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Primaries, Politics and Parties

April 23, 2016


Given that we are well into the presidential primary season, I thought it would be helpful, if admittedly a little late to provide some historical background on the process.*

First a few points:

1. The Constitution did not create a democracy. It created a Republic with certain minority rights contained in the first 10 amendments. It did not give the right to vote to all citizens. That right has evolved throughout our history and is still evolving.

2. There is nothing about a democracy that ensures that it will govern better that many other forms of government. If voting by citizens is a measure of democracy we have had democracies that have governed badly and authoritarian states that have been governed well. No one would call China a democracy but when they had elections over 90% of the people vote.

3. In most democracies who is elected is not determined by who votes but who does not vote.

4. Suffrage, the simple right of a citizen to vote, has never been universal. It began under the Constitution limited to propertied males and is still evolving. But that right has never come with real power. Power, in the United States, includes wealth and ideology.

5. Nominations are more important than the elections. Far fewer people vote or take part in the nomination process than the members of the parties that vote in the general election. It is essentially undemocratic at its core. Supposed anti-establishment candidates like Sanders and Trump take full advantage of these flaws while criticizing their opponents for doing the same. For example, Sanders fully knowing that the lightly attended caucuses are undemocratic flooded them with short term enthusiasts in order to appear to the media, successfully by the way, more popular with the rank and file voters than he was at the time. His claims that super delegates are somehow undemocratic rings hollow when most of his success comes from packing with enthusiasts an un-democratic process.

Now let us look at the evolution of political parties and the nomination process in the United States.

1. Beginning in 1789 and for more than 40 years thereafter, candidates were named by the legislators. This method was called the legislative caucus. Up to the early 1840s, there was a steady extension of democracy by changes in State voting laws, culminating in the Rhode Island reforms of 1842, resulting from Dorr’s rebellion, extending the suffrage to the ordinary man. By 1843, voting democracy for male citizens was established more or less in all the States.

2. The era of the spoils system, and it lasted for a little over 40 years, from just before 1840 to just after 1880. The spoils system arose, from the fact that in a system of mass democracy, where most men at least have the right to vote, there must be some way of nominating candidates for office. The method chosen was the nominating convention. This raised the problem of how to finance sending the delegates to the convention.

The solution that developed around 1840 provided for the party machine of the winning party in an election to reward the party faithful by appointing them to governmental office. To the victor belong the spoils. These appointees then kick back money to the party kitty, say, a quarter or 10 percent of their salary every year; and these kick-backs provide the funds for the nomination convention and the process of political campaigning. In that new system, government officials themselves went as paid delegates to the nominating conventions, and the nominations and getting out the vote in elections were controlled by the party machines. All of these were local in cities or on a State basis. It was a feudalistic power structure.

One of the interesting features of the whole system was the role that politics played in people’s lives. In this period, from 1840 to 1880, politics and religion, frequently revivalist religion, were the chief entertainment outlets of the American people. They did not have organized sports or other kinds of entertainment except an occasional traveling company of actors, and, more often, revivalist preachers. So people identified with a political party.

Here’s how the system worked. Professionals, not amateurs, ran the elections. Issues were of little importance. Charisma was not important; in fact, it was a drawback. The parties put up the most colorless dark horse they could find—the less people knew about him the better—and then counted on enthusiasm for the party to get out the votes.

Elections in that period were pretty close, although after 1865, on the whole, the Republicans did better than the Democrats because the South had become a minority area and the Democrats a minority party. But, on the whole, few people were interested in issues or in candidates, and it was very difficult for a winning candidate to be reelected because once people got to know him they quickly discovered how dull a person he was. That’s why he got nominated in the first place. The nominee was by definition the candidate that the local State party machines had nothing against. The local machines had an effective veto, and by the time they finished vetoing everybody who had any importance or was known, the only one left might be a man like James A. Garfield, a completely dark horse. The only alternative was a Civil War general, who did, of course, exercise some attraction. The elections were extremely close, and up to 80 percent of the electorate voted. We have the exact figures for most of this period. The average was 78.5 percent. We have never gone that high since 1896.

This spoils system was, in a sense, a shakedown operation, particularly against business. And as business and finance became stronger, they became increasingly restive under this exploitation by party machines. Take the New York Customs House, which had 1,100 officials who were the very core of the New York election machine, which in turn was the core of the system for the whole country. Those 1,100 officials kicked back a good part of their salaries to the New York State party machine. So they, in turn, charged businessmen outrageous tariffs, as much as the traffic would bear. The laws were ignored. The customs officials would tie up a shipment of steel and keep it tied up until the tariff they demanded was paid.

Businessmen changed the system in 1880-1883. William C. Whitney (who later started the modern American Navy as Secretary of the Navy in the Cleveland administration), devised a scheme to cut the very roots out from under the party machines. He established the Civil Service in the Pendleton Act of 1883. This had the effect of cutting off most of the funds on which the party machines depended. So the parties now had to look to big business to finance them.

