09 November 2011

Sean Wilentz's Bipolarchy Gospel

Earlier this year the historian and New Republic contributing editor Sean Wilentz delivered a digest version of American political history in a series of lectures at Stanford University. Condensed into a lengthy article for the magazine's November 17 issue, "The Mirage" (available online only to subscribers) resumes Wilentz's attack on the allegedly elitist anti-partisanship once known as "Mugwumpery" and which the writer identifies with President Obama today. Partisanship, Wilentz writes, "although often manipulated and abused, has also been Americans' most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform." The several pages that follow do little to prove the proposition, though Wilentz goes to some length to vindicate his opinion by asserting that opponents of partisan politics through history have been elitist and anti-democratic, not to mention nativist and racist in many cases. "The anti-party current," he concludes, "is by definition anti-democratic, as political parties have been the only reliable vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters."

However, parties are most effective in Wilentz's account not when they are most responsive to voters, but when Presidents act most assertively as top-down party leaders, as Lincoln did as a Republican and FDR did as a Democrat. To prove that partisanship is essential to good government, Wilentz offers a unique reading of the Civil War that attributes Confederate failures in large part to the secessionists' failure to organize a proper party system. When Wilentz addresses responsiveness, as he should to prove partisanship democratic, he usually means responsiveness by party leaders to party leaders.  He lets John F. Kennedy -- who I understood not to be a strong party leader while President -- explain this most clearly in a pre-Presidential comment.

No president, it seems to me, can escape politics. He has not only been chosen by the nation -- he has been chosen by his party. And if he insists that he is 'president of all the people,' and should, therefore, offend none of them -- if he blurs the issues and differences between the parties -- if he neglects the party machinery and avoids his party's leadership -- then he has not only weakened the political party as an instrument of the democratic process -- he has dealt a blow to the democratic process itself.

Wilentz traces anti-party sentiment to George Washington's Farewell Address and its admonition against "the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction" He dismisses the address as a self-serving and actually partisan attack on Thomas Jefferson, whom Washington never mentioned by name, ascribing to the first President the implication that mere opposition to the government "was tantamount to breaking the law." Against Washington, Wilentz summons James Madison, but not in his capacity as author of Federalist 10 and guarantor against any single faction dominating government, but as the author of the 1792 essay "A Candid State of Parties," an anonymous vindication of the opposition to Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Between Federalist 10 and "A Candid State," Madison changed from engineer of pluralism to prophet of Bipolarchy. In 1792, Madison argued that a kind of two-party division was "natural to most political societies," and Wilentz seems to agree with him. Bipolarchy, according to both men, pits a party of the few against a party of the many. Here's how Madison says it.

One of the divisions [i.e. parties] consists of those who, from particular interest, from natural temper, or from the habits of life, are more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society; and having debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves, it follows with them, of course, that government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force. Men of those sentiments must naturally wish to point the measures of government less to the interest of the many than of a few, and less to the reason of the many than to their weaknesses; hoping perhaps in proportion to the ardor of their zeal, that by giving such a turn to the administration, the government itself may by degrees be narrowed into fewer hands and approximated to a hereditary form.
The other division consists of those who, believing in the doctrine that mankind are capable of governing themselves and hating hereditary power as an insult to the reason and an outrage to the rights of man, are naturally offended at every public measure that does not appeal to the understanding and to the general interests of the community, or that is not strictly conformable to the principles and conducive to the preservation of republican government.

Of course, Madison is describing the Federalists, the regime of Washington and Hamilton as he saw them, not as they saw themselves -- but Wilentz basically accepts this description at face value. Jefferson corroborated this view late in life when he wrote that "the common division of whig and tory, or according to our denominations of republican and federal ... is the most salutary of all divisions, and ought therefore to be fostered." Martin Van Buren carried out this policy by managing Andrew Jackson's 1828 and 1832 presidential campaigns as struggles by the many against "the establishment of a moneyed oligarchy." Franklin Roosevelt continued this development during his Presidency, going so far as to drive reactionaries out of the Democratic party in order to, in Wilentz's words, "sharpen the ideological divide." But by acknowledging that Jefferson himself made contradictory but consistently self-serving statements about parties and factions throughout his life, Wilentz practically concedes, without admitting it, that the Madisonian Bipolarchy of many vs. few is little more than spin. Inevitably, some people out of power are going to see people in power as an elitist, self-aggrandizing and "debauched" faction, just as the temptation always exists among those in power to see dissidents as jealous, self-aggrandizing conspirators. But saying it's all so doesn't make it so, despite Wilentz's attempt at writing a Democratic [party] History of the United States. While Washington and Hamilton may have overreacted to the emergence of concerted opposition to their policies, their insistence on them doesn't prove them the "opulent" schemers that Madison and Jefferson claimed them to be, just as Wilentz's insistence that partisanship is democratic doesn't prove the case when his own evidence shows only that partisanship empowers Presidents to dominate governments. Wilentz has let 220 years of propaganda go to his head.

I don't mean to deny that societies can become divided between many and few. The Occupiers of 2011 are making just such a claim. But I do mean to challenge Wilentz's complacent assumption that in a party system one party inevitably ends up representing the many and deserving their loyalty. At its inception, the Madisonian Bipolarchy was really few vs few, and the Bipolarchy today could well be described the same way. It may be anti-Democratic to say that, at least in Sean Wilentz's opinion, but it isn't undemocratic in any sense.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first thing that strikes me is his quote from JFK. "He has not only been chosen by the nation -- he has been chosen by his party."

It seems to me the President is chosen by the people to lead. He is only chosen by his party to run. Any President who accedes to the will of his party in his leadership, has betrayed the trust of the people. We elect the President to lead, we do not elect his party to lead.

I see two separate divisions of this country: The division between the many (with little) and the few (with much). I also see that both parties are more accessible to the few than to the many and more responsive to the few over the many. At the same time, I see an artificial split cause by the few between the many, leaving them to believe the "true" oppenent is the "other side" (democrat/republican, liberal/conservative, right/left). This "divide and conquer" strategy is old and obvious. Unfortunately, the dirtclods will fall for it every time.