Monday, June 30, 2008

Websites Across the Pond

Further to my post about British politics, here are some key sources for those interested in British political news.

The BBC has a tremendous website, which you should check out, if you haven't done so already. It's often said to have a leftist bias, but it seems about as eager to explore the foibles of the current Labor Party government, as it was with the Conservative Party when they were in power.

Here's a blog which I find intriguing. It's maintained by certain members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament. As Britain has increasingly democratized its politics over the course of many centuries, the House of Lords has changed shape, and lost power.

Originally, the House consisted mainly of people who had inherited titles of Lord So-and-So, Duke of This, Earl of That, etc. Legislation needed to be approved by the House of Lords, in addition to the lower, elected, House of Commons. Then, in 1911, the rules were changed to provide, in effect, that the House of Lords could delay passage of legislation, but could not, in the end, prevent the House of Commons from asserting its will. From then on, the legislative role of the Lords has been to give legislation a second look and, without changing the general scope of the Commons' intent, to suggest improvements, that are often accepted by the lower house. Here is the House of Lords' own summary of its current functions.

The monarch has the power to veto legislation, but no monarch has done so since 1707. So, in effect, the House of Commons can do whatever it wants, subject only to the voters' verdict at the next election.

The House of Lords now consists mainly of life peers, who are given titles that cannot be inherited by their children. The others are called hereditary peers. The life peers are usually people who are recognized for their achievements either in politics, or in other fields, including business and entertainment. When politicians retire from Cabinet service, they are often given life peerages. For instance, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has, since 1992, had the title of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, which gives her a seat in the House of Lords.

In 1999, most of the hereditary peers lost their right to sit in the House of Lords. In accordance with a compromise agreed between the parties, 92 of them remain, to represent the larger body of hereditary peers. That was intended to be but a preliminary step toward a more comprehensive reform of the upper house, perhaps including election of some or all of its members. But no further action has yet been taken.

Back to the subject of the Lords' blog: In one sense, what the Lords have to say is not very relevant, in that their influence is far lower than that of members of the House of Commons (known as "MPs" for "Members of Parliament"). However, I find that the Lords will often be more candid than the MPs, because they don't need to face election. So, in that sense, their writings are often more interesting.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Separated by a Common Language

May 6, 2008 was election day, when American voters in the first district of Mississippi elected Travis Childers to the House of Representatives in a special election. 22 May, 2008, was polling day, when English voters in the constituency of Crewe and Nantwich elected Edward Timpson to the House of Commons in a by-election.

At first glance, you might think those two sentences describe different types of events. But each of these sets of voters did the same thing: they filled a vacancy in the lower house of the legislative body. The events were similar even down to the level that, in each case, voters registered a protest against an unpopular leader by awarding to the opposition party a seat that had been considered safe for the leader’s party.

This is further proof, if any were needed, that George Bernard Shaw was correct in saying that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.“ Political language is no exception to this rule. As an introduction to a series of posts on the British political system, and how it differs from the American system, I will examine some of those differences in political language.

OK, so we’ve established that what we Americans call election day, district, House of Representatives and special election, the British call polling day, constituency, House of Commons and by-election, respectively. What else is there?

The U.K.’s top legislative body is the “Parliament” and the U.S.’s is the “Congress”. The upper houses of those bodies are “House of Lords” and “Senate”, respectively.

Job titles differ. The “Prime Minister” is Britain’s head of government. As I’ll describe in a later post, that role is not identical to that of the American “President”, but it’s close. One of the U.K. titles that Americans find quite colorful (or as they would write it, “colourful”), is “Chancellor of the Exchequer”, roughly equivalent to our “Secretary of the Treasury”.

One more note on titles: we continue to call someone by their title, after they leave office. Our living former presidents are called “President Carter”, “President Bush”, and “President Clinton”, and each of them will forever be addressed as “Mr. President”. However, when the British refer to “the prime minister” or “the chancellor” (they usually leave out the “of the Exchequer” part), they’re describing the current holder of the office. As we will see later, their former officeholders are often given titles such as “Lord So-and-So” and “Lady Such-and-Such”.

Just to confuse you further, the same word or phrase sometimes has different meanings. We both speak of “general elections”, but we use that phrase somewhat differently. In the U.K. it describes an election for all of the seats in the House of Commons, and is contrasted to a by-election which, again, is used to fill a vacancy in one seat. In the U.S. we differentiate between “general elections” and “primary elections”. The British don’t have primary elections (more later on the process by which their parties choose candidates for the House of Commons).

Here’s one difference regarding parliamentary procedure. When the British “table” a proposal, they put it into consideration. For us, to table a proposal means to take it out of consideration. So, on that note, I’ll table (in the American sense) this discussion, and move on.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Turbulent Year

There will forever be disagreements about the meaning of various events in 1968. But I think all will agree on one thing: it was a turbulent political year such as has seldom been seen in America (not that the turbulence was limited to America).

Four years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a full term as president in a huge landslide, almost a year after he had become president when John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. After the 1964 election, the widespread expectation was that Johnson would run for a second full term in 1968, and at that time he seemed invincible. Johnson would have been constitutionally eligible to run for two full terms, because he had served less than half of the term to which Kennedy had been elected in 1960. However, no president who had succeeded to the presidency upon the death or resignation of a president has won a second full term.

