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In Defense of Politicians

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Recently I took up for a rereading that charming and illuminating work, “The Endless Adventure,” the monumental masterpiece of the brilliant Scotch historian and philosopher, Frederick Oliver, dealing with the Walpolean period of English history, and I was startled by something I had missed before—his pages devoted to “praise of politicians.” No doubt my attention was attracted on the second reading because in recent years the tendency in America to sneer at political parties and politicians has seemed to have gained momentum in the popular mind. That, and the fact that in recent years I have been in the storm centers of the attacks on democracy by the Fascist, Nazi, and Falangist forces that set out a few years ago to erect the most autocratic and tyrannical totalitarian governments on the ruins of democratic institutions. I have observed, close hand, that invariably the preliminary campaign has taken the form of a denunciation of political parties and “corrupt politicians.” The assumption of the Goebbels propagandists is that a political party not dominated by the state is a “faction,” and that all politicians are incompetent and corrupt. The effect intended is to destroy the faith of the people in party government and in their political leaders. In view of their records as corruptionists, pillagers of private property, and armed thieves, it ought to be amusing to find men like Hitler and Goering piously denouncing politicians as corrupt. But one only need read the newspapers and books and see the plays, musical comedies, and jugglers of the vaudeville stage in America to reach the conclusion that this Fascist line of attack on democratic institutions has become quite commonplace here. The effect, if not the purpose, and in most cases I do not think it is the conscious purpose, is to weaken the faith of the American people in the institutions of the founding fathers. For common sense must make it clear that in a nation of 180,000,000 people reaching from coast to coast over thousands of miles of mountain and valley, democracy could not function in orderly fashion without political organizations holding concrete views of national policy to be pressed upon the people through the constitutional instrumentality of the polls.

There certainly are some corrupt politicians, just as there are corrupt financiers, corrupt merchants, corrupt industrialists, and corrupt preachers, but no one is so unfair as to draw a sweeping indictment against these sectors of society because they contain, here and there, a corrupt man. Only in the case of politicians is the charge made general. And that, of course, is a fantastic falsehood. When we reflect that in the case of men engaged politically in the public service the spotlight is constantly thrown upon them and the microscope used in eager search of evidence of wrongdoing, we tremble to think what might be the result if all the other elements of society were subjected to the same constant and intensive scrutiny.

And nothing could be more amusing than the notion that with the elimination of politicians, which would mean the extermination of democracy, corruption would disappear from government. It is common knowledge that the leaders of Fascism in Italy and Germany have accumulated vast fortunes through the ungentle art of stealing by force; and in the stealing of the property of the citizens, these nabobs of tyranny also deprive them of their natural rights, their liberties, and their human dignity. This astounding pillaging of the state, and of individuals, by the totalitarian dignitaries would be quite impossible where the people can pass on such crimes through legal and political action.

A few weeks ago an American politician who had resorted to corruption to enrich himself died in miserable isolation and in poverty, despised by his countrymen, after serving a term in prison; but under a Fascist or Nazi regime, the corruptionists are the untouchables and there is no limit to the wealth they can accumulate through robbery by force. Yet these are the men, the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Goerings, who have thundered so righteously against representative democratic government because of the “corrupt politicians.”

There are politicians and “politicians,” just as there are bankers and embezzlers, and some of the politicians will graft just as some bankers have filched from the depositor. The greater part of the grafting comes from men far down in the scale of politicians, and it was not these petty politicians that the Hitlers and Mussolinis were trying to destroy, but the real leaders of popular government, the men who fought and wrought intelligently for democratic principles. They were the dangerous ones, because they led the people; and therefore the first step in all Fascist movements is to destroy the people’s faith in their honest political leaders and to “liquidate” them.

Now the theoretical critic, having in mind the political leaders who have led mankind onward and upward in the democratic way to liberty and opportunity, are prone to describe them as “statesmen,” not politicians; and yet almost all of the greatest British and American statesmen have been consummate politicians, and have reached the place where they could serve mankind through political methods. Oliver reminds us that Adam Smith, who was a high-minded theorist, an economist, and a man of the closet, refused to discriminate between the politician and the statesman and lumped them together as corrupt. He denounced them as “that insidious and crafty animal vulgarly called a statesman or politician.” And that, of course, was stupid in Adam Smith. For without statesmen, there would be no one skilled and trained in the art of government; and without these, society would revert to chaos.

