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A Primer for Democracy


ISSUE:  Summer 1988
The Party’s Just Begun. By Larry J. Sabato. Scott, Foresman/Little Brown. $12.95

Niccolo Machiavelli, move over. Now comes Larry Sabato with a sophisticated new primer for democracy, American style. It is a book that every would-be prince of modern, two-party political power should keep beside his computer—taking frequent recourse to the fundamental wisdoms contained therein—as the world’s least worst democratic system spins erratically, and electronically, toward the 21st Century.

Sabato picks up about where David Broder left us in the early 1970’s. (The Party’s Over, Harper & Row, 1971.) Broder, he concedes, was at least partly right. There was, and there is, a “real crisis of party decline.” But in the late 1980’s there is a difference: “Instead of facing oblivion, the two major political parties are stronger organizationally . . .than at any other period in modern times.” There is also a fundamental irony: voters are “becoming increasingly independent of party identification at the same time parties have become considerably enhanced organizationally.” And this is the basic problem: “how to regenerate partisan loyalty among a voting public that has become less responsive to partisan appeals.”

“The party is not over . . . . The party can begin anew if the will to rejuvenate and the desire to renovate are strong enough,” Sabato insists. He sets up a sort of national objective: “the shaping of vibrant political parties for America’s future using the technological tools and fund-raising techniques unavailable to the parties of old.”

To show how this goal can be reached—how “partisan loyalty can be regenerated and the parties can be significantly refurbished”—is the underlying purpose of Sabato’s book. He makes a strong case for strong partisanship through some 200 pages of highly instructive and provocative analyses, both historical and political, rich in details buttressed by the results of three original public opinion polls which the author initiated and designed to zero in on current American attitudes toward the two-party system.

Sabato is quite candid about his own attitude. He holds certain beliefs to be self-evident: that a healthy party system is necessary to a vital democracy. That erosion of party loyalty and organization has weakened American democracy. And that the two-party system must be cultivated and cherished as the first, last, and best hope for the survival of stability and order in democratic government.

On first looking into the Sabato approach, with its prime emphasis on party loyalty, a wary reader may be moved—as was this reviewer—to react a bit skeptically, and to recall the japery penned by Sir William Sullivan a century ago: “I always voted at my party’s call. And never thought of thinking for myself at all.” But it soon appears this is not the kind of party loyalty Sabato has in mind.

The Sabato plan involves much more than party loyalty, of course. His justification for it has a simple and direct appeal: “Since the two-party system manifestly assists us in preserving the stability of our nation’s democracy, we have every right—indeed, the obligation, since it is in our vital interests—to assist them by enabling the parties to perform their functions better.”

To this end, interchanging the advocate’s hat with the analyst’s, Sabato proposes an agenda of some 20 points— eight grouped together as “party-initiated actions,” or self-help that both parties need, followed by a dozen “government-assisted reforms.”

Both parties should start to help themselves, he prescribes, by getting closer to the people, ingratiating themselves with such innovations as mobile offices and community ombudsmen and more nonpolitical services for party members. Each should develop political muscle and charisma by expanding its fund-raising and campaign services, by institutional advertising, by asserting a firm role in policy formulation, by sponsoring presidential debates, by bringing more unpledged delegates into national convention deliberations, and by advocating changes in law.

Legislation on national, state, and local levels advocated by Sabato would preserve and enhance the power of the existing Democratic and Republican parties—and discourage, if not prevent, competition from independents or any new party.

These are a few of the things the Sabato agenda calls for: deregulate the parties. Let them decide how to nominate, but steer them away from primaries. Influence the parties to hold closed caucuses and conventions. Require any presidential primary to be merely a beauty contest, with all delegates to be picked freely by party caucuses later. Move to public financing of parties and campaigns, with direct and indirect government subsidies from the taxpayers. Channel all public financing through the two parties. Raise contribution limits from private sources—some to be unlimited. Require all television and radio stations to donate an hour (in short segments) yearly of free time to each national and state party. Consolidate elections, so that each state would vote for president, governor, congressional and state legislative members in the same year. Put party labels on all ballots. Do away with nonpartisan elections. Expand patronage rewards for party hacks, and add other rewards for the party faithful.

If all this seems to add up to strong medicine, Sabato has no apologies.

“Two-party advocates such as this author see nothing wrong,” he writes, “in discriminating against third parties in the provision of privileges such as free media availability and public financing. It is in our country’s interest to support and gird the two-party system that provides such stability and continuity to American democracy, and we would be foolish to encourage fragmentation by building in incentives for third-party formation and promotion.”

One may wonder, however, what would happen if the laws were stacked and packed as the Sabato formula suggests to favor the development of two rich and powerful party bureaucracies. In Virginia, for instance, might not the conservative coalitionists, the establishmentarians—what Douglas Southall Freeman used to call “the invisible government”— conspire again to control both parties, as the oldtime Byrd organization used to do? What room would there be for the mavericks, the nonconformists like Henry Howell? Might not the Sabato agenda encourage the resurrection and unleashing of a latter-day Tammany tiger? Do the party sachems really possess the ultimate wisdom to deserve the power and trust his program implies?

A bit of nonconformist wisdom from novelist Ellen Glasgow may have some pertinency now. Back in the early 1920’s, gentle Ellen got interested in state politics. She drew back in indignation from what she saw.

“The Democratic Party has treated Virginia with the contempt bred of familiarity; the Republican Party has treated her with the indifference of ignorance,” she wrote. “What Virginia needs is not one good party but two better parties . . .”

That would seem to put her on track with Sabato. But perhaps her woman’s intuition prompted her to add:

“What Virginia needs is to teach both parties, and all parties, that they are made by the people—and that what the people have made, they can discipline and control—and if need be, destroy . . . .

“Remember this always—the true safety of a republic lies not in party loyalty, but in independence of conscience.”

If the caveat from Miss Ellen were writ large on the walls of the parties’ inner sanctums, and if a skeptical maverick could be appointed as full-time, nonpartisan, superombudsman (or special prosecutor) to keep the parties honest, the Sabato agenda might make for an interesting and truly noble experiment.

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