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Democracy – Whither Bound?

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Fundamentally, political parties are instrumentalities for the enforcement of certain points of view, upon the body politic. They must represent more than their leaders’ office-holding ambitions. Whenever they degenerate into mere machines for plucking plums their usefulness is ended. Unless they are based upon a common point of view and plan of application, they are merely jobholders’ coinsurance companies.

In other words, parties are futile unless they can both function, and fight. They cannot function unless they have some principle they are willing to fight for. They cannot fight unless they can function.

The Democratic party has always functioned with great reluctance, and latterly not at all. Since the Civil War it has had only two presidents in the White House. The administrations of Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson each thoroughly justified the existence of the party; and under the latter America rose to heights of moral grandeur unsurpassed in the world’s history. But since Wilson, the party has not functioned. Much of its recent failure has been due not to its beliefs, but to its failure to express strong belief in anything. Its platforms have been a sterile straddle; its candidates, Mr. Zeros. This has been necessarily so; because the party’s national rules have given a minority the power to defeat majority choice of presidential candidates. The majority of course would not let the minority’s views control. The result was nomination by cancellation.

Thus since 1920 the Democratic party has had weak, colorless candidates on platforms capable of as many interpretations as the soothsayings of the sages. In 1920 the conflict between progressives and reactionaries, wets and drys, pro-leaguers and anti-leaguers culminated in a deadlock out of which came the nomination of James M. Cox, who proved to be a sort of cucumber candidate, quite indigestible to the voters. Four years later the same circumstances and rule led to nomination of John W. Davis, the doom of 1924 Democracy. His again was a choice by cancellation and exhaustion. He was all things to all men, just as were the platform and the convention. But one thing brought about the nominations of Messrs. Cox and Davis—the party’s incapability of democratic control.

The first thing the Democratic party must do is function. I do not say it should be made to function progressively or conservatively; but to function in whatever fashion its majority group desires. If we put any faith and confidence in the essential philosophy of Thomas Jefferson we must believe that a majority is entitled to party control.

If a majority of the Democratic party, as represented in a delegated national convention, is conservative, it has ample right and should have full power to have the party follow its faith and choose its candidate. If on the other hand the majority happens to be progressive, the conservatives should not be allowed to prevent a progressive nomination. Make the party susceptible to majority control, and then it can function.

The Democratic party needs democratization as much as any element of American political, social and industrial life needs this humanizing touch. Unlike these last complex problems, the democratization of our party is relatively simple. If we throw overboard a few of our long-bearded national convention rules, our party can be and will be susceptible to majority control. In fact the abolition of the two rules will do it—the unit rule, and the one-third (so often miscalled the two-thirds) rule.

The one-third rule can be eliminated only by the national convention itself. It does not need to be “abrogated,” as commonly phrased; there is nothing actually to abrogate. As to procedure, rules, and action, each convention is the master of its own destiny. Each convention adopts an entirely new set of rules to govern its action. Though in practice these may be merely the rules of the convention before it, they are adopted de novo. All that a national convention need do to get rid of the two-thirds rule is not to adopt it. It adopts its rules by a majority vote of delegates. Theoretically it can adopt any rules it desires. Usually, these are left to the Rules Committee, a body with one member from each delegation. Until the Rule Committee’s report, the convention functions under temporary rules presented by the national committee. The Rule Committee’s suggested plan of parliamentary procedure for the convention can be accepted, amended, or rejected, by a majority vote of the convention. Thus it is obvious that there is no particular difficulty, from a parliamentary standpoint, about junking the one-third rule. All that is needed is for a majority of the convention to vote affirmatively for a rule that candidates shall be chosen by a majority vote of the convention.