What ensued? To quote Harold Macmillan, who was British prime minster from 1957 to 1963, "events, dear boy, events". The 1965-1969 presidential term was certainly eventful. Johnson's domestic policies, including federal funding of elementary and secondary education, federal health insurance for senior citizens, and other expansions of the federal reach, disillusioned some voters. But the biggest "event" was the escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam, which began in earnest in 1965.

By 1968, Johnson had lost much of his support. On March 31 of that year, he announced he would not run for president in 1968. In that same speech, he announced the beginnings of the U.S.'s standing down from its military commitment to South Vietnam.

Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination, after a contentious campaign that saw, among other things, the assassination of one of Humphrey's rivals, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York.

The Republican nominee was Richard Nixon. After losing the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy, and the 1962 California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown, Nixon moved to New York, joined a law firm there, and patiently planned his comeback. He was talked about as a contender for the 1964 Republican nomination but, in what certainly seems in retrospect a wise move, he bided his time. He rather easily won the 1968 Republican nomination; his main opponent was Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York.

The third-party candidate was George Wallace, then the former and future governor of Alabama. At his first gubernatorial inauguration in 1963, he said: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Between that inauguration and his 1968 presidential candidacy, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted. For the first time, the federal government possessed the tools to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were ratified in the wake of the Civil War, and were intended, respectively, to give freed African American slaves equal protection of the laws, and voting rights.

I did not find in Wallace's 1968 platform an explicit pledge to repeal those acts, but that is at least strongly implied by such planks as:

Reestablishment of the authority and responsibility of local government by
returning to the states, counties and cities those matters properly falling
within their jurisdiction and responsibility.

the Federal Government has adopted so-called "Civil Rights Acts,"
particularly the one adopted in 1964, which have set race against race and class
against class, all of which we condemn.

One can speculate about what combination of ambition and conviction brought Wallace to his decision to launch a third-party candidacy. But it is clear that he was setting out a policy position separate from those of the major-party candidates.

Humphrey was a consistent supporter of the type of federal actions that Wallace condemned. I wrote about Humphrey's 1948 convention speech here. In 1964, Humphrey was Senate floor manager for proponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nixon had been seen as a moderate on racial issues. During his presidency, when the issues shifted from elimination of Jim Crow laws, and impediments to African American voting, to such issues as affirmative action, and the so-called "busing" issue (sending children to public schools outside their neighborhood, in order to achieve racial balance), Nixon to a large degree sided with southern conservatives. But that's different from advocating rollback of the 1964-5 civil rights legislation.

Nixon won the general election with 301 electoral votes, to 191 for Humphrey and 46 for Wallace. The popular vote was very close, with 43.42% for Nixon to 42.72% for Humphrey. Wallace received 13.53% of the vote, a much higher proportion than Strom Thurmond had garnered in his similar third-party run in 1948. Wallace won a fair number of votes outside the south, although all of his electoral votes were southern.

Never again was there to be a major segregationist third-party run. Wallace ran for president as a Democrat in 1972 and 1976, failing to win his party's nomination in both of those years. Wallace, as was generally the case with major white southern politicians who retained significant support in the 1970s and onward, moderated his position on racial issues. He won further gubernatorial elections in Alabama in 1970, 1974 and 1982, despite being paralyzed after an assassination attempt in 1972.

Nixon won the electoral votes of Florida, Virginia, both Carolinas, and Tennessee in 1968. He then swept every southern state in his 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern. With the exception of 1976, when Georgian Jimmy Carter won a huge majority of southern electoral votes, Republicans have dominated the south ever since. Even in 2000, when Al Gore of Tennessee was the Democratic presidential nominee, his Republican opponent George W. Bush made a sweep of the south, including Gore's home state. Gore won a plurality of the popular vote, but the bulk of his support was outside his home region.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What does "Progressive" mean?

I was trying to turn the title of this post into another play on what "is" is, but much to the relief of President Clinton, it didn't seem to want to stretch that far, so I'll proceed to the subject at hand.

Henry Wallace of Iowa, who was vice president during Franklin Roosevelt's third term, and also served in the Cabinet under both Roosevelt and Truman, ran for president in 1948 as the Progressive candidate.

That was the same third-party label under which Theodore Roosevelt ran in 1912 (and Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin in 1924, a candidacy that I'm not including in this series of posts), but it meant something different.

The Progressive movement that Roosevelt led was a center-right faction that wanted to maintain free enterprise and relatively small government, while expanding the federal role in some areas. The Henry Wallace candidacy in 1948 was significantly further to the left.

Wallace's candidacy, as was the case with Thurmond's candidacy that same year, reflected an ideological split within the Democratic Party. In this case, the split mainly involved foreign policy. The Progressives wanted to maintain the close relationship with the Soviet Union that grew out of our alliance with that regime during World War II. Truman had, by contrast, begun waging the Cold War that characterized, in different stages, with greater or lesser intensity, the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union until the latter's demise in 1991. The Cold War faction among the Democrats saw the wartime alliance as a marriage of convenience that the U.S. no longer had any interest in maintaining, once the Soviets had made clear their belligerence toward American interests after 1945.

In the meantime, the word "progressive" has generally been used more in the Wallace sense than the Roosevelt sense.
In what is considered a political miracle, Harry Truman won a full term as president in 1948. As I alluded to earlier, 1948 was expected to be a Republican year. Republicans had, in the mid-term election of 1946, regained majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. A mid-term gain by the "out-party" is often said to predict a similar change in the White House two years later. I plan later to write about how this has been shown to be an unreliable indicator.

