Party Schisms and Future Problems
Our two great political parties are at present in a peculiar condition. The quarrels of factions within them are much fiercer than the contests between them. This observation applies to both of them alike. The State of New York furnishes in this respect a striking example. The Republicans are divided into “Stalwarts” and “Half-breeds,” and their hostility to one another is far more virulent than the hostility of either toward the “common enemy,” the Democrats. Nor does it confine itself to mere words. In many local elections neither of these factions hesitated to “knife” the other, thus throwing the victory into the hands of the Democrats. In the Democratic camp, the quarrel between Tammany and anti-Tammany is carried on in the same spirit, with all the bitterness of a family war. Rather than yield to the other faction an advantage, each appears willing to risk the defeat of the party. Coalitions between divisions of the Republicans and of the Democrats for such purposes are of common occurrence. Of course, there are many men in the Republican as well as in the Democratic ranks who still have the interests of their parties at large sufficiently at heart to sacrifice personal feeling. But the factionists are frequently strong enough to turn the scale in a given contest. In Pennsylvania we observe similar things. That section of the Republican party which, for the sake of convenience, may be designated as the Grant-Republicans, under the leadership of Mr. Cameron, is bound to maintain its ascendancy at any risk. Its opponents, or at least many thousands of them, will run the chance of a Democratic victory for the purpose of defeating it. In several of the Southern States, the Democratic party is distracted by an equally bitter struggle between the “Bourbons” and the “Independents.” The latter have, in several instances, shown themselves willing to coalesce with the Republicans in order to defeat the former. In Virginia such a coalition has already been successful, and in other Southern States similar things are among the probabilities. We will not go here into an elaborate discussion of the various Republican and Democratic factions as to their relative merits. In some places they divide upon public questions, with real or pretended sincerity. In others, the quarrels are of a more personal nature. We desire only to point out the fact that these divisions and faction-fights are going on, and seem to spread and grow in extent and bitterness. There are but few, if any, States entirely free from them.
Family quarrels within political parties have happened before, but they would now scarcely be carried to the length of systematically endangering party success were the parties themselves still, as such, engaged in contests about well-defined public questions and objects appealing with sufficient power to the minds of their members to keep alive the ordinary feeling of party allegiance and loyalty. But this is evidently not the case. The spirit of faction owes its growth, in great part, to the gradual disappearance of the issues which originally divided the parties, or which subsequently sprung up and became important enough to keep the lines of division distinct. The questions immediately connected with the civil war are virtually disposed of. Nobody believes that the Union is still in danger. The few persons in the South who still dream or speak of a revival of the “lost cause” are either mere pretenders in childish quest of notoriety, or they are so far behind the progress of public sentiment that they have become objects of curiosity. Slavery is dead, and no sane person thinks of the possibility of its resurrection. The attempts to deprive the colored people of their political rights, which appeared formidable, and were really troublesome for some time after the civil war, have given way to constantly growing efforts of political parties and their divisions to conciliate and win over the colored vote. The acts of brutality by which some time ago, in several Southern States, the negro voters were terrorized, were first superseded by the adoption of those more inoffensive tricks of falsifying the ballot-box not unknown in some Northern communities; and there is now a strong sentiment springing up in the South bent upon putting an end to these practices also. The disturbances of the public peace in the South which, for several years, had a disquieting effect upon the Northern mind, are fast yielding to an eager desire for good order and for the friendly coöperation of Northern capital and enterprise in developing Southern prosperity. The “solid South,” as a dangerous political power, is rapidly losing, or has already lost, its terrors in consequence of the evident tendency of political forces in that section to divide, and thus to be solid no more. In one word, while the South may not in all respects be what it ought to be, or what the people of the North desire it to be, its condition has so greatly improved, and its development is so clearly in the right direction, that it can no longer inspire any serious apprehension. The Southern question is, therefore, practically eliminated from our party contests. This became very evident to every candid observer already in the presidential election of 1880, when the attempt of a Republican leader to make the “solid South” the key-note of the campaign resulted in a most significant failure. In fact, that attempt produced so dismal an effect upon the public mind that, had the election taken place immediately afterward, the majority would, in all probability, have gone against the Republicans. It was abandoned in subsequent discussions for other lines of argument. There is no more political capital in it, and it is not likely to be revived. Thus, the most exciting issue between the two parties is gone.
The old historic question of a centralizing tendency on one and a decentralizing tendency on the other side, or of a strong central power and of local self-government, which the Democratic party, as the advocate of decentralization, was in the habit of advancing as the vital issue of American politics, has also changed so much in some of its most important aspects, that the Democratic party itself would hesitate now to put it forward in the old form. The relation of the central government to the States and the people has been seriously modified during the last fifty years, not only in consequence of the civil war and the constitutional amendments, or of a change in constitutional doctrine, but through the introduction of new means of communication which have annihilated the distances formerly separating the different parts of the country and their people, and through the creation of a community of enterprise and interest between them which formerly did not exist. The inhabitant of Missouri or even of California, when stepping on board of a railroad train, feels himself nearer to the central government than the inhabitant of central Virginia or of New Jersey did fifty years ago. And the farmer in Nebraska and the stock-raiser in Montana have now as lively an interest in the regulation of railway freight-rates through Ohio and New York as in the first quarter of this century the farmer in Pennsylvania had in the condition of the wagon-road from his farm to the nearest market town. The intercourse of the people of the different States is infinitely more intimate, not only because the increased facilities of locomotion encourage travel, but because the interests of all classes of business pursuits are, in their various relations, constantly overleaping all geographical and political lines of division, and many of those interests feel themselves in closer contact with the national government than with any home authority. The American people have, therefore, become more the people of one great country and less the people of a number of different States, and the central government has become to them, even in the remotest corner of the land, a thing of vastly greater interest and importance than ever before.
