Party vs. Personal Government


By RAYMOND MOLEY, Editor, Newsweek Magazine

Delivered before The Ohio State Bar Association, Columbus, Ohio, May 12, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 652-655.

I shall not, this evening, carry coals to Newcastle or law to Columbus. My interests concern only those places where law touches politics. I want to discuss politics, in its so-called classical sense, and to make not a political speech, but a speech about politics.

In what I have to say, I want to lay down a few broad propositions about politics in this country and, in elaborating upon them, to draw a few conclusions of current importance. I do this in no merely partisan sense but, rather, in the spirit of one who, before the shooting starts next month, would examine some of the fundamentals which lie beneath all party policy in this country. For there are principles in politics, and, while no body of knowledge which concerns to closely the inscrutable recesses of human nature can be wholly scientific, politics is truly an art—a great art and a very old art.

There is little in its fundamentals that was not clearly foreshadowed in Aristotle and in the great followers of Aristotle through the ages. What is more, there is little of danger in the immediate choices before us in this country that the ancients failed to see. In fact, the more I think of our basic Constitutional law and of principles of our government, the more I realize how much the statesmen who established these principles drew their inspiration from the immortal wisdom of Aristotle.

The first political proposition which I wish to discuss is the inevitability of a two-party system under our Constitution. There may be many contributing reasons why we have had only two major parties at a time since the beginning, but we can find the basic reason in the nature of the Constitution itself. It is the Constitution of a federal republic—a commonwealth of commonwealths. The federal character of the government it set up is indicated by its provisions for representation in Congress, for the election of the President, for the distribution of powers and in other ways. The anatomy of a national party follows, of necessity, the structural outlines of the republic Since a major party must, from time to time, elect a President and a majority in Congress, it is hard to imagine how more than two major parties could create and maintain organizations in forty-eight states. For that matter, it is hard to see how more than two major parties could maintain organizations in three thousand counties and more thousands of smaller units. At any rate, by and large, the two-party system has met the pragmatic test. Ithas lived a century and a half. It has resisted all efforts to change it into a multi-party system. So-called third parties have, in their short lives, provided little more than occasional inspiration or irritation or the opportunity for shrewd political blackmail.

My second proposition is that the essential vitality of our parties in the past has sprung from the wide distribution of their control. Since they have roots in so many political subdivisions, they are, of necessity, essentially dependent upon the loyalties and the efforts of a million or more minor party workers. In the great number of these multitudinous minor party officers lies one of the greatest of protections of our party system and of our republican form of government. They are too numerous to be regimented by a single, national general-staff. There are too many of them to be bribed or corrupted. The very multitude of the interests with which they are in contact is the surest protection we have against the capture of the national party by any one interest or faction.

It has been fashionable for some of us to sneer at these lesser party chieftains and workers. They are, it is said, benighted, wholly indifferent to large issues and perspectives. They are often venal. But whoever quarrels with their shortcomings is quarreling with human life. As a group, they do perform a profoundly important function in the maintenance of popular government. Without them, our national and state elections would be subject to certain capricious forces which I shall presently mention and which, if unchecked, would destroy the republic itself.

My third proposition is that the idea of so-called executive leadership of a party, while it envisages certain of the essential requirements necessary to truly national unity, may also open the way to potential infections of the body politic of a most malignant nature. We have seen both aspects of it—the good and the bad—appear in their most insidious forms in the past fifty years. Forceful figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt have exploited the concept of executive leadership in a spectacular manner. The theory of executive leadership has a seductive quality, which makes its dangers difficult to comprehend. Woodrow Wilson, four years before his election to the Presidency, expressed it thus:

"The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution—it will be from no lack of constitutional powers on his part, but only because the President has the nation behind him, and Congress has not."

Wilson says further that Presidents will, as time passes, regard themselves "less and less executive officers and more and more directors of affairs and leaders of the nation."

Thus, he concluded that the President may, if he will, become "national boss through the use of his enormous patronage, doling out his local gifts of place to local party managers, in return for support and cooperation in the guidance and control of his party. . . . He can break party lines apart and draw together combinations of his own devising."

