Citizens Need a New Political Party
A Call for a New Order of Leadership
Adlai Stevenson III was a Senator. His father and grandfather also held federal office. This address was given 21 years ago but sounds on-target for today. See what you think.
American history is largely a history of men rising to the demands of their time in an office which afforded the power necessary to govern. Lincoln and the Roosevelts didn't quibble over constitutional niceties. They acted.
Now the nation shrinks from the firm exercise of presidential power. Historians who once hailed the strong president came to bewail an "imperial" presidency. Presidential fallibility produced a reaction. This reaction to the grossness of recent years, including Vietnam and Watergate, has weakened the presidency and the nation.
We reacted, not to history, but to aberrations of history with institutional and procedural rearrangements celled reforms. The methods of government became the ends of government.
The nation was never exalted to high levels of endeavor by reorganization plans and zero-based budgets. The strong presidents may have been the least occupied by matters of management. Franklin Roosevelt, according to his secretary of war, was the "poorest administrator I have ever worked under." Wilson and Roosevelt, both candidates of political bosses, won fights for economic justice. Under Truman, institutions of trade and money and development were established which reformed the world order. Now presidents are managers of a vast bureaucracy by choice -- or by necessity.
The Republican Party emerged from discordant forces of reform -- dislllusioned Whigs and Democrats, Abolitionists, immigrants and laborers and Know-Nothings. Lincoln, the consummate politician, picked up where the improbable Fremont had failed. He wedded principle and self-interest. Slavery, he recognized, was a threat to the laborer as well as a principle for the Abolitionist. He rode the crest of reform into office against a divided opposition. Those forces for reform would not have been much moved by budget procedures, impact statements, sunset and sunshine laws, conflict of interest laws, and all the rest.
The Union was held together. Later the Republican Party was taken over by economic royalists. Theodore Roosevelt bolted. The Populists and Progressives became reforming forces in America.
The presidency has pulsated between reform and reaction -- Buchanan was followed by Lincoln, Taft by Wilson, Hoover by Roosevelt, Eisenhower by Kennedy. Now reaction is followed by reaction -- and in the face of radical change.
Thirty years ago the nation was the dominant military and economic force in the world. Now it is suing for nuclear parity with a hostile super-power. The U.S. and most nations are dependent on undependable and expensive sources of fuel in the Persian Gulf. Our trade deficit has reached $30 billion; the dollar has been sinking like a barometer of world confidence in our capacity for economic leadership and self-discipline -- shored up only by emergency measures to stave off panic and buy time. Time for what?
World debt has quintupled since 1973. Now in this newly interdependent world many nations are faced with insolvency. Credit is limited. Economic nationalism threatens lower levels of world commerce and investment. And with it all is the prospect of greater political instability. Violence is still an accepted form of political action in the world, and the instruments of violence now include chemical, biological, and nuclear agents of mass destruction, all available to sub-national groups as well as to nations.
Bismarck said that God holds his hand quite particularly ove fools, drunkards, and the United States of America. The country was built with labor from Africa and the Old World. Its engines of industry were fueled by abundant and cheap raw materials, including oil. For a time it virtually controlled the world's capital. Its technology was pre-eminent. Now all that is abruptly changed. We are left to compete in a highly competitive and interdependent world with many of our natural advantages, if not God's hand, withdrawn. And we are left to do so with a presidency, and a process for the selection of presidents, mangled by the reaction.
The president's conduct of foreign policy is circumscribed by some 70 congressionally imposed "reforms." His actions upon domestic matters are subject to congressional veto. And as the powers of the president have been circumscribed, congressional discipline and leadership have been broken down by other so-called reforms. The exercise of presidential leadership now requires the concurrence of myriads of subcommittee chairmen and a new generation of ambitious men and women in Congress, all of them subject to continuous political pressure. Other "reforms" have made service in the Congress -- indeed, in all branches of government--less attractive to those best qualified to serve in it.
Some of the organizational and procedural changes now in force, especially civil service reform, were long overdue. Others are counterproductive. It is a mixed bag and a dangerous substitute for action.
This preoccupation with governing the government, the substitution of methods for the ends of government, has produced reorganization plans for the executive branch. We now have an Energy Department, but no adequate energy policy. The government will have sunset laws but more bureaucracy, Humphrey-Hawkins laws but more unemployment. Paradoxically, the response of American politics to Richard Nixon was to institutionalize him. Before the President's fall, a commentator said, "If a high degree of efficiency and superb follow-through are presidential virtues, then Richard Nixon is the most virtuous man ever to sit in The White House."
