Reviving Political Parties
The Last Chance For Democracy

by Bill Eger

June 21, 2004


(Swans - June 21, 2004)  American citizens are wrongly blamed as either uninterested or disdainful of "politics," a common refrain, usually excusing low voter turnout or the quality of our bodies politic, small and large, throughout the land. Politics, however, is no longer practiced in America and it is the lack of that traditional art, once a developed discipline in our nation, that has alienated citizens and ruined our country.

A serious flaw in our constitutions -- state and federal -- fails to take into account that democracy can only exist on a two-way basis. Inordinate faith is placed that the ears of elected officials are tuned to the voices of the voters. They aren't. There is a semblance of listening at campaign time but it fades quickly. As individuals, voters have no power over candidates after they are elected. That power is gone, replaced by huge campaign contributions and the votes won through media. No comprehensive programs are required, only local, frequently empty, promises and clichés.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it require that officeholders do what their constituents ask. Worse, there is no requirement that promises be honored, that high-sounding pledges be kept nor long-standing principles be continued. If election and re-election is the only measure of an officeholder's success then that fact supersedes responsiveness to any but the most egregious failings in areas of direct responsibility. Only then do voters notice.

Fortunately,there was another mechanism brought to play very shortly after our constitutions were enacted -- formal political parties. They were given authority over politics, the ability to formulate policies and require those elected as their party nominees to support those policies or be kicked out. Now mostly co-opted by incumbent politicians as private sanctuaries of privilege, parties have lost any semblance of their original purpose, a function that remains healthy in many other nations of the world.

Why do we have parties? Originally, to win and maintain power. Stipulate to that for a minute.

How did that work? You organized constituent groups dedicated to getting what they need from government and willing to put out the energy and other resources necessary to get it. The American Booksellers Association, perhaps, did what they could to ban any vestiges of censorship. The American Medical Association wanted politicians out of their operating rooms. The Teamsters wanted better highways and all their fellow unionists wanted policies that favored the rights and benefits of labor organisation.

Deals were struck with these and hundreds of other groups and individuals who might have a specific goal of their own or just liked the whiff of the general package. These deals were formalized in what became known as party platforms -- very different instruments than the vain papers pumped out today. Those platforms were, as Harry Truman said, a "Contract with the People." You vote for me, they said, and I'll do that.

It was so long ago that this was in effect that few -- even among those deeply involved in political action today -- can remember it. They recall "back-room deals" and vague stories of "ward-healers" which were, after all, part of the equation. But it was somehow given a bad name by the people who, today, give us Iraq and Halliburton and think we should like that better.

At its simplest, the old system worked this way.

If your streetlight burned out, you dialed a number and received a visit from a local functionary. He -- I never heard of a woman doing this work -- verified the problem and, magically, the next day there was a new bulb. Same with potholes. Same when someone in your family was desperate and needed a job. They got one.

When Election Day rolled around, this friendly merchant of service came with it. He reminded you of those favors and offered you a ride to the polls. He might have even brought a basket of food. There was no threat. You wanted to keep his friendship so the only issue was voting and helping him continue to help you. It worked.

On a level up, there were groups of votes affecting organizations. Labor unions weren't the only organizations. There were banks and professional associations and manufacturers with large factory issues. There were charities. There were membership groups, too, such as AARP, all the same types of organizations we have today.

The difference was they went to one or, often, both political parties rather than buying votes from individual politicians with obscene amounts of money.

Back then, with the larger issues -- city-wide rather than a single pothole or nationwide in many instances -- only the power of the parties as they used to function would work. A single alderman or councilman or state representative or senator couldn't deliver. Big issues required coordination at all levels, legislation, then administration attention and, frequently, a friendly reception in courtrooms. Only the parties could bring that about.

Before 1948 that job was done with platform hearings that started in every precinct in the nation and finished in exhaustive sessions in the convention cities of the great parties. Platforms took months of arduous work to whack out the little planks, shape them into steps and standing room and then nail them together into programs that represented enough votes to win an election and get the jobs done. (1)

To appreciate those old documents, you must find them and they aren't readily available except in large city or university libraries. Planks were nascent policies that stopped child labor abuse. They came into play to build an interstate highway system. Veteran benefits were written pledges in platforms that an uncaring president would never have abrogated as we see happening throughout our land today. Medicare was a platform issue, broadly supported by national party work, not the bright idea of some individual senator. Most of the great programs -- again, many of those being deconstructed by the current Congress and administration -- were built with the pledges of voters as their currency.

If those platforms were ignored or if the programs they had built were endangered, the parties -- both of them -- had rules that allowed wayward incumbents to be kicked out by the people who had elected them to office. And that happened!