The unit rule has a different status. It really is the function of the electing power in each state to instruct its own delegates. These may include a preference for a certain candidate, insistence upon a certain platform, or a direction as to the fashion in which the delegation shall cast its vote. So far as convention conditions allow, these delegates should conform to the instructions placed upon them by those who elected them. Otherwise the essential spirit of representation will be ignored. The unit rule has a philosophical strength altogether absent from the one-third rule, although I do not think the unit rule should be permitted to continue, as it can be quite violative of the wishes of the party. But the power and right of upsetting it inherently belongs not to the national convention but to the electing body. I think it just that this instruction rule should apply: that a delegate owes a duty to the power which elects him to carry out the wishes of that power until released by convention action.

Delegates to a Democratic national convention are chosen by a wide variety of methods: Statewide primaries, district primaries, state conventions, district conventions, and by state executive committees. If the power which selects the delegate is the people of his district at a district primary, he owes it to these voters to cast his ballots in the national convention according to their direction. If the electing power is a state convention, he is subject to the same responsibility to carry out its express wishes.

No delegate elected by a district primary can be bound by any unit rule, however imposed, because this might override the wishes of the district. Delegates so elected have a clear duty to follow the direction of their primaries.

Similarly, a delegate selected by a state convention is properly subject to the instructions of the state convention. If that body instructs him to vote for a certain candidate, it is his duty to do so, regardless of his personal like or dislike for the candidate. If it instructs the delegation to vote as a unit, for certain purposes, it is its duty to do so, and the national convention has no abstract right in itself to overturn these instructions. Instructions and unit rule are a function of the electing body; the one-third rule is a function of the convention.

The functioning of American parties, as well as their responsiveness to their memberships’ desires, would be stimulated if all the states elected their national convention delegates by primaries: district primaries for district delegates, and statewide primaries for delegates from the state-at-large. The party voters in these same primaries could also express their preference for a presidential nominee. This system is already in vogue in a little over half the states; extended to all, each district of the United States could select delegates in harmony with the district’s desires and aspirations. Delegates from the state-at-large would afford the state as a whole the opportunity to reflect its wishes.

A preferential primary for presidential nominees should be similarly held in each state at the same time that delegates are elected; delegates should be required to take oath that they would support the expressed preferences of their electorates, so long as unreleased. The various delegate candidates should also be made to declare their first and second choices for the nomination so that the people would know their preference. Under such conditions, the people of each district and of each state would have a clear opportunity to express their candidatorial desires, and to have the delegates pay attention to their wishes.

Thus chosen, national convention delegates would certainly better reflect the wishes of their constituents, and undoubtedly would be more conscious of their duty and responsibility to carry out their instructions than under present conditions. The manipulation of national conventions would be lessened; log-rolling, lavish entertainment, trading, and other devices to lure delegates to violate instructions, methods so dear to the heart and so necessary to the power of the old line of politicians, would be less effective.

There have been several other suggested rule changes for future Democratic national conventions. Several interesting ones were proposed by the Hon. Wm. R. Pattangall, of Maine, in a recent letter to the Chattanooga News:

  1. Each congressional district to be entitled to one delegate and one additional delegate provided the district is represented in congress by a Democrat, each state to be entitled to two delegates at large and one or two more in accordance with whether or not the state has representation in the United States senate if so, whether it is represented by one or two senators.

  2. Abolition of the two-thirds rule.

  3. Abolition of the unit rule.

  4. Instructions given by presidential primary, by district conventions or state conventions of no effect after the tenth ballot.

  5. Do away with the proposition of half votes or fractional votes so as to limit the number of delegates strictly to the figures represented in the call.

  6. One alternate and one only for each delegate.

  7. Admittance to the convention hall to be given only to delegates, alternates, members of national committee, officers of the convention and one guest for each alternate and delegate, national committeeman and national committee-woman, with perhaps one hundred complimentary tickets to be issued to leading Democrats by order of the executive committee of the national committee, which would limit attendance to four or five thousand people and enable conventions to be held in reasonably sized halls and accommodated by reasonably sized cities.

