Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/October 1877/The Decline of Party Government


THE late presidential election appears likely, in its results, to mark an epoch not only in the political history of the United States, but in that of all constitutional countries. In the person of the new President the American Government has come out of party and is trying to be the government of the whole nation. Sir Robert Peel tried the same thing in England, though in his case the "splendid perfidy" to party was less marked than in the case of Governor Hayes, because the repeal of the corn laws was not more essential to the interest of the country, which it rescued from death, than it was to that of the Conservative party, which it rescued from hopeless opposition to the nation and from utter political ruin. Party found a dagger with which to stab Sir Robert Peel. President Hayes has shown himself a strong man, but the greatest trials of his strength are still to come. When Congress meets he will have to contend both with the resentment of the regular managers of his own party and with the hostility of the thorough-going Democrats, who will see their opportunity in the breach between the President and the party which raised him to power, as the Whigs in 1846 saw their opportunity in the breach between Sir Robert Peel and the Protectionist section of his followers. Supposing, however, that President Hayes, like Peel, should fail, his attempt, like that of Peel, will have a significance which no momentary failure can annul. It announces the decline of the party system, and the advent, not immediate, perhaps, but still certain, of national government.

It is curious with what implicit faith we have all reposed upon party, as the normal, permanent, and only possible mode of carrying on a free constitution, disregarding not only the objections which reason obviously suggests to the system and the general evidences of its bad effects on politics and political character, but the facts which showed plainly enough that its foundations were giving way, and that, if this was the only basis of government, government was likely to be soon left without a basis.

Burke, in his "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent," has given at once his definition and his defense of party:

"Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed. For my part, I find it impossible to conceive that any one believes in his own politics or thinks them to be of any weight who refuses to adopt the means of having them reduced into practice. It is the business of the speculative philosopher to mark the proper ends of government. It is the business of the politician, who is the philosopher in action, to find out proper means toward those ends, and to employ these with effect. Therefore every honorable connection will avow it as their first purpose to pursue every just method to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution with all the power and authority of the state. As this power is attached to certain situations, it is their duty to contend for these situations. Without a proscription of others they are bound to give to their own party the preference in all things; and by no means, for private considerations, to accept any offer of power in which the whole body is not included; nor to suffer themselves to be led or to be controlled or to be overbalanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed, and even those upon which every fair connection must stand. Such a generous contention for power, on such manly and honorable maxims, will easily be distinguished from the mean and interested struggle for place and emolument. The very style of such persons will serve to discriminate them from those numberless impostors who have deluded the ignorant with professions incompatible with human practice, and have afterward incensed them by practices below the level of vulgar rectitude."

To form a rational and moral basis for party, to prevent party from sinking into faction, the party leader from becoming an "impostor," and the "generous contention for power" from degenerating into a "mean and interested struggle for place and emolument," there must be, as Burke says, a particular principle on which the members of the connection are agreed in desiring that government should be carried on. Failing such a principle, party, and the golden haze with which Burke, according to his manner, has surrounded it, vanish, and leave a faction or a void.

The principle must not be a moral principle, because this would imply an organized opposition to morality on the other side, and the permanent existence of an immoral party; two parties always in active existence being plainly essential to the working of the system. You cannot, for example, have a party of purity, because this would imply, as its correlative and complement, a party of corruption, and it would be a grotesque arrangement to devote half your citizens permanently to the service and advocacy of corruption in order to maintain the machinery of your government.

The principle must be one of expediency. Parties, in other words, must be divided by some question of policy, about which honest men may differ. And it must be a question of sufficient magnitude to transcend in importance all other questions; of sufficient importance to warrant a man of sense and a good citizen in surrendering for its sake his private judgment on all other political subjects to the guidance of the party leader and the exigencies of the party struggle, and in doing his utmost to exclude from the legislature and the public service all men, however honest, however able, however useful in general respects to the country, who do not agree with him on the vital point. We need not use the invidious term proscription; the thing will be the same.