Truman won with 303 electoral votes. His Republican opponent, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, received 189 electoral votes. Thurmond and Wallace garnered relatively few votes, receiving 2.41% and 2.37% of the popular vote, respectively. Because Thurmond's votes were concentrated geographically in the southeast, he received 39 electoral votes. By contrast, Wallace's support was dispersed among more states, so he was shut out in the electoral college. (Closer to this year's November election, I will write more about the "winner-take-all" aspect of electoral votes within most of the states.)

In contrast to the Republicans' problem in 1912, the Democratic vote in 1948 was not sufficiently split up to bring defeat. The combined votes of Wallace and Thurmond were far less on a percentage basis, and significantly less on an absolute basis, than Roosevelt's in 1912. Truman almost won an absolute majority of the popular vote; he got 49.55% to Dewey's 45.07%.

There were other leftist third-party challenges in later elections, led by such figures as Eugene McCarthy and Ralph Nader. While Nader's 2000 candidacy may have had a decisive effect on the outcome, no subsequent leftist challenge was considered as significant as Wallace's in 1948. But, as we shall see in the next post in this series, another Wallace ran as a third-party candidate 20 years later, but that was another southern-based candidacy.

Truman savored his 1948 victory, taunting those who said it couldn't be done (not to mention those who said it hadn't been done; the Chicago Tribune infamously proclaimed Truman's defeat in a banner headline the morning after the election). But his full term did not go well. He plunged to what are still record-law poll ratings, in the midst of an unpopular war, in which he was thought by many to have made major mistakes. (Sound familiar?)

Truman was constitutionally eligible to seek another full term in 1952, because the presidential term limit amendment that had been ratified in 1951 did not apply to him. However, it would have been politically impossible. Truman waited until early 1952 to announce a decision that he had apparently made long before: that he would not run in 1952.

Truman became such a folk hero by the time of his death in 1972 (and that sentiment has continued to this day) that many people have either forgotten, or never knew, how reviled he was during his presidency. What that means for certain of his successors remains to be seen.
Photo: Library of Congress

What is the Bill of Rights?

The U.S. Supreme Court today announced its decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that a D.C. gun control ordinance is unconstitutional because it is incompatible with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights.

As I stated here, it's not within the scope of this blog to discuss whether the decision is good or bad. But it touches on an interesting topic that I have not yet addressed: what is the Bill of Rights?

The Constitution, as it was drawn up by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, did not directly address the right to own guns, and it generally did not deal with the other issues of individual rights that were eventually addressed in the Bill of Rights.

Article 7 of the Constitution stipulated that nine states needed to ratify the Constitution before it could come into force. During ratification debates in some states, arguments were raised to the effect that the document inadequately protected individual rights. By June 1788, nine states had ratified, despite the lack of a bill of rights.

The First Congress under the Constitution noted the political will in the states for such provisions, and proposed a set of 12 constitutional amendments.

Article 5 of the Constitution describes the amendment process. The basic process is for Congress, by a two-thirds vote of both houses, to propose amendments to the states. Any such amendments are ratified when approved by the legislatures of three fourths of the states. Alternatively, Congress can provide that state ratification be considered by state conventions specially elected for that purpose; that process has been used only once: for the 21st Amendment (repeal of prohibition). Article 5 also allows the states to petition Congress to call another constitutional convention; that provision has never been invoked.

Of the 12 amendments proposed by the First Congress, the states had ratified 10 of them by 1791. These 10 amendments are what is known as the Bill of Rights. They address such issues as freedom of religion, press and speech; the right to bear arms; protection against unreasonable search and seizure; right to a jury trial, etc. Another of the amendments was finally ratified in 1992, and is now known as the 27th Amendment. That amendment provides that, when Congress votes itself a pay raise, the raise cannot take effect until after the next election. One of those 12 proposed amendments, one that places a maximum on the population of each congressional district, has never been ratified.

The Second Amendment reads as follows:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,
the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

There has been much debate about whether the effect of that amendment is limited to allowing states to maintain militias (now called the National Guard) or whether it extends to allowing individuals to own guns for self-defense or hunting. Given the amount of discussion of that question in the news media, and by the executive and legislative branches of all levels of government, I find it interesting that the federal Supreme Court has only today directly addressed that question for the first time.

The majority opinion, authored by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, provides in part that:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

Scalia goes on to state that this right is not absolute. It is subject to reasonable regulation, but it cannot be completely denied, which is what the D.C. ordinance, in effect, did.

Equal Time

In quoting the civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, I mean to contrast it to the relative lack of achievement in that area before 1948, and not to contrast it with the 1948 Republican platform, which also contained a strong civil rights plank, as follows:

Lynching or any other form of mob violence anywhere is a disgrace to any civilized state, and we favor the prompt enactment of legislation to end this infamy.

One of the basic principles of this Republic is the equality of all
individuals in their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This principle is enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution of the United States; it was vindicated on the field of battle and became the cornerstone of this Republic. This right of equal opportunity to work and to advance in life should never be limited in any individual because of race, religion, color, or country of origin. We favor the enactment and just enforcement of such Federal legislation as may be necessary to maintain this right at all times in every part of this Republic.

