The Lives Of The Parties


To recapitulate the ten presidential elections since 1952 does not in itself advance our understanding of the huge changes taking place in American political behavior. It merely reflects them. Loomine lamest is the curious result of the abandonment of straight-ticket voting at the federal level. Democrats have controlled the Congress almost uninterruptedly for those forty years. But they have won the Presidency only three times, and only once (in 1964) resoundingly. John F. Kennedy, it is easy to forget, barely squeaked by in 1960, and so did Jimmy Carter in 1976. The result is an almost permanent and potentially paralyzing division of responsibility between Congress and the President beyond that which the Constitution already built in.

One often cited reason for the Democrats’ loss of control of the White House is the unraveling of the Roosevelt coalition. That does seem to have happened, and the dissolution of the old alliance into unreconciled factions is partly due to the party’s laudable efforts since the 1970s to open up its governing committees and nominating conventions to women, blacks, and other newcomers to the process. Praiseworthy or not, however, liberalizing the rules underscores all the old jokes about the Democratic tradition of disorganization.

The Republicans in the meantime appear to have solidified their ranks by the attrition of the small corps of “liberals” who once provided intraparty discussions. Men, that is, like Wayne Morse, Jacob Javits, or John Lindsay, who carried on the insurgent tradition of George Norris or Fiorello La Guardia. Sometimes it seems that if the Democrats have too much internal dissent, the Republicans have too little, except from extreme conservatives.

Such speculations aside, do the two mainstream parties stand for anything distinctively traceable to their historic ancestors? Would Alexander Hamilton, returned from his untimely grave, pose for a photo op with George Bush? Would Abraham Lincoln? Would Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson take the stump for Bill Clinton? The question is better left open; both parties long ago accepted the reality of a strong national government with an overpowering impact on the economy through both policy and expenditures. And neither one can afford, politically, to avoid continuing federal engagement in promoting and sustaining the general welfare, the well-being of “the people,” through an infinite variety of existing social programs. Whatever the rhetoric, both incorporate elements of the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian outlooks. And both have generally been bound, since 1945, by an unspoken agreement on bipartisanship in foreign affairs, which have—at least until now—been the overshadowing responsibility of the national government. On diplomatic and military issues the parties agree not to disagree.

This is a far cry from saying that they are identical. Vachel Lindsay, to get back to him, wrote of that 1896 campaign: “There were truths eternal in the gab and tittle-tattle/There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.” That is still true in 1992, but 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: the welfare state that makes the old-time precinct workers’ handouts obsolete, TV image making, the importance of big funding, poll taking—all of them developments that put a premium on expertise in campaign management instead of enthusiasm in the streets and that therefore make the ordinary voter feel shut out. Or perhaps just a new electorate to whom politics isn’t the absorbing pastime that it was in another American time and culture.


Or maybe it’s I the triumph of that part of the progressive idea that lauded disinterested competence in government as ideal. I have heard a young scholar defend the nronosition that we necessarily live nowadays under government administered by bureaucratic elites and virtually professional lawmakers and that “citizen participation” consists of sending money to the lobby of one’s choice and expressing one’s opinion to the poll takers. He believes that democracy’s health is not all that endangered by so-called voter apathy.

Perhaps. Still, there is a historical paradox here. We have actually widened the base of democracy over the last three-quarters of a century. We have, by constitutional amendment, enfranchised women, eighteen-year-olds, and residents of the Dis- trict of Columbia and re-enfranchised blacks. Presidential nominees are no longer chosen in the wicked old smoke-filled rooms but in open, hotly contested, and fabulously expensive primaries. And yet fewer of us exercise the franchise.

Whatever the national parties do now in the way of framing political life through professional fund-raising and research, it is different from the days, to quote Lindsay one final time, of “all the funny circus silks of politics unfurled … and torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.” The bottles have the same label, but the vintage is new. The party organizers and party bosses, from Aaron Burr and Thurlow Weed and Mark Hanna to Richard Croker and James M. Curlev and Big Bill Thompson, came on the scene at a particular stage of national evolution that is now past. They gave democracy creations of splendor and shadow. And now they are gone with Bryan “where the kings and the slaves and the/troubadours rest.”