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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America


Part  A


It is a revealing experience to read Ostrogorski's large volume on American political parties in the latter part of the nineteenth century. At every turn of the way, at the conclusion of each treatment of a new or changed political device to render democracy safe, Ostrogorski claims that failure resulted, for the "boss" had only to change his tactical headquarters. The "machines" and the "interests" -- These were the recurrent themes of the post-bellum world. For their private advantage, they outdid the efforts of the populist movements to overcome them. Millions of embittered people contributed vast quantities of work toward activating the existing direct democratic machinery of government and extending it to cover more aspect of politics. All this human expenditure, openly conducted, in excess of any peaceful political effort in all history, produce reforms whose total impact, as the Beards have written, was inconsiderable.[2] Not a single great problem posed by the insurgent groupings which threw the nation into turmoil in the late nineteenth century can be said today to have been solved, unless the problem be described in watered-down terms which hardly fit the mood of a people who sent into Washington Congress after Congress of men pledged to their support.[3]

The large part of the direct democrats we are describing here did not believe, throughout the whole series of imbroglios, that their ideas of representation might be partially responsible for their lack of success. They felt that the sources of their problem, when it was governmental, lay with malevolent individuals who were obstructing the popular will. The solution required that more and more institutions be thrown open to immediate popular intervention. Let the will of the majority work on every problem, they cried.

Their preconception forced them to look always down the straight road of direct representation. Any problem would have a formula applied to its solution. First, demand a demagogic candidate. If an officer misbehaves, his term should be shortened; if appointive, he should be made elective; he should be recalled, or his legislation should be referred to, if not initiated by the people. It was every one's duty to vote, even if no issues existed and he did not know who was running for office or what the party issues were. If the parties' oligarchies have caused trouble, make the oligarchies elective -- and so on. For every problem there was a solution readily provided for from the bag of populist tricks. Ostrogorski's "formalism" was all-pervading. The prescription for every democratic social ailment was more "democracy" of the formal, structural, traditional kind.

The convention, originally brought about by the democracy of the early nineteenth century as a mode of controlling nominations to office through a representative assembly composed of controlled delegates of the people, fell into popular disfavor. The limit of popular intervention in politics had still not been reached, however. If the conventions were observed to fill-in to hands of the same old caucus, removed one step further into the background, another form of direct election could again allow the people to assume control. Direct primaries, beginning in California in 1866, were put forward as the solution. The goal was the abolition of all conventions except for the purpose of platforms. Nominations for primaries were opened to petition signed by the prescribed number of voters. The nomination would then be entered on the ballot, regardless of opposition from the machine or powerful interests.

By 1890 half the states had some sort of direct-primary legislation on their status books, mainly optional in nature, however, and subject to so many evasion and abuse that even sincere friends of the direct primary movement doubted their good effect. The movement gathered strength and within another generation swept the whole nation. Statewide primaries became mandatory, and the regulated convention system was abandoned except for the nomination of the president. A movement originated to demand primaries for the nomination of the president as well, and had varying success in a few states.

Generally, the tendency was to make the original nomination another election, closely resembling the general election which followed. The most obvious difference between the two elections is that in the primary some manner of test had to be applied to the voter to determine whether he was of one party or the other, except in Montana and Wisconsin, where an "open" primary was conducted. The test usually took the form of a "challenge" to a voter or a requirement that he be registered on the party lists from a previous election.

In the southern states, always Democratic, the direct primaries are the principal election, for the final election is always won by the Democratic party. The southern answer to the direct primary demand, therefore, became a demand for a run-off election between the two highest candidates, forcing one of them to obtain a majority in the second election. Three election are often held, but the problem of popular control of the machine in the south has always been as grave as it was elsewhere. One can visualize a whole series of primary elections, conducted in the pattern of traditional majority elections. which never reach the pot of electoral pure democracy at the end of the rainbow.[4] It is interesting that the most thorough study of the direct primary, that written by Charles E. Merriam and Louise Overacker, is noncommittal on the positive answer of the direct primary to the problem of representation.[[5] Its recommendations are for the most part either "efficiency" suggestions designed to make the operation of direct primaries consistent with the intention of the demand for the primaries, or "anti-direct democracy" suggestions, for the short ballot and trained civil servants.

The movements to grant the vote to women grew throughout the nineteenth century. There is reason to associate it with the individualistic, atomistic conception of society so powerful during the period.[6] The drive received force and leadership to a considerable extent from the women who no longer regarded themselves as a part of household economy and who desired the same social mobility as male individuals. The arguments used on behalf of granting the suffrage to women were substantially the same as those used originally to gain universal manhood suffrage. The divine right of the individual was expounded; the slogan of "no taxation without representation" was revived;[7] and the educational nature of the vote to women pointed out.[8] Mary Putman Jacobi advanced the opinion that inasmuch as women were in many cases possessed of interests different from those of men, the interests of women should be represented.[9] Senator Bailey, testifying against a universal franchise, declared himself an advocate of the independence of representatives, and he saw in the female suffrage movement an aspect of the radical threat to turn the representative into a delegate.[10]

A Progressive historian, B.P. DeWitt, wrote that the assertion was all too common that "women already are represented in politics through their husbands and fathers and brothers."[11] It is wrong, he claimed, to say that women's political influence should be exerted by indirection. Political responsibilities must be faced and discharged directly by every man and woman.