We favor the abolition of the poll tax as a requisite to voting.

We are opposed to the idea of racial segregation in the armed services of the United States.

A Four-Way Race

The next presidential election that I'll write about that involved third-party candidacies, is 1948. The Democratic incumbent, Harry Truman, won that election, despite its being by all indications a Republican year, and despite not one, but two leading Democratic politicians pursuing third-party candidacies.

The first was J. Strom Thurmond, then serving as governor of South Carolina as a Democrat. His amazing longevity is evidenced by the fact that he was still in public office six years ago. Thurmond became a senator in 1954, and switched to the Republican Party in 1964. When he left the Senate in 2003, he held the record for the longest tenure in that body, since surpassed by Robert Byrd.

Some background to the Thurmond presidential candidacy: Franklin Roosevelt's four landslide presidential victories between 1932 and 1944 were based on a large but volatile coalition. One element was southern segregationists, whose positions on other issues ranged from populist to conservative. The other element consisted of liberals, largely outside the southeast, with heavy support from organized labor, whose economic and political influence was still on the rise.

It's generally presumed that Roosevelt's sympathies would have been in favor of racial equality, but in practice he was very cautious on that set of issues, which enabled him to hold that coalition together. After 1945, which saw both Roosevelt's death and the end of World War II, the coalition became more difficult to sustain.

As I noted here, Truman moved decisively to integrate the armed forces in 1948. The party platform adopted by the 1948 Democratic National Convention included the following:

The Democratic Party is responsible for the great civil rights gains made in recent years in eliminating unfair and illegal discrimination based on race, creed or color. The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination. We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution. We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

As a result, a large bloc of southerners ostentatiously walked out of that convention. (The conventions were televised that year for the first time, albeit to a small audience, so that heightened the drama.) They met separately, and nominated Thurmond for president on the States' Rights Democratic ticket, but they were more popularly known as the Dixiecrats.

An emerging star of the Democratic Party made a major speech in favor of the civil rights plank in the platform at their 1948 convention. The mayor of Minneapolis, who was a U.S. Senate candidate that year, said:

To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

That mayor was Hubert Humphrey, who went on to represent Minnesota in the Senate for a total of 23 years in two separate periods, and to serve one term as vice president. Perhaps one could compare that speech to Barack Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, as another forum for a new U.S. Senate candidate to be introduced to a national audience. Later this year, we will know whether Obama gets any closer to the White House than did Humphrey.

Reverberations from Thurmond's 1948 candidacy continued to be felt for many years. Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was pressured to resign his position as Senate Republican leader in 2002, after publicly stating that the U.S. would have been better off, had Thurmond won in 1948. Thurmond changed with the times, abandoned his segregationist positions, and won respect as an elder statesman. Thus, it was to be expected that a Republican leader would praise him as he was nearing retirement, but to praise the Dixiecrat platform, which Lott's remarks could be intepreted as doing, was by 2002 unacceptable.

More to come on the other third-party candidate, and the 1948 result.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How Strong Do You Feel?

I've written a lot about the two-party system. In a variation on that theme, I will do a series of posts on four 20th century presidential elections in which third parties made a strong showing. In a sense, those third-party movements are the exceptions that prove the rule that a two-party system is the persistent norm of American electoral politics. None of these third-party movements survived for very long and posed any serious threat to the two-party system.

The first is Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 attempt to return to the White House under the Progressive Party banner. At one point, Roosevelt proclaimed that he felt as strong as a bull moose, which resulted in his movement being nicknamed the Bull Moose ticket.

Some background: after Roosevelt was elected to a full term in 1904 (he had been McKinley's running mate in 1900 and had become president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901) he pledged not to run again in 1908. He saw that as complying with the spirit of the two-term tradition that George Washington had begun by declining to seek re-election to a third term in 1796. In Roosevelt's time, that limit was merely customary; it would not be written into the Constitution until 1951.

Roosevelt quickly regretted that pledge, in that it made him a lame duck from the beginning of that term, and thereby limited his effectiveness. But he stuck to his pledge, and anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. The electorate agreed, and Taft took office in 1909.

Roosevelt became disenchanted with Taft. Roosevelt represented the Progressive faction within the Republican Party, with policy positions such as greater federal regulation of business, and expansion of the national park system as part of a more general advocacy of conservation measures regarding western lands. Taft was part of a more conservative Republican faction.

Roosevelt unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination against Taft in 1912. He then launched his third-party candidacy. The obvious result was that, with the Republican vote split between Taft and Roosevelt, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with an electoral vote landslide of 435, to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Wilson, however, received only 41.84% of the popular vote. It was the only time a Republican presidential candidate finished third in the entire history of that party.

I wrote here about the end of the Roosevelt story.

I'm writing this largely from memory, and I'm sure most of my recollections come from Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Here is something that anyone with an interest in 20th century history should check out, if you haven't already: TIME magainze has created a free online archive of all of its back issues, from its inception in 1923. Here is their account of one of the earliest major stories they covered, the death of President Harding, on August 2, 1923.

Harding's death was generally considered a great tragedy at the time. His reputation later suffered from accounts of scandals involving both graft in his administration, and personal misconduct.

In recent years, he's achieved some degree of rehabilitation among libertarians, who recognize the ways in which he returned the U.S. to smaller government after World War I. Not as much, however, as his successor Coolidge.