This is not the artificial result of a different kind of constitutional teaching, but the natural and inevitable outgrowth of a very essential change of circumstances. And under this change of circumstances we find Democrats in Congress who, perhaps, would still speak with traditional reverence of the resolutions of 1798, and would resent any slighting remark about the old theory of States-rights as something akin to high treason, propose unhesitatingly the regulation of freight-rates through the different States by Federal statute. Moreover, the people of the South – Democrats in political profession – have, in consequence of the losses suffered by them in the civil war, undergone a very serious change of notions as to the power of the Federal Government with regard to internal improvements and the like. They are not only willing, but eager, to yield many of their old political doctrines for their local advantage. The Democratic party is, therefore, whatever it may pretend to be in theory, yet practically no longer what it formerly was with regard to a strict construction of the constitutional powers of the general Government. On the other hand, the small New England States – Republican in politics – would be just as strenuous with regard to their rights of local self-government, as well as respecting their rights as States in the Union, as any Democratic State in the South ever was. It is their evident interest to be so, for if the equality of the States, as political factors in the Government, were ever called into question, the smallest States would be the most likely to suffer. Thus, while the Democrats of the South may still pretend to be most uncompromising as to the doctrine of States-rights and as opponents of centralization in point of theory and profession, most of them are ready to permit an enlargement of the powers of the Federal Government as it may appear necessary to benefit them locally. And, while the Northern Republicans are insisting upon the national character of the Federal Government, and its competency to deal with questions arising from the results of the war, they would sternly oppose any interference with the rights of local self-government and of their status in the Union, as they have traditionally exercised and enjoyed them. But all feel, without having arrived at any clear constitutional definition, that the scope of the powers of the general Government is expanding to adapt itself to that change in the condition of the people which has taken place in the last fifty years, and which could not possibly remain without effect upon the character and working of our institutions. The problems springing from that change are gradually developing themselves. The question what new duties they will impose upon the Federal power has not yet become sufficiently clear to present itself as a distinct issue between political parties, although it is likely to do so some day. Whether the parties, divided by that new issue, will be the Republican and Democratic parties as they exist to-day is very questionable. Certainly, however loudly old distinctions of that kind may, in the traditional way, be re-asserted by politicians in quest of a party cry, they are practically no living and distinct issues between the parties at present.
Neither can the tariff question be looked upon as a strict party issue. It is well remembered that the Democrats, at the opening of the last presidential campaign, made a demonstration in favor of revenue reform in the direction of free trade. But when they saw that an appeal made on the Republican side in behalf of protection produced a strong effect, they ran away from their own platform. And since that time several of their prominent men have abandoned it altogether, while but few have shown spirit enough to defend it with consistency. It cannot be denied that a large majority of the Republicans are in favor of protection and uphold it as a part of their party creed. But it is also true that there are many friends of a policy tending toward free trade in the Republican ranks, who remained there partly because they considered other questions as of greater immediate importance, or because they saw reason to think that nothing would be gained for it by strengthening the Democratic organization. Thus, the two parties are in this respect more or less divided in themselves. The truth is that, under existing circumstances, the tariff question, however great its importance, does not appeal with sufficient force to the popular mind to take the first place. The resources of the country are so abundant, their development so rapid, and the increase of the national wealth so great under all sorts of customs policy, that the masses of the people have not taken sufficient interest in the latter to subordinate all other questions to it. The interest in the tariff question is, indeed, slowly growing, but it has certainly not yet attained a high degree of temperature. While the protectionists have well-organized and powerful interests at their back, their opponents have nothing but a scattered sentiment to support them, as yet too little concentrated and organized to produce any decisive effect even by the strongest argument. The discussion of the tariff question will, therefore, probably not lead to very important results, as long as the “good times” last. All this may change, and is indeed likely to change, as soon as the next business crisis breaks upon us. The tariff issue did not become prominent during the last period of depression, because then the financial problem seemed to have the closest relation to our economic condition. But when the next comes, the tariff will probably be the only great economic question before the country. Revenue reform will then be apt to present itself to the people in a new light, and to become an exciting topic. But, hazardous as the suggestion may seem, it is very questionable whether its most efficient advocacy will then come from the Democratic or the Republican side, if party groupings remain until then as they are now.
