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Now Is the Time for All Good Persons ….

ISSUE:  Spring 1981
The Democrats: From Jefferson to Carter. By Robert A. Rutland. Louisiana State. $12.95.

The Democratic Party is a dilemma wrapped in the enigma of the American party system. Given the inchoate structure of the political parties over time and the exaggerated divisiveness of the social and institutional carriers of the ideals of American pluralism, it may be supererogatory to apply the term “system” to such bodies and their activities. But despite the facts that individual party membership is essentially a state of mind, that even office-holding adherents are subject to little or no formal party discipline, that the intensity of factional battles within each party often exceeds the fervor of inter-party competition, and that coalition strategies are usually far more important than ideology in any evidence of cohesion offered by either the parties in office or in the electorate, the American two-party system has continued to function for an extraordinary time. It is now the oldest system of its kind as measured by the continuous span in which the same two major parties have been in contention.

The Democratic Party’s capacity for survival under this amorphous structural arrangement for conducting partisan political competition is even more astonishing than the durability of the system. Although its origins are not absolutely certifiable, it is, at the least, nearly coterminous with the Republic. It has maintained its position as a major national competitor through the rise and fall of two predecessors of its Republican rival, and has been present at, and perhaps even assisted with, the birth and early demise of numerous third parties. It appeared to be fragmented beyond recovery in 1860 and its aftermath. Between 1860 and 1932 it was relegated to a minority position, with its solid popular and congressional bases confined largely to the semi-exiled Southern states. Since 1932, it has been solidly established as the majority party, as it was essentially from 1800 to 1860, but even in that favorable status it has remained internally tempestuous and regularly appears to be falling apart. Its name has changed at least once; and though it started as the party vociferously opposed to the centralization of political power and the concentration of the most active powers of government in the executive, it has latterly been one of the chief agents in nationalizing the locus of political decision-making and, especially in its latest accession to a dominant place, has consistently nominated presidents who have assumed growing activist roles for the executive branch.

In fewer than 250 pages of text Professor Rutland boldly sweeps through almost 200 years of Democratic Party history. He manages to do this (while giving the impression of leaving out little of importance) by concentrating almost entirely on the forces that have moved and shaped the quadrennial party struggle over the presidency. The focus is thus mainly on the leadership (or absence of it) on the part of those engaged in the effort to reach what one writer on the presidency has called The Pinnacle. The personalities and political strategies of the principal contenders and their chief supporters are at the forefront, but the setting is in the context of the larger issues, domestic and foreign, confronting the country in its major isolable eras. The author also perceives that the necessity for building coalitions (among influential politicians of various social groupings and on geographic, especially regional, bases) to secure nomination and then to win elections is inextricably bound up with the effort to address those issues in a way that ties political aspiration to the resolution of ubiquitous conflicts among interests.

Almost 40 years ago Professor Wilfred Binkley sub-titled his study of American political parties, “Their Natural History.” The Democrats, too, could be called “a natural history” because the events recorded in the book unfold through Professor Rutland’s narrative skill as though they were ineluctable. For example, he sees the immediate origins of the Democratic Party as growing out of the struggles over the Jay Treaty and the Federalist measures—especially the Alien and Sedition Acts—which were designed to suppress the potential coalescence of rising Republican opposition to its own concentration of power. In an unusual particularization of image, the author says that ultimate Republican resistance in the form of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions was “In a sense . . .the first party platform in American history.” He justifies this judgment on the grounds that the resolutions, which articulated the doctrine of interposition and nullification by the states of alleged unconstitutional acts on the part of the national government, were peaceable means of protest and constituted classic propaganda pieces that captured the nation’s attention, “pointed the way to solving a problem of enormous magnitude, and yet upheld the spirit of the Constitution by proposing to work within the system” (p. 15). Although this and later experience with states rights doctrine (including Federalist subsumption in the Hartford Convention, culmination in Southern secession, and revival in the form of the South’s intra-party protest during the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s) make this formulation questionable in both its major and supporting premises, it does recall the extent to which the party was grounded in, and won its first national election (1800) on, the basis of decentralization and limitation of the powers of government (especially in the executive branch) and accountability through popular elections.

What makes The Democrats lively and engaging for the academician and lay reader alike is the author’s capacity for enriching his account by means of deftly contrived metaphors and fixing his characterizations with aphoristic captions or well-chosen quotations from participants in the events, most of which hold up somewhat better than the one just cited.