3.This led to the third historical stage, the era of big-business domination, from 1884 to 1932. It was radically different from the one preceding. Voting dropped off drastically. In the 1870s political activity had cut across all groups and classes — rich and poor, white and black, Catholic and Protestant. African-Americans were more active in politics in the 1870s and 1880s than they have been at any time in the 20th century until very recently. Politics was everybody’s game. But once big business got control, voting fell off and hovered around 52 percent, instead of the 78 percent it had been before. The professionals were pushed out and amateurs took over — people who came in for one campaign or two, generally financed by business — men like William McKinley, who was elected President in 1896.

Then, big business discovered it could control the Republican National Convention, because of all those delegates from the Solid South who did not represent voters and who therefore could easily be bought. From 1896 on, as a result, the Republicans dominated the national scene through amateur control of politics and increasingly restricting political activity among middle-class whites to the WASPs. It was in the 1890s that we got the Jim Crow laws and other restrictions which in one way or another ensured that certain minority groups really couldn’t expect to make it.

Eventually, big business undermined its own dominance by being too greedy — there’s no other word for it — in the 1920s. They alienated not only the workers and the farmers and the petit-bourgeois white-collar workers but also much of the middle classes, including most of the merchants and light industry. All that was left, still in control at the top, was high finance (sometimes called Wall Street) and heavy industry — steel, coal, the automobile industry, and so on. By running politics solely for their own benefit they alienated everybody else.

So in 1932, everybody else lined up behind a Democrat. In the once solid mid-West, which for decades had voted Republican year in and year out — except rarely for a third party as in 1892 and in 1924 — many people now decided that the Civil War had been over for a long time and it was time to vote Democratic.

4. Out of this situation came the New Deal, the fourth stage. The New Deal was a system of organized blocs. Formerly organized finance and organized heavy industry had run everything else. Now the New Deal set about organizing all the other interests, especially mass labor in the CIO, the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC), and the United Mine Workers, which had been the only really strong labor union before 1930. They organized mass labor; they organized the farmers, they organized others: Most of their money came from merchants. The largest contributor to Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932 was the Strauss family of R. H. Macy. Second largest was Vincent Astor, whose real-estate holdings in New York City had been injured by the depression. Third was Bernard Baruch, who was a professional contributor to the Democratic Party.

These were the groups that the New Deal organized. What they wanted to set up was a system of countervailing blocs: finance, heavy industry, light industry, professional groups, labor, farmers, and so forth. They figured that if any party or political group got control of the Government and acted too selfishly, the others would form a coalition and restore the balance.

5. Well, the New Deal ran its course, and since about 1950 or so we have had plutocratic control. Three things are necessary to win elections: money, enthusiasm, organization. The role of money has increased to the point where it’s more and more difficult to offset the lack of it with good organization and enthusiasm. Organization must be super-efficient and enthusiasm has to be sustained and widespread. The costs of elections, what with TV air time, air transportation, and all the rest of it, have climbed sky-high.  The Democrats just don’t have it. Do they have organization and enthusiasm? It’s hard to tell. I’m afraid the enthusiasm has dwindled to some extent.

It also signaled the rise of professional political consultants and lobbyists. It used to be the elections and nomination process was run by party loyalists paid by the party they now are serviced by the lobbyists and reams of professional consultants with little ideological commitment to the party. That later role is now taken up by various media organizations, news media like Fox news and MSNBC or social media blogs and the like.

Anyway, we now have a plutocratic system, and many politicians see it simply as a matter of buying elections. Here’s why. As our economy is now structured, the big corporations — aerospace, oil, and so on — are able to pour out millions to support the candidates they favor. The restrictions on the books are easily evaded, and the politicians in power won’t do much about it because they want some, too. The Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions by the Supreme Court merely confirmed a process that already existed. What it did do is take away the power of government to alter the process.

6. We perhaps are witnessing a new phase in the evolution of parties and elections in the nation. The traditional structure of  both parties and the nomination systems that supported them appear to be in a state of collapse or at least major change. It is as though we are returning to the mirror image of the process that existed at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Now instead of nominating an unknown party hack the parties through the nomination process seem to be moving toward selecting celebrity outsiders. The nomination process now exists for the benefit of the ideologically based media operations. To them, it does not appear to matter who wins the nominations as long as it enhances their ratings.

As I pointed out above, the nomination process is more important than the election. We as a nation are faced with a political party of the right well organized and capable no matter who is their standard bearer or whether he wins or loses. On the left, any ideology more radical than acceptable to the more centrist elected officials on the Federal, State, and local levels lacks an organization to develop candidates on all levels and get them elected.

  • Note, a substantial portion of the above comes from Carroll Quigley’s lecture The Mythology of American Democracy given to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces on August 17, 1972.Some parts are taken directly from that lecture but updated and edited. My apology to the good professor for not placing those portions in quotes.
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