Yet it has become a cheap fashion in America to parrot this propaganda of the Fascist-minded. ,The villain in the romance is apt to be “a politician,” and the guilty in the detective story in which a politician is one of the suspects is almost certain to be. The comedian in the musical comedy can always get the loud laugh that speaks the vacant mind by a fling at “these politicians.” Even the more precious element in the academy shrugs its shoulders and exclaims, “Ah, the politicians.”


Let us call the roll of the greatest of Americans to whom we are indebted for our democratic liberties and institutions, guaranteed by law, for the protection of the citizen against the abuse of power. Who and what were they? They were these very much maligned ”politicians.”

The most consummate of them all, perhaps the most consummate in modern history, was Thomas Jefferson. It was he more than any other man who formulated the way of life known as “the American way.” He was a business man, in that he was a successful planter until public service deprived his business of his supervision, but as such he could have done nothing toward placing the imprint of his philosophy on our life. He was a philosopher, but there have been other philosophers with a philosophy making for the good of society, who did not know how to reach the public and put their philosophy into effect. Because he was a practical man, Jefferson did not take refuge in his closet and whine his criticisms of the men in public life. He sallied forth into the political arena with his battle axe and became a politician. He knew that a philosophy tucked away among the cobwebs in the closet will remain a curiosity and never become a reality. And being a politician, he was a realist.

As a politician he was a propagandist with few peers; a practical organizer unsurpassed; a diplomat with an intuitive knowledge of human nature, making it easy to work with and direct the activities of others. Thus during the first twelve years of the Republic he made it definitively a democracy; and through political inspiration and direction from afar, he and they who thought with him, also politicians, forced into the fundamental law the Bill of Rights. Had he not been a skilled and practical politician working for the welfare, the rights, and liberties of the people, our national destiny might have been vastly different from what it became.

There are two majestic memorials on the Mall in Washington to express the appreciation of a nation for services to country and humanity—and one is to Jefferson, the politician,

The other is to another politician—Lincoln. After Jefferson, it would be hard to find another American so consummate as a politician. He has been so disguised by sentimentalists that few appear to know that in the Illinois of his day where politicians who knew all the answers flourished like the green bay tree, he was the most cunning and skillful of them all. I know of no biography that so perfectly reflects the man and his methods as that of Beveridge, who, being a politician himself, could sense and see the art with which Lincoln advanced to power. He, too, understood the politician’s art of propaganda, the politician’s science of organization, and he knew how, when necessary, to work under cover and get results. I am sure it is because Bev-eridge’s book so clearly reveals his hero as primarily a politician, that the sentimentalists frown upon it. History credits him with the emancipation of the slaves and the preservation of the Union; but never could he have attained the power to render these incalculable services had he not been a clever politician; and even in power, his wisdom, superior to that of others, is manifest in his political methods.

Because of their success as politicians they were hated by their opponents in their day, but there are no national memorials to their critics on the Mall.

To Jefferson and Lincoln we may add Andrew Jackson, who rendered immeasurable service to the people in defeating the machinations of an embryo plutocracy through his genius as a great politician. His greatest battles were fought in the arena of politics, and there he was a master, clever, resourceful, militant, and even ruthless.

To sum up, all the great idols of the British-speaking peoples who have left indelible impressions on the two nations through the policies they sponsored and furthered have been professional politicians—men trained in politics, and that means in statecraft. From Walpole. in England, down through Pitt, Fox, Burke, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and now Churchill, and in America from Jefferson and Sam Adams down through Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, and now Franklin Roosevelt, the outstanding servants of the public good have been politicians.

At once someone will note the absence of Woodrow Wilson. His position is unique. A colossal figure, he will grow greater with the years. He was that rarest of all things— a statesman who had never been an active, experienced politician, and that makes him unique. But this calls for reservations. From his youth on, his mind was occupied most with the politics of statesmanship. His studies were in this sphere. But it was not until the eve of his elevation to the Presidency that he ever participated in political activities. Until then he had never made even a political speech; or faced the populace on the hustings; or sat in caucus in devising ways and means of political action. He had an incurable distrust of men who had actually worked in politics„ born of the cloistered life of the academy, and he thus deprived himself at a critical juncture of the advice of men grown old and wise in political struggles. I have never doubted that with all his genius as a statesman, and his advantage as an idealist, he might have succeeded in defeating the maneuvering of his enemies had he been trained more in the school of practical politics.