The bonding agent that Professor Rutland discerns as holding the volatile elements of the Democratic Party stable is the spirit of Jefferson. Inasmuch as Madison was instrumental in introducing party opposition to the Federalists on the basis of Jeffersonian principles (in the Congress, at least), it is only natural that Rutland, Editor of the Madison papers at the University of Virginia, should attribute the Democratic Party’s coherence through time to the Jeffersonian moral foundations and to Jeffersonian political efficacy in applying them. That the Democratic Party continues to appeal to Jeffersonian symbols in its efforts to hold the disparate and fluctuating groups that compose it together at any given time is unquestioned. But one becomes a bit uneasy when Jeffersonian doctrine is literally applied to justify virtually all the chopping and changing the party has gone through since its inception. The Jefferson quotation that the author inscribes in the front matter of the book and repeats as a peroration in the penultimate sentence of the volume may be broad enough to cover symbolically the loosely framed purpose that animates (or ought to animate) the Democratic Party as instrument: “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” But between the invocation and the benediction (the last sentence of the text states that “A political party founded on that premise [the Jefferson quotation], and committed to its fulfillment, should last as long as the nation endures”) a lot of party history is played out, and not all of it comports with the virtuous practice through which Mr. Jefferson sought to realize his noble ends.

Given Jefferson’s agrarianism, for example, and his devolutionary libertarianism, it is easier to see why the author could make a case for Cleveland’s self-restraint in the use of presidential power on Jeffersonian grounds than it is for him to try to relate Truman’s initiatives in establishing a federal program to deal with urban problems to a retailoring of his (Truman’s) Jeffersonian ideals. It might have been more apposite to contend (as the author gently implies in several places) that the transfer of power to the central government and its concentration in the presidency was the best response the Democratic Party could make to an economic and social world that Mr. Jefferson would have deplored.

Perhaps the optimism Professor Rutland displays about the founding principles of the Democratic Party being kept intact in the face of its accretion of governmental power to offset the destabilizing effects of the massive power of the “interests” is reinforced by the fact that he looks more closely at the party’s heroes and their successes than at its more pedestrian operatives and its organizational and programmatic shortcomings. Except in the broadest sense, Professor Rutland does not deal with the problem of party organization and the party role in sustaining the capacity to exercise those indispensable functions political parties play in maintaining a constitutionally based, popularly controlled government. He is defensive in the face of the pessimism some contemporary observers display about the future of the party system, attacking David Broder and Henry Fairlie for “doleful messages” that “. . . bespeak a shortsightedness that must be overcome.” (p. 241— this and the immediately succeeding comments relate to the last paragraph in the “Bibliographical Note” at the end of the book). The correction for this shortcoming is a return to history, especially to “our first political endeavors. . . .”

Although the specific criticism is directed at two journalists, the implications of this argument are clearly related to the current historiographic controversy between those historians who seek to apply analytic methods of the social sciences to the study of history and the so-called “Traditional” historians. In coming down firmly on the side of the latter, Professor Rutland reminds us that “Historians believe in looking at the sources.” He stipulates that every informed citizen must read The Federalist and Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Convention or pay the penalty of political ignorance. This type of historical knowledge will offset the discouragement that comes from attaching too much meaning to current events and temporary setbacks. The parties have always been in a state of perturbation, but “as our loyalties to parties have been nurtured, we have added strength to the democratic process.”

One can agree with Professor Rutland’s plea for a return to the origins in the effort to evoke from historic experience that sense of party commitment to principle that enabled the parties to attract adherents and serve as mediating agencies for translating the promise of popular government into institutionalized practice. But it is not only journalists who are concerned about the possibility that the parties may no longer be able to perform the intermediary functions of nomination, issue formulation, education of the voting public, electoral coalition formation, and organization of those elected to public office on the party slate into a coherent governing body (or in cases of party defeat into an effective opposition). Others who are fair historians in their own right—Everett Ladd, for example, and even that active, although retrospectively doubtful, participant in the most recent wave of Democratic Party “reform,” Austin Ranney—are among those who are pessimistic on grounds that are far from superficial. Analysis of the extent and intensity of party identification, trends in voting and patterns of voter abstention, underlying social conditions that affect voting and party cohesion, organizational structure, leadership, nominating processes, issue orientation, etc., may not do much to sustain the vitality of a traditional political organization, but they do remind us of structural and ideological weaknesses that threaten the continuity of that tradition. The obverse of excessive trust in discreet analysis is over-reliance on faith in the natural capacity of the tradition to survive into the future because it has overcome so many threats and adversities in the past.

A plea for understanding the grounds of the tradition for purposes of preserving it is a laudable claim on the activity of both the historian and the political analyst. Without the tradition, we would have nothing to preserve or to analyze. But I would contend that the sense of the historical tradition and analysis of the way it works and the conditions under which it can be perpetuated should be regarded as complementary rather than antithetical. Professor Rutland provides his readers a sound sense of the way the commitment to the Democratic Party tradition has produced its mythic effect, which served the American political system well in the past. But his spirited defense of the tradition could have been usefully supplemented by more of the kind of analysis he appears to repudiate.


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