These words, it should be noted, were uttered by a vigorous man who had not yet experienced in political office the dreadful effects of power upon the men who exercised such power. He assumed, as all highly theoretical and righteous men assume, that a man vested with such power will lose none of his earlier capacity to restrain his own ambition. Lincoln retained that capacity, but his example is exceptional. And in Mr. Wilson's second term, Mr. Wilson showed less and less of Lincoln's humble faith in the people and more and more faith in himself. When Mr. Wilson wrote the words I have quoted, he knew nothing of his local party organization, was wholly unacquainted with his state party leaders, read no New Jersey paper and rarely voted in local elections. It is further worthy of note that after eight years of trying out his theory of Presidential leadership, his party's organization had fallen into the most dreadful state of weakness that it had seen for a generation.

We have had another experience with the theory of Presidential leadership in the past eleven years. We have seen party authority sapped by centrally-controlled government patronage. We have seen the Democratic National Committee so weakened that many of its members are in open revolt, while many others are in silent and impotent opposition. We have seen the last Chairman who truly represented the rank and file of the Party forced, by his own conscience, into irreconcilable retirement. We have seen him followed in quick succession by three Presidential puppets. We have seen a Presidential favorite, much of whose previous party affiliation was with the Socialist Party, give orders to the humiliated but obedient Democratic Convention.

We have seen more. We have seen the high officers of the Congress—the Speaker and the Majority Leaders of both Houses—serve not as officers of the Houses that elected them, but as agents of the Executive. We have heard out of his own mouth the Majority Leader of the Senate say that for years he has carried the President's flag in the Senate. We have seen the majority of the Senate accept his resignation from that office and, then, re-elect him, thus • registering the humiliating fact that, for eleven years, their elected Leader was in reality the President's agent. This is the principle of executive leadership degenerating into the actuality of party dictatorship.

I am not arguing that leadership is not inevitable, as long as human nature is human nature. I am simply pointing out that, without restraints, leadership can, under certain conditions, ultimately operate to destroy the foundations of. party and, in turn, the foundations of republican government.

When, however, we find political leadership falling a victim to perversion, the reasonable course is to seek the causes of that perversion, rather than to abandon faith in leadership itself. As I see it, one of the two sources of danger lies in certain more or less mechanical factors in modern life: the other lies in the psychology of the leader himself.

Modern methods of communication, such as the radio, and modern forms of influencing opinion, such as motion pictures and national publications, lend to the purposes of ambition the means of imposing ideologies from the top down and of supervening or overcoming the traditional method through which political authority moves from the bottom upward. We have had recent examples of the power, the successes and, fortunately, in some cases, the failures of such operations. Such efforts are almost invariably aimed at weakening party organization. They make their strongest appeal on the ground that local party leaders are too dumb to know what is good for the country.

The other force that corrupts the principle of true leadership springs from the psychology of the leader himself. Power corrupts every faculty of the mind, especially judgment. As ambition augments the means of power, it also reduces the faculties that govern the use of that power.

No one who has seen an executive at work over a long period has failed to see that as his power increases, he has less access to the true facts or true opinions of those who see him. In the crowded day of a President of the United States, almost every caller wants something. Those necessitous visitors are not going to say unpleasant things, however true. The President's comments and opinions aregreeted with enthusiastic acquiescence. After some years of this, the President may think things are true merely because he says them. The windows of an Executive's mind have a way of slamming shut. The draft that closes them comes, from the mouths of courtiers, and the thing that keeps them shut is the honeyed glue of flattery. Just when an Executive needs most a clear view of his domain, he finds himself gazing into the pictures on his office wall instead of out of the windows of his office.

This brings me to my fourth and last proposition. Political parties in the United States, because of their wide base, have been compelled to universalize their policies. Their lines cutting, as they have, at something like right angles to the lines which divide social, economic or religious groups, they have been forced to adhere more or less closely to some concept of a national interest transcending all group interests.

There are some instances when hypocrisy is a virtue. One of them is illustrated by the tendency in party platforms and speeches to pretend to a universality of interest and sympathy. These pretentions, however insincere, have in the past kept class antagonisms out of political campaigns. All of you who have lived in Cleveland know the expression attributed to a ward leader there: "I know no race; I know no religion; I know no class. I know nothing."

But it should be added that all such pretensions of universality are not, in essence, hypocritical. Such expressions actually do represent an aspiration for a political loyalty which conceives of the state as a common partnership, a fellowship of men and women, centered in a true concept of general welfare.

