The Functions of a Political Party


By WENDELL WILLKIE, Lawyer and Author

Delivered at Ripon, Wis., at the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of the Republican Party, March 20, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 359-361.

NINETY years ago, here in Ripon, a little group met with the bold intention of founding a new political party. Historians differ somewhat as to the technical date of the party's birth, but this meeting of March 20, 1854, certainly was an indispensable step. For at this meeting a committee was actually appointed. And the name of the new party was definitely put forward. It was called the Republican party.

There are some striking parallels between the era in which the Republican party was founded, and our own era. Then, as now, great issues were gathering. Issues of slavery, of union, of industrialization, all three of which were involved in the Civil War.

The political leadership of the day had failed to rise to the challenge of these issues. Men sought to trim and hedge rather than to face the dangers, or talked trivialities, remaining silent on the basic issues, hoping thereby to avoid offending divergent elements. Unproductive of leadership, the Whig party disintegrated, and in the election of 1852 it was virtually annihilated. A certain cynicism characterized the politics of the day—a cynicism which has had its parallel in our own time. Nobody expected much of the politicians. And in James Buchanan, who was nominated because no one knew what his views were, they got what they expected.

Recalls How Party Won Power

The Republican party came to power because it recognized the issues and dared to take a stand upon them. In four short years the party rose to leadership on the dead bodies of those other parties which had thought it politically expedient to dodge and hedge. The parties which sought to straddle the slavery issue, in particular, were abandoned by the people. And the Republican party, which faced that issue and wrote freedom into its platform, in 1860 won their confidence.

The cynics of our day have for the most part concluded that political parties are nothing more than vehicles for men who want power. One contemporary historian defines a political party in so many words as "an organized attempt to get power." No one, of course, can deny that parties are convenient vehicles for power seekers. No one can deny, either, that they often succumb to the temptations of political expediency at the expense of their fundamental principles. Still, I think the time has come to give the lie to the cynics. In the specific instance of the founding of the Republican party history itself gives them the lie. For the Republican party was founded for the unique purpose of meeting an issue which the other parties had failed to meet. The facts show incontrovertibly that its founding represented an honest effort on the part of men to extend the areas of freedom.

"Party Had Noble Origin"

As John Hay said in 1904: "The Republican party had a noble origin. It sprang directly from an aroused and indignant national conscience. . . . It was one of those periods . . . when men forget themselves and, in spite of habit, of interest and of prejudice, follow their consciences wherever they may lead. In the clear, keen air that was abroad the best men in the country drew deeper breaths and rose to a moral height they had not before attained."

It is eighty-four years since Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, was elected. During this long time, chiefly under Republican leadership, the United States has experienced the greatest economic and industrial growth of any nation in history. Now we come to another election year. We are engaged here in Wisconsin in a primary contest to choose delegates to a Republican convention in June. And we enter this contest in a time of crisis, similar in many ways to the crisis that brought the Republican party into being. Under these circumstances, I believe it will be beneficial—here at the outset of the contest—to ask ourselves a searching question: "What is the nature and true function of a political party?"

The cynical answer, as we know, is that a political party exists to establish or perpetuate the power of ambitious individuals. I do not deny that all political parties, including our own, have been subverted from time to time to that end. The Democratic party of today provides us with a clear example of such subversion, by which an inner group has carefully nurtured its power for twelve years; skillfully balancing the irreconcilable wings of the party, one against the other. Except for the manipulations of this inner group there is within the Democratic party no cohesion whatever. The party has become a vehicle for the maintenance of power.

Warns Against Power Seekers

The use of a party for such purposes, while it may be successful for short periods, must inevitably lead to that party's destruction.

The true function of a political party may be similarly abused by men who seek office for office sake with the party as a vehicle for their personal advancement and without concern for the basic issues of the day.

Naturally, as Republicans, we believe that the triumph of our party is important to the welfare of the country. Yet we can triumph only if the people find in our party not a mere instrument for personal ambition, but the representation of principles. And whether they find that or not depends, in large measure, upon the attitude of the party's leaders toward the party itself. In order to win the confidence of the people, the leadership must rightly interpret the nature and function of the Republican party, as a political institution.