Now, it is manifest, in the first place, that the occurrence of such questions is exceptional, and not normal; they can seldom arise in fact except with reference to some organic change in the constitution, such as the transfer of supreme power from the crown to Parliament, or the change in the character of Parliament itself, embodied in the English Reform Bill of 1832. American slavery was an issue of a different kind and of still more transcendent importance; but it was one lying quite beyond the pale of ordinary politics. In normal times the occupations of legislatures and governments will be matters of current administration, not one of which is likely to form an issue of sufficient importance to swallow up all the rest and form a rational ground for the division of the nation into two organized parties struggling each to place its leaders in exclusive possession of the powers of the state.

In the second place, questions of expediency, however important, do not last forever; in one way or other they are settled and disappear from the political scene. Slavery dies and is buried. Parliamentary reform is carried out with all its corollaries, and becomes a thing of the past. What is to follow? Another question of sufficient importance to warrant a division of the nation into parties must be found. But suppose no such question exists, are we to manufacture one? That is the work to which the wire-pullers devote themselves in democracies governed by party, but the results seem hardly to correspond to our notion of the adamantine basis on which the political edifice is to rest forever. Some astronomers say that the moon once had an atmosphere, but that she has exhausted it, and that she shows us what our planet will be when, in the course of ages, its atmosphere also shall have been exhausted. The colonies, in this matter of party government, may furnish an indication of the same kind to the mother-country. In Canada, for example, while New World society was struggling to repel the intrusive elements of the old régime forced upon it by the imperial country, and to extort self-government, the parties, though not altogether edifying in their behavior or salutary in their influence upon popular character, were at least formed upon real lines. But the struggle ended with the abolition of the state Church and the secularization of the clergy reserves. Since that time there has been no real dividing line between the parties; they have ceased to be truly directed to public objects of any kind; their very names have become unintelligible. Politics under such a party system must inevitably sink at last into an "interested contest for place and emolument" carried on by "impostors who delude the ignorant with professions incompatible with human practice, and afterward incense them by practices below the level of vulgar rectitude." It is needless to say what effects an incessant war of intrigue, calumny, and corruption, carried on by such party leaders, with the aid of the sort of journalists who are willing to take their pay, must produce on the political character of a community, however naturally good, and well adapted for self-government. Nobody is to blame. The blame rests entirely on the system. Lord Elgin found fault with Canadian parties for being formed with reference to petty objects, not to great questions. It is singular that so acute a man should not have asked himself where the great questions were to be found. Were they to be manufactured or imported?

Nothing is more curious than the ingenuity with which new reasons are invented for old institutions when the original reasons have ceased to exist. The advocates of the party system in countries destitute of party questions, at a loss for rational grounds of defense, take a desperate dive into psychology, and affirm that all men are by natural tendency either Conservatives or Liberals, so that the division of every community into two parties is not merely a practical exigency of politics but a general law of humanity. In that case Nature must have been peculiarly kind to certain politicians who are furnished with a double set of tendencies enabling them to appear in both the parties at different periods of their career. It is hardly necessary to prove that the varieties of natural temperament are numberless, and are still further diversified by the influences of position, age, and fortune; and that to divide any nation into two organized parties according to their temperaments would be an undertaking far transcending in absurdity all the fancies of Laputa. Yet such philosophy probably helps to cast a halo over a contest of "impostors," the character and objects of which could not otherwise escape the most "vulgar" eye.

We have an example of the tendencies of the system in the Australian colonies, if Australian journals may be believed. Whatever land-questions or other questions of an organic kind or of permanent importance there were, having been settled, and no basis for parties left, party government it seems in those countries is weltering in cabal, senseless faction-fighting, and all the concomitant evils. The worst arts and the worst men inevitably acquire an increasing ascendency in public life. Changes of ministry, brought about for the most part by mere personal intrigue, are of constant occurrence. Government is almost as unstable as in Mexico, and though the mode in which the revolutions are effected is less violent, they are perhaps not much less injurious to the political character of the people, or less likely to produce a complete disintegration of authority in the end.