Harding changed the language. During his presidential campaign, in 1920, he called for a return to normality, except that he called it "normalcy", a neologism that caught on.

Presidents by the Half Dozen

Some time ago, I saw an interview on C-SPAN of David Pietrusza, the author of the book 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. I have not had a chance to read it, but I find it to be an interesting angle on the 1920 elections for president and vice president.

The incumbent president, a former president, and four future presidents were all candidates, to some degree or other, for president or vice president in that election:

  1. Theodore Roosevelt was angling for the Republican nomination to return to the White House when he died suddenly in 1919.
  2. The incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, subtly let it be known that he would accept the Democratic nomination for a third term. Concerns about both his physical health and his political health prevented his party from taking him up on that.
  3. Senator Warren Harding, Republican of Ohio, won the 1920 presidential election.
  4. Governor Calvin Coolidge, Republican of Massachusetts, won the vice presidency as Harding's running mate. Coolidge became president in 1923, when Harding died.
  5. Franklin Roosevelt was the vice presidential candidate on the unsuccessful Democratic ticket. He, of course, was elected president four times, beginning in 1932.
  6. Herbert Hoover was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He served as secretary of commerce under both Harding and Coolidge, and was then elected president in 1928.

Cross of Gold

The answer to the question in the previous post regarding a three-time loser in general elections is: William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska.

Bryan is perhaps best known for a speech he made at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, which ended:

... we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

He was advocating a more-inflationary monetary policy, which was favored by agrarian interests. You can read more about that, via this link.

That convention nominated Bryan, but he was defeated in the 1896 general election by William McKinley. Bryan lost a rematch to McKinley four years later, and lost again, this time to William Howard Taft, in 1908.

In the next Democratic administration, that of Woodrow Wilson, Bryan was appointed secretary of state, in 1913. He resigned in 1915, believing that Wilson, although he had not yet brought America into the World War, had been too belligerent in his protests against German attacks on shipping in the Atlantic.

A minor part of Bryan's fame is tied into his participation, shortly before his death in 1925, in the prosecution of teacher John Scopes in the so-called "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a public school.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hint: Think Crucifixion and Precious Metal

Next presidential trivia question: who is the only candidate to lose the general election three times as a major party presidential nominee?

Land of Sky-Blue Waters

I plan occasionally to write about the politics and history of my native state of Minnesota. Because I can.

Further to the subject of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, the Republican National Convention was held in Minneapolis in 1892. The Republicans renominated Harrison, who went on to lose in a rematch to Cleveland.

The 2008 Republican National Convention, scheduled to be held in St. Paul, Minnesota, will be the first such event in Minnesota since 1892. Time will, of course, tell whether the general election result is similar.

All in the Family

A further explanation of the reference to John Harrison in the previous post:

That was a roundabout way of saying that Benjamin Harrison is the only president who was the grandson of another president. His paternal grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was president, albeit very briefly. William H. Harrison died one month after his 1841 inauguration. John was son of William and father of Benjamin.

Where's My Pa?

OK, after zooming through a century and a half of American political history, let's go over some of it in more detail.

The 1884 presidential election was an interesting one. A Republican streak of six consecutive presidential election victories was broken by the Democratic Governor of New York, Grover Cleveland.

I have already done some writing about a tendency to think that political life in our time is dirtier than was the case in the past. To further refute that point of view, I am linking to this description of the mud-slinging that characterized the 1884 campaign between Cleveland and Republican James G. Blaine of Maine (and yes, Democrats made use of that rhyme).

My fellow presidential trivia buffs will of course remember Cleveland as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. He won the popular vote three times in a row, but in 1888 he lost in the electoral college to Republican Benjamin Harrison. That election made John Harrison the answer to another trivia question: Who was the only man to be the son of one president, and the father of another?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The two-party system as we know and love (?) it

The Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s. The honor of being the birthplace of the party is usually claimed by Ripon, Wisconsin (I acknowledge that any Democrats among my readers will perhaps question how much of an “honor” that is) which, according to the party’s website, hosted “the first informal meeting of the party”. However, “the first official Republican meeting took place on July 6th, 1854 in Jackson, Michigan”.

In 1856 the Republicans made John C. Fremont their first presidential nominee. He lost that election to Democrat James Buchanan, but thereafter the Republicans were recognized as a major party in the new two-party system, opposing the Democrats. Republican Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election was the spark that set off the conflagration of civil war. The Republicans were the dominant party at the federal level from that point, until Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential inauguration in 1933. The presidency was in Republican hands for 56 out of the 72 years between 1861 and 1933.

For many years following its emergence as an anti-slavery party, the Republicans were the party of choice for most African Americans. However, of course, many African Americans, especially in the south, were preventing from voting from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, many African Americans began to support the Democratic Party, a trend that has accelerated in the meantime.

One key Republican economic policy during the period between the Civil War and World War II was support for high tariffs on imported goods. Another indicator of how parties evolve is that this sort of “protectionist” position on international trade has, subsequent to World War II, been more often championed by Democrats. However, members of Congress from both parties are often pressured into a protectionist position by economic interests in their constituencies, while presidents of both parties have leaned more toward a free trade position.