It was the memory of it happening that impelled the action in 1948 that might be the genesis of our national decline. Hubert Humphrey wrote a civil rights platform that passed the Democratic National Convention that also nominated Harry Truman for his first elected term. The Dixiecrats, as the Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, Richard Russell crowd was known, walked out. They could not support the platform. In their short-sighted view, that would cost them their seats in high places because the "good folks at home" would toss them out of office. It was seen as a mortal blow to Democrats.

The States Rights Party was formed. One of their planks said, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race..." That's clear.

There was little hope in the land that Truman could win. His opponent was a prosecutor from New York, Thomas Dewey, characterized as the "little man on the wedding cake," with a dandy moustache and a look that only seemed right in a tuxedo. One of our greatest presidents, Truman, didn't look the part but many thank whatever they worship it was before the era of television or he might have met the fate that befell Adlai Stevenson a few years later. To appreciate this drama, you must appreciate the absolute terror this threat of a landslide loss struck into the hearts -- back then they had them -- of incumbents nationwide. To them it was the end of their world.

But Truman, as you might recall, won -- big -- with 303 electoral votes from a popular vote of 24,179,345 (49.8%), to Dewey's 189 electoral votes from a vote of 21,991,291 (45.1%). For those concerned about Nader, it's instructive that Strom Thurmond received only 39 electoral votes from his pals in the South. The main reason the GOP lost, it was said at the time, was overconfidence by their voters with a turnout -- low back then -- of only 51.5 percent.

If you think Truman's victory mollified the incumbents, you don't know how nervous they are by nature. The very idea that "common" people should be telling them what to do on a matter as sensitive as race relations struck a nerve that quivers to this day. Being incumbents, they reasoned then and now, it made sense they had more importance than Joe Smith from Indianapolis who, after all, was "only a delegate."

Incumbents gave themselves the privilege of being "Super Delegates" with special privileges. They are allowed to name "special" delegates to both state and federal conventions and assign them to favored committees. For the most part, early on, incumbents packed platform deliberations and, in doing so, brought new and intentionally useless attention to resolutions that did not have party discipline for failure to support. Worse, resolutions were purely products of small interest groups among the delegates rather than the stated needs of large constituencies ready to turn out votes and money to elect candidates pledged to their futures.

The change was glacial; slow but unstoppable. When primaries for presidential candidates took their attention and states held public elections to choose this or that candidate with little reference either in the state or nationally to programs that might be necessary to elect them, the game, the party, was over.

The result now is a candidate chosen before anyone even thinks about a platform on which that candidate might stand. The "common people" -- the voters -- are frozen out.

The other foster parent of this change, television, may have made platforms irrelevant without the interior destruction of the party. Many believe Dwight Eisenhower was the first "television" president but Ike was more than that. He was a military hero of a conflict on a scale we have difficulty imagining even if we lived through it and remember the days. Television wasn't as ubiquitous as now but it did exhibit a hero with an easy demeanor who was "Kansas through and through" and likable. After his election, he became known for a love of golf many thought kept him away from duties but that, too, fit a nation needing a rest after war and softened a general known by his staff as holding an explosive temper.

Television had a more serious impact, the dumbing down of our political activities. Television had its affect in showing photogenic faces but the real effect was in hiding the "boring" hearings that made political activity significant. News anchors had no place in the hours of coverage that would have been necessary over many weeks to give citizens the full flavor of platform negotiations that meant victory or defeat for a party's candidates. We were not -- and still are not -- accorded respect by television news programs as having attention spans allowing examination of problems and development of policies to solve them. Such programming was also seen as anathema to commercials. It was much later that the C-SPAN stations came along to provide "gavel-to-gavel" coverage of sessions of Congress as well as committees and conferences in both public and private affairs. Few know but it is the case that C-SPAN captures about 10 percent of the cable audience, far more than most of the multitude of channels with programming that brings a new depth of meaning to "wasteland."

The loss in every way for the public to be heard -- effectively -- by their government is potentially fatal to our nation's governmental ideals. Government today is clearly out of control. While many favor it, you need to wonder which platform introduced grand strategies such as the space program. And which platform or, for that matter, single campaign speech by either candidate promised preemptive wars? Where was the administration given power to forswear the draft -- to bring some equality to those who go to war -- yet keep active duty, National Guard and reserve service personnel as long as necessary as impressed warriors? (2) How can the nation react to that level of policy atrocity and end it in a nation where it's hard to get a letter to your congressman?

There are other dangers. As we forget how we once had a way to command lingering attention from those we elect, silly suggestions seem to make sense. Richard N. Rosenfeld writes "The Case for Abolishing the United States Senate" in the May 2004 Harpers Magazine, a suggestion that neither makes sense nor shows understanding of the separation of powers and necessity for maintaining the balance of strength in the Congress, the judiciary and the administration.