The financial question, involving that of specie payments and of the national debt, has of late years very prominently occupied the popular mind. With regard to it, neither party was entirely harmonious. The Republicans, on the whole, had the great advantage of a clearer perception of the necessity of restoring specie payments, and also of a higher appreciation of our public obligations. At any rate, after the first dissensions were overcome, their attitude became more unequivocal and their action more united. The Democratic party not only committed the fatal blunder of permitting the wild vagaries of the inflation movement to invade its ranks to a considerable extent, but the circum- stance that it consisted in large part of those who had been on the disunion side in the civil war subjected it to suspicion as to its good faith with regard to the national debt. The Republicans were thus in a situation to force an issue, which the Democrats, although many of them heartily favored the restoration of specie payments and an honest maintenance of our national faith, were not able to meet. In that issue the confidence of the conservative interests of the country was strongly on the Republican side. But specie payments are restored, and the successful funding operations of the Government, as well as the rapid discharge of the public debt, have stripped whatever there was of a repudiation movement of its force. All that remains of the financial problem is the silver question and that concerning the national banks. As to the former, the two parties are so much divided in themselves that there is no clear issue between them. But it may fairly be said that the two parties represent opposite policies more with regard to the national bank question than anything else, and, in fact, strange as it may seem, the struggles of the past have left this as the most, if not the only, clearly defined line of division between them, although there are many individual Democrats opposed to the abolition of the national banking system. In saying this, we do not mean to assert that there is no other difference of feeling, or sentiment, or political desire, or sympathy more or less vaguely distinguishing them, but that there are scarcely any other distinctly tangible, specific subjects of contention which, by immediate action, one party strives to accomplish and the other to defeat.
That this one question, together with the usual criticism of the conduct of those in power, and of the history of parties and their leading men, may furnish ample ammunition for the discussions of a campaign and for appeals to the popular judgment, we will not deny. But from the condition of the two parties it is evident that the disappearance of the other great issues has very much weakened the moral element necessary for the bridling of the spirit of faction and the maintenance of that discipline which enforces the subordination of secondary to principal objects. And thus it has become possible that, as set forth at the beginning of this article, the fights of factions within the parties could grow fiercer and more absorbing than the contests between them. We certainly do not mean to assert that the number of men who adhere to their respective parties with warmth of feeling and loyalty is not still very large. This is undoubtedly so, but the factionists are becoming constantly more inclined to coalesce with similar elements on the other side, and the number of men who, without taking much personal interest in any of the warring factions, feel their party allegiance sit lightly upon their shoulders, and who would enter into new combinations, is also growing larger from day to day. And that number is increased by those who are disgusted by the selfishness and demagoguery displayed in the unseemly quarrels within the organizations to which they have been attached. In other words, there seems to be enough of dissatisfaction with the old parties in their own ranks to render their disintegration and the springing up of new formations possible, as soon as a question arises upon which neither of the two old parties is united, and which strongly engages the interest of the popular mind. It would seem to require only some vigorous shock, or the infusion of some new substance, to bring on a new crystallization of those political elements which are at present in a state of chemical solution.
And yet, while we see this among the possibilities, we are far from predicting that it will happen at an early day. It may come suddenly, and it may not come for a considerable period. A new issue of sufficient importance to bring it about cannot be artificially made. It must grow out of a combination of circumstances, the germs of which, although at this moment not yet clearly discernible, may already be developing themselves in the present condition of things, but the growth of which may be slow. At any rate, whether those germs come to light to-morrow or only in one or more years, they will find the popular mind prepared by the condition of the present political organizations to receive them. The period which saw the birth of the Republican party was in some respects similar to the present. The old parties then existing were in a state of progressive disintegration. Both of them had accepted certain compromises with regard to the slavery question, and there were no clearly defined issues of immediate importance and calling for specific action between them. Both were more or less distracted by factious strife. The Whigs had lost their hold upon the popular mind by their vacillating indecision. Among the Democrats, the lordly assumptions of the Southern wing were causing grave dissensions. The Free-soilers, standing partly aloof, partly still within the old organizations, undermined them both by their appeals to the Northern conscience. Still, before the Nebraska bill was sprung upon the country by a leader of impatient ambition, it looked as if the compromises would endure and the Democrats might count upon a long possession of power. Then the situation changed all of a sudden. A new party, the Republican, came into being, as it were, in a day. The pro-slavery Whigs went to the Democrats, the anti-slavery Whigs became Republicans. Those who were neither one nor the other lingered on as the mere shadow of a party until the civil war broke out. A large accession from the Democratic ranks made the Republicans so strong that in their first presidential campaign they were almost successful, and in their second they achieved a decisive victory.
But in one respect, and that a very important one, the situation then was different from the present. In point of fact, a great conflict had long been going on between slavery and free labor, which became every day more clearly discernible, and of which the people became every day more conscious, although it had not been personified by the two old political parties. It involved not only material interests, but appealed strongly to the moral nature of men. The issues which that conflict was to bring forth had been already defined and expressed by the Abolitionists in a general way, and by the Free-soilers with direct reference to practical questions and political measures. The Free-soilers had made attempts at party organization, without great success, before the repeal of the Missouri compromise. But when, in consequence of that stroke of legislation, the Republican party sprang into being, it adopted substantially the platform of the Free-soilers, and became on a great scale the party which the Free-soilers had designed. The latter had, therefore, distinctly beforehand marked the issue and blazed the track for the new organization.