I do not claim that parties have not, from time to time, been the preys of an excess of special interest of one kind or another. But, in the main, they have sought to be a just instrument for the government of all people, rather than tools of one group or bloc. One party might include, as Theodore Roosevelt estimated, only thirty-five percent of organized labor or sixty-five percent of the farmer vote.

But when the party line is bent so far away from cutting group lines at right angles as to come in conformity with those lines, there is danger both to parties and the nation. It is not reassuring to read that eighty or eighty-five percent oi the CIO favors one party; nor is it reassuring to read a recent poll in which business management favors one party to the tune of ninety percent.

In alluding once more to my contention that there is a national interest supreme over all other interests, permit me to remind this group of lawyers of what has been happening to the Constitutional concept of the "general welfare" under the new order of things. Apparently sociologists are interpreting a Constitution written by philosophers. Plato yearned for the day when philosophers would be statesmen. But he never anticipated the oddity which would be presented when social reformers occupied the seats of statesmen.

The expression "general welfare" was put into the Constitution by men who knew the great principles of political philosophy. They learned their classical philosophy with their law. The law taught to Jefferson, Marshall, Monroe and Clay by George Wythe was not a hodge-podge of folk dancing and first aid. The classical concept embodied in the term "general welfare" was that of a welfare which transcended all little welfares. The adding together of the attributes of a thousand individual private rights does not explain the total importance of a national interest. An atoll in the Caroline Islands may be created by billions of coral animals, but it is not for the possession of their skeletons that men fight and die for a foothold there. Obviously, there can be no national security even after we have made the most precise definitions of every citizen's security. Yet our atomic statesmanship, in these days, fails to realize that when men and classes are divided into their particular interests, a supreme interest is lost. And in the chaos that follows, all particular interests are, in turn, sacrificed.

When we break down parties in the name of some attractive concept of non-partisanship, we run squarely into the immutable facts of human association. The slogan of non-partisanship is one of the most dangerous that ever introduced itself into our national life. What it does is to seize upon all the underlying antagonisms to parties that the venal sins of these parties have lighted up and to hitch the resulting enmity to a great delusion—the delusion that there is such a thing as an independent voter. When a man cuts his ties to a party, he does not thereupon respond only to a calm and rational weighing of issues. Being a gregarious animal, he responds to other forms of group attraction. Some of these are religious, some are racial, some are social and economic Many of the pulls or attractions are wholly irrelevant to political judgment. Some, I regret to say, easily take on the kind of virulent character that breaks the community into warring groups.

I have now offered certain general propositions which are, in the main, expressions of the theory and philosophy of politics. Now, by way of illustrating what is happening, let me present some concrete evidence, drawn from the history of national parties over the past three-quarters of a century.

I use as a basis for my illustration that most convenient political unit—the Congressional district. If, from Virginia, a crescent were drawn to the southwest as far as Texas, the area on each side would include those districts which, over the years, have been most consistently Democratic. That, for our purpose, we may call the solid South. But there was, for sixty of these years, an almost equally solid North, as well. That solid North might be described as an area extending a hundred miles or so north and south of a line drawn from the place at which we are meeting tonight to the northeastern corner of Nebraska. That area was, until 1930, consistently Republican. It provided a sectional offset to the solid Democratic South. National campaigns, over the years, were fought with these two great centers of opposing power in mind and, because each was predominantly agricultural and because in the voting population the distribution of social classes, races and religions were so similar, party lines were drawn roughly at right angles with class lines.

To understand what happened in 1932, we shall have to bear two facts in mind. In the first place, because of a persistent problem of agricultural surpluses, both the southern and northern farmer were in growing revolt against the party in power. In the second place, the basic philosophy of the Democratic nominee in 1932 was largely agricultural. When Mr. Roosevelt ran twice for the State Senate in Dutchess County and, later, when he ran for Governor, his strategy, largely conceived by Louis Howe, was to direct his appeal to the farmers and small shopkeepers who were hitherto mainly Republican. That strategy succeeded. When he was nominated at Chicago, it is significant that he was opposed to the last by the delegates from industrial regions and by the city machines.