  8. Each state delegation to choose a member of the committee on resolutions at least thirty days before the meeting of the national convention, this committee to meet at least one week prior to the meeting of the convention in the city where the convention is to be held, a platform not only formulated but printed so that it and all suggested amendments to it may be read and intelligently studied by delegates.

  9. Convention to meet on Tuesday and platform to be submitted by Wednesday following the organization of the convention.

Mr. Pattangall has attended Democratic national conventions for several decades, and has gained an insight from practical experience into some of the causes of their poor functioning. One is the increase in the number of persons occupying delegateships. In the Madison Square melee such fractions as 17-43’s of a delegate were not unusual, to the dismay of the tellers and the confusion of the convention. Mr. Pattangall’s desires to do away with fractional votes, and to have only one alternate for each delegate, are excellent. He would reduce the mob in the convention hall by a strict limitation on admission. East Side mobs in the galleries do not aid convention “deliberations.”

Another interesting suggestion is that platform construction be expedited by having the Committee on Resolutions meet at least a month before the convention opens. Such a deliberative period might enable the party’s formal declaration of principles to be less verbose, more thoughtful, and better representative of the best thought of the party than the present outcome of all night sessions of the committee. The logical sequel is that the convention should meet on a Tuesday and the platform be ready for submission the next day.

However, the suggestion that after the tenth ballot all instructions be eliminated, is very debatable. There should, of course, be some formal method by which instructions could be abrogated. But eliminating instructions after the tenth ballot would play right into the politicians’ hands. If they could prevent a nomination in the first ten ballots, then they would have a wide-open door for log-rolling, trading, and manipulation. The convention strait-jacket must be taken off for the people’s interests, not to make manipulation easier for the politicians.

A plan frequently suggested is that conventions adopt a rule that if no nomination has been had bv the tenth or fit’-teenth ballot, the low man be eliminated on each succeeding ballot. Under this, delegates instructed for a certain candidate would not be released from their moral obligation until the convention’s formula freed them. Applied to the Madison Square convention, such a rule would have chopped down the ridiculous lightning rods of the so-called favorite sons long before the convention had deadlocked.

I have left for the last Mr. Pattangall’s suggestion that Democratic states ought to have more say in Democratic national conventions than non-Democratic states. To bring this about he proposes this basis of representation in future national conventions: Each congressional district in America shall be entitled to one delegate. If the district in question is represented in congress by a Democrat, it shall be entitled to smother delegate. Each state shall be entitled to two delegates at large whether it has any Democratic senators or not. Each shall be entitled to one or two more, depending upon whether it has one or two Democrats in the United States senate.

Here is a comparison of the states’ votes in the 1924 New York National Convention as they actually existed, and as they would have been had the proposed basis, the then existing congress being given effect.

  StatePresent Proposed     StatePresent Proposed
Alabama2424     New Jersey2821
Arizona65     New Mexico65
Arkansas1818     New York9068
California2615     North Carolina2424
Colorado128     North Dakota105
Connecticut168     Ohio4830
Delaware65     Oklahoma2018
Florida1010     Oregon106
Georgia2626     Pennsylvania7644
Idaho84     Rhode Island107
Illinois5832     South Carolina1818
Indiana3020     South Dakota105
Iowa2613     Tennessee2422
Kansas2611     Texas4039
Kentucky2622     Utah85
Louisiana2020     Vermont84
Maine126     Washington149
Maryland1612     West Virginia1613
Massachusetts3622     Wisconsin2613
Michigan3017     Wyoming64
Minnesota2412     Alaska63
Mississippi2020     Hawaii66
Missouri3630     Philippines63
Montana87     Porto Rico63
Nebraska1611     Dist. Columbia63
Nevada65     Canal Zone63
New Hampshire85    __________

The proportionate strength of the grand divisions under these two plans, in the last convention, would have been:

     Actual    Proposed
New England  8.3%6.3%
North37.3%33  %

Although the fundamental fairness of such a reapportionment must render it theoretically attractive to any Democrat, the practical difficulty of securing it is so great that we cannot look forward to its early accomplishment. It must be remembered, however, that reactionary though it may be in policies and ideals, the Republican party, in its internal organization and basis of convention representation is far more democratic than the Democratic party. Majority nomination has always been the rule in Republican national conventions. And in recent years the G. O. P. basis of representation has given the preference to Republican states, and penalized those states in the solid south in which the Republican party is but a postmasterial shell.