What is politics? Webster’s definition says it is “the science and art of government; the science dealing with organization, regulation, and administration of a state . . . the theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties.”

Then what is a politician? The same authority says he is “one versed or experienced in the science of government.”

There surely is nothing particularly disreputable about that, though Adam Smith might think so. But the shortsighted scoffers and the Fascist-minded insist that a politician is a mere seeker after office for the sake of the salary. It is true, of course, that among the thousands holding minor offices, many if not most, are motivated partly by the salary. Incidentally, droll as it may seem, it is the salary that draws men into counting rooms and banks and factories. However, if the man who gets the office earns his salary by performing his duties satisfactorily, he is discharging a necessary function in organized society. But in the higher ranks I know scores of men personally who enter politics, become politicians, and take office at a financial sacrifice because they are primarily interested in principles and policies they think for the good of the country; and among these are many who have sacrificed not only money, but also health and strength, in the service of the state—and all were politicians.

Possibly conceding all this, the critic falls back on the politicians of the lower ranks, the precinct committeemen, often dubbed “ward heelers.” I am unable to find anything disreputable in serving a party organization in this lowly position—since it is necessary. The statesman who began at the bottom in the organization may be all the better for it. The business man makes a point of insisting that his men shall learn the business “from the bottom up.” Only in politics are the good men expected to begin at the top. These generally soon reach the bottom, since they have no real foundation of knowledge.


This brings us to the pet anathema of the theorist and the Fascist-minded—the political parties. Mussolini would have none of them—none but his own; Hitler would have none of them—none but his own; Franco would have none of them—none but his own. None of these could afford a party of opposition. It would interfere with the destruction of human rights, with the suppression of liberty, and might make the liquidation of political opponents through bullet and bludgeon, and the stealing of the hierarchy, dangerous. It is significant of the wise thinking of the English that whatever party may be in power, the opposing party in minority officially is called “His Majesty’s Opposition.” And it is recognized that “His Majesty’s Opposition” performs a high function in the state. It exposes blunders, demands explanations, keeps those in power on their mettle, and illuminates the political scene for the benefit of the public which has a right to know what is transpiring, since government is their business.

Sad experience has shown that stockholders in a corporation would often have been safer if there had been a party of opposition on the board of directors.

Without parties in a democracy there would be chaos; with but one party maintained by force, there is Fascism and tyranny.

Political parties, then, are necessary, but if there are to be parties there must be party leaders, and if there are party leaders, there must be politicians. If these party leaders are worth their salt, they must be trained and experienced politicians. Oliver, philosopher, not politician, but wise with the wisdom of the historian, says that “the notion that we can save ourselves without their help is an illusion; for politics is not one of those crafts that can be learned by the light of nature without an apprenticeship.”

A democracy must fail without leaders of courage, intelligence, and character. The assumption of Jefferson and Lincoln was that the mass mind can be trusted, or its instinct trusted, if provided with the facts; and but for political parties contending for the mastery, and engaging in polemics, the cause of liberty and human rights would perish because there would be no great organization concerning itself with the dissemination of the facts. Aguirre Cerda, a great Chilean President and statesman, framed an imperishable sentence when he said that “to educate is to govern.” And he meant not only education in the schools, but education from the political hustings. That is the reason that the totalitarian cannot tolerate parties, for parties mean the open submission of facts and policies to the arbitrament of debate. The dictator must suppress political parties because he must impose silence. With but one party, and that an organ of the Government, the rulers can keep the people in ignorance of the fact that their pockets are being picked and their liberties are being taken away. t

If there is any better way to govern in a democracy than through the instrumentality of parties, it is still a secret of the gods.

Party government means ballots; Fascist government means surrender or bullets.


Experience shows that without organized and capably led parties the most outrageous persecutions of a people cannot be repelled. Look at the record in Italy and Germany. The scattered protests of individuals only result in their instant “liquidation.” Happily in America we have had little experience in dealing with tyranny because there has been so little of it. But in the one experience we had there is a lesson. The Federalist party, disdaining democracy, contemptuous of the common lot, and thoroughly organized as a party brilliantly led, resented the creation of a party of opposition, and described it as a “faction.” Consciously or not, Federalism tended toward Fascism. Thus the sedition law of the Adams Administration, the persecution and imprisonment of editors who dared challenge the pretensions of those in power was an attempt, through terrorism, to close the mouths of critics. The men singled out for persecution would have been helpless, acting as individuals, just as the victims of tyranny in Italy were helpless in combating the tyranny of Mussolini. But happily, in America, a party of opposition had been created under whose banner all the victims of op-pression could constitutionally assemble for concerted, wisely directed, and stubborn action. That attempt to set aside the Bill of Rights was defeated by a political party.

