Monday, November 08, 2004

The Future of Political Parties and the Utopianists

We all know that after reading a news account of his own demise, Mark Twain advised, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” In much the same way, reports that political parties are languishing on their deathbed may be greatly exaggerated – or not.

In this talk, I’d like to take you to the early nineteen hundreds and back again to the twenty-first century, so that we might have a rounded historical view of political parties and how they changed over the years.

I should begin by putting before you two propositions that few people here may disagree with.

The first is that political parties are necessary. The second is that no party can be successful unless it can maintain itself – financially and organizationally.

It will come as no surprise that there are dissenters to the first proposition. Some people believe that political parties are an encumbrance to good government. It may be an instance of advanced hubris, but there are political writers abroad in the land who believe that politics would be so much more rational and enlightened if they were running the show.

I think they are wrong – for obvious reasons.

The mission of journalists is to say the truth and shame the devil, as Cardinal John Henry Newman once put it; the mission of politicians is to tend to the affairs of the polis.

These two missions are not mutually exclusive: Often one finds politicians who are committed to the truth. Without such a commitment, no politics in a democracy can succeed for long. Here again, a remark of Twain seems appropriate. “Tell the truth,” he said. “You will confound your enemies and astonish your friends.”

On the journalistic side, one occasionally finds editors, reporters and political writers familiar with the nitty-gritty of politics who can offer up practical and sensible ideas. A few, of course, go overboard in an excess of enthusiasm. I can recall reading some editorials that sounded very much like the marching orders that Tammany Hall’s favorite son, George Washington Plunkitt, use to issue to his ward healers.

In any case, there can be little doubt that parties – in some form or other – are necessary and not simply a necessary evil. What teams are to sports, parties are to politics. If you don’t have a baseball team – preferably two teams – you can’t have a baseball game. Without parties, politics soon would come to resemble a sort of anarchical political ant heap in which powerful men and women use public means to further private ends.

No less an eminence than Arthur Schlesinger predicted that political anarchy would follow in the absence of a strong and vigorous two party system.

Our two party system, largely at the prodding of the Fourth Estate, has been reformed over the years. The present system is radically different than it was in the glory days of Plunkitt and Tammany Hall.

Plunkitt, I admit, is one of my favorite political characters. Those unfamiliar with him should try to secure a small book – only about 100 pages – written by William L. Riordon called “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” There they will find a somewhat bowdlerized but fairly accurate account of political parties as they existed at the turn of the century – virginal and, as yet, unspoiled by reformers.

For very good reasons, Plunkitt thought the Civil Service System, then in its infancy, would signal the end of political parties as he knew them. Once the giving of state jobs had been wrested from the iron grip of district managers and given to bloodless and apolitical civil servants, how would parties reward voters for their fealty?

Here is Plunkitt on the use of money in politics:

The Civil Service gang is always howln’ about candidates and office holders puttin’ up money for campaigns and about corporations chippn’ in. They might as well howl about given’ contributions to churches. A political organization has to have money for its business as well as a church, and who has more right to put up than the men who get the good things that are goin’? Take, for instance, a great political concern like Tammany Hall. It does missionary work like a church, it’s got big expenses and it’s got to be supported by the faithful. If a corporation sends in a check to help the good work of the Tammany Society, why shouldn’t we take it like other missionary societies? Of course the day may come when we’ll reject the money of the rich (I may break off here and remind you that Tammany was a organ of the Democrat Party, even then concerned with the tainted money of wealthy contributors. But, Plunkitt adds) it ain’t come when I left Tammany Hall at 11:25 A.M. today.”

Here is Plunkitt on primary election law reform; these lofty sentiments are ventilated in a chapter entitled, “Bosses Preserve the Nation.” A menacing black shadow, Plunkitt says, has crept into the consciousness of reformers.

