22 August 2011

A historical note on antiparty sentiment

It may be considered disappointing that The Concise Princeton Encylcopedia of American Political History doesn't have an entry on "third parties" or "independent politics," nor a general article on political parties. Instead, there are several separate articles on different stages of Democratic and Republican history. Edited by Michael Kazin, an expert on populism who wrote the entry on that tendency, the Concise Encylcopedia contains 150 out of 187 articles in the original edition, so some of what I'm missing may actually appear there. For our purposes, however, Stuart M. Blumin contributes an article on "antiparty sentiment." Blumin is the co-author, with Glenn C. Altschuler, of Rude Republic, a revisionist account of 19th century political culture that downplays partisan identification among ordinary Americans. For Princeton, he notes that "Hostility toward the political party has been an important dimension of American culture from the earliest days of the republic." He summarizes classical republicanism's suspicion of faction and stresses that neither the Federalists nor Jefferson's Republicans envisioned themselves as permanent electioneering entities. They played to win, and victory meant the elimination of one or the other as a threat to the republic. The fall of the Federalists was interpreted by Jeffersonians as "the fulfillment of classic republican principles," and few people seemed greatly troubled by James Monroe running unopposed for President in 1820.

Blumin traces "a fully institutionalized and enduring two-party system" to the struggle between Andrew Jackson and the Whigs. With the new system came "a new set of ideas that legitimized the party as necessary to the functioning of a viable democracy." On these, Blumin does not elaborate, except to note that "well-organized parties linked themselves not only to new theories of power and legitimate opposition but also to popular ideas and symbols intended to establish each party as truly national and fully American." He doesn't discuss the legitimization or canonization of a two-party system, despite Martin Van Buren's insistence, for his own party's sake, on the necessity of a single enemy party whose existence allowed him to define the terms of each campaign as a struggle for the American soul or a re-enactment of the Revolution. Of course, Bipolarchy isn't Blumin's assigned subject; antiparty sentiment is, and he notes that, while that sentiment was "deliberately weakened," in the antebellum era, "it survived not merely as an old-fashioned idea but discovered a new foundation in the very success of political parties as institutions."

According to Blumin, partisanship shaped the negative popular image of the politician from an early point.

Perhaps more than party platforms supporting or opposing one or another interest-based program, professionalism and patronage undermined each party's republican character. Increasingly, Americans defined partisan activists as 'politicians,' driven by the quest for power and for private reward in the form of government jobs or contracts rather than by service to the public good, even when that good was loftily declared in the party's specific program....The corruption that followed from self-interest was now to many Americans --
including regular voters and avid partisans -- the concrete property of the party system.

Third party movements drew on antiparty sentiment, promoting themselves as "freer from the corruption inherent in routine partisan activity." While none of these has managed to overthrow the post-1860 two-party order, Blumin writes that "traditional antiparty themes such as political careerism, corruption, and the pursuit of interests opposed to the general good continued and still remain persuasive in political discourse." What it means to be persuasive is unclear, but Blumin points to "a long trend toward independent voter registration" as well as "more personalized political campaigns, stressing the qualities of the candidates rather than his or her party affiliations and in many cases portraying the candidate as a political outsider transcending mere partisanship." He concludes (the first edition of the Princeton Encylcopedia appeared last year) that "a culture long suspicious about partisan methods and motives [is] newly inclined to reduce the role of parties in the shaping of public affairs." I'll believe this when I see it. Most recently, we've seen an ostensibly antipartisan yet irreconcilably ideological movement -- the Tea Party -- reach for power through the traditional means of taking over a major party. The TPs' hostility to "career politicians" suggests that distrust of politicians is not as strongly linked to antiparty sentiment as Blumin claims -- or not as strongly linked as it once may have been. Many Americans, and not just the TPs or GOPs, believe that "Washington," not partisanship, is the root of political corruption. Meanwhile, Americans have not yet demonstrated their readiness to entrust power to people who don't bear the brand-name labels that still denote a minimal competence to govern, despite all current evidence to the contrary. If antiparty sentiment persists, it probably reflects resentment of our dependence on experts for government, exacerbated by a feeling that ordinary people are incapable of governing the country. It antiparty sentiment is to have any practical result, it will have to drive people to educate themselves and trust each other. Until the American people regain confidence in their ability to govern their own country, and their right to govern it to improve their lives, antiparty sentiment will remain angry, incoherent and impotent. Blumin's is one of the shortest articles in the Concise Encyclopedia; it's up to us to prove that the subject deserves more.

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