There is no such tangible nucleus as a rallying-point for a future movement at present. The Greenback party, if it may be called a party at all, owes its existence to some crude financial schemes which, in a period of business stagnation, were brought forward, partly by well-meaning but immature theorists, partly by demagogues, as an unfailing remedy for hard times. Their fallaciousness has been exposed, not only by argument, but by the evidence of events, and although the Greenback organization still lingers on in a shadowy way, it is manifestly without vitality. The “anti-monopoly” movement is of greater importance. It has seized upon a great problem, which in the future may be destined to occupy popular attention more than it does at present. It might suddenly assume formidable proportions, and become an overshadowing issue in our politics, if the great corporations which control the transporting business should venture upon oppressive measures of extortion. This, however, they are not likely to do. Aside from the general decrease of freight-rates in consequence of the more systematic and economical working of railroad lines, some of the corporations have of late shown rather a tendency to fight one another by warlike competition among themselves, thus incidentally benefiting the public. These wars have also served to accustom the public to lower rates, which the railroad companies would find it difficult to raise again to the old point, and after the composition of their quarrels they will probably be shrewd enough not to provoke the hostility of the people by a policy of reckless selfishness. Moreover, they have, by enforced ingenuity and economy, themselves learned how much cheaper the transportation business can be done. The anti-monopoly movement is thus deprived of the excitement which very stubborn resistance or provoking rapacity on the part of the corporations would give it. It does not always see the danger of weakening itself by exaggerated denunciations and appeals, while, as to the remedies it proposes for the evils which really exist, it is tentatively groping among measures some of which are of uncertain practicability and effectiveness. The experiments already made in some States, upon the impulse given by the granger movement, in the way of legislation, have produced the general impression that the question is by no means so simple as it appeared at first sight; that it cannot be solved by sweeping legislative strokes, and that more experience and a thorough knowledge of details is required for its intelligent treatment. Efforts in that direction are being made by members of both of the old parties. A new grouping of great parties upon that issue is, therefore, not among the immediate probabilities – unless, as above suggested, the improbable emergency arises of the great corporations making themselves wantonly and provokingly obnoxious.
Neither do the independent movements we observe in several States distinctly foreshadow new party formations on the field of national politics. They are protests against “machine” rule, as in Pennsylvania, or against a narrow-minded and vicious use of party power by factions, as in some of the Southern States, and may result in taking the controlling influence within the old parties from one set of persons to give it to another, or even in permanent defections and eventual transfers of considerable bodies of voters from one of the old parties to the other. In the Southern States, for instance, the Independent Democrats may, in the course of time, find themselves obliged to “fuse” with the Republicans; or a number of citizens may, without any permanent organization, assume an independent attitude with the intention of casting their votes for the candidates of one or the other of the old parties, as the interests of good government may in their opinion suggest, as is the case, to a greater or less extent, in all parts of the country. But, so far as at present can be seen, these movements have not introduced into our national politics new questions calculated to result in a general re-arrangement.
In this respect, then, the situation is practically different from that which gave birth to the new Republican party in 1854. It might, perhaps, be likened to that transition period, in the early part of this century, when the old Republican and the old Federalist parties, passing through an “era of good feeling,” drifted into those new groupings which, as the Democratic and the Whig parties, have become historic. But here the parallel is again imperfect in some important points. While, at the beginning of this century, one of the two parties became disintegrated by defeat to the extent of rapidly losing its organization, this is not yet the case with either of those now existing. The two cases are more similar in the gradual disappearance of the lines of demarkation as to immediate objects of political action, and in the substitution of faction politics for a real party spirit. Each of the two parties at present existing has, in spite of the tendency of disintegration, unquestionably still a strong remnant of that kind of vitality which is inherent in the influence of tradition, the power of organization, and the desire of the ins to remain in, and of the outs to get in. The transition – unless, as above remarked, an important event suddenly produces new crystallizations – may, therefore, possibly be a very gradual and slow one.
Under such circumstances, those who have the cause of good government at heart should carefully consider the question how such a period can be turned to account, and how either one or both of the two existing parties, which, although in a state of progressive disintegration, must be looked upon for the time being as active forces, may still as such do good service in accordance with the peculiar requirements of the times.
The Republican party has been enjoying some peculiar advantages formerly enjoyed by its opponent. When the old Federal party disappeared from the scene, it left the Democratic party for a long period in undisputed possession of the field. This was natural, for the Democratic party, with its ideas of popular government, undoubtedly represented then the political aspirations and attracted to itself the political energies of the American people. It felt itself like a sort of legitimate national dynasty, to which the government of the country of right belonged. The opposition which organized itself in the shape of the old Whig party, was looked upon by it as no better than a mere interloper, a pretender, who tried to wrest from the legitimate ruler the rightful possession of power. This character of the great national party it successfully maintained during the long period from the election of Jefferson down to the civil war, with short interruptions only, the Whigs succeeding in no more than two presidential elections, and each time holding power only for a single administration. The third defeat of the Democratic party, and the civil war following upon it, wrought in this respect a great change. The slave-power, which had gradually constituted itself the strongest, in fact the controlling, organized force in the Democratic party, rebelled against the constitutionally expressed will of the people and put itself outside of the Union. Although a large number of Northern Democrats went into the Union army, many of them without giving up their party affiliation, the Democratic party as a political organization made the fatal blunder of assuming a suspicious position in a struggle for national existence. Its attitude sometimes permitted serious doubt as to its patriotic impulses. The resolutions of its national convention in the fourth year of the war presented a suspicious assortment of dangerous propositions and false prophesies. Its confused and fitful attempts to discredit, hamper, and break down the Republican administration of Mr. Lincoln exposed it to the imputation of uncertain loyalty to the national cause. However much deserved or undeserved this imputation as a result of its course may have been, it forfeited the confidence of the people in a time of great struggles and decisions. It occupied a position somewhat similar to that occupied by the Federalists after the Hartford convention. It lost its character as the representative of the popular aspirations of the period. It was no longer the great national party, and the prestige of legitimacy passed over to the Republican side. The Democratic party was reduced to the level of a mere opposition, with the taint of suspicion upon its past career, and without clear objects as to the present and future.
