14 January 2010

Bipolarchy and the "Infiltration" Option

Apologists for the American Bipolarchy of Republicans and Democrats often argue that both parties are amenable to reform through mass intervention from the grass roots. People who identify themselves by their ideologies rather than by partisanship contend that one or the other party can be made a reliable vehicle for ideology when ideologues "infiltrate" it in sufficient numbers to determine its candidates or control the drafting of its platform. Ideologues can appeal to history in order to show that infiltration succeeded when entrepreneurial conservatives conquered the Republican party in 1964 and when antiwar progressives seized the Democratic party in 1972. The GOP has required repeated infiltration since then, and in some people's opinion needs fresh infiltration now, while progressives have had cause ever since 1972 to question whether the Democracy is "their" party, as both Democrats and Republicans like to claim.

Just as Charles Evans Hughes did not know the word "bipolarchy" in 1910, he would not have described the course he recommended to principled citizens in his Third Dodge Lecture as "infiltration." But he held, as apologists do today, that there's nothing wrong with the two-party system that can't be cured by an infiltration of decent people.

Hughes acknowledged that there was room in political life for independent activity, but he isolated it in the media of his time, the "independent press" that endorsed no party consistently. The independent press, he said, represented a constituency that "constitutes in effect a party with the principle of non-partisanship" that criticizes those in power without contesting their power. He identified independence with an objective concern for the public interest rather than with disappointed ideologies, and praised it for "provid[ing] a basis for appeal over the heads of short-sighted party managers."

While he respected independents, Hughes believed that they weren't living up to their full potential in public life.

The regrettable feature of this non-relation to the great parties is that it withdraws from their active work men of weight and character who would be strongly influential in the determination of party action, and their withdrawal helps to create the conditions which they criticise. Not infrequently individual independence is a cover for disinclination to disagreeable and necessary work and shows a preference to stand aloof from the contests of democracy in which every citizen should take a vigorous part. This cannot be commended from any point of view.

Hughes discreetly leaves to his Yale audience's presumably educated imaginations what counts as "disagreeable and necessary work," but it certainly involved compromises and horse-trading, the sort of things independents are presumed to despise today. He understands that representative government itself requires compromises among diverse interests, just as Madison did. National parties, in Hughes's view, require similar compromises in order to form the governing and legitimizing majorities he considers necessary for a modern republic. In a sudden bit of sophistry he narrows the scope of democracy to party politics: if you don't like the "disagreeable and necessary work" of partisanship, he asserts, you're abandoning your duty as a citizen. You can only participate in democracy by joining the two-party system. It simply isn't enough to criticize as the independents do.

Independence has thrived on the stupidity, despotism, and corruption of party managers. It has performed notable services in voicing protest and in inflicting punishment. But we must still remember the actual necessities of the successful working of our system of government, and endeavour to put ourselves in such relation to the extraconstitutional machinery of the government, as to exercise to the fullest extent possible the privileges of our citizenship.[emphasis added]

The word "extraconstitutional" is an extraordinary confession of the Bipolarchy's usurpation of the democratic process. More extraordinary is how Hughes seems untroubled by this dubious revolution. He regards it with complete complacency, telling his hearers that any progress they hope for "must be effected through the instrumentalities at our command," --i.e. the major parties. "This does not imply that anyone of you should join a party contrary to your conscientious convictions" he insists, "but in making up your mind as to what you should do, you should have a proper understanding of the means through which your influence as a citizen must be exercised, of the actual conduct of our affairs, and of the value of party relation."

Hughes doesn't mean to condemn us all to obedience to party bosses. He expects everyone to put principle before party interest when the two conflict.

Party loyalty and patriotism should coincide, but if they are antagonistic, patriotism must ever be supreme. Important as it may be, the party is not the Nation or the State. He serves his party best who loves his country most. When, therefore, the temporary attitude of party threatens the interests of the community, when an ill-chosen policy invites general disaster, when party success means the debasement of the standards of honour and decency, the party
man should recognize the superior obligation of his citizenship. We have no finer illustration of patriotic devotion than has been afforded by party men who at critical periods have deserted their party in order that they might serve the higher interests of their country and maintain the principles of administration which were essential to the common security. At times, not simply the interests of the people at large, but of the party itself, may justify the party man in acting independently of it. It is often the only available means of rebuke and of party discipline through which opportunity may be provided for a more healthful party life.

I can't help but wonder whether the system can work as Hughes suggests when he constrains everyone's freedom of action so drastically. If we must join parties to be effective citizens, and there must be a Bipolarchy for the sake of majoritarian legitimacy, and we have no choice but to concede the Bipolarchic usurpation of representative government, what leverage, in the long run, can individuals exert against parties? In his own career, Hughes was often frustrated by partisan obstinance or the abuse of partisan power by petty bosses. But for all his progressive tendencies, he could not imagine or countenance the radical reforms that might more permanently end the abuses of partisanship. His progressivism, to the extent that it taught him that bigger was always better, may have blinded him to the possible radical necessity of overthrowing the Bipolarchy. Here, one hundred years before our own struggles with Bipolarchy, is a profoundly demoralizing admission of defeat.

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