Democrats had a virtual monopoly on politics in southern states during this period. Under the motto of “states’ rights”, they resisted federal action to end their “Jim Crow” system of legal racial discrimination. After World War II, there was increasing tension within the party, as northern Democrats increasingly favored federal action to end discrimination. President Truman, for instance, issued an executive order that integrated the armed forces in 1948.

While Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress during most of the post-war period, the so-called “conservative coalition” of Republicans and conservative Democrats blocked much of the liberal agenda. Then, conservative southerners began voting Republican in the 1960s. In 1961, John Tower won a special election to the U.S. Senate seat from Texas that was vacated when Lyndon Johnson became vice president. That was a harbinger of further Republican gains in the south until, by the time that Republican majorities in both houses of Congress were restored in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, Republicans had become the dominant party in much of the south.

After that 1994 victory, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for almost all of the 12 years that followed. In an odd result, the 2000 elections left the Senate in a 50-50 tie. The vice president as president of the Senate is constitutionally entitled to cast a tie-breaking vote. When the new Congress convened in early January of 2001, Democrat Al Gore was still vice president. That gave the Democrats a short-lived majority, lasting only until Republican Dick Cheney was inaugurated as vice president on January 20, 2001. Later that year, the Democrats regained their majority when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican party to sit in the Senate as an independent, caucusing with the Democrats.

At the mid-term congressional election of 2006, the Democrats regained majorities in both houses, at a time when Republican President George W. Bush was unpopular, due in large part to his 2003 decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Image: Architect of the Capitol

Friday, June 20, 2008

What the Meaning of "Are" Is

In this post, I wrote about a series of steps through which the U.S. moved toward a stronger central government throughout history. I briefly mentioned the Civil War. I'm reminded of the commentary that the late writer Shelby Foote provided for Ken Burns's PBS miniseries The Civil War. Foote talked about how the American sense of nationhood is strongly based on the outcome of the Civil War. He pointed out the tendency of Americans before the war to use "United States" as a plural noun. People would say "The United States are ..." After the war, it becamse standard to say "The United States is ...", and that remains the standard to this day. As Foote summarized it, the Civil War turned us from an "are" to an "is".

Thursday, June 19, 2008

There are attacks, and then there are attacks

Much has been written about candidates' attacks on each other during the current presidential campaign. Democrats have decried the sparring between Sens. Obama and Clinton in the recently-concluded campaign for their party's nomination. Also, there has been much speculation about the attacks that may occur during the general election campaign now beginning between Sens. Obama and McCain. But in those contexts the word "attack" means a verbal attack. Here is a bizarre story about a physical attack by a House member upon a Senator, during the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

I think there's a misconception on the part of many modern observers of politics, to the effect that back in the "good old days" American political life consisted of gentlemanly debate on a high intellectual and moral plane, and that today's politicians are plunging to new lows in their behavior. History does not bear that out.

Calhoun and States' Rights

There was said to be a “Great Triumvirate” of senators during the early 19th century period that I’ve been writing about this week. Earlier posts discussed two of them: Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The third was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.

He represented his state in the House and Senate, and also served as vice president and secretary of war and of state. Calhoun was one of the first major leaders of the Democratic Party, when it took that identity around the time of Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828. Here is his official congressional biography.

His best-known policy position is his advocacy of nullification, the idea that a state should be able to disallow enforcement of a federal law within the state. South Carolina tried that, and then backed down under threat of federal military force. That’s perhaps the second-boldest assertion of states’ rights (the boldest being the secession of southern states in 1860-1) since the ratification of the 1787 Constitution. That ratification was the first of several steps toward a stronger federal government, and away from states’ rights.

Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the U.S. was governed under the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified in 1781. That structure more closely resembled an international organization than a federal government. In fact, it could probably be argued that the European Union, an international organization which regulates much of the economic and social policy in its 27 member countries, is a stronger government than was the U.S. government under the Articles. Under the Constitution of 1787, the states delegated significant powers to the federal government, although the balance was still much more in favor of the states than would be the case as time went on.

The quelling of the South Carolina nullification attempt in 1833 was another such step.

Victory over the Confederate side in the Civil War, and the ensuing 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution continued the trend. All states were subject to the same constitutional provisions regarding the rights of their inhabitants. However, it took about another century before effective enforcement legislation was enacted.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program further extended the scope of the federal government. The Supreme Court found some New Deal legislation to be unconstitutional, but the Court backed down in 1938, after Roosevelt had threatened to use one of the checks on judicial power that is available to the political branches (executive and legislative), i.e., enlargement of the Supreme Court.

Image: U.S. Senate

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Daniel Webster

Having discussed Henry Clay at some length, I feel duty-bound to give equal time to another prominent Whig senator, Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire native who later moved to Massachusetts. Webster served in the U.S. House, representing first New Hampshire, and then Massachusetts. He went on to represent Massachusetts in the Senate, and to serve as Secretary of State in two Whig administrations.

He is considered one of the greatest orators in Senate history, but one of his most celebrated achievements involved oratory in a different room in the Capitol. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of his alma mater, Dartmouth College, in the case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. (The Supreme Court at that time met in the Capitol building, long before moving across the street to its own building in 1935.) In 1819, the court ruled that the State of New Hampshire could not void the charter that had been granted to the college by King George III, and make Dartmouth a state institution.

Here is an interesting treatment of Webster on another blog. I suppose it is difficult to argue with the comment on that blog that, in that photo at least, Webster was “creepy looking”.