The Republican party, therefore, after the civil war, felt itself as the legitimate dynasty in the same sense in which the Democrats had done so before. And for a similar reason. It had represented the national cause and wielded the national power in the greatest and most important struggle in the history of the Republic. It was the very embodiment of the ideas that had conquered. It stood for the new order of things. During the civil war it had the moral sense, the intelligence, and the patriotism of the North, the strongest section of the Union, on its side, in immense preponderance. After the war, it was supported by a popular belief that its continued ascendancy was indispensable to secure the results of the great and costly struggle. Of these results it appeared as the legitimate guardian, who should not be deprived of power as long as they seemed to be in danger. It appeared also as the legitimate champion and protector of the public faith with regard to the national debt and those financial measures which the war period had brought forth. This championship was considered essential to the public interest as long as the national faith appeared to be threatened by adverse tendencies. The Democratic party consisting largely of those who in the civil war had fought against the Union and who after the war were thought intent upon subverting its results, its accession to power was for a considerable time looked upon as the greatest of threatening dangers, to be averted at any cost, and this feeling gave the Republican party an overwhelming strength.
This advantage of position was immense; but it is a significant fact that, in spite of it, as the danger of a reaction against the results of the war was gradually receding, a strong opposition sprang up in its own ranks, as well as in the general opinion of the country, called forth by glaring misgovernment in the South under Republican auspices, and by the abuses in the administration of the public business which developed themselves in threatening proportions during President Grant's two administrations. The unsuccessful revolt in 1872 was followed by a series of defeats in the elections of 1874. One State after another was lost by the Republicans, and not only the House of Representatives passed into the hands of the Democrats, but they gained even possession of the Senate. These grave losses were partly retrieved under the administration of President Hayes, when the rule of constitutional principles was restored in the treatment of the South, and a correction of administrative abuses begun. But that partial recovery would, perhaps, have been more difficult had not the Democrats disquieted the country by an uncertain attitude with regard to the financial question. The fact is, that the situation had gradually undergone an important change. The Southern cloud lost its dark aspect more and more, and Republican ascendancy appeared less and less indispensable for the maintenance of the results of the war. The attention of the public mind was turned again upon the practical questions of governmental administration, and the current of sentiment which the civil conflict had left behind it could no longer control our politics. To secure a Republican victory, it was no longer sufficient “to make it hot under the old flag.” The people began to inquire earnestly into the conditions and requirements of an honest, wise, and efficient conduct of the public business, and into the measure in which those conditions and requirements were actually complied with. In this respect, the public mind presently reached a decidedly critical mood. There is no topic of general interest now exciting the feelings or absorbing the attention of the people to such a degree that grave abuses or mistakes in the administration of affairs would be overlooked as of secondary importance, or that men in official station would be readily acquitted of any wrong if they were only right on some “main question.” No mere party cry is potent enough to cover the short-comings of political leaders. The quarrels going on within the existing organizations have sharpened the spirit of minute inquiry and given an unusual stimulus to universal and thorough investigation. While the factions may be bent upon mere malicious fault-finding with one another without a higher aim, the real public opinion of the country has gradually become accustomed to the application of higher standards to the methods of administration, as well as to the men charged with power and responsibility. The general public is seeking, and rapidly acquiring, a knowledge of the details of the governmental machinery, and of its working, which it formerly did not possess. It is growing less and less accessible to mere catch-words and vague generalities. “Pointing with pride” and “viewing with alarm,” in party platforms, has lost its charm with all thinking men. The demand for knowledge and solid business ability, as well as integrity, in official station is constantly growing not only more exacting, but also more intelligent.
This tendency has had a serious effect upon the cohesion and discipline of the Republican party, which has the most intelligent and public-spirited constituency in that part of the country where the greatest mental activity prevails. It has always had a very large number of men in its ranks who insist upon doing their own thinking, and who have more the character of volunteers for the campaign than of regular soldiers bound to march under all circumstances to the drum-beat. They are less governed by drill and word of command than by their opinion of the public interest. They are apt to stay away from the polls, or even to give the opposition a more positive advantage, when their own party displeases them and they think it needs a lesson. The gradual disappearance of great definite issues from party contests, the drifting of the Republican organization into that kind of “machine politics” which consists in mere struggles for power and plunder, and the repulsive spectacle of the selfish quarrels of factions, have made them much more indifferent to mere party success than ever before. This class forms, of course, only a minority of the Republican forces, but a minority strong enough to turn the scale in elections.
The Republican party, therefore, having been immediately after the war of overwhelming strength, but now distracted by factions quarrels in its regular organization, and not able to count under all circumstances upon the support of an influential and numerically considerable independent element, is “upon its good behavior” in the strictest sense of the term. There are so many discordant forces and divergent tendencies in it that only the wisest management or particularly obnoxious conduct on the part of its opponents can keep its line unbroken. As to that wise management, the party leaders will commit a fatal mistake if they act upon the idea that a shrewd manipulation of the patronage can accomplish the object.
