that, while the average length of the periods (defined in terms of the effective tendency in government) was about sixteen years, the actual lengths of the periods varied widely; one liberal period (1861-1869) was only eight years long, and one conservative period (1869-1901) lasted thirty-two years. Can it be that the cycle of Eisenhower normalcy and quietism will last another decade or more before the pendulum swings back?
My answer is “No,” partly because Mr. Schlesinger, Jr., is correct, I think, in discerning discontent and unrest all around us today, but mainly because of a series of challenges from without. That series was heralded by Sputnik two and a half years ago. It was dramatized by Khrushchev‘s warning that the United States might be enjoying the “last years of its greatness” and by his less subtle boast about digging the grave of capitalism. It has consisted of solid, dramatic accomplishments by the Soviets in space exploration, education, transportation, resource development, and other public services.
These events have served to make liberalism acceptable. The expansion of our government commitments has become less a partisan issue, more a nationally recognized need. Each new revelation of Soviet power has been followed in America by a frenzy of soul-searching, scapegoat-seeking, and renewed calls to action. Almost weekly now, businessmen, politicians, educators, and others return from Russia with ominous reports of Soviet advances in resource development, machine tools, basic research. Some of these reports are doubtless exaggerated; some perhaps are special pleading. But they are having a pronounced effect on what Americans now expect from their government.
It is rather a pity that many of these changes could not be accepted for their own sake rather than as merely a counter to Soviet advances. Are not foreign aid, economic growth at home, basic research, better resource development good in themselves? So they are — but not necessarily to most Americans. What is important is that politicians, who like to raise issues that unite people in their support, have found that liberalism has become, for many voters, good Americanism. Proposals that formerly could not be sold on their own merits can now be packaged as “Beat the Russians.”
We are, then, entering the 1960s with growing concern over the drift and inertia in government and the severe lag in our public services as compared with the enormous extent of private spending. There is widespread agreement, cutting across party lines, about our specific failings. The most serious lag is in education; Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur Flemming reports a shortage of at least 130,000 public school classrooms, and one that at the present rate of building would take thirteen years to eliminate. Educational opportunity is still uneven; New York spends three times more on education per child than Mississippi. Public health and medical services are lagging; 65 million Americans have no coverage under prepayment types of hospital care. Segments of our transportation system are in a state of chronic, and mounting, crisis. Urban blight — congested streets, air pollution, deteriorating housing — has struck deep into the core cities and infects suburbia itself. The condition of rural slums has hardly been touched. The problem of dire poverty is by no means solved; in our Affluent Society, 35 million people still live on family incomes of less than $2000 a year. We have fallen behind in the conservation and wise development of water, soil, and other resources.
In foreign policy, despite the growing economic effort of the Russians in underdeveloped countries, we have formulated nothing in recent years to match the breadth and vision of Roosevelt‘s lendlease program in 1941, the Marshall Plan in 1947, or Point Four in 1949. Militarily, the lag in basic research and weapons development means a dangerous gap between Soviet and American missile power during at least the early 1960s. To make matters worse, government itself — most notably the federal regulatory boards and taxing and regulatory power in many of the states — seems to be increasingly purposeless or frustrated.
And, above all, there are the towering problems of school integration and civil rights. The Supreme Court ruled that its decision be enforced with “all deliberate speed.” In the deep South, the possibility of speed has long been abandoned; it is apparent now, almost six years after the decision, that action will not even be deliberate. Only in a few fringe areas of the outer South has there been even marginal action.
IT IS easy to compile lists of urgent tasks to be undertaken, but why should we expect that anyone besides the usual minority of perpetual worriers will be listening? And yet, evidently a lot of people are listening. The breadth and intensity of popular concern today can be measured by a document, “Decisions for a Better America,” produced last fall by forty prominent Americans. This 42,000-word report showed a firm grasp of the threat posed by a “resourceful Communist leadership” abroad, of the wide sweep of foreign and domestic problems facing the country, and of the speed of all the changes and their effect on “social relationships.” Although the report made the customary obeisance to individual enterprise and partnership between private groups and government, it laid heavy stress on the role of government - especially the federal government. “The Federal Government must do its part”; “the Federal Government must never allow”; “government must aid”: the report is studded with such phrases, and many of its nods toward partnership programs simply cloak a call for leadership and money from the federal government.
