07 January 2010

A Historian of the Bipolarchy

One hundred years ago this month Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York, later a Presidential candidate and ultimately the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, delivered the Dodge Lectures at Yale University. They were printed in a volume titled Conditions of Progress in Democratic Government. In the course of my regular research for a "100 years ago today" column I found excerpts from the Dodge Lectures published in a local newspaper. One of the lectures addressed the state of political parties and the phenomenon of the two-party system. The newspaper excerpts inspired me to track down the complete lectures, which exist online as a Google Book.

Hughes had a problematic relationship with his own party. By 1910 standards he was a progressive Republican, but as governor he had to deal with local GOP bosses who were more interested in retaining local power than in furthering Hughes's agenda. The year before, in 1909, the bosses and their tools in the state legislature thwarted the governor's effort to establish direct primary elections. Hughes's objective was both high-minded and self-interested. He believed that the grass roots would choose better candidates than those dictated by local bosses, but he also expected the legislators who emerged from the process to be more compliant toward a governor who saw himself, when we get down to it, as their rightful leader.

Knowing that much about Hughes, I was interested in learning his deeper thoughts on partisanship and the party system. These are concentrated in his third Dodge Lecture, in which he acknowledges that the emergence of national parties, not to mention a two-party system, wasn't part of the Founders' plan.

It was the hope of the framers of the Constitution that they had constructed a system which would be unfavorable to party control and through which men would be selected to discharge the functions of government who would represent the larger interests of the Nation, unbiased by partisan animosities or by narrow considerations of party expediency. ...They believed that as the sphere of government was extended they would enhance the protection against factious combinations, and that in a large republic such as the Union, they
would find security by reason of the greater variety of parties and interests and of the difficulty of obtaining a majority of the same party. But unwittingly they constructed a system, to the successful working of which parties were essential.

Hughes immediately contradicts this statement by attributing the rise of national parties to an alteration of the system the Founders constructed. That change was the effective democratization of presidential elections. The Founders' original design for election by the Electoral College, Hughes writes, was "futile" because "The selection of the most important officer in the Nation could not be so far removed from popular choice." Once "the electoral college [had] come to be simply a device for apportioning the popular vote for President and Vice-President according to States," he continues, "it was absolutely necessary that [voters] should combine in groups to express their wishes with respect to candidates and policy."

National parties, then, are called into existence by national elections. Hughes's chronology, however, isn't quite right, because faction emerged in the early republic well before democratization gained decisive momentum. As of 1796 a presidential election was contested along partisan lines as Jefferson opposed Adams. We can question the extent to which Jefferson's opposition was a product of democracy rather than a product of Jefferson's ideology and sectional interests. But to challenge Adams he did have to wage a nationwide campaign, and that necessity may demonstrate that nationalism (or the national ambitions of politicians) and ideology rather than democracy fueled the rise of national parties.

Hughes is actually more concerned with explaining the nation's tendency to Bipolarchy and the then 50-year persistence of the Republican-Democratic Bipolarchy under which we still live 100 years later. Even allowing for partisanship as the appropriate instrument for democratic politics, Hughes questions whether two-party systems could ever be taken for granted.
The fact of main significance ... is not that we have parties, not that they must be regarded as essential to the working of our government instead of being considered as evils, but that the tendency has been so marked to the establishment and continuance of two great parties which for the most part dominate the field of partisan activity. It was natural to suppose that the large variety of interests would be represented in numerous and changing groups or parties, and that no great party could maintain the solidarity requisite for long-continued effectiveness. Not only was the party coherence to which we are accustomed contrary to the expectations of the founders, but it has been a surprise to the modern critics of our institutions.A great party must have its birth and grow its strength through political conviction. Where there is serious division among the people with respect to some fundamental question of national policy, or as to various related matters deemed to be of first importance, two great parties will reflect the opposing views. The marvel is that when conditions change and major issues have been determined or cease to impress the popular imagination, when new conditions arise and unforeseen questions relating to new interests are presented, the former party divisions should continue to so great a degree unaltered.

Hughes challenges himself to explain the persistence of the present Bipolarchy despite obvious centrifugal tendencies in both major parties.
[I]n both the great parties there are views extremely divergent, and in one it may be said that there are antagonistic groups, each of which is further removed from the other in political theory than it is from the position of the great opposing party. Upon most of the great questions of the day, whether we have regard to the tariff, or to our financial system, or to the future of our insular possessions, or to foreign policy, or to the extension of the army and navy, or to the regulation of railroads and other public service corporations, or to the suppression of monopolistic combinations, it may fairly be supposed that were opinion freely expressed, the line of division would run across the great parties and not between them.

To keep each party together, Hughes argues, there must be a "paramount issue" that takes priority for all members over all issues that provoke intraparty division, or else "counteracting influences" must exert a centripetal force on party members. Among those influences he includes " Habit, tradition, and the sentiment of loyalty," as well as "the exigencies of opposition which require combination. [since] there is an inherent disposition to oppose and to rally the forces of opposition under one banner upon the best available standing ground."

Parties are born in opposition, after all, or in that moment when disagreement with current leadership becomes so intense and urgent that mere dissidents must try to seize power. Parties are also born, the Founders would add, of ambition, jealousy and other vices. It's not as easy as we'd like to separate the base motives from better ones, nor was it easy for Hughes to balance the costs and benefits of partisanship in general and Bipolarchy in particular. In a subsequent post I'll review the rest of Hughes's Third Lecture, his arguments for the benefits of Bipolarchy and his exhortation to the independents of his time to infiltrate the major parties and steer them in more beneficial directions. To some readers, Hughes's biases may already be apparent. I invite all readers to follow the link and check out the entire Dodge Lecture series so they can judge Hughes for themselves.


d.eris said...

Great find. I think the point about the "paramount issue" is especially important. I was most struck though by Hughes' sense of "marvel" at the fact that the parties continue to exist though they constantly seem to outlive their usefulness. Mainly because it seems like this sense is completely absent today. In so many cases it's as if people literally cannot imagine a politics that does not revolve around the bipolarchical axis.

Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Eris, that isn't particularly surprising. Consider the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in this country can't see beyond their next paycheck - or at best - beyond the next election cycle. Add to that the facts that Americans in general have no interest in history and they seem to follow anything labelled as "tradition" and you can see how it is that so many citizens of this country are slaves of the bipolarchy.

d.eris said...

What is striking though, Chryme, is that this was not always the case, or at least not to the extent that it is today, even though worries about the next paycheck etc. are nothing new.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I'm not a historian, but I'm guessing that most people since the founding of this country have been more concerned about tomorrow than ten years or twenty years or a hundred years down the line. At least when it comes to politics.

You may be right that this wasn't always the case, but in the here and now, the average American is a jackass and nothing more. Too stupid to think for themselves, they allow themselves to be so easily manipulated by the politics of fear. Sometimes I am ashamed of being an American citizen, since this country is all about greed and violence and little more. It has become a country run by cavemen for the benefit of cavemen. I sometimes wish that nice big supervolcano under Yellowstone would erupt and take most of middle America with it with their fake "christian" values, their gun/militia culture and their obtuse stupidity.