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Democrats and Republicans

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

One of the political delusions, constantly being repeated by the semi-profound political philosophers of the club luncheon table and the Pullman smoking car, is that there exists no longer any essential difference between the Democratic and the Republican parties. These party names, we are constantly assured, have become mere tags, meaningless and outworn. There are assumptions, more hopeful, if less sincere, that the Democratic party is disappearing, and the bright prospect of a day when our general political condition will approximate the serenity and purity of that of Pennsylvania, is painted in glowing terms.

No one need be surprised at such a confusion of thought. For the surface of our political conditions seems made up of paradoxes. States like New York, Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey, although giving huge majorities for Republican candidates for President in 1920 and 1924, elect Democratic Governors with cheerful regularity, and even go so far at times as to return Republican Senators to private life. The Republican party, split wide asunder in 1912, and carrying only two states for Mr. Taft, sweeps the country in 1920 and 1924, and seems established permanently as the majority party. The apparent incongruity of the alliance between Tammany Hall and the South, often noted with regret by leading Republican journals, and even spoken of as immoral, continues, despite its apparent inconsistency.

Many explanations have been offered for these paradoxes, but they do not satisfy us, for they fail to reach the profound causes which lie beneath local issues like the tariff. Even more insistent matters, such as prohibition and racial intolerance, are effects rather than causes. The truth remains, that no matter what names may be given to them, there will always be two parties in this country, composed of citizens of two radically different political, social, and emotional philosophies. And because of the fundamental nature of these differences, there will never permanently be more than two parties in the United States.

One group is made up of those who vote primarily for a personality. This first group, which may be called the Democratic-minded party, for there are many voters in f the Republican party who are like them, is keenly responsive to the appeal of leadership. Once being satisfied that the man in question may be trusted, they will follow him through defeat or victory with equal loyalty. He must have touched their imagination by some quality that has appealed to their primitive instincts, and the qualities which have most often made that appeal have been courage, and a sympathy with the man or woman who labors either with hands or brain. Jefferson, forgetting his party doctrine of strict construction, to buy Louisiana; Jackson, forgetting his party doctrine of State Rights, to keep South Carolina in the Union; Cleveland, waving the same doctrine aside when Illinois could not handle her anarchists; Wilson, turning his back on the party doctrine of minding our own business, in order to straighten out the business of the world—this is the kind of leader the Democratic-minded man follows unquestioningly.

At the root of this loyalty is the feeling of the clan, of the feudal spirit, which is imperishably planted in so many natures. That is the reason why the South and Tam-many find no difficulty in rubbing along together, for the basis of the social organization of one and the political organization of the other is the same feudalism. A large body of individuals, who depend for their welfare on the head of their plantation, or on the leader of their ward, who, in his turn, sees to it that no one injures them except himself, form the unit in both cases. No such feudal instinct, by, the way, has developed as yet in industrial organization, and as the border states of the South grow more industrial, they become, from a political standpoint, more debatable.

Our various racial stocks have become so mixed during the past century that generalizations are not so fruitful as they may at first appear. But in this clan feeling, this response to personality in the political leader, there is something Celtic, and something Latin, just as there is something Teutonic in its opposite. The great body of city dwellers who have sprung from Irish or Italian ancestors are likely to be found in the Democratic party. They have a great capacity for admiration; and that instinct of the Mediterranean races which distrusts legislative bodies and prefers executive responsibility.

If this type of mind presupposes large numbers of voters who are in the humbler economic walks of life, it presupposes just as surely the presence of a high type of character for their leader. It is not necessary that he be a demagogue—who was less of one than Tilden, or Cleveland, or Wilson? The reporters who were present when the last named made his famous speech in Philadelphia to the recent immigrants were so anxious to feature his phrase “too proud to fight” that they, forgot the reception accorded to his other statement, “It is good for you to believe us better than we are.” There is a touch of idealism in the Democratic-minded man, which shows unexpectedly in the most hard-boiled of citizens. One of these, who travels on the same suburban road as myself, surprised me by speaking of President Wilson, in accents of hero worship which I am sure never passed his lips for anyone else. It is this capacity for admiration which leads the Democratic voters to follow a vivid if unstable personality like Bryan to defeat—and occasionally when a great figure and favorable circumstances arise, enough voters who are like them but who are nominally Republicans, leave their party and elect the Democratic candidate.

The other type of voter is more interested in institutions than he is in personalities. He is distrustful of brilliant men, but if a candidate is presented who is safe, who is possessed of common sense, who believes in the sanctity of property, this type of mind will vote for him without enthusiasm but in overwhelming numbers. For of such minds the United States of America are largely made. It happens that this type of mind is just now called Republican and it nominates and elects Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, and Mr. Coolidge. Occasionally, a brilliant personality arises in its ranks, like Blaine or Roosevelt, but the very exception proves the rule. For the Republican party never elected Blaine, and if its leaders had had their way, it would never have elected Roosevelt. He was not comfortable in their councils and they did not know what to do with him. What he did to the party is now history. But he is gone, and the party is as though he had never existed.