It was after the collapse of the Federalist party, when an “era of good feeling” had developed, that some urged the amalgamation of all parties into one and others rejoiced that there was but one party. This amalgamation could not be perfected by governmental decree, as in Italy, Germany, and Spain, but only by consent of the people. Jefferson opposed this idea utterly. “I am no believer in the amalgamation of parties,” he wrote, “nor do I consider it as either desirable or useful for the public. . . . They [parties] are censors of the conducts of each other, and useful watchmen for the public.” And again he wrote: “In every free and deliberative society there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties.” And again: “The division [into parties] ought to be fostered instead of being amalgamated; for take away this, and some more dangerous principle of ^division will take its place.” And again: “Men have differed in opinion and been divided into parties by these opinions from the first origin of societies, and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak.”

With a full realization that in the composition of any political party there inevitably will be men who are mere selfseekers, not concerned with principles and policies, except in so far as they may advance them to public station, Jefferson knew that the division into parties is based primarily on principles and concepts of government. Thus he wrote: “Both of our political parties, at least the honest part of them, agree conscientiously in the same object—the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side thinks it best done by one composition of the governing powers; the other by a different one.; With whatever opinion the body of the nation concurs, that must prevail.”

Thus does Jefferson describe the only practical, if not possible, way in which a democracy in a great country can function. Eliminate parties, and democratic countries, the people unorganized, undirected, undisciplined, would fall into chaos, and thus pave the way for the man with the bludgeon to establish “order”—resting on the buried liberties of the nation.

But if political parties, so much derided by arm-chair theorists better acquainted with books than with men and more familiar with theories than with realities, are an essential part of the democratic machinery, there must be party leaders—and these are politicians.


Even the most rigid of the critics are driven to admit that leaders in the higher strata of the parties may be of some service to the country; so they fall back on the assumption that the minor party workers down the line are engaged in rather disreputable business. The leader they praise at the top could not be there but for the tireless and usually unrewarded work of the minor politicians at the bottom. An organization, to be effective, must extend down to the lowest political unit—the precinct. The precinct committeeman, to be effective, must have the respect of the people in his precinct where everyone is known. He may be a young lawyer, or the corner grocer, or the village blacksmith, and in nine cases out of ten he is not an aspirant for office. He accepts the drudgery of the work because he is a good party man, interested, if only instinctively, in the principles and policies it proclaims. “Politics is a duty,” said Jefferson; and the precinct committeeman renders a service to the state. If true of him, it is equally true of every other member of the party hierarchy; for without these local politicians, parties would speedily disintegrate, and with their disintegration, democracy inevitably would fail in functioning.

In the higher ranks of the hierarchy, the political leaders attain their position through a demonstration of their political capacity. On these devolve the task of formulating the political policies on which the party makes its appeal to the people; and the more consummate they are as politicians, the greater will be the effort to adopt policies in conformity with the public good or the public will. And that is democracy in action.

The sweeping charge of “corruption” against politicians is pure poppycock. Not that there are not corrupt politicians, any more than that there are not corrupt business men, corrupt financiers, and immoral preachers. After all, the corrupt action of three ship-building companies which, through collusion in bidding, stole millions of dollars from the taxpayers was exposed and stopped by Josephus Daniels—a politician. And the corrupt action of some very respectable oil men in the case of Teapot Dome was exposed and stopped by Senator Tom Walsh—a politician. Cases where corruption among business men and financiers have been exposed by politicians acting for the nation could be multiplied in America innumerable times.

Equally superficial and unfair and untrue is the charge of the theorists that politicians are “incompetent.” Too popular is the silly notion that while, of course, a doctor cannot take over the management of a factory, or a banker substitute for a lawyer, or a manufacturer assume the teaching in a studio, the doctor, the banker, and the manufacturer can, by some magic, master the intricate mysteries of government without experience or training. The drawing-room statesman in his library, the dilettante theorist in his study, and the village roustabout in the pool room are often impatient with the “incompetence of politicians” and “only wish they had a chance” to straighten out the muddle. Such are living in a fool’s paradise and suffering from a delusion of grandeur. After all, it was a man who had devoted his life to politics, not the financiers, who snatched the nation from the edge of the precipice in the spring of 1933.