“What was the great big black shadow? It was the primary election law, amended so as to knock out what are called the party bosses by lettin’ in everybody at the primaries and givin’ control over them to state officials. Oh yes, that is a good way to do up the so called bosses, but have you ever thought what would become of the country if the bosses were put out of business, and their places were taken by a lot of cart tail orators and college graduates? It would mean chaos … It makes my heart bleed to think of it. Ignorant people are always talking against party bosses, but just wait till the bosses are gone. Then, and not till then, will they get the right sort of epitaphs, as Patrick Henry or Robert Emmet said.”

Plunkitt was fond of bringing political icons like Patrick Henry into his effusions.

The party bosses are long gone, victims of precisely the kinds of reforms that made poor Plunkitt’s heart bleed. Civil service reform has considerably constricted the more offensive kinds of political patronage; and these days we make serious attempts to jail politicians who practice what Plunkitt used to call “honest graft.” Honest graft – as opposed to dishonest graft -- is when a politician who has selflessly served his community keeps for himself a sliver of the pie he has actually delivered to the common folk. If you hog it all for yourself, you are a dishonest grafter.

Let’s leap forward into the 21st century and have a look around. What do we see?

As the French say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

We are about a hundred years out from Tammany Hall. After a virtual cataract of party reforms, here is a 21st century columnist “howlin” about present corruption and peculation, circa 2004. The columnist is distressed that direct primaries in Connecticut are not working.


“For years,” the columnist wrote, “we good-government types had banged the drum for election reform. Oh, how we thundered and roared. Outlaw the practice of candidates being chosen in smoke-filled back rooms, we pleaded. Drive a stake through the hearts of party bosses. Put an end to the humiliating and costly system of forcing contenders to beg for delegate support. Dismantle the incumbency-protection system. Reinvigorate our democratic institutions by allowing candidates to circumvent rigged conventions and petition directly onto the primary ballot. So what was the result? Of Connecticut's 187 legislative and five congressional districts, a grand total of one person petitioned onto the ballot: Republican Raymond Collins III of West Haven, who was seeking the House seat being vacated by his father.”

It’s De ja vue all over again.

It is as if the great political reform that swept away Tammany had never existed.

Is there something wrong here?

The columnist, you will notice with some relief, has not yet called for the abolition of political parties, but one senses some movement towards that awful brink.

The next reform, according to a thought-piece that appeared in a paper recently, aims to eviscerate party conventions even further. According to this view, so few people have petitioned their way on to ballots because, once face to face with a nominated candidate, the petitioner bumps up against insuperable odds. The solution: Require everyone to petition their way into office – no more nominating conventions.

Were the columnist as candid as Plunkitt, one might expect to hear something of this sort: “Let’s abolish political parties as such. Who needs them? They are antique, useless instruments, unnecessary in an age when political affairs may best be arranged by college graduates, cart tail orators – and me.”

Plunkitt may amuse us today, but some of our amusement is at our own expense.

The political parties in Plunkitt’s day were firmly connected to their roots – that is, to party members – by adamantine bonds and not gossamer threads. A day in the life of Plunkitt might find him tending to the needs of recently arrived immigrants from Ireland, tempest tossed and yearning to breathe free. His party would provide the new arrivals with a place to live, a job and coal to survive the raw winter weather in the crowded tenements of New York.

The immigrants, needless to say, were very grateful and Plunkitt did not think it out of line to advise those accepting his aid that they might show their gratitude by voting for Democrat candidates in future elections. At the opposite end of the political barracks, the Republican Party was at the same time angling for the same fish and employing the same methods.

Patronage in the age of Plunkitt was not something shared only among the governing classes. It seeped deeply into the roots and watered the fierce loyalty of even the lowliest of party members.

This order of things has been entirely swept away by a series of apparently unending reforms. Civil service reforms erected a sort of Berlin Wall between politicians and state employees, while primary reform swept away party bosses. Next on the chopping block, avant guard reformists tell us, are nominating conventions.

