History Lesson

Hurray for Party-Line Pols

Politicians who vote the party line look better in hindsight than those who vote their personal conscience.

The recent vote to hold impeachment hearings over Flytrap, we know, hewed closely to party lines; only 31 Democrats and one Republican broke ranks. But the Democratic and Republican leadership did purport to agree on this: The vote was supposed to be one of “conscience.” Responding to reports that he was muscling Democrats for support, President Clinton insisted the day before the decision that everyone should “cast a vote of principle and conscience.” Likewise, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich promised, “There will be no arm-twisting. Members need to take this vote as a matter of conscience.”

Washington suffers such bouts of conscience periodically, usually when Congress faces a vote with dicey political consequences. During the Gulf War, House Speaker Tom Foley assured reporters, “Individual members are going to vote with their conscience and their judgment on this matter.” The Bush White House agreed: “This is a vote of conscience and not something you can involve party loyalty on.”

It’s not hard to hear in all these comments the reverberations of people protesting too much. Most of the time, we’re left to conclude, these craven, opportunistic pols will crumple, tossing aside their deeply held convictions at the slightest blandishments. Only on an extraordinary occasion do principles carry the day.

The conscience talk also suggests something else that’s taken for granted: Voting with party is bad and voting according to conscience–and potentially against party–is good. “I wanted to show my constituents I wasn’t afraid to go against my party,” Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey told the New York Times, explaining why he supported the Democratic proposal. Voters endorse this premise, affiliating themselves less and less with either party and splitting their tickets in the voting booth more and more.

How did party loyalty get such a bad name? In his new book, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, Michael Schudson divides American history into three periods, each governed by a different notion of civic participation. In the early Republic, parties were anathema, viewed as self-interested cabals whose aims conflicted with an otherwise discernible common good. In his famous “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrote of “the mischiefs of faction”–taken to be a synonym for, or the worst manifestation of, party. George Washington, elected unanimously and without party affiliation, cautioned in his Farewell Address against “the baneful effects of the spirit of the party.” Everyone was expected to vote according to conscience all the time.

The conceit of government by peaceable consensus was soon exposed as chimerical. By the 1790s, the young nation’s leaders promptly split into warring parties: the New England-centered Federalists and the Southern-based Republicans. (For more on the confusing history of U.S. parties, click here.) The problem was that each party had different ideas about what the common good entailed: For the Federalists it meant a strong central government, an expanding economy, and the stewardship of an elite ruling class. The Republicans envisioned a weaker federal government, an agrarian society, and an infusion of democracy.

Though the Federalist-Republican split was short-lived, Americans were recognizing parties as inevitable in a democracy. In New York in the 1810s, future president Martin Van Buren led a coalition called the “Bucktails” or the “Albany Regency” against the elites who dominated state politics. One of the great forgotten figures of American history, Van Buren pioneered party discipline as a way to muster the strength of numbers against the entrenched closed-door aristocracy, transforming state and later national politics. (It was Van Buren’s ally William L. Marcy who famously said, “To the victors belong the spoils,” making the “spoils system” of rewarding supporters a fixture of party politics.)

Van Buren’s politicking ushered in the second era of citizenship in Schudson’s scheme. During the 19th century, parties thrived. Andrew Jackson’s election as president in 1828, for whom Van Buren would later serve as vice president, crystallized his supporters into the Democratic Party, his opponents into the Whigs. By late century, elections had become ebulliently partisan affairs. Republicans and Democrats paraded in torchlight processions, waved banners, sang songs. Newspapers unabashedly pitched the news from a partisan slant. On Election Day, party leaders handed voters tickets with slates of candidates printed upon them; the voter just dropped the ticket in the ballot box. Turnout was never higher. Whatever its faults, democracy was bustling and vital.

Elite reformers of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era put a stop to all this. Appalled by the rampant corruption of the spoils system, they instituted civil service reform and the “Australian” secret ballot. They crippled parties by empowering voters through the referendum and the popular election of senators. The times celebrated objectivity, expertise, and efficiency: Voters now had to stay informed and engaged to make more choices independently. Since then, parties have continued to lose both power and credibility. “Today the labels [of party] are shunned as an offense to a thinking person’s individualism, and a vast majority of Americans insist they vote for ‘the man, not the party,’ ” writes political scientist Larry Sabato.

There’s no arguing that a democracy needs representatives and voters who can think for themselves. Perhaps one day we’ll even achieve that. Still, there are some reasons to prefer the 19th century’s embrace of partisanship to today’s exaltation of the conscience-serving, hyper-responsible individual–or what I once heard called the “David Broder/League of Women Voters school of politics.”

As Van Buren knew, parties are inherently democratic, the most effective way of organizing otherwise powerless individuals. With $4 billion, Ross Perot can avoid party ties and just run for president. For most people to compete they need to come together and to raise funds, agree upon a platform, choose candidates, and so on. Party loyalty and discipline make that possible, and that sometimes means both voters and representatives must subordinate individual differences.

There’s a conservative case for parties, too, articulated by the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke believed that the principles shared by party members should bind them together, even when they encounter particular differences about their application (and despite some blurring of lines, party members do still share basic principles). Indeed, representatives owe it to the voters not to discard the party line for personal gain. Connecticut Democrats who voted for Joe Lieberman over the liberal Republican Lowell Weicker have every right to feel betrayed when Lieberman deserts a Democratic president in a partisan fight. It’s basic truth in advertising.

What’s more, the decline of voter turnout this century shows that our current arrangement leaves many voters feeling ill-equipped to participate in democracy. Who hasn’t entered a voting booth and been utterly baffled about how to vote on a referendum or whom to choose for some lower position? A party line comes in handy. The notion of the informed citizen puts too much pressure on individuals, where the cruder but more inspiring politics of the Gilded Age mobilized voters on Election Day.

Finally, parties help keep political power in balance, as even the anti-party Alexander Hamilton saw. In “Federalist No. 70,” he wrote, “the jarrings of parties [in Congress], though they may sometimes obstruct salutary plans, yet often promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check excesses in the majority.” If you think Clinton should be ousted, surely you’re glad the Republicans have united to impeach him. And if you think the Republicans are an out-of-control majority bent on revenge, surely you’re happy to see Democrats rallying to stop them. When it comes to extraordinary moments of political crisis, “conscience” sometimes just gets in the way.

If you didn’t click the sidebars in the text and would like a brief reminder of the tangled history of U.S. political parties–and the enduring differences between them–click here and here.