It is interesting to find that a man of the study, but an historian, like Oliver, shares this impatience with the critics when he says:

If we eventually escape from our present perplexities, it will not be because theorists have discovered some fine new principle of salvation; or because newspapers have scolded and pointed angry fingers at this one or that; or because we, their readers, have become excited and have demanded that ‘something must be done.’ It will be because these decent, hard-working, cheerful, valiant, knock-about politicians, whose mysterious business it is to manage our affairs by breaking one another’s heads, shall have carried on with their work as if nothing extraordinary was happening . . . and shall have ‘jumbled something’ out of their contentions that will be of advantage to their country. The notion that we can save ourselves without their help is an illusion; for politics is not one of those crafts that can be learned by the light of nature without an apprenticeship.


It may be possible to lift the average in political life but it never can be done so long as able young men, intellectually and temperamentally fit for public service, are led to believe that there is something rather shameful about it. How different in England where a political career is considered one of service to the state and to society, and where the old nobility are prone to dedicate one of their sons to politics as a patriotic duty. The young man so dedicated begins his preparation at Oxford, concentrating on the studies that may be useful to the state, distinguishing himself perhaps in the debates of the Oxford Union, and passing speedily from the academic halls to Parliament where he makes his career. Nothing in the old nobility of England sets it so much apart from that of other nations as its recognition of an obligation to participate in politics as a patriotic duty. The son is not thought vicious and smearing the family name or lowering its prestige by rendering public service in the halls of Westminster. The political tradition is handed down from generation to generation as in the case of Robert Cecil, the Minister of Elizabeth whose descend-ents have carried on down to Salisbury, Balfour, and Lord Robert Cecil of today. Chatham meticulously trained his son, William Pitt, and Holland found time to drill his son, Charles James Fox, and so, too, Gladstone, Chamberlain, Asquith, MacDonald, and Churchill have carried on the fine family tradition of giving ii their sons men of great capacity to the sctate.

One finds it hard to understand the prejudices of Americans who think; of themselves as “sensible” men, against political ambition in the young. Is it possible, as our enemies say, that we really feel that the only road to real distinction is in the acquisition of money, and that the prejudice against public life is because “you can’t make money in politics”? Is it possible that the average American really feels that the accumulation of wealth is the only career worth while? Or that the American does not compare with the English in feeling any responsibility to organized society? Or does it spring from the fact that newspapers, columnists, the wise-crackers of stage comedies, and even novelists by insinuating that men in politics are fools or crooks have made the impression on half-baked minds that there is something low in public life?

That, I am sure, was not the opinion of Jefferson who urged the young to enter political life, drilled not a few, including Monroe, for public service, and hoped that the University of Virginia he was sponsoring would become a training field for public service.

What we need in America today is not the elimination of politicians but more politicians thoroughly trained for public service. There can be no finer career. But to render such service in the highest sense calls for a preparation beyond that of our forebears. The complications of modern social and business organization present intricate problems requiring special knowledge. Our fathers dealt with fundamental political principles but we of today, within those principles, can and must find solutions for economic and social prob-’ lems. It is not enough now to saturate oneself in history and political philosophy; one must master the mysteries of economics and of sociology to deal with the political problems of this new day. And since modern invention has wiped out distance and made all nations neighbors, interdependent upon each other, the young man preparing for a political career should make a special study of international relations.

Thus prepared intellectually, he should study political psychology to the end that he may advance his cause intelligently through honest and wise propaganda. And nothing is more vital than a study of the science of political or party organization down to the precinct, for only through victories at the polls can he reach or hold a position in public life in a democracy. In brief, he must study to be— a politician.


To recapitulate: Democracies operate best through political parties.

Political parties function only through politicians.

Eliminate politicians and you wipe out parties.

Wipe out parties and you throw democracies into a state of unorganized, undisciplined chaos.

And when in a democracy the people are unorganized, undirected, undisciplined, the Fascist has his excuse and the tyrant appears to dominate the nation by brute force.

That is the reason the Mussolinis, Hitlers, and Francos hate and exterminate the politicians; and that is the reason it is so stupid in a democracy to join them in their hue and cry.

And that is the reason why the theorists and scoffers who sneer at representative government, political parties, and politicians are consciously in some cases, and unconsciously, let us hope in most, making their contribution to the Fascist effort to destroy democracy in the United States.


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