When a party is in such a condition, the patronage, if handled ever so carefully for political effect, will always be apt to prove an element of dissension, and not of conciliation. Of this the history of the last twelve years furnishes the most abundant proof. Appointments made to satisfy one faction will tend to exasperate the other. Paradoxical as it may seem: although almost all the professional politicians are strenuously opposed to civil service reform, yet the introduction in good faith of a system of appointments to office without any kind of political favoritism, for ascertained business fitness alone, upon the strictest reform principles, will – aside from its effects upon the efficiency and morality of the service itself – be the only effective measure of peace for the party. Every other policy will intensify the broil. But the Republican party must, above all things, recognize its true element of strength. This does not consist in mere organization, however useful that may be. Nor does it consist in the employment of those means by which the activity of professional politicians is usually stimulated, nor in appeals to the old war feelings, however powerful they once may have been. It consists in the assurance the party gives to the people that the cause of good government, the prosperity, the peace, the good name – in one word, the conservative interests – of the country, will be safer in its hands than in the hands of any other. When a party has been so long in power as the Republicans have, there is always a current of popular desire for a change. That desire grows stronger as years roll on. The Republicans must, therefore, impress the people with the belief that no sweeping change is necessary, or that those changes of more or less importance which may be desirable can be more safely intrusted to it than to the opposition. It cannot do that by mere political management in the ordinary sense, nor by mere promises. It must do it by actual performance in the way of good government. If it fails in this respect, even the keeping up of a strong organization will be of no avail. It will lose those votes which are necessary to make a majority – unless, we repeat, the opposition throws away its chances by a particularly obnoxious attitude.
There are some new ventures that may become elements of discord and weakness. One is the attitude of the Republicans on the Chinese question. Strict fidelity to the principle of equal human rights in the broadest sense has been the very foundation of the Republican policy in the treatment of the race question in this country. Whatever may be said about the desirability of Chinese immigration, it can scarcely be denied that by the strongest of the Republican supporters of the Anti-Chinese bill recently passed by Congress, as indeed by the bill itself, that fundamental principle was distinctly thrown overboard. Their arguments sounded too much like a recantation of the old creed to leave the moral strength of the Republican party unimpaired. Another attempt to win artificial strength may come still nearer home. The Democrats of late years weakened themselves very much in the North by coquetting with dangerous financial heresies. They are doing the same thing now by their warfare upon the national banking system, which is well apt to alarm the whole business community; for the subversion of a good banking system would be an extremely serious matter, even if another one equally good could be substituted; it is still more serious when there is no such substitution in view. But the Republicans are in danger of throwing away their advantage in this respect by something which many of them consider an especially shrewd stroke of policy, but which is calculated to injure them in a similar manner in the confidence of the business community, which they formerly enjoyed. It is the alliance with repudiating movements in the South. The breaking up of the “Bourbon Democracy” in Virginia, and the prospective fusion of the victorious Re-adjusters there with the Republican party, may be expected to give to the Republicans, in the next national election, an important Southern State, to be followed by others in the same way. But it may have the effect of making them appear less “safe” as to their fidelity to sound financial principles, and thus weaken their principal element of strength in the North. It was the victory of the coalition between Democrats and Greenbackers in Maine that defeated General Hancock in 1880. That victory, upon which the Democrats foolishly congratulated themselves, alarmed the conservative interests of the country, and from that moment the campaign took the decisive turn in favor of the Republicans. Similar victories on the side of the latter may have a similar effect to their disadvantage, weakening them in their strongest points. While it seems probable that these movements in the South may have the beneficial effect of obliterating the old lines of division, of wiping out the old war feelings, of dividing the white vote, and eventually the colored vote also, and thereby do away with the race issue, it must be said, also, that the repudiation feature can scarcely fail to impart to the alliance an injurious taint.
On the other hand, the Democratic party is certainly not in a condition more satisfactory to itself. Ever since its defeat in 1860 it has been groping about for “a policy” with a certain air of helplessness. While from time to time re-asserting its traditional principles in theory, it abandoned them in practice. It boasted once of being the hard-money party, and then compromised itself with the wildest paper-money theories. It was once the champion of free trade, and then, after having put the demand of a tariff for revenue only in its platform, ran away from it at the decisive moment. It was the champion of a strict construction of constitutional powers, and then – its Southern wing, at least – showed itself willing to accept from the Federal Government aid for all sorts of internal purposes and to exert the Federal power in the regulation of internal commerce. Owing to the dissatisfaction created by Republican administrations it achieved important successes, obtaining control of both houses of Congress; and then it did not know what to do with its power. When the Republicans had made a blunder, the Democratic party seemed to be in haste to make a greater one. It has frequently found itself obliged to accept as unavoidable certain points of the Republican policy, after having violently opposed them; and now an unusually strong movement has been started in the Democratic ranks in favor of protection, just at the moment when a reaction against the ultra-protective policy of the war period is beginning, when a revision of the tariff is generally demanded, and when shrewd Republican politicians are preparing to take advantage of this tendency, and to push it toward a thorough reform of the system. While most of the odium which attached to the Democratic party in consequence of its ancient pro-slavery policy and its attitude during the war has gradually faded away, it has, by its vacillating and aimless conduct with regard to the practical questions of the time, produced the impression of a lack of capacity as to the management of the affairs of the Government, and therefore failed to make great progress in the confidence of the country. It has patriotic and able men among its leaders, but they are not strong enough to guide it. Many men who are dissatisfied with the Republicans, while no longer believing that the accession of the Democratic party to power would result in the ruin of the country, would still hesitate to intrust it with that power, for fear that more might be lost than gained by the change. Adding to this the quarrels of factions distracting it, the growing laxity of that discipline which formerly was one of the principal elements of its fighting strength, and the increasing feeling of discouragement and distrust as to its future, which has been nourished by frequent and disastrous defeats after the most sanguine expectations of victory, and has inspired many of its members with a growing indifference concerning its fortunes, it must be admitted that the Democratic party is not in a condition of great strength, neither as an opposition party nor as an aspirant for power.
