22 April 2011

Martin Van Buren: Partisanship against Civil Society

In totalitarian states, we're taught, there is nothing but the Party. A totalitarian regime, identified with the rule of an ideological party, is said to be incompatible with "civil society," the proliferation of autonomous institutions through which individuals form social connections and some sense of public identity. If the totalitarian party can't suppress (or somehow co-opt) the spread of civil society, its monopoly on power is assumed to be doomed. From the totalitarian perspective, meanwhile, "civil society" promises only factionalism -- but according to John L. Brooke's Columbia Rising, such was also the perspective of Martin Van Buren, a man who has never been accused of being a totalitarian, but is often credited with creating the American political party system as we know it.

Columbia Rising traces the intertwined, conflicted evolution of party politics and civil society in Columbia County, New York, climaxing with Van Buren's rise from inkeeper's son and poor law student to President of the United States. According to Brooke, Van Buren's beliefs were influenced by his class-conscious encounters with the patroon and manorial aristocracy of his county and the personal factionalism that made early party politics unstable. He espoused limited government because he worried that "Aristos" and would-be Aristos would only exploit a stronger government to enrich themselves at the expense of the "plain Republicans" he wished to represent. In Brooke's account, Van Buren was suspicious to the point of fanaticism about the menace of aristocracy, while disciplined partisanship was his remedy. His suspicion extended from banks, which he saw as tools of aristocratic domination, to innocuous seeming cultural organizations through which Aristos might influence people to vote their way. Brooke portrays Van Buren's analysis as the antithesis of Tocqueville's.

Tocqueville saw the institutions of civil association as a bulwark against the state, or an alternative form of governance in the absence of a strong state. For Van Buren these institutions, in alliance with a strong state, threatened to undermine the will of the people, the legacy of the Revolution (450).

Van Buren meant party structures to minimize aristocratic influence. Writing for a newspaper that served as a Van Buren mouthpiece, John W. Edmonds wrote in 1824, "[T]he great object of the organization of a party is the advancement of principles not men. It will support, with all its power, regular caucus nominations, convinced that hereby the man is obliged to yield to principle." Van Buren's career was a struggle to structure party in order to tame "aristocratic" personal factionalism. His commitment sometimes took him in anti-democratic directions. In 1824, for instance, he supported William H. Crawford for the Presidency. Crawford had been nominated by the old Republican party, which by then had become the only national party. Crawford's rivals claimed that the congressional caucus that had nominated Crawford was an undemocratic institution, since it did not represent the rank and file across the country, among whom Crawford was far from popular. In November, after surviving a stroke, Crawford finished third in a field of four major candidates, all ostensibly belonging to the same party. According to the rules laid down by the Constitution, Crawford made it into the next round after no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College, but was no real factor in the eventual election of John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives.

In 1824 the system worked as the Founders designed it, but Van Buren and many contemporaries, not to mention most observers ever since, considered the outcome a debacle. For Van Buren himself, it was nothing but an unprincipled clash of personalities, since it was hard for him to imagine anyone defying Crawford for reasons other than personal ambition. Worse, for many Americans, the final result was considered doubly undemocratic, first because Adams had won despite winning fewer electoral or popular votes than Andrew Jackson, and second because Adams allegedly won by making a "corrupt bargain" with Henry Clay, who had finished fourth in the general election, through which Clay became Adams's Secretary of State. Van Buren responded to the backlash by the still-unproven corrupt bargain by building a new party based on opposition to Adams and Clay. He threw his support behind Jackson's 1828 challenge to Adams, but for Jackson's victory to mean anything it had to mean more than Jackson's revenge on Clay. The key was to make the party ideological, as the Republicans had been when Jefferson and Madison built it in the 1790s. According to Brooke, Van Buren wanted every election to be treated as a "crisis" re-enacting the original crisis of the Revolution. The opposition to Van Buren's party had to be portrayed as neo-Tories who hoped to undo the American experiment or neo-Federalists hoping to resume Hamilton's alleged agenda of aristocratic consolidation of power. The first point to note is that Van Buren apparently saw ideology (or whatever he'd call it) as a force hopefully stronger than personal ambition. Loyalty to an idea, especially if that idea was conflated with the survival of the republic, would bind otherwise ambitious men to support of the party. The second point to note is that Van Buren's system requires the existence of a second party, and would ideally have no more than two to make the choice for voters as stark as possible. A multiplicity of parties might reduce an election to a clash of personalities and muddy what Van Buren considered the essential issues. An "Era of Good Feelings," like that said to prevail during James Monroe's Presidency (he enjoyed an uncontested reelection in 1820) would be undesirable for Van Buren, since it would tempt the ambitious to buck the rule of the caucus or the convention.

My point here isn't to say that Van Buren was a totalitarian. He was no collectivist in any sense of the word. But he did share something of the totalitarian's belief -- if you believe in totalitarians -- that the People have no political existence outside the Party or parties. Van Buren's idea of the People seems to have been very atomistic, given his distrust of so many "civil society" institutions that might bind people to the will or supposed aristocrats. His world was really one of sovereign households, each ideally vigilant (according to what Brooke calls Van Buren's "monitory" notion of politics) against aristocratic incursions on its rights or wealth. He opposed the politics of economic development and "internal improvement" espoused by Clay, Adams and the eventual Whig party because, like many "Jacksonian Democrats," he could only see government support for such projects benefiting ambitious individuals at everyone else's expense. For him, unlike the totalitarians, the party was not an instrument for consolidating state power. But if Brooke describes him correctly, Van Buren had an antagonistic view of partisanship's relation to civil society that's disturbingly similar to the attitude that anti-totalitarian polemicists attribute to their antagonists. There is, at the least, a monopolistic (or duopolistic) notion of party's role within the body politic that is arguably still disturbingly present in American partisanship today.


Anonymous said...

So what you're saying is that we live in a totalitarian state in which "the party" has become factionalized into 2 distinct halves. More or less.

Samuel Wilson said...

What I'm saying is that there's something about bipolar partisanship that abhors true pluralism because it complicates the manichean narrative that sustains bipolarchy.

The Van Buren system is arguably an orwellian improvement on 20th century totalitarianism. The American bipolarchy is more like the wars of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia than like Stalin's struggle with Trotsky, because Van Buren realized that he had a better chance of winning if he could convince people that the "counter-revolutionaries" of his time also had a strong chance of winning. Stalin might dream of completely eliminating counter-revolution, but always had to make up new "counter-revolutionary" enemies to cover his policy failures or eliminate potential rivals within his own party. Van Buren believed that counter-revolution had to remain a constant presence in order to maintain discipline within his own party; therefore he tolerated it and encouraged it by favoring a two-party system to a one-party system that was vulnerable to personal factionalism.