Imitation of England has led the political world a strange dance. The Chinese shipwrights, when desired to build a vessel in place of one which had been disabled by dry-rot, produced an exact copy, dry rot and all. Montesquieu fancied that the grand secret of English liberty lay in the separation of the executive and the judicial power from the legislative. With their union in the same hands liberty would end. This theory found general acceptance; yet at the very time when Montesquieu made this profound observation, the legislature had in fact got into its hands the executive, which it appointed by the vote of its majority, and the judiciary, which was appointed by the executive. But the effect of the notion is visible in the provisions of the American Constitution; and the consequence is an occasional dead-lock, arising from a conflict between the legislature and the executive, as in the case of President Johnson, who was impeached to force him into harmony with Congress. Again, the House of Lords has been taken for a Senate, and the check imposed by its mature and deliberate wisdom on the rashness of the more popular House has been supposed to be the grand safeguard of British legislation. The House of Lords is not a Senate, nor a second Chamber, in the sense in which the term is practically employed by the architects of new constitutions. It is an estate of the realm: it is a privileged order having an interest of its own separate from that of the nation at large, and defending its own interests, which are necessarily those of privilege, and therefore of reaction, by resisting every measure of political change as long as it is safe to do so. Of its revising precipitate legislation in an impartial sense no instance can be found. But other nations try to reproduce it in the form of a second Chamber, and they find, one after another, that, compose your second Chamber and appoint its members as you will, the result is either a nullity or a collision between the two Houses, in which the more popular House will probably prevail. In the same way it has been assumed that the English system of party and of cabinets, which are committees of party, is the vital principle of constitutional government. But party in England has been the instrument, probably the indispensable instrument, of a chronic revolution. By the action of the party which in its successive phases has borne the names of Puritan, Whig, and Liberal, the Tudor autocracy has been reduced to a limited, or rather a faineant, monarchy, and the Tory oligarchy, once intrenched in the rotten boroughs, has been replaced by a House of Commons elected on a more popular basis; supreme power, in other words, has been gradually transferred from the crown and the aristocracy to the representatives of the people. All this time there has been a real ground of division and a question of importance supreme enough to warrant allegiance to a party. But the process is now nearly complete. Other questions, of which the name Radical is the symbol, will probably emerge, and may again furnish grounds for the action of party. As it is, the lines between the aristocratic and democratic parties remain, though their outline is confused, and the democratic party is paralyzed for the time by the Conservative reaction, caused mainly by a vast influx of wealth. But we have an inkling at all events in the present state of things, even in England, of the time when the materials for party will be finally exhausted, and when we shall be obliged perforce to look out for some other mode of working constitutional government. Bayonets have their uses, but you cannot sit on them. Party has its use as the organ of a pacific revolution; but it will not supply the permanent basis of a national government.

Even in the course of the revolution, effected by means of party in England, as often as the movement has been temporarily suspended by accident or lassitude, the weakness of the system has appeared. Between the fall of Jacobitism and the advent of the French Revolution, when there was no great party question on foot, but the offices of state were still put up as the prizes of success in the struggle of parliamentary factions, you had half a century of chaotic intrigue and corruption, broken only by the short dictatorship of Chatham, whose own conduct, in the cabals which drove Walpole into the war with Spain, was an example, if not of place-hunting, of place-storming, of the most flagrant kind. The boasted efficiency of party, as a detector and exposer of abuses, was then proved to be little sustained by facts; it was seen, neither for the first nor for the last time, that two factions, whatever their mutual hatred, may virtually combine to preserve a privilege of plundering the community, which each hopes to exercise in its turn.