The continuous existence of the two parties is therefore no proof of any exuberance of vitality in them. They are held together in their present condition in a great measure by a certain vis inertiœ which is, and may for some time remain, sufficiently strong to resist the centrifugal tendency. Nor is the fact that the two parties are on their good behavior in itself a certain guarantee that they will behave well. The natural tendency of the machine interest in them is rather in the direction of the exploitation of political power for the selfish ends of persons or cliques. But something of value may be accomplished if strong and intelligent influences from without are exerted with judgment and energy to encourage and strengthen the best elements within the organizations. And for this the present condition of politics seems to present unusual opportunities. Neither of the two parties commands a majority of the popular vote. Both are minority parties of nearly equal organized strength. Both depend for success upon the aid of elements which belong to neither. And both are well aware of this. To turn such a situation to advantage for the public good will be, in a great measure, the task of the “independent voter,” who has of late made himself felt, and grown to the estate of a distinct political force. He has already been mentioned in connection with the Republican party. In using this term, we mean to designate those patriotic and public-spirited citizens to whom it is of greater interest that the affairs of the Government be well conducted than what set of men conducts them. This element has its greatest strength among those who do not make politics a business, but deem it their duty to take an active part in political movements whenever an important object is to be attained for the public good. They are not enlisted in any of the factions struggling for power and patronage, but are inclined to oppose them all in turn as the public interest may require it. They are without permanent organization, but occasionally find themselves together for a common effort, as the duties of the day may call them out. Their influence has so far been practically more of a negative than a positive character. While they have not been able to accomplish the nomination and election for high place of the men they would select, they have rendered effective aid in preventing the elevation to power of men they considered especially objectionable. They have further succeeded in urging upon the attention of the people, and thereby of politicians and parties, measures of reform they considered especially important. In the North they have been mostly inclined to associate with the Republican party, not from mere habit and tradition, but because they found in the ranks of that party those elements of intelligence and public spirit with which their endeavors are most likely to find congenial lodgment. But they are always willing to consider whether a defeat or a victory of that or any other party would best serve the public objects they have in view, and to act accordingly. They are, as “impracticable theorists,” very unpopular with the “practical politicians,” but usually much in demand when the day of voting comes. The reason is, that while they cannot control the organizations, they can occasionally decide an election, and as the power of party allegiance and discipline grows generally weaker, their influence upon public opinion grows stronger.
A striking proof of the power of that influence is furnished by the remarkable progress of the movement for civil service reform. That movement originated inside of the Republican party, and some attempts were made there to give it practical effect. But the first of those attempts were abandoned, because they were frowned upon by the politicians controlling the “regular organizations,” and later efforts, although more successful, were crippled by the same influence. A very large majority of the professional politicians of both parties continue to hate civil service reform with a sincere and robust hatred, because it threatens to spoil their business, to throw most of their arts out of the market and to deprive them of their plunder. But as the movement grows steadily in favor with public opinion, they have discovered that there is a popular demand to satisfy. Many of them, who still hate it at heart as much as they ever did, now profess to be themselves in favor of some sort of reform, which they pretend to be able to accomplish with their own methods. Much of this profession is that kind of hypocrisy which is called a tribute paid by vice to virtue. It is certainly not genuine virtue, but the mere fact that vice recognizes the necessity of paying a tribute to virtue is a valuable sign of progress. The time is not far behind us when such a tribute was considered entirely superfluous, – the worst abuses of the spoils system being paraded before the eyes of the people without concealment. Fifteen years ago, a sweeping “new deal” of the offices at the incoming of a new administration would have been considered a very natural thing. The removal of any number of worthy public servants during an administration, and the distribution of their places among a new set exclusively for political ends, could be undertaken without disguise of motive or purpose, almost without criticism, as part of the established system. Not many years ago, all the employés of the Government could be taxed for campaign expenses without circumlocution, and the removal of those who failed to respond could be undertaken almost without calling forth a remonstrance. Now, although the “practical politicians” have not undergone a sincere change of heart, any intention of making “new deals” is loudly disclaimed on both sides, for it is known that any serious attempt in that line would call forth a storm of indignant protest. Removals and appointments for purely political reasons undoubtedly still happen, but they have become comparatively rare, and are as carefully as possible disguised. Assessments have still recently been levied upon public servants, but the public reproof of that practice has been so vigorous, and the number of refusals to pay so large, that removals on account of non-compliance are well-nigh impracticable, and the odious practice itself will scarcely be resumed to anything like its former extent. On the whole, glaring violations of the principles upon which the civil service should be conducted are now attracting as much attention as a striking observance of them would have done some years ago. And now some Democratic leaders have espoused the cause of civil service reform, with sincere purpose, no doubt, as far as they individually are concerned, and the political capital attaching to it has become a matter of competition between the two parties. These results, although still far behind real reform, are, after all, results of value; and they have been accomplished in spite of the adherence of the “practical politicians” in both parties to the old system of political management. It has been done by a public sentiment strongly developed, mainly outside of the “regular organizations,” which, pressing upon them, extorted partial compliance with its demands as a sort of party necessity. This fact suggests what greater things may be accomplished in a similar way, if the “independent voter” understands and resolutely asserts himself.