For instance, in an opposition party, such as ours is at the moment, there is a constant temptation to indulge in narrow and negative partisanship. We are, frankly, in a fight to oust the controlling party; therefore, the temptation is strong to make every possible issue with that party. Yet we must never forget that, in the people's eyes, the function of a political party is not simply to win elections for itself, the people recognize that the party wants to win—must win in order to survive for long. Yet they ask that it do something more than win. Therefore an opposition party that falls into the habit of negative criticism, or denial, of everything that an administration does, fails to gain the people's confidence. To the people, it looks as if such leaders were more interested in gaining office than in the merits of the issues.

Stand on Issues Urged

There is an even better way to destroy a political party than by adopting tactics of negative partisanship, and that is,to take no stand on the issues at all. Men who view a political party as nothing: more than a piece of machinery for gaining office are apt to resort to this tactic. They are afraid to antagonize any large group either within the party or outside of it, because they are so eager to gain office. They therefore remain silent, or, like the Whigs, try to please both sides. This attitude on the part of its leaders destroys a party's vitality. The people are not primarily interested in whether office-seekers gain office; they are primarily interested in whether those who seek office have the courage to face problems of the day, and the ability to solve them. In times of crisis, the American people have always been more concerned with issues than with personalities. A political party, therefore, which aspires to lead the country in time of crisis must face the issues and provide solutions for them. At such times trimmers and dodgers lead their parry to destruction.

A political party then, we may say, whether in or out of office, has the task of demonstrating to the people that it is a vehicle, not of personal ambition, but of government. Moreover, it must illustrate that it can govern, not in some abstract sense, but in the particular environment, the particular set of circumstances and problems in which the people find themselves involved. This means that the leaders of the parry must earn and hold their leadership, not through the manipulation of its machinery, but by dealing openly and constructively with the issues of the time. And it must not determine its convictions about these issues by the poll-taking method.

Platform's Importance Stressed

One of the major functions of a political party is to give men of conviction a platform from which to argue their cause both within the party and outside it. Putting the point in another way, we can say that a political leader with convictions has, not only a public duty, but a party duty, to state his convictions openly and argue, them to the best of his ability. And he must be willing to risk defeat in the performance of that duty.

And this leads me to what is perhaps the most fundamental point of all. Life moves around us. Old problems are solved, new ones arise. New needs are created; new vistas are opened. Therefore, a political party can never stand still. However great its achievements in the past, these alone do not entitle it to regard in the present. Its most cherished doctrines must all be subject to constant re-examination, con* stant revision. Those leaders of a party who insist on applying old formulas to present problems, merely because those formulas worked in the past, are damaging the party and will eventually destroy it, for they are standing still, whereas the world around them moves.

No better illustration could be had of this all-important point than the Republican party itself. Our party has maintained its vitality throughout more than eighty years, not because it invented some open-sesame to American prosperity, and clung to it. but because it was a flexible vehicle, capable of generating within itself new ideas and principles. There have always been men within the party who insisted, sometimes at great political cost to themselves, on fighting within the party for the things that they believed right and in the true tradition of Abraham Lincoln. In 1872, for instance, the "Liberal Republicans" went so far in their protest against the corruption of the Grant administration as to hold a separate convention at which they nominated Horace Greeley. This movement, while costly politically to those who espoused it, was backed by some of the most illustrious names in the party's history, and eventually had a beneficial effect on American political practices.

Theodore Roosevelt Praised

There have also been strong ideological movements within our party, some of them successful, some not. But all have contributed to the continuing vitality of the parry. One of those most disrupting to the party, for a time, was the revolt led by Theodore Roosevelt. Looking backward, some may condemn Mr. Roosevelt for the split that he caused. Yet we cannot but admire him for the courage with which he held his convictions, and we must be grateful to him for many of the reforms which we now take for granted. A more successful ideological movement (though this, too, met with defeat in its proposed forms) was the new international viewpoint introduced in the beginning of this century by such men as Root and Taft, who were regulars of the regular. We must not forget that William Howard Taft was the first national president of the League to Enforce Peace, which was the germ of the League of Nations. And the ideas propounded by Elihu Root, concerning international law, are, today, practical problems that we must meet.

I have cited these instances to show that a vital political party is not—cannot be—a rigid mechanism. It must perpetually generate within itself the principles of its future. That is the tradition of successful political parties.