Not only is the usefulness of party as a political instrument closely connected with the peculiar circumstances of English history; it is closely connected also with the peculiar circumstances of an age of unscientific politics, of combinations formed upon class interests, of little independence of mind, feeble reasonings, and strong passions. With the advance of political knowledge, of independent thought, and it must be added of public morality, allegiance to party grows less possible, party discipline loses its hold, the cohesion of party is broken up and refuses to be restored. The better a party is in point of intelligence, individual sense of responsibility, individual regard for the public good, the less submissive to the whip, and therefore the weaker, it becomes; a singular result of the only perfect system. What do we see in England now? On one side is a party weak to the verge of impotence, unable to act together even for one evening, to all appearances hopelessly excluded from power; and this because it is a party of opinion, of individual intelligence, of individual conscience, of individual desire to improve the condition of the people. On the other side is a party overwhelmingly strong, acting under perfect discipline, and likely to be for an indefinite time master of the state; and this because it is a party of interest, which always unites, while opinion inevitably divides.

Efforts are made on the Liberal side to compensate the weakness of mental independence as a basis of party union by increased stringency of organization. But these only bring more clearly to light the incompatibility of mental independence with the party system. In a recent number of this magazine we published a very graphic and interesting account of the political machinery used by the Liberal managers at Birmingham, We are not in a humor to quarrel with anything which in the present dearth of ability, especially of rising ability, in the House of Commons has helped to secure the election of Mr, Chamberlain. Nor do we overlook the fact that the spontaneous organization on the side of the Tories, in the shape of social connections and the tyrannical pressure they exert, is such that it can only be counterbalanced by artificial organization carried to a high pitch on the other side. But we must say that the use of such machinery does seem to involve a terrible sacrifice of those very habits of mental independence which it is the pride of Liberalism to promote. The absolute necessity of defending progress and the interests of the community at large against the despotism of a class alone reconciles us in any measure to the system. In the United States the masters of the party machines have everywhere taken the representation out of the hands of the people: you are practically not at liberty to vote for anybody but their nominees; and the Republican horse, to vanquish the Democratic stag, becomes absolutely the slave of its rider.

In the United States the opinion of the best judges, so far as we can gather it, is that the disorganization of the parties is increasing and is likely to increase. Nor is it possible to name any issues on which new parties can be formed. There is no question which, even supposing it to be of sufficient importance, would at all coincide with the existing lines; and a complete reconstruction of parties with a new arrangement of the leaders and wire-pullers, irrespective of all personal connections, would be practically out of the question. Two alternatives will present themselves to the people: either a new mode of working constitutional government and maintaining the proper check on the executive must be found, or the President must be allowed to become something very like an elective dictator for a term of years.

The practice of setting up the offices of the executive as the prize of victory in a legislative contest carried on by the agency of party appears to be injurious alike to legislation and to executive government. It is injurious to legislation, because public men are constantly tempted to deal with legislative questions in the interest of their own ambition, for the purpose of paving their way to office, or strengthening their position there, not with a view to the proper objects of legislation; whence a number of unnecessary, premature, and dishonest measures. All the members of the Conservative party, before 1867, had recorded their opinions against a large extension of the franchise as tending to place political power in ignorant and irresponsible hands. They, then, to keep their party in office, and at the bidding of leaders who they knew had no other motive, themselves extended the franchise to the most ignorant and irresponsible part of the population, the populace of the towns. The practice is injurious to executive government, because it excludes or ejects from office the ablest and most trusted administrators on account of opinions respecting legislative questions which in no way affect administration. It wrongly unites, in short, two political functions which are perfectly distinct and which mutually suffer by being bound up with each other.

It is needless to dilate upon the relations of party, its machinery, its strategy, the press which serves it and expresses its passions, to public morality and the general interests of the state; the facts are always before our eyes. But experience of a colony or of some new country is needed to make one thoroughly sensible of the effects of this warfare upon the political character of the people, and of the extent to which it threatens to sap the very foundations of patriotism and of respect for lawful authority in their minds.