Mr. Rosenfeld makes a case that our Congress isn't working as it should but I found no reference in his essay to the missing public input that formerly forced coordination of popular program policy plus development and proper management across the full spectrum of governmental agencies. Parties are the only entity in our society's structure that, at one time, had authority over matters of policy throughout every section of government. In that context we needed the six-year term Senate to calm Representatives who, after all, must run every other year and need to get something done now! The Senate is also the repository of checks and balances against the judiciary through the approval process for appointments to the bench.

Both houses of Congress, in the old days, were under a more stringent pressure, a need to accomplish goals that worked. When parties laid out the scope of problems the public wanted solved, both parties tended to work better together. Bipartisanship wasn't so rare and civility across the party aisles was not an unknown. Sure, there was a fistfight every now and then, action that would seem cordial in the poison atmosphere of Washington today. The parties kept tabs on which of the platform issues were submitted and their history. If an incumbent ignored his or her party's instruction on support on a specific issue it was a dead certainty there would be a discussion with party leaders at the end of the Legislative session. Automatic endorsement of incumbents was not a sure thing as it is now in virtually every race.

Political parties, needing to win elections to get power and make progress on problems to keep it, had acetylene focus on getting those jobs done. It wasn't only elections politicians had to win, they had to please their constituents or, possibly, face opposition from within their own parties. All the donated corporate money in the world couldn't stand up to a party's scrutiny of the way their own programs had been handled. It was the party that held the power and their beneficiaries, their politicians, were only given access to bits of it if they held up their end of the bargain and moved the program along.

The death of the parties as they once functioned to control policy is the direct cause of the massive expenditure of money for campaigns. Why would there be contributions of millions for candidates who already were constrained by their parties to vote one way or another on all the major issues of the day? The old function of parties that began at the grass-roots and those burned out streetlamps and extended into the highest policy issues of the nation made the individuals holding office less important. They were Democrats or Republicans and, therefore, were pledged to do as their parties instructed them before the campaigns and elections. There was no backing down on that pledge. Now there is no pledge, no "contract with the people."

In the changes that have occurred in our political parties there stands as the most dangerous the mark of totalitarian government wherever it exists, utter control of politics. In our traditional America, it was politics that controlled government. Now, from ideology to campaign financing, every matter is regulated by government, either by incumbent politicians defining what parties can ask them to do and in controlling how -- and how much -- money can be put to use by citizens for political purposes. We are an altered nation and few seem to grasp how the revolution took place.

There is some good news. In their single-minded rush to quell instruction from the masses on how they plied their duties, the incumbents didn't take much interest in the party rules. They are battered but in curious ways intact where they count. Many of the old "support the platform or leave the party" lines remain in many states and small references in the national laws. The only partisan talk you hear these days, however, is for programs made up in Congressional cloakrooms, written far too often by lobbyists who have expertise in getting the most money from whatever activity is being considered.

There may be enough shards of the old rules to piece them together for an election in the future. All we need is one president who misses the comfort of a job well done rather than a job that merely extended the billions earned by tax shelter criminals or the pharmaceutical companies or, need it be written, Halliburton.

Our political parties were killed and nothing took their place. It was a revolution of the worst kind, gently in the night of our self-indulgence. Somehow they convinced America we could all be rich one day and use those tax cuts for ourselves. But now, urgently, we need to wake up and look at who we are and find some way to fix our nation. If we don't do something the nightmare will continue and worsen and America will sink until no longer recognized by the citizens of our world nor reclaimable by the voters of our nation.

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Notes and Resources

1.  Platforms as they are done today: See "Democrats Seek a Stance on Iraq That Won't Split Party," by David E. Rosenbaum, The New York Times, June 6, 2004 - http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/national/06platform.html (as of June 11, 2004).  (back)

2.  Articles on military "Stop-Loss" policy:

See "Army Extending Service for G.I.'s Due in War Zones," by Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, June 3, 2004 - http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/03/politics/03SOLD.html (as of June 11, 2004).

See also "Soldiers and Their Families Have Mixed Feelings on Policy That Extends Active Duty," by Randal C. Archibold, The New York Times, June 4, 2004 - http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/04/politics/04EXTE.html (as of June 11, 2004).  (back)

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Bill Eger is a former reporter and editor on major dailies and United Press International before turning to public relations. He was a speech writer and policy consultant in California and campaign manager for city, county and state-wide elections. He has served on county and state rules and platform committees at party conventions over a span of 40 years and is chairman of the Democratic 4th Representative District Council in Hawai'i. Eger publishes Hawai'i Island's Magazine at http://www.hawaii-island.com.

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Published June 21, 2004
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