The Lives Of The Parties

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Recently I got a letter from a friend of mine, Max Lale, the current president of the Texas State Historical Society, that gave me a quick glimpse of a vanished world. Lale recalled that on election day of 1928, when he was twelve, he accompanied his father on a mile-and-a-quarter walk to their local polling place in Oklahoma. There he waited while his Southern-born father, faced with a choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, agonized over which would be worse: to support a Catholic or a Republican. In the end he cast no vote for President. It was impossible to betray either the Protestant religion or the Democratic party.

 

Old-time Republican voters would have understood, even if they did not agree. To them, as the iconoclastic trial lawyer Clarence Darrow recalled of his childhood neighbors in Kinsman, Ohio, in the 1870s, “the Republican Party and all of its doctrines came as a divine revelation.”

That’s how seriously people took political affiliations a long time ago. It seems like a very long time ago in this election year. When, if recent trends hold up, the following predictions can safely be made. Only about half of those who are registered to vote will do so. A great many of them will split their tickets and cast ballots for a Republican President but a Democratic representative and, in some cases, senator. Of this active ticket-splitting electorate, many members—perhaps a majority—will define themselves as “independents.” And whatever the November outcome, virtuous media commentators will denounce both President and Congress for displaying election-year partisanship in their disagreements with each other, as if a partisan view were always automatically counter to the national interest.

 

Overtly playing politics— id est , old-style party politics—is currently a public relations felony. Among journalists and political scientists there is even an ongoing debate over whether or not the traditional American party system is still breathing. Some hold, as David Broder of the Washington Post did in a book published twenty years ago, that The Party’s Over . Others cleave to the beliefs of the political scientists Xandra Kayden and Eddie Mahe, Jr., who contended in a 1985 volume that Party Goes On but in a new and modernized form that we don’t yet recognize. Whichever is closer to the truth, there is no denying that the Republican and Democratic national organizations have plummeted in popular esteem and loyalty.

The two-party system has been an elemental force, like the frontier, the city, and the immigrant ship—to all of which it adapted itself.

That in itself says a good deal about how this nation has changed in this century, because the American political party was something special, a unique creation that facilitated the growth of democracy in the United States. It was an elemental shaping force, like the frontier, the city, and the immigrant ship, to all of which it adapted itself. If voters no longer rally around party flags and shout party slogans, it’s a sign that yet another of our institutions is in either decline or, at least, transition.

The key question, of course, is which, and it can’t be answered in a few thousand words, if at all. But a look at the life histories of our two major (and our array of minor) parties can help clarify the record. It may even help those who are deciding at this moment which candidates they will honor with what Mr. Dooley called their “invalyooable suffrage.”

The story begins with a somewhat startling fact. Parties are intruders into the constitutional scheme of things. Though they have almost always been at the core of American political life, they were neither welcomed nor provided for by the framers, who for the most part would have been sturdy supporters of the “nonpartisan” ideal if it had been articulated in 1787.

 

In a modern democracy we see a political party simply as a permanent organization of persons bound by common interests who agree to support a particular set of candidates and principles at election time. But the suspicious Founding Fathers made little distinction between a party and a faction , dictionary-defined as “a small, cohesive and usually contentious group within a larger organization.” In the classical “republic of virtue,” which was their eighteenth-century ideal, contention would give way to a reasoned consensus on the general good, which wise voters and officeholders would pursue even if it seemed to conflict with their local and temporary self-interest. No leader worthy of the name would encourage group antagonisms that might tear apart the fabric of society.

The prize example of such a paragon was, of course, George Washington, whose unanimous and decidedly nonpartisan choice as President by the electoral college in 1788 seemed to be an ideal illustration of how the system was supposed to work. It was. But it happened exactly once and never again afterward.