It is supposed that the hostile vigilance of party is the great safeguard against political corruption, and one which, if removed, it would be impossible to replace. But there are some countries at least in which the indiscriminate slander in which party constantly deals forms really a cloak of darkness for all corruption rather than a lantern for the detection of any; while its effect on the character of public men is to produce general lowness of tone and brazen indifference to accusations of every kind. The experiment has not yet been tried of legislating definitely against the corrupt use of legislative or executive power, which is a perfectly tangible crime (at least it is difficult to see why the sale of a vote in a legislative assembly, or of a government contract, is not as tangible a crime as the fraudulent breach of an ordinary trust), and of instituting a tribunal for the trial of offenders. And therefore we are still at liberty, at all events, to entertain the belief that the sight of a single politician suffering a felon's doom by the impartial and righteous judgment of a court of law, for the corrupt betrayal of his public trust, would have a more salutary effect than the interested and reckless denunciations of all the party orators and journalists in the world.

It is easy to see why, up to this time, party has been the law of politics; but it is not easy to see why, for the future, and as reason extends its sway over the political sphere and limits the reign of passion, party should be the law of politics more than of any other subject. Party, we mean, organized and permanent; such as the parties of the Guelfs and Ghibellines, of the Blacks and Whites, of the Caravats and Shanavests. On social and philanthropic questions, on questions and in movements of all kinds, people combine for a particular object, and the object having been gained they fall back into their ordinary associations. Why should they not do the same in politics, supposing politics to be a matter not of passion and ambition, but of reason and of the public good? This is the answer to the argument on the side of party that nothing can be carried without combination. It can hardly be necessary to meet the argument that political truth can only be hammered out by the constant collision of parties. With regard to all other subjects it is supposed that while free discussion is conducive to the discovery of the truth, party feeling and subserviency to party are most adverse to it. But people tacitly assume that they can have party without party feeling and the evils to which every one, when the question is distinctly proposed to him, admits that party feeling must lead.

Nor, again, need we dwell long on the argument that party is necessary in order to keep up an interest in human affairs. Human affairs, according to all present appearances, are likely to be interesting enough to keep the mind of man alive and to give birth to abundance of controversy (if that is the thing desired) for generations to come, without our forming artificial parties for the purpose of enabling ambitious men to obtain exclusive possession of the power of the state.

Party is no doubt indispensable to selfish interests, which by taking advantage of the balance of factions are enabled, to an almost indefinite extent, to compass their special objects at the expense of the community. It is indispensable to political sharpers who, without legislative powers or any sort of ability or inclination to serve the public in any honorable way, find subsistence in an element of passion and intrigue. To whom or to what else it is indispensable, no one has yet been able definitely to say.

Burke himself, the great apologist of party, was the great apostate from it. He called his apostasy fidelity to the Old Whigs; but the Old Whigs were in their graves, and the rhetorical turn given by him to his secession did not alter the fact. In the case of his defense of party, as in many other cases, his fervid and unbridled imagination has erected a particular expedient, the necessity of a special occasion, into a universal and everlasting law. Before him, another man had shaken off party trammels apparently from the conviction of their radical inconsistency with the public interest. The life of Lord Shelburne is in this special respect a most important, as well as in all respects a most interesting, addition to political biography, and we shall see as it proceeds whether Shelburne is entitled to the credit of having tried to be a national statesman.

Our proposition, however, is this: that, let party, as a system of government, be good or evil, the materials for parties are nearly exhausted in the British colonies, and probably in the United States; that they are temporarily exhausted, and may one day be entirely exhausted, in England; while in other countries (in France and Germany, for instance) the sections and subsections of opinion are too numerous and the lines between them are too wavering to admit of the clear division into two parties absolutely essential to the working of the system, which, when there are three or four parties instead of two, becomes a quicksand of intrigue on which no government can be founded. Under these circumstances it is necessary, whether we will or not, to look out for some other foundation for constitutional government. The penalty of not doing so will be either confusion or the domination of some selfish and, because it is selfish, compact and all powerful interest.