* * *

So I think there are certain things we can say concerning the nature and true function of a political party, and specifically of our party. A party must win the people, but it must do this, not merely by reflecting their opinions, but by convincing them of its principles. In practice this cannot mean long, detailed discussion of the technicalities, which few except experts would understand. What it means, primarily, is that the people must be convinced that the party's leaders , are men of conviction, grappling with the issues of the day and able to cope with them in the national interest. These leaders must convince the people, not that the party has been right in the past, but that it can be right, that it will be right in the future.

Party Called Vehicle of Ideas

A political party is an indispensable vehicle for men who offer themselves for office. Yet it is an equally indispensable vehicle for ideas and for the advocacy of principles. Before the founding of the Republican party those who were against the extension of slavery had no way by which to make themselves politically effective; it was only when the leaders of the new party espoused a principle with regard to that issue that a practical vehicle was provided for their convictions.

Unless political parties are able and willing to formulate issues and to stand upon principles, democracy cannot endure. Furthermore, the principles of a political party, in order to win the confidence of the people, must be vital, everflowing, ever-evolving.

One of the fundamental issues before us today is the relationship of government to the economic life and social wellbeing of its citizens—an issue that demands the best of a political party.

The Republican party, founded upon the principle of human freedom, remained in power throughout most of the period of America's amazing industrial development. During this period the economic system of incentives and rewards for those who led the development found full, even reckless, play.

The material accomplishments were so great and the development so incredibly rapid that many men became sincerely convinced that any limitation of accomplishment or development by way of regulation or taxes or even social protection was an inevitable deterrent and eventual destroyer of the very yeast of the system.

Peril of Too Much Control

On the other hand, the abuses were so glaring, the greed so obvious and the disregard of human values so frequent and so flagrant, that many men with equal sincerity came to believe that the very system was in conflict with human well-being.

The struggle between the two groups, with occasional interruptions and varying degrees of emphasis and intensity, constituted the American political picture from the turn of the century to the outbreak of the present war.

One group stubbornly and doggedly fought every social advance and the other turned more and more to the philosophy that government control was the cure for every ill—even finding an attractive example of its thesis in the Russian experiment of complete government control, forgetting for the time that that experiment could exist only without human freedom.

The panic of 1929 and the devastating years that followed gave great impetus and encouragement to the thesis that the solution lay solely in government control.

The present administration which came into power during those years largely adopted and exploited that thesis. While taking measures to alleviate the distress of the people, it gradually led them toward the destruction of the incentive system and the eventual adoption of a government controlled society. By its multiple, elaborate and detailed directives and capricious regulations; by the atmosphere of conflict it created within our society, step by step it removed from men the very motivations which caused our system to function except through government propulsion. And although it adopted many valuable social advances, it based its beautiful house on the sands of constantly increasing government deficit financing.

The total result, consistently fostered by the administration, has been the illusion that there is an irresponsible and inevitable conflict between a society built upon economic incentive and a society of human welfare.

Need for Conflict Denied

This is not alone false; it is impossible in a free society. Too long and too often have we been led to regard human values as the opposite rather than the supplement of the incentive system. We have been presented with the two as alternatives.

Do you want security, or initiative?

Do you want protection, or adventure?

This is a factitious issue. We need both. Indeed, we cannot have one without the other. We cannot have security in terms of an advancing standard of living without responsible enterprise. We cannot have the initiative and energy we need for an expanding economy without preserving and increasing the vigor of our human resources.

The Republican party, alert and evolving, must recognize this fact if it is to win the confidence of the people.

We are beginning to see over the intervening mountains of sacrifice the dawn of the day of peace. In the coming day the Republican party must oppose to the utmost that party and those men who under whatever guise or slogans, either designedly or as an inevitable consequence of the policies they preach, would take America further along the road of a society controlled by government with incentives deadened and freedoms disappearing. By the same token, and with equal vigor, we must completely reject the policies of those who, in their emphasis upon the rewards, forget the human values. For if we truly understand the potentialities of modern science, industrial development and international comity, we must know that we can create here in America a society in which the rewards will be ample to unleash the myriad energies of our people, a society which will at the same time give human protection far beyond anything heretofore envisioned.

Such a task challenges the Republican party to function according to its best and truest nature.