Image: U.S. Senate

Rather Be Right Than Be President

As I mentioned briefly here, Henry Clay was one of the leading members of the Whig Party. He represented Kentucky in the U.S. House, and later in the U.S. Senate. One feat of his which seems remarkable, especially by today's standards, is that he was elected speaker of the House as a freshman congressman. By contrast, the current incumbent in that office, Nancy Pelosi, had been in the House for 20 years before becoming speaker. While the seniority system is not as rigidly followed in choosing a speaker as it is in choosing committee chairs (and, less importantly, except in the event of a presidential succession crisis, the president pro tempore of the Senate), Speaker Pelosi's level of seniority is typical of modern-day speakers.

Clay, the man who would rather be right than be president, in a sense got his wish. Despite being one of the most prominent political leaders in early-19th century America, he never became president.

Here is a post on another blog about Henry Clay, and his party's difficulties over the slavery issue.

Image: U.S. Senate

Monday, June 16, 2008

Paul Wellstone

Yes, it's that alma mater, again. Tonight, on Jeopardy!, in the category "Colleges and Universities", one of the answers was: "Senator Paul Wellstone once taught at
Carleton College in Northfield in this state". Anyone who doesn't ask "What is Minnesota?" gets a failing grade from this blog.


Congressional rules -- not the sexiest of topics. But they can make a huge difference in outcomes. Perhaps the most prominent example is the way in which Senate filibusters delayed enactment of meaningful civil rights legislation for several decades.

My senior senator is on the attack against an even more arcane Senate procedure, as described here.

Two Sides

From what I've written so far about parties, you can see that, while parties have evolved throughout American history, we always seem to settle back into a two-party system after major parties come and go. I'm reminded of something a political science professor of mine said in class: There are two parties, not because there are two sides to every issue, but because there are two sides to every office, the inside and the outside. What he meant by that was that one of the primary functions of each party in a two-party system is to watch over the other one, critiquing its policies, and exposing its scandals. The fact that there is another faction of politicians waiting to take over, if so mandated by the voters, serves to control the excesses of the party in power. Many of us are critical of the tendency for this to degenerate into "gotcha politics". But in light of the abuses of one-party regimes, who face no opposition within their political system to their outrageous behavior, and are even able (up to a point) to prevent the populace from knowing about it, the abuses within a two-party system are easily the lesser of evils.

When I heard that statement about "two sides to every issue" over 30 years ago, the major American parties were less ideologically aligned than is currently the case. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans each formed a much larger minority faction within their parties than they do now. So, in 2008, the parties are based, to a somewhat larger extent, on there being two sides to every issue. But the "two sides to every office" concept still holds. My Republican Party found that out, in no uncertain terms, in the 2006 congressional elections.

A Mystery

Some readers who know my secret identity as a mild-mannered businessman have asked why I write under the name of "Schiller". The name has to do with a sacred tradition at my alma mater. My username is Schiller1979, because that is the year I graduated from that alma mater and entered the real world.

UPDATE: The "tradition" link above seems to be broken. So, I'll give a brief explanation here. A bust of the German poet Schiller was once stolen on the campus. The tradition ever since has been to exhibit the bust at public events at the College, and then hurriedly put Schiller back in hiding. Schiller's most famous moment was when he was shown by the 2000 commencement speaker, who then brought it home on his private plane. That speaker was William Jefferson Clinton.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

And another thing ...

In describing a proposed new presidential debate format, here, I ignored what, alas, is perhaps the most important consideration: would it make for good television? I suspect it could. A format closer to formal debate format would involve a competition to a recognizable goal, i.e., establishing the superiority of a candidate's ideas on the issue in question, and thereby a sense of drama. However, it could well entail the candidates delving further into the details of policy, which could put many viewers to sleep.

Federalists, Republicans and Whigs, Oh My!

The first two-party system in the U.S. consisted of the Republicans (also called Jeffersonians or Democratic-Republicans) and the Federalists. Key Republican leaders included Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and James Madison. Among the leading Federalists were John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

George Washington was unanimously elected and re-elected to the presidency, serving as the first president under the Constitution, from 1789 to 1797. There was no contest between parties in those elections. However, during Washington’s presidency, other politicians began to split into two parties. The 1796 presidential election came down to the Federalist Adams vs. the Republican Jefferson. Adams prevailed and, in a strange twist, Jefferson became his vice president.

The Constitution originally provided that the runner-up in the presidential race would become the vice president. This was part of the founders' vision of non-partisan politics, as I described in this post. That the original electoral college structure was incompatible with a partisan system became obvious, first in 1796 with bitter partisan rivals joined as president and vice president, and even more so in 1800, when it produced a deadlock that makes the Bush-Gore deadlock in Florida in 2000 seem like child’s play.

In 1800, for the first time, there were established party “tickets” for president, and vice president. Adams’s running mate was Charles Pinckney. The Republican ticket consisted of Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The country was in a “throw the rascals out” mood that year, so more Republican electors were chosen for the electoral college than Federalist electors. At that time, electors voted for two men, without specifying which was to be president and which vice president. All of the Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr, so there was a tie. The House of Representatives breaks such a tie, and it took them 36 ballots to choose Jefferson over Burr. As I will discuss at greater length later, the Constitution was then amended to prevent a recurrence of that event. Belatedly (and tacitly), Congress and the states in effect allowed for parties in the Constitution.