Such "virtues" are institutionalized by procedures which attach the least value to the most subjective, perhaps most important, values. How does a zero-based budget value art or basic science, after all? And how would the proposals for indiscriminate ceilings on taxes and expenditures weigh the deflationary effects of investments in health, or food, or energy, or law enforcement; or judge what it is that makes life truly worth living?
The rapidity with which events move and the magnitude and complexity of issues overwhelm the institutions of self-government everywhere. In Lincoln's time the typewriter had yet to be invented. Today knowledge is exploding beyond the capacity of men to utilize even with computers. A concern for management is understandable, but I question whether it has not become a substitute for hard choices and new ideas.
Presidential policies and decisions percolate up through inter-agency reviews and presidential review memoranda and through the technocrats in OMB until finally the computers have made their last run and the president is faced with a set of options that reflect the lowest common denominator of the bureaucracy. This process doesn't produce new directions or ideas. Choices are unguided by any relevant philosophy; "liberal" and "conservative" are labels without meaning. They are unguided by history and the instincts of wise men.
The nation is at another watershed, presented with choices not unlike those it faced in the '20s and the '40s. It could choose protect itself from foreign economic competition. That choice in the '20s was the proximate cause of world depression which, with all the inadequacies of the First World War's settlement, led to the disarray of the democracies and the next war.
Or it could move to meet the competition in the world. It could develop new marketing systems, increase the production of food, adapt antitrust laws to a global market. It could recommit itself to basic science and technological innovation, a basis for economic progress. New frontiers in space could be pushed back with the American space shuttle and that benign environent utilized routinely for the benefit of mankind. It could move as it did in the late '40s to build world institutions of trade and money and development. It could recognize that it is ultimately more hopeful for mankind to increase the production of essential commodities and services than to decrease the demand for them. There is no limit to what the U.S. could do with ingenuity and entrepreneurship -- and an emboldened government. But this time the nation is not reforming.
Lyndon Johnson said he would push buttons and give orders, but the bureaucracy was impervious to command. Now the bureaucracy seems to command the presidency. The budget drives the president. Presidents respond to the reforming forces of their time by reorganizing and temporizing.
One of the objectives of "reform" was called "citizen participation." Political parties were opened up through quotas and affirmative action programs. The results of that effort for citizen participation are reflected in public opinion polls and elections which indicate that the citizens have dropped out of the parties. They are eloquently protesting the inadequacies of this reformed process by refusing to be a part of it. "Reform" has enfranchised single interest groups to the felt exclusion of the general public. Campaign finance reforms subordinated the citizen to the political action committee. Candidates appeal to special interests instead of to the general interest more so than before "reform."
The last candidate to talk sense was, like Roosevelt, a candidate of "bosses." The first candidates of the "reformed" patties were Richard Nixon and George McGovern. In their early days the parties were imbued with a strong Jeffersonian commitment to individual freedom. Now they are heavily influenced by impersonal forces of organized labor, organized business, government itself -- and a new egalitarianism. Lincoln would find ways to harmonize affirmative action with the Jeffersonian ideal of excellence. He accepted profit as a motivating force for the nation. Now the effort of reform is to redistribute profit -- at some risk of not producing it.
The presidency may again require a new party to sustain it. Another "starveling of fate," as Wendell Phillips called Lincoln, must be somewhere in this vast country ready to respond again to the disillusioned with a message of hope rooted in American tradition and faced to the future. That message could sustain the evolution of nations toward world citizenship and emancipate the energies of the individual. Principle and self-interest might be merged once more in a reaffirnation of American purpose. Perhaps people would come, as they did in Lincoln's time, to the debates.
I am not certain the old parties with all their baggage could produce the candidates and ideas any more than they could in the mid-19th century. And if a new order of leadership is not forthcoming from the institutions of American self-goverment, then inflation, unemployment and recession will create a militancy in America that could find other outlets.
The public is dissatisfied with the existing order of things and rightly so. New parties have appeared at such times, rarely to succeed at the polls, but with lasting effects on the nation's politics. It could happen again, and perhaps it should.
What's your opinion on what will save American democracy? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
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