One of the greatest sources of strength in the Republican-minded group is a feeling which has come down to them through centuries, from their Teutonic ancestry. Emerson expressed it neatly—”the world is governed too much.” The spirit which has reduced the royalties of Great Britain, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, to nonentities, and made a republic of Germany, is responsible for the frame of mind which, no matter what his party name may be, prefers a Polk to a Clay, and Mr. Coolidge to Mr. Davis. Believing that they can get along well enough, if they are let alone, they vote solidly for an Executive who will check rather than lead. Even their preference for legislative bodies over executives, results more from a comfortable feeling that legislative discussion is likely after all to lead nowhere, or at least to no definite action that cannot be repealed. This group of Republican-minded citizens is conservative, but it would be a mistake to call the Republican party conservative, as though its opposite were radical. There is nothing essentially radical in the Democratic party. The two greatest radical revolts of recent years, that of the Progressives in 1912, and that of the La Follette wing in 1924, arose in the Republican party. There is always a large section of this party who are looking for a leader, because they are in that party by. accident and they really belong to the other group. If they find a personality on the Democratic ticket who suits their fancy, they, will elect him. But if he represents to them what Judge Parker represented in 1904 or what John W. Davis was unfortunately made to represent in 1924, they see no reason to leave their party for him.

How does this fundamental distinction explain and affect the present political situation? By no other light can it be understood how Governor Smith, in the face of religious prejudice, puritan opposition and the desire for revenge, nursed for three years, is far nearer the nomination of his party than anyone believed possible who sat through the last Democratic Convention. The leaders of his party are beginning to see the elemental truth that since there are more Republican-minded voters than there are Democratic-minded, the task of selecting a candidate for the Democratic party, is not only more difficult, but it is also more important. A candidate for the Republican party can be selected even as Harding was, with the choice depending on the telephonic permission of a chieftain past the power to articulate clearly, and the result may be successful. For it really does not matter who the candidate is, since the party does not vote for him. It votes for the institutions he represents and they go on, irrespective of persons.

But upon the Democratic party rests a heavier responsibility. They must nominate a strong, attractive personality, or they will be defeated as surely as the sun rises. That is why Governor Smith’s name comes up so persistently, to the regret of the editorial writers of Republican newspapers, who are doing their best to convince their readers that he can not be elected. It must be a matter of chagrin to them when the news columns record such a personal victory as has recently occurred in New York, but news columns are not so easily controlled as editorial utterances. Even the writers of the latter know that it will be much easier to elect Governor Smith than it will be to nominate him. For while the Southern delegates will vote for him in the convention only when they are compelled to do so, the South will vote for him in the election rather than for any Republican. To anyone familiar with the brave attempts to maintain a white Republican party in the Southern States, the often repeated statement that the nomination of Governor Smith will split the solid South, is amusing. One of the most potent allies of the Democratic party in the South is the committee on credentials which operates at Republican national conventions. To this body, which decides each contest between white and negro delegations in favor of the latter, the Democratic party owes a great debt. The Committee, although not composed exclusively of lovers of the colored race, acts of course, with an eye to the negro vote in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. These are debatable states and are, therefore, of importance. The Southern white Republicans, being in their judgment hopelessly in the minority, can be disregarded. So there is no danger that the South will split upon the nomination of Governor Smith.

He is the one hope of his party. No one else can draw from the Republican party the votes of its Democratic-minded members, in the large numbers necessary to win. Governor Ritchie, Senator Reed, or Senator Walsh are personalities, but the Republican leaders are not afraid of them. Governor Smith alone has touched the imagination of millions of people, who love courage and honesty and ability. For he has not only personality; he has also character. Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson had both—Mr. Coolidge has character, but no personality—and the combination is not a very usual one. There will be great problems for the next President of the United States to face and some of the problems will arise without warning. That is one reason why thousands of Republicans will vote for a man who never is too proud to learn, and who thinks in terms of the future as well as of the present.

But in any event, no matter who is nominated, there will still be the two kinds of minds with which to reckon. As long as there are descendants of the men who flung Charles I from his throne, or of those who invented the Electoral College to “refine the people’s views” or of those who strove with Webster to compromise on slavery, in order to save the Union and their commercial prosperity, there will be a Republican party, or some similar organization with another name. Well disciplined, averse to the discussion of the unexpected, its conventions will present a solid phalanx of organized opinion, in which opposition will be submerged. Its cardinal belief, that prosperity, if allowed to alight upon the holders of property and the leaders of finance and industry, will filter through to the greatest number, will not be disturbed by the remote rumors of unemployment or the mutterings of the thirsty. It will fight in the hollow square that lost at Hastings, but won at Marston Moor and Waterloo and Gettysburg, by the errors of its foes.

And as long as there are descendants of the men who followed Charles II into exile, or of those who went with Robert Emmett to death, or of those who cheered on Andrew Jackson to victory, there will always be a Democratic party in the United States of America. Not so well disciplined, or so subject to direction, its conventions will be swayed by emotions that cannot be discounted in advance; its delegates will do more of their own thinking and prophecies are out of order. Their great principle of personal liberty and their willingness to accept prosperity not as a gift of the gods, but as their own right, will permit discussion of subjects which may wreck their chances of immediate success, but may bring ultimate victory. If they win, it will be through the vigor of their attack, and for attack a great leader must be provided, who will unite the clans through the magnetism of his appeal.

And because there will always be these two elements in our national character, the future of the Republic is secure.


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