Democrats must choose whether they want their party to function or to stagnate. The present system results in cancellation, not courage. Zero hour in a Democratic convention does not mean going over the top, but crawling into a storm cellar. Democratic national conventions, under present rules, select liabilities, not leaders. There is little hope for better results unless the rules are democratized.


Let us look at the last election for answer to the question: What is the political center of gravity of the Democratic party? Figures published by the Wall Street Journal several months after the election reveal that in the New England states Mr. Davis received considerably less than half as many votes as President Coolidge; and that Mr.

Davis and Senator LaFollette together received only about 55 per cent as large a vote as Silent Cal. The Vermont Davis note was only a fifth of the Coolidge total, in Maine a third, in Massachusetts a trifle over a third, and Connecticut two-fifths. In New Hampshire and Rhode Island alone was it better than half. The grand total for all New England was: Coolidge 1,330,34; Davis 583,284; LaFollette 212,160. The same anti-Democratic disparity existed in 1920, Harding receiving 1,317,597, to Cox’s 595,016.

In the northern states of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Coolidge received about two and one-half times the Davis vote, and 2,700,000 more votes than Davis and LaFollette together. The totals were: Coolidge 8,568,569; Davis 3,584,934; LaFollette 2,365,934. In 1920 Harding’s 7,768,197 was 488,333 more than double Cox’s 3,639,932.

President Coolidge received more than double the Davis vote in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Coolidge’s Michigan ratio was better than six to Davis’ one, Wisconsin five to one, Pennsylvania better than three to one, Ohio and Illinois almost three to one. The only northern states in which the Davis total compared at all favorably were Delaware, about 60 per cent; Indiana about 65 per cent, and Maryland almost even. In New York the Coolidge vote of 1,820,058 was 80 per cent more than Davis’ 950,756, and Al Smith could carry only three counties of his home state. In only two of the northern states, Maryland and Wisconsin, was the combined Davis-LaFollette vote equal to that of the G. O. P. candidate.

This political condition has been increasing both relatively and numerically for the past several elections. The Solid North is now our most formidable sectional bloc politically. A table showing the percentage Democratic presidential candidates received of the total vote cast in national elections in the last eight elections, in six northern states, is significant:

  State  1896  1900  1904  1908  1912  1916  1920  1924 
New York4145444343473029 
New Jersey3843404142443021 

The figures for the Solid South are not so disproportionately Democratic as those of the Solid North are Republican. The Coolidge total of 1,547,422 in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia was more than half Davis’ 2,364,468. The President carried Kentucky and West Virginia; his Tennessee total was over 80 per cent of the Davis vote; North Carolina about 70 per cent; Virginia better than half, and his other southern votes except in Mississippi and South Carolina, quite healthy. The Solid South is a quivering mass of political jelly compared to the congealed, concreted, iron-clad, and rock-ribbed Republican Solid North.

Aside from the south, the west offers the sole ray of Democratic hope. Between 1920 and 1924, the Republican vote decreased over a million, and the anti-Republican vote increased the same amount, in the 18 western states from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi. In 1920 Harding received 5,092,000 votes, to Cox’s 2,393,000. In 1924 the G. O. P. strength dropped to 4,063,000, while the opposition (1,614,-000 for Davis—1,818,000 for LaFollette) totalled 3,43,000.