The direct-democratic impetus behind the movement for the election of judges accords with what direct democrats were advocating from the beginning. Here again, as in the case of those parts of the franchise yet limited, as with the pushing of the election principle farther and farther into the recesses of the party, the period after the Civil War brought strident popular demands for "more democracy" and "responsibility to the people's will." Since the courts were in many situations the bulwark of the propertied interests against the actions of the legislatures, it was proposed that elections be substituted for appointments in order to make the courts a better reflection of the popular mind. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that "the judge, who was not elected by the people, who is not responsible to the people, and who is often wholly ignorant of the vital needs of the great majority of the people, is the final and irresponsible law-giver, the ultimate authority over the people." He then declared : "The Progressive proposal is to restore the sovereign power to the people, where it rightfully belongs."

The defeat of the Supreme Court Reorganization Bill sponsored by Franklin D. Roosevelt was interesting in that, while proposed during the ascendant wave of populism, it appears to have suffered defeat by a combination of professional and public pressure.[12] In view of the President's serious efforts on behalf of the bill and the popular strength he demonstrated before and after the bill, one might raise the question whether popular attention had now reached the point where it was primarily uninterested in the older direct democratic formula for curing political ailments.

The manner in which the United States Senate was elected from the time of its beginning until the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913 was not exposed as contradictory to the idea of direct representation until the issue of states' rights had been settled by the Civil War. Since the Senators were elected by the state legislatures, and it was well known that the principal motive behind the mode of elections was the appeasement of the sovereign claims of the states, the idea of direct representation had faced a formidable obstacle which one might call "qualitative." That is to say, it could not be easily approached by the logic of an idea of representation, but rather depended to a large extent on a logic of sovereignty.

The new nationalism which followed the Civil War submerged the old considerations and allowed the idea of representation to stand out sharply. There were those, in the vigorous debate over the proposal to allow the popular election of Senators, who brought up the original intent of the Constitution to support states' rights in the Senate, but their arguments carried little force even where the historical truth was acknowledged. The prestige of the Senate had suffered from constant accusations that it was founded on wealth -- the wealth of the new industrial and commercial leaders who were buying their way into the state legislatures and from there into the Senate. Therefore, the demands for the popular initiative and referendum, the popular election of judges, and the direct primary associated themselves with the demand for a directly elected Senate.

Strong opposition to the proposal arose naturally in the Senate itself and year after year the proposal was denounced in debate as a radical violation of the spirit of the Constitution. Senator Hoar of Massachusetts, a foremost antagonist of the change, declared in 1893 that the very idea was a hostile gesture toward the state legislatures who were ordinary depended upon for the large bulk of government. Was everything going to be reduced to the direct suffrage of the people, he wondered. "It is a poor, cheap flattery of the people, this notion that suffrage is to be deified and that the results of suffrage are to be degraded; that the people have all wisdom and all honesty, but that their trusted agents are to be bought or cajoled.[13]" He questioned the right of the House of Representatives to its universal claim as the direct representative of the people, pointing out that the procedure of the House, by subjecting that body to a rule of a small minority of members, makes of that merit largely a myth

Election, then, to Senator Hoar would be only one of the many factors regulating the representative qualities of the legislature, whereas the advocates of the direct election amendment would assert that, at the very least, the mode of election over-shadowed all other qualities in importance.[14] A resolution of Senator Turpie in 1890 presented this latter thesis: " That likeness is the basis of agreement and of unity; that political analogy justly followed should conform the method of choosing senators, as to the elements of electors, to that so long prevailing in the States of the Union; that the present methods of choosing United States Senators tends to mar and mutilate the system of popular and representative governments."[15]

Later on, in a speech concerning his resolution, Turpie declared that "under the provisions of this amendment there would be an actual approach - a contact; not a partial sympathy nor an oblique connection or relationship between the servant and those served. The nearer a governmental agency is to the real source of power, the greater will be its value probity and efficiency."[16]

The variety of expression and the flourishes of rhetoric in the debates are many, but, as in the debates over the elective judiciary, women's suffrage and other devices, the underlying conception of politics possessed by those who sought the reform is that representative government is only a remedy for the inconvenience of mass democracy. The whole people, operating by the majority principle, ought, so far as is consistent with the established remedies for the inconvenience, to make and repeal laws and order public officials about freely.

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