Here in Connecticut today, Democrat Party boss John Bailey and his Republican counterpart – who even remembers his name? – have been tossed on the ash heap of history. The role once played by party bosses now is played by leading party officials. Even party chairmen serve at the pleasure of governors or senior senators and are regularly cashiered whenever party leaders are displaced.

The latest effort of the apparently inexhaustible reformers, as everyone knows, is the McCain/Feingold bill. It was supposed to prevent campaign contributors from purchasing pristine politicians and assure an even chance at the brass ring for challengers.

Now, there is a point of diminishing returns in all things – including reform.

Reformation, as the word signifies, should be a reordering that restores to its pristine form a system encrusted with distorting accretions

If you believe, as I do, that a healthy democracy depends on the maintenance of the two party system and a turnover of the ruling classes, then you will believe, as I do, that recent reforms – especially McCain/Feingold – will not moving us in the right direction.

The greatest danger to our democracy comes from a permanent government, a sclerotic mass of immovable incumbents clogging the body politic. In one of his best political poems, Robert Frost counseled “turn the farm under.” It is the only way to refresh the political ground. McCain/Feingold does not endanger incumbents, which is why it has been supported by incumbents.

In the post reform era, we have become used to extra-party political activity: killer ads produced by offshore political entities, for example.

We have become used to larger than life incumbent congressmen-for-life who are too big for their parties, the way boastful braggarts are too big for their britches: Lowell Weicker, for instance.

After Weicker lost his senatorial seat to Joe Lieberman, he ran for governor on his own ticket, won, proceeded to impose an income tax on his state, succeeded over the unavailing protests of Republicans in the state legislature, spent one term in office annoying the citizens who had thrown him over for Lieberman, retired from politics – having perhaps realized that, after his political high jinks, he could not be elected dog catcher of Greenwich, the wealthy community he hails from -- quietly disappeared from the political scene and since has been heard from no more. Cross your fingers.

We have grown used to tyrannical judges who, suffering from Cesarism, simply have nothing to lose by engaging in socially destructive behavior. The court jesters who ruled that McCain/Feingold does not contravene constitutional prescriptions protecting political speech have nothing to fear from an aroused citizenry fearful that their Constitution has been violated by justices sworn to uphold it. Judges cannot be removed from office by disapproving citizens impacted by their rulings and misrulings.

Only a few liberals, among them Nat Hentoff, have made a stink concerning the Supreme Court’s decision that congressmen-for-life may, through legislative means, prevent parties – but not extra-party entities – from publishing political ads a few weeks before votes are tallied. What part of the First Amendment, one wonders, don’t the ladies and gentlemen of the court understand?

We have become so used to these corruptions that we no longer can imagine life without them, a certain sign that we are reaping the reformist whirlwind we sowed.

My advice – if anyone should ask for it – is to think seriously whether or not we are reforming out of existence institutions that buttress our civilization.

Political parties are not merely decorative; they perform vital functions. If the parties are eviscerated, these functions will be performed by others. But when party leaders perform functions previously performed by party bosses, their parties will rise and fall with them.

Parties rooted in ideas are more permanent than parties built around people, and in politics the permanent should hold sway over the temporary. That is less likely to be the case when parties coalesce around strong personalities.

People who belong to political parties or clubs or churches are more responsible and socially conscious than people who consider themselves a party of one.

If parties may not produce political ads prior to elections, the ads will be produced by groups far less politically responsible than the parties. A friend of mine has dubbed Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” a “docu-ad.” Now, there is room for colorful propaganda in politics, but I’m far from certain that parties ought to follow the prescriptions suggested by Mr. Moore: I’d rather the dog wag the tail than the other way around.

Apathy is related to enfeeblement; as parties decrease in power, other less pleasant and responsible entities will step into the void and take charge of our politics. Is this what we want?

That is the question we ought to ask reformers on their relentless march towards utopia.
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