The most arresting aspect of the report, however, was not its content but its sponsorship — the Republican Party. The report was commissioned a year ago by Meade Alcorn, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and was accepted last fall by his successor, Senator Thruston B. Morton, as marking a “new and vigorous phase in our Party’s history.” It was drawn up by four Republican task forces, made up of businessmen, politicians, and members of the Republican Party intelligentsia, headed by Charles H. Percy, president of the respectable Bell & Howell Company, and including White House speech writer Malcolm Moos.
No doubt it was coincidence that, about the time Senator Morton made public the report, the Conservatives in Britain won, for the first time in this century, their third victory in a row. The Conservatives were demonstrating in the arena of practical politics that “progressive conservatism,” alert to the needs of a highly industrialized and urbanized nation, pays off in the politician’s soundest currency — votes. Modern Republicans had the heady feeling that Meade Alcorn’s task forces were charting a political program that could help them hold the presidency for years.
What about the Democrats? Ever since their second trouncing by Eisenhower they have been speaking out nationally through the Democratic Advisory Council. Boycotted by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, dismissed by many as one of Paul Butler’s aberrations, the council got off to a slow start. But it has grown steadily in prestige and influence, partly because Democrats of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Adlai Stevenson are among its members, partly because people seem hungry for more clear-cut party doctrine than a vague convention platform can supply. Today the Democratic Advisory Council speaks squarely in the liberal, internationalist tradition of the Wilson-Roosevelt-Truman party.
The leading presidential candidates in both parties are conspicuously working the liberal side of the street. Senators John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Stuart Symington have established perfect voting records according to the criteria of Americans for Democratic Action. Kennedy and Symington recently joined their party‘s advisory council. And what about Richard Nixon, the Republican Party’s front-runner now that Nelson Rockefeller has withdrawn from the presidential race? The Vice President has a way of confounding those who assign him to some intellectual or political pigeonhole, but he has been behaving like a “modern Republican” and seems to want more vigorous statecraft in Washington than the President has been supplying.
THIS is much seems clear amid all the uncertainties of an election year: both national parties will speak with a strong liberal, internationalist voice during 1960. Alarmed by Soviet competition abroad and economic and social lags at home, Americans will respond to leaders who promise forceful national action. The presidential candidates, sensitive to the demands for leadership, will focus on the tough national and world problems besetting the country. The victor will enter the White House next January with a heavy burden of promises to keep. Will he be able to deliver?
The answer is “Yes” for the short run and “Probably not” for the longer run. The new President will be carried for a time by the momentum of this fall‘s electoral mandate. But only for a time. Soon the mandate psychology will wear off; new problems and new political alignments will rise; and all the old forces of check, delay, and defeat, sanctioned by Constitution and custom, will come into play. In moments of sharp crisis the President can wield vast powers, but in normal times he lacks the steady, assured power necessary for his day-to-day mobilization of the nation’s strength.
The crisis of our parties lies here: our political leaders in Washington cannot lead, over the long run, because they have no solid political organization to help summon their forces and sustain their power. What is lacking in America is the crucial link between the nation’s leaders and the voters — namely, a party system that offers people a choice between two intelligible sets of alternatives; mobilizes opinion and votes and candidates behind those sets of alternatives; and, in the case of the winning party, both holds the President accountable for enacting party doctrine and helps him to enact it.
We simply do not have parties in this sense. There is a “conventional wisdom,” to use Galbraith’s phrase, in politics as well as economics, and from this wisdom we have learned that, while our parties nationally may be rather feeble, they are strong at the state, county, and local levels. But this is not the case in present-day America. Except in a few states, such as Connecticut, and a few cities, such as Albany, our parties, as organizations, are futile, flimsy things, shunted aside by the politicians who understand political power. For some years political scientists have insisted that at no level of government do we have a twoparty system, for we have neither parties nor a system; but nobody has been listening. At best our parties are mere jousting grounds for warring politicians. At worst they do not exist at all, as in the case of Republican organizations in the South or Democratic committees in many rural areas of the North. The more powerful party machines, on closer examination, turn out to be the personal organizations of local officeholders.
Is this too bleak a picture of party organization? If the reader thinks so, he can try a few simple tests. Is he a “card-carrying” Democrat or Republican, paying regular dues? Does he take part in the affairs of his local party, as he does in the affairs of his church or nonpartisan civic group? Does he contribute money to his party? Does he work for the party at election time, or just for individual candidates? Does he even know the name of his local, county, or state party chairman?