His campaign of 1932 was specifically directed at breaking into the region which I have described as the solid Republican North. He paid little attention to the cities. In his speeches, there was little about labor, nothing about social security, nothing of foreign policy and only a bare mention of" relief. The philosophy he then expressed was a broad national one—one in which the interdependence of the groups

was asserted over and over. And when election came, he won a national victory. For two years, some of us believed that a new, truly national and dominant party had been born. The Congressional elections of 1934 ran about the same way as the election of 1932.

Then came 1935 and, with it, a radical reversal of policy. Farm benefits were continued, but the legislation of that year and the next was designed to favor the city machines and labor. High among the new proposals were social security, the Wagner Act and enlarged relief schemes. Louie Howe and his agrarian philosophy were not only dead, but forgotten. In 1936, the President and his party sought, through an alliance with the city machines and organized labor, to bring behind them the greatest possible number of easily manipulated votes. They secured for the candidate a majority of eleven million. But underneath it all, the effects of changed policies were apparent. In 1936, Mr. Roosevelt carried fewer counties than in 1932. The new policy, superficially successful, continued. The Supreme Court was attacked. An alliance was made with the CIO. Spend-lend became not an emergency measure, but a national policy.

There were those who protested against this trend, and, may I say, I was one of them. The elections of 1938 showed the ebbing of the tide. In 1940, despite the defeat of Willkie by big city votes, the outward Democratic tide continued. In 1942, it still went on. A look at the non-urban districts held by Republicans shows that they now compare almost exactly with those held in 1924. The great power of habit has reasserted itself once more. In those districts, the Republicans are home from the sea. The Early New Deal, which died in 1935, was no more like the present philosophy of the Democratic party than Jefferson is like Phil Murray.

Mr. Jefferson had much to say about the kind of momentous choice that Mr. Roosevelt was to make in 1935. He solemnly warned his party against it. He said that the security not only of his party, but of the nation, rested upon the farmers and others of moderate means. He said that large city groups of voters easily manipulated would become "fit tools for the designs of ambition." He believed, with Aristotle, that vast masses of voters while they might be temporarily captured by the cry of democracy, could also become the mere transition between a government of powers distributed by geography or constitutional compartments and a government in which a single individual rules. He believed, in short, that a class government becomes, of necessity, a personal government.

Now, by way of more exact illustration, let me present a tabulation of the city Congressional districts by parties since 1924. (Illustrates with charts.)

The lesson of this is that while a restoration of party balance has taken place in non-urban America, the same thing has not taken place in the cities. The Democratic party of 1944 has concentrated strength in cities and in the South. The great middle ground is Republican. And the election this year will be a test of strength upon this dangerous division of power. That the predominantly agricultural South is not happy can be seen by any observer down there. It was shown in the veto on the President's vote of the tax bill in February.

We have reached a point where there is real danger of the continued dominance of a party based upon economic classes. What is more, we are in danger of dominance by a party in which effective power may be seized, before long, by political labor groups. This, I submit, is a grave turn of events.

The road away from this quagmire lies in the maintenance and restoration of real party government. The Republican party can contribute to the preservation of Republican institutions by basing its appeal upon the interdependent interests of men and women of average means, of those elements of Labor which are not dedicated to a labor political party, of the free farmers and of industrial management. It may take a great defeat to bring the Democratic party back to the principle of group interdependence which it deserted in 1935. But, since that sort of major operation is necessary, let us not delay too long.

I have offered these observations tonight to induce the interest of thoughtful men like yourselves in the preservation of party government in the United States. I have not argued for the supremacy of one party over the other, because I believe that millions of Democrats are just as eager as anyone to restore the truly national character of their party. They, too, prefer a party to a personal government. They, too, believe that the creation of a party adhering to class lines is a long step toward personal government. They, too, deplore the stark appeals to class which have characterized the utterances of men in high office in the past few years. They, too, yearn for a government in which self-seeking groups have no part. They, too, adhere to the concept of an Executive and a Congress to which all groups may go for justice, but which no group may borrow, steal or use for its own purposes.

For when we take that high ground, our fellow-travelers are immortal men. The creators of our Constitution saw these dangers, and the more eloquent among them, like Madison, spelled out those dangers. A political party is no end in itself. But when it serves the greater end of preserving republican government, it deserves the support of Americans. The American republic is no mere figure of speech. It is a mechanism by which men may live and be free. And vital parties are the foundations upon which that republic should rest.