17 June 2009

Birth of the Bipolarchy?

Lynn Hudson Parson's The Birth of Modern Politics identifies the time of birth as the 1828 presidential election in which Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams. Parsons, a SUNY professor, has written a brief book, barely 200 pages of text, that doesn't even reach 1828 until more than halfway through. The buildup is necessary, though, to contrast what happened in that year with what came before. 1828 was Jackson's revenge for losing the Presidency to Adams in the House of Representatives through the alleged "corrupt bargain" between his rival and House Speaker Henry Clay. It was also the year that Jackson hooked up with Martin Van Buren, who turned Old Hickory's personal following into a disciplined political party. That discipline, extending to a concerted media campaign by partisan newspapers, defines 1828's modernity for Parsons.

What I've gotten from the book so far is a sense that the American Bipolarchy as it would eventually develop may have been the price Americans paid for rejecting the election system the Framers had set up for them. To this day, if any third party shows signs of popularity, whether it was George Wallace's movement in 1968 or Ross Perot's in 1992, pundits spook the public by predicting a repeat of the infamous 1824 scenario, when the failure of any candidate to win a majority in the Electoral College left the decision in the hands of the House. This is the implicit worst-case scenario, though one might ask why, if it was so bad, the Framers set it up in the first place.

To bring people up to speed, 1824 was the end of the "Era of Good Feeling" that followed the post(1812)war collapse of the Federalists. James Monroe had run for reelection unopposed in 1820, but three members of his Cabinet were soon seeking to succeed him. By the fall of 1824 there were four credible candidates: Adams, Jackson, Clay and William Crawford. Clay finished fourth and dropped out by virtue of the 12th Amendment. As Speaker of the House, he had influence over many congressmen. He considered Adams the best remaining candidate even though Jackson had a plurality of both the electoral and popular vote. When Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State after his election, their opponents assumed that this was a quid-pro-quo, though history has never confirmed this. 1824 had been a campaign of personalities. Historians have disparaged this phenomenon retroactively because it seemed that personalities had been emphasized at the expense of concrete issues. Parsons makes one very interesting observation, however. Unlike the next campaign, 1824 was not marred by negative campaigning. That, the author suggests, was because all the candidates assumed that the election would go to the House, and no one wanted to alienate his rival's supporters by attacking their candidates.

It became obvious pretty quickly that 1828 would be a two-man race, as all opponents of Adams (including his Vice President, John C. Calhoun) rallied behind Jackson (who would make Calhoun his own running mate). Parsons stresses, however, that a two-man campaign didn't automatically mean a two-party or bipolarchic campaign. That's where Martin Van Buren comes in. He believed a disciplined party system as a necessary alternative to rule by elite celebrities. Jackson could well have won the 1828 election entirely on the strength of his personality and the perception that Clay had screwed him. But how could Jackson be trusted to govern? A President who depended only on his own charisma could well govern as he pleased, within constitutional limits. But by incorporating the grass-roots Jackson movement into a disciplined, ideological party, Van Buren and his allies, many of them slaveholders (like Jackson himself), hoped to steer popular enthusiasm into the service of their Jeffersonian limited-government ideology. Not coincidentally, a party hierarchy created a seemingly meritocratic path for personal advancement for politicians like Van Buren who came from relatively humble backgrounds or hadn't become military heroes like Jackson. By 1837 he was President of the United States.

By perpetuating the "corrupt bargain" conspiracy theory against Adams and Clay, Van Buren encouraged the implicit corollary notion that there was something inherently corrupt about the constitutional process for resolving elections without majority winners. For American history, the lesson of 1824 seemed to be that it was desirable if not imperative to have a majority winner in the Electoral College. Anything short of that threatened to thwart the will of the American people, even though any such scenario would mean that the people had thwarted themselves. The easiest way to ensure a majority winner is to have only two candidates. There had been two-man and even two-party elections before 1828, but to the extent that 1824 became the negative exemplar to be avoided at all costs, you could well argue that the American Bipolarchy as we know it began at that moment. We might break the spell of 1824 if we, the people, were not so jealous of our right to choose the President, and we might break the spell of the Presidency if chief executives had more humble origins, so to speak, and could not call themselves sole representatives of the entire American people. If the Bipolarchy is a product of democratization, we might want to rethink our impulse to democratize every aspect of our political system.

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