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The Lives Of The Parties
The two-party system, undreamt of by the founders of the Republic, has been one of its basic shaping forces ever since their time
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
This was an early warning that the post-1865 party system was getting past its prime. Although he was talking of party primaries, La Follette was actually exalting a modern version of the nonpartisan ideal that the Constitution’s fathers had found attractive. The civil service reform movement of the 188Os had revived it as a matter of modern necessity, insisting that government jobs were getting too complicated to be filled, however democratically, by loyal but dumb patronage appointees. La Follette himself, as governor of Wisconsin from 1901 through 1905, went further, as did other progressive municipal and state administrators. They all pushed for appointive boards of independent experts to provide for or regulate on “scientific” principles such up-to-date public facilities as street railways, telephone and electric power networks, and water systems.
In short, progressive thought was split between a desire to improve the f responsiveness of the parties and a conflicting feeling that the way to better government might not be through parties at all but rather around them or without them. The contradiction lingers to this day, an essential part of an unresolved debate over how to get governmental expertise without losing popular control. When anery enough, the debaters denounce one another as elitists and demagogues.
But to return to history, 1912 was a peak year for progressivism. Instead of a Bryanite, a city boss, or a Wall Streeter the Democrats nominated a progressive professor, Woodrow Wilson. Theodore Roosevelt’s followers organized an independent Progressive party to run “the Colonel.” Between them Roosevelt and the victorious Wilson got more than 10 million votes to Taft’s 3.5 million. There were even 900,000 for the Socialist Eugene V. Debs. It did appear as if the old party system was indeed tottering.
Obituaries would have been premature, however. World War I and the 1920s arrested the national progressive advance, and Republicans and Democrats did business very much as usual, with the standpat Republicans getting much the better of it as they successively elected Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and kept congressional majorities. The Democrats ran another conservative lawyer (John W. Davis) against Coolidge in 1924. Nearly 5 million dismayed progressives in both parties thereupon voted for the independent candidacy of the now-aged La Follette, but he won only Wisconsin’s 13 electoral votes. His defeat confirmed anew the ironclad grip of the two-party system. Americans do not vote to express principles or make educational statements. They vote to win, and most of them were then and thereafter certain that third parties could not win. Thanks to this somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy, only a tiny percentage of popular ballots are ever cast for third- (and fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-) party presidential candidates. Excluding Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 total, La Follette’s 16 percent was the high-water mark.
There was a quiver of change in 1928, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith, so proudly from the sidewalks of New York and so uncompromisingly Catholic that four states of the former Confederacy committed the heresy of going Republican. There was an off-setting factor in Smith’s capture of the twelve largest cities of the nation, a sign of impending upheaval, but not yet enough to win for the Democrats. It took the Great Crash to do that.
And then came the political revolution of the New Deal. Its long-range effects on the lives of the parties continue to be felt today. Its immediate result was the creation of a Democratic majority so imposing that it almost seemed to wipe out the Republicans forever. Even casual readers of history are aware that Roosevelt carried all but two states in 1936, thanks to the votes of the coalition of blue- and white-collar workers, immigrants and their children, urban and rural blacks, dirt farmers, small businessmen, professionals, and liberal intellectuals ( liberal having replaced progressive as the label of choice for reformers). What is less well known is that there were only 16 Republicans in the Senate that met in January of 1937, the smallest representation for a minority party in the entire century. The 89 Republicans in the House were the fewest since 1891. FDR was a colossus, and as one political analyst observed, the mass of Americans had come to identify their interests with those of the Democratic party. The election of 1936, like that of 1896, had clearly been a turning point.
The parties simply don’t get to the gut and bring people out to cheer and howl as they used to. There may be dozens of reasons why.
Although the Republicans bounced back in 1938 and 1940, a new era had clearly begun. The 1940 and 1944 elections, dominated by war, were not a clear testing ground of longrange shifts. It was Truman’s surprise victory in 1948—after a 1946 postwar reaction had made the Eightieth Congress Republican—that confirmed the durability of the Roosevelt coalition and seemed to foreshadow a long and unbroken Democratic reign.
But that was deceptive. After World War II nothing, including the party system, was or ever would be quite the same.