To determine what that foundation is to be, is probably a task reserved for better heads than ours. But perhaps the Swiss Constitution, in its general principles, may point the way. It suggests the regular election of the executive council by the legislature in place of a struggle of parties to determine which side of the House shall have the privilege of distributing the prizes among its leaders. The proper relations between the legislature and the executive might be preserved by a proper rotation of elections, with any such provisions as seemed expedient in the way of cumulative voting. The tenure of office would of course be limited; whether to the duration of the Parliament (which is the Swiss system) or to a term of years would be a question of detail, but the advantage of a continuous executive would be in favor of the latter plan. It does not seem that with this limitation the power of the members of the executive council would be too great, or that their responsibility would be unduly diminished; excess of authority, provided it be constituted in the interest of the whole nation and accountable to the nation in case of an abuse of power, is not the political danger which at present we have most reason to dread. Nor does it seem that, with, say, three elections occurring each year, the executive council could get much out of harmony with the legislature, or fail pretty adequately to represent the prevailing sentiment of the legislature for the time being. But the executive under such a system would do its own work, and leave the legislature free to do the work of legislation. The special initiation of the Minister of Finance in financial matters would be preserved by the same sense of an obvious necessity which has established it. In the performance of purely administrative duties, all the members of the council might without difficulty agree, and their coöperation in their proper work might be perfect, notwithstanding possible differences of opinion about matters of legislation. Why should not a good Chancellor of the Exchequer act in harmony with a good Home Secretary notwithstanding a difference of opinion about the church establishment or the extension of the franchise? Why should the country be prevented by that difference from availing itself of the administrative capacity of both? And why should not each be free to vote as a member of the legislature, in accordance with his personal opinion? At present a cabinet has something of the character of a conspiracy, members often suppressing or even acting against their own opinions in order to present a united front to the enemy and to maintain their hold of power, from which no small calamities have flowed. It would not be difficult to point to instances of measures forced on a cabinet by some leading member, his colleagues acquiescing merely from fear of a break-up, and then carried through Parliament by the influence of government, though the sense both of the legislature and the cabinet was really the other way.

The tendency inherent in party government to supersede the national legislature by the party caucus has long been completely developed in the United States, where it may be said that in ordinary times the only real debates are those held in caucus, congressional legislation being simply a registration of the caucus decision, for which all members of the party, whether they agreed or dissented in the caucus, feel bound by party allegiance to record their votes in the House; just as the only real election is the nomination by the caucus of the party which has the majority, and which then collectively imposes its will on the constituency; so that measures and elections may be and often are carried by a minority but little exceeding one-fourth of the House or the constituency, as the case may be. The same tendency is rapidly developing itself in England; and it is evidently fatal to the genuine existence of parliamentary institutions.

So far as England is concerned, the institution of an executive regularly elected by the legislature at large in place of a cabinet formed of the leaders of a party majority would be substantially a return to the old form of government—the Privy Council. Parliament is now the sovereign power, and election by it would be equivalent to the ancient nomination by the crown. The mode of electing and confirming a Speaker shows how the forms of monarchy may be reconciled with the action of an elective institution.

However, be the proper substitute for party what it may, the thing here insisted on is that party is evidently in a state of decadence; that the causes of its decadence are not accidental or temporary, but inherent in its nature, which is that of an instrument of change, not that of a permanent principle of government; and that, consequently, sooner or later some other basis for government must be found. "You are sanguine," say objectors, "if you think you can carry on constitutional government without party." We trust not; for, if it is so, the end of constitutional government is at hand. The decline of party may fairly be said to present an urgent question: for the political observer to-day—to-morrow for the statesman.—Macmillan's Magazine.