There are, indeed, greater tasks before us. The public mind is, more or less unconsciously perhaps, occupying itself with a problem which, in a period of transition like the present, naturally presses forward, and which goes beyond any definite measure of reform yet proposed. It is the problem of creating an administrative system adapted to the new circumstances which the changes in our social and economical condition during the last fifty years have brought forth. Some features of that change have already been referred to. The bucolic state of American society is absolved, never to return. The American people are no longer what they were during the first decades of the republic – a people of farmers, living in scattered settlements, separated by great distances, with a few small trading towns on the coast and in the interior. We have now a population of over fifty millions, which within the life-time of our children will be a hundred or more. A large and constantly growing proportion of that population congregates in great cities, the business centers of immense expanses of country which our enterprise has occupied. Activities and industries of great variety have sprung up, which for their success and prosperity largely depend upon one another. Railroads and telegraphs, uniting the most distant parts of the country in rapid intercourse and instantaneous exchange of thought, have established a community of interests formerly unknown. Enterprises requiring large aggregations of capital have become necessary to make the vast resources of the country available, to bring the producer and consumer together, and to create wealth by the employment of hired labor on a great scale, thus largely changing the relations which formerly existed between man and man. Great corporations have grown up, wielding a power which may challenge that of the Government itself. New interests have developed themselves, and with them new conflicts, some of them beyond the reach and control of local self-government. In consequence, we have a people with a new social organization, new wants, new grievances, and new aspirations, and becoming more and more accustomed to look to a central authority for things which formerly were not considered within the range of its functions. Whether we consider these tremendous changes as good or evil, as fraught with danger or full of promise, they are the natural outgrowth of a development bound to come and to go on, and they cannot remain without great effect upon the nature and working machinery of the Government.
The simple principles which form the foundations of republican institutions remain the same. But their application to the state of things now existing, with its new requirements, is no longer as simple as it was defined in the formulas of the past. These requirements cannot be safely disregarded. The powers of the general government have to be so adjusted that they may be equal to the demands of our present condition without encroaching upon the legitimate province of local self-government, and without becoming a dangerous instrument of usurpation in the hands of those who wield them. The responsibility for the exercise of those powers has to be so systematically distributed and fixed, that no public function be without its well-defined and tangible share of it – a need which is very obvious in view of the confused anarchy which now prevails in that respect. A way has to be found to make more available and useful to the Government, in all its branches, the best intelligence and character in the country, now in great part excluded from public employment by the peculiar nature of our constituencies and the working of the party machinery, or withdrawn from it by the superior advantages of private pursuits. The administrative machinery of the Government has to be so organized that not only a higher degree of integrity, intelligence, knowledge, and efficiency be secured for the service, but that the public offices cease to be an agency of corruption and demoralization in our political life. Of this comprehensive problem the reform of the civil service is only a part, but a very important one, and the only one that has so far come in a definite form to the attention of the people. These problems are of greater consequence even than our questions of finance and customs, for their solution will be destined to produce more permanent and farther-reaching results.
The existing political parties, in their present condition, appear scarcely fitted for the appreciation and treatment of this problem. The purposes for which they were originally organized in the past had reference to a different state of things. Only upon civil service reform they have pronounced themselves in a perfunctory, and, as far as the regular organizations are concerned, insincere or indifferent manner. Neither of them represents at present anything like “organized opinion” as to the tasks of the future. The spoils system has brought forth that kind of machine politics one of whose characteristic features it is to look at every topic with reference to the advantage its treatment, one way or another, will yield at the next election, the parties thus living from hand to mouth.
But the very fact that they are so evenly balanced in strength as to be obliged to reach for whatever outside support they can obtain, makes them accessible to the influence which an enlightened and independent public opinion can bring to bear upon them. In the present period of transition the popular mind is unusually open to the discussion of those great problems of government which are upon us, and currents of thought and sentiment may thus be put in motion sufficiently strong to carry one or the other of the existing parties from point to point, thus accomplishing through that instrumentality results in detail, growing in importance as they accumulate. The party which receives these influences most readily and gives them effect, will thereby develop new elements of vitality – which, however, can be done only at the expense of those methods of political management which have sprung from the spoils system. If, on the contrary, both of them resist those currents of opinion, the latter will probably grow powerful enough to force into existence a new formation, with a courageous spirit of initiative and a programme born of the requirements of the times.
These observations are intended to be rather an analytical study of the present situation and its possibilities than a positive prediction or a platform. If this analysis is fortunate enough to attract any attention, it will also be likely to provoke criticism and dissent, especially from zealous partisans. It will, however, serve its object by suggesting to candid minds some points worthy of reflection.