- Historic Sites
America: Curator Of British Political Relics
An English observer says our party workings, patronage, sheriffs., and grand juries are museum pieces from Britain’s past
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
When British students come to study the eighteenth century they have to undergo a prolonged period of intellectual brainwashing—what might be called Namierizing ∗After Sir Lewis Namier, eminent modern historian ot the eighteenth century.—which purges their minds of any residual idea that the term “party” as used then had any resemblance to the closely knit, coherent, and disciplined structures of England today. Americans hardly require such a preliminary process. For party politics in America greatly resembles the eighteenth-century variety. There is a passage in John Brooke’s new book on the Chatham administration, in which he sets out to invest the eighteenth-century term “party” with some kind of meaning. For the most part he falls back on rivalry over local issues within a county as the reason for sharp elections; the sum total of these results, each in itself having relatively little to do with national affairs, being reflected in the composition of Parliament. The same could be said of Congress. Just as there was no “government party” with a firm majority in the eighteenth-century Parliament—and neither is there in Congress—so there was no precisely definable opposition. There was a prejudice in eighteenth-century Westminster against a “formed opposition” against the Crown, although opposition on particular issues was normal and regular: so in Congress there is no leader of the opposition. The Democratic National Committee, the merest shadow of a national party leadership, attempted, first in 1955, and again during this year, to present a formal front, an alternative leadership to the President. But the Democratic leaders in Congress brushed off the idea as undesirable; they would deal with the President’s proposals on their merits, one by one, as they came up.
Although in some ways America is becoming more of a unitary state, it is still, where party organization is concerned, a loose confederation of states. The really important political leadership is located not in Washington but in the parties of each state; the national parties have to be born anew once every four years, when they meet for a week in national convention to select presidential candidates. It is no accident that it was an American scholar, Professor Wallace Notestein, who made the seminal discovery about the nature of the relationship between the Crown and Parliament under James I which has revolutionized the study of sixteenth- and seven teeth-century political conflicts. Americans are familiar, as Englishmen now are not, with an executive having to deal at arm’s length with a legislature, having to get its majorities by manipulating numerous overlapping factions, with the aid of spokesmen who have not themselves drawn up official policy and who may or may not be particularly able or willing to present the Crown’s case (or, in America, the President’s case) in the most attractive possible light.
In my opinion, after covering Congress for three years, the only really adequate way to report it is in the fashion in which Sir Lewis Namier and his colleagues have been reconstructing eighteenth-century parliaments—to discuss the moves not in terms of parties and fixed groups but in terms of personal and factional shifts and connections, with constant reference to the individual member’s state and local political base. This, alas, cannot be done thoroughly by a single correspondent; but it is curious that even in American newspapers the treatment of politics is insufficiently Namierized, moves being treated as if in Congress there were firm parties or groups in the modern European fashion, with use of such phrases as “with a vote cutting right across normal party lines,” as if it were usual to have a vote on party lines, whereas in fact it is the rarest of exceptions.
When the Americans formed their Constitution they tried to capture in a written document the essence of the British way of doing things, modified by safeguards and reforms advocated by British radicals since the days of the civil war [between Crown and Parliament]. The Americans did not make a bad job of it, but they locked into the system age-old conflicts which Britons have since resolved by a combination of cabinet government, party discipline, and parliamentary sovereignty. King against Barons, King against Parliament, and now President against Congress: these are conflicts that ace inescapable under a system based on the principle of the separation of powers. There are two special characteristics of such a system: first, that the big conflicts are basically insoluble within the existing framework, since the logical extension of victory either by the executive or by the legislature would be the extinction of its rival as an equal branch of government; and, second, that many of the ordinarily political conflicts of the day, major and relatively trivial, become charged with constitutional significance, so that arguments of substance rapidly shift into arguments of constitutional and legal principle.