The anti-Republican vote exceeded the Coolidge figures in Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah, despite the voters’ general recognition of the inevitableness of a G. O. P. victory. California, giving Coolidge 719,000 cast 513,000 against him. Harding had received 624,000 against only 229,000 for Cox. The Colorado anti-Coolidge vote totalled 133,000 against 198,000 for the president, 29,000 greater than Governor Cox received. The 1920 Republican vote in Iowa shrunk over 100,000, dropping from 634,674 to 530,719, but the anti-Republican presidential vote of 227,921 increased four years later to 534,843.

The Republican vote in Kansas increased 38,000, while the vote against Mr. Coolidge was 69,000 greater than that for Cox. In Minnesota the anti-Republican figure increased from 142,994 in 1920 to 395,416 four years later, a corresponding Republican drop of 100,000. In 1920 Oregon gave Harding 63,500 more than Cox, but the Coolidge vote of 142,500 had against it 136,000 Davis-LaFollette votes. In Washington, in 1920, Cox’s 84,000 were overwhelmed by the 223,000 for Harding. But this year the Davis-LaFollette vote totalled 193,000 against Coolidge’s 220,000. The Coolidge Wyoming vote of 41,800 was but 6,700 greater than Harding received, while the anti-Coolidge vote of 38,800 was 21,000 over the Cox total.

These figures go far to demonstrate that the west and the south are the hope of the Democratic party. The Progressive West, not the Solid North, is the south’s natural ally for the future. These figures prove it.


The Democratic party must look to some guiding star of principle to chart its course of policy. It has always given a measure of devotion, sometimes great, sometimes little, to the essential political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the party, and the great prophet of its duty.

His political ideals were embraced in his immortal phrases that all people “are created equal,” with inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Stated a little differently, the sage of Monticello demanded for the average man the rights to be, to have, and to do. To apply his philosophy to the facts of Eighteenth century existence, he contrived formulas. These grew out of his philosophy, but many of them were of only transitory value, and a few of them by now have so far lost their pertinence to his beliefs that their operation is in direct contravention of their founder’s desires.

Thomas Jefferson’s important contributions to the world, and to the party, were his far flung ideas as to the rights of man, the responsibilities of citizens and the objects of government. “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life,” to tenets of Jefferson, quite as it does to the ethics of Christ. The Democratic party is suffering from its political Pharisees, intent upon the Jeffersonian ritual and oblivious to his spirit.

To be worthy of continued existence, our party must apply the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson to the facts of the twentieth century, with a twentieth century formula. Stagnant cess-pools of anti-bellum theory are not fit to be her wells of party truth. Economic freedom and social justice, fundamental needs of the average man today, need to be cherished and furthered. The democratization of credit, industry, and justice, must be embraced within our platform. World peace, national honor, and economic well-being must be guiding stars for Democratic devotion.

Naturally I hesitate to attempt to phrase such a platform. It must be short, and it must say something. Our creeds are too long, and too opaque. A Democratic platform ought to go on the back of a post card. Then the people could read it, and put their faith in what it said.

It ought to declare for:

A free America, playing her proper part in world peace, and world development; America must abandon her ignominious isolation. The world needs us, and we need the world for the preservation and advance of both.

A reasonable tariff, for the benefit of the many, and not the few.

An unflinching enforcement of prohibition.

The democratization of justice; there must be the same law and the same justice for the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the few and the many.

The democratization of credit; the financial life blood of the nation must pulse for all sections and all classes, and not be subject and subservient to a few financial despots.

The relief of agriculture, our nation’s basic industry; the. farmer must be put on a plane of equality with industry and commerce. He must be able to buy without being gouged, and to sell without being swindled.

Transportation, water power, and other great necessities of the common people must be guided, directed, and controlled in the public interest.

The rights of free speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of religious worship, must be preserved and maintained. There must be no religious test for holding office—no political test for thought. Some great writer, some modern Lincoln, Jefferson, or Wilson need take such themes and put them into burning words to lead the liberal party of America forward on its task of service to the average man.


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