All but a small percentage of Americans — even of civic-minded Americans — would answer “No” to most of these questions. And they would do so without apology. They would contend — quite rightly in most cases — that their state or local party is run by hacks, job holders, and even crooks, that the party pros are cool to outsiders anyway, and that at best the party nominates so many candidates of such varying quality for so many offices, high and low, that no good citizen could work in the party organization. There is no point in lecturing to these people from the Conventional Wisdom of politics, of preaching the old sermon “Be active in your party.” They see no party to be active in. Far better, they feel, to work directly for some candidate they admire or to join some nonpartisan organization like the League of Women Voters. Even if they could get control of a party, ofttimes it would be like grabbing a handful of water.
This is not to say that parties symbolically are unimportant. Our two major parties do help keep alive two great sets of fuzzy but significant traditions, goals, and policies. Nor do I assert that winning a major-party nomination is worthless; it is worth a great deal, but not as a result of party organization. Our political parties could play a far more notable part than they do, but throughout most of the country they are decrepit and disorganized.
Who, then, does run American politics? Not party leaders, but officeholders and office seekers who achieve power through their personal followings rather than through their party power. These followings are organized around their chief, inside, outside, and across party lines. They are far more dedicated to their leader than to their party, for they will advance as their leader advances. even though the party as a whole declines. Anyone doubting the power of personal organization compared with party organization can try another simple test: during an election campaign he should stop in at the headquarters of some candidate, and then look in on the headquarters of the local party. In most states, the chances arc strong that the candidate’s headquarters will be filled with scores of enthusiasts in a setting of wild but productive disarray, while the party headquarters will be the hangout of a few oidtimers grumbling over the lack of money, posters, and help. Or note sometime, in a report on campaign finance, the tremendous amount of money donated to candidates compared with the pittances given the party.
THE impotence of party is the main cause of our most serious political malaise: as a nation, we lack control of our politics. For example:
1. As a nation we lack the most elementary control of all — the power to determine who may vote in national elections. This power is left in the hands of the state legislatures, most of them gerrymandered. One result is that we are unable to extend to millions of Southern Negroes the right to vote even for national offices, such as President and Senator.
2. We cannot exercise another elementary right — control of the nation‘s electoral arrangements. Countless congressional districts are unfairly drawn, but only the state legislatures can do anything about this, and most of them do not want to. For decades we have deplored our antiquated electoral college system and have done nothing about it.
3. We have lost control of political finance. To most politicians, our laws regulating contributions and spending are a joke or a nuisance. Despite efforts at grass-roots financing, the big political money still comes from the fat cats.
4. Our opposition parties do not oppose; they duck or fade away. This is perhaps least true at the national level, but even the Democrats have done a poor job of opposing the Administration. As a party, the Democrats have not known whether to be more liberal than the President or more conservative, more internationalist or more isolationist. So the party has split into factions, each taking a different line of opposition. Individual Democrats, of course, have been effective critics, but that is no credit to the opposition party. At state and lower levels, the opposition party is usually even feebler, and in one-party states, of course, it does not exist at all.
5. The parties have lost control of the nomination process, especially at the state and local levels. The party primary method of nominating candidates, adopted to democratize the system, allows the responsible party leadership and membership little control over the nominees who will carry the party banner in battle, and hence impairs party responsibility. Men and women who in national politics proudly call themselves Democrats or Republicans often cannot stomach the office seekers who win their party‘s nomination for state jobs.
6. We lack popular control of the policy-making process. Our splintered parties set up barriers between the people and their governments rather than simplifying the alternatives, clarifying competing party doctrines, and allowing the victorious majority to govern.
7. Teamwork is lacking in government, or, where it exists, it produces only the integration of drift, as is so often the case with the Eisenhower Administration. Ideally, the winning party under a two-party system pulls together the executive and legislative branches in order to deliver on the party‘s promises to the people, as in Britain. But a fragmented party system cannot do this, because the party factions are at war among themselves.
It is supremely ironic that, just as France under De Gaulle has junked its multiparty system, at least superficially and temporarily, America is entering a most demanding decade with a chaotic, multiparty system of its own. For the bigger personal organizations are virtually parties in themselves, with their own leadership, organization, money, doctrine, and political goals. Can we meet the stiff demands of the 1960s with a splintered, disorganized party system? What leader of this decade will see the possibility of strengthening not only his own power but also his party‘s power? Could this be done by anyone besides the new President? The answers to these questions will illuminate the problems and the possibilities of the new decade.
(In the March issue of the ATLANTIC, Mr. Burns views the presidential contest this year as a prelude to the even more significant struggle that will break out next year between the liberal and conservative wings of the victorious party.)