The Federalist platform favored a stronger central government than did the Republicans. A fear of the type of chaos that accompanied the French Revolution, which began in 1789, influenced the Federalists. The Jeffersonian Republicans wanted the states to retain more power. However, when Jefferson successfully negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, that showed that he opposed strong central government more in theory than in practice.

The Federalist Party died a slow death after the 1800 election, never again achieving the presidency for any of its candidates. Rufus King was its last presidential candidate, in 1816.

The Republicans later morphed into the Democratic Party as we know it today. The Whig Party emerged in the two-party system as it existed from the 1830s to the 1850s.

The phrase “internal improvements” was key to the Whig platform. The party favored federal government support of roads, canals, railroads and schools. The Whigs elected two famous generals to the presidency, both of whom died in office, William H. Harrison after one month, and Zachary Taylor after 16 months. They were more of a force in Congress (Henry Clay was the party’s greatest legislative leader), where they originally fought to counter Democrat Andrew Jackson’s strong presidency, from 1829 to 1837.

The Whigs broke up in the 1850s, largely due to a split over slavery between their Northern and Southern wings. As we shall see in a later post, that led to the founding of the Republican Party that exists today.

Image: Library of Congress

You Call That a Debate?!

Following up on my previous post, regarding presidential debates:

I hate to disillusion you, but they’re not really debates. At least, they’re not what those of us who were on a debate team in high school know as debates.

In formal debate, there is a resolution that proposes a change to the status quo, for example: “Resolved, that the United States should employ all employable U.S. citizens living in poverty.” A two-person affirmative team argues in favor of that resolution, while a two-person negative team defends the status quo. The first affirmative speaker states the resolution, and offers a plan to implement it, supported by evidence. The first negative speaker then speaks in opposition to the affirmative team’s plan, again with evidence. The second affirmative and second negative follow in that order, with further speeches supporting their respective positions. Each speaker then makes one rebuttal speech. A judge (usually a debate coach from a neutral school) then decides who wins.

When I was debating, in the 1970s, a new innovation had been added. There were periods when members of each team were allowed to cross-examine members of the opposing team. I’m not sure whether that has been continued in subsequent years.

I would like to see that format adapted for presidential debates. Each debate could be structured around an issue on which the candidates disagree. Obama could, for example, take the affirmative side regarding setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. McCain could then argue the opposing position. That would, it seems to me, be more enlightening than the traditional presidential “debate” format, which is essentially nothing more than a joint press conference. The town-hall style debates of recent years are a variation on that theme, but not substantively different along the lines of what I’m discussing here. They still involve the candidates answering (or not) a series of questions.

To maintain the structure of two-person affirmative and negative teams, the running-mates could be included, but I’m not sure that would add much to the usefulness of the debates.

I don’t think that presidential candidates want to set out their differences in such stark terms. They need to establish “product differentiation”, in the same way advertisers do, when selling cars, beer, etc. But that’s accomplished in more subtle ways, such as setting moods and manipulating feelings. For an early look at this mode of campaigning, see the film entitled The Candidate.

And, speaking of Hollywood, formal debate bears little resemblance to what was portrayed in a more-recent film, The Great Debaters. If the Wiley College debate team had really strung together stanzas of emotional political rhetoric, however eloquent, and tried to pass that off as debate, the judges would have been unimpressed.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What's the Rush?

Debates between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have always been held during the fall campaign, which is traditionally considered to begin on Labor Day.

This year, the campaigns of Sens. Obama and McCain have been negotiating over plans for debates that would begin well in advance of Labor Day. The talks have reached an impasse, so it may not happen, but the fact that the idea would at least be seriously considered is another indication of how things are speeded up in this election cycle.

Two states have had their convention representation halved, because they held their primaries earlier than the parties wanted them to. And now, the general election debates, which have been held in the fall since the first ones, during the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race, might be moved up as well.

After a bit of a break, the debates became a permanent institution in 1976. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had declined to participate in them, during the 1964, 1968 and 1972 campaigns, calculating that they had nothing to gain from them. By now, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any candidate to avoid debating. The Obama and McCain campaigns will probably reach agreement sooner or later on debates for this election, but it remains to be seen how far they will break with tradition.

One part of the process will be later than usual, though. The Republican National Convention will be held during the first week of September, which is unusually late. That party will not officially have a nominee yet on Labor Day, so the fall campaign cannot formally begin then, although, in fact, it already has begun.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Conscience or Madness?

I will soon start a series of posts on the British political system, and how it differs from our political system in America. As a sort of preview to that topic, here is a rather strange story out of London. As someone who follows their politics fairly closely from my vantage point across the pond, I'm baffled by this. But, if you read some of the BBC's commentary, it seems as though I'm not alone; the British don't understand it either.

Founding Faith

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, by Steven Waldman. He examines the claims of both sides in the "culture wars" over issues such as religious activity in public schools, that their respective positions correspond to those of the Founding Fathers, especially those who created the First Amendment. Waldman gives a good even-handed look at both the individuals involved (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, etc.), and the debates on these issues, both before and after the First Congress under the Constitution drew up the amendment. One of his points is that the people involved in those original debates did not fit our current definition of either religious conservatives or secular humanists. However, I think he goes a bit far when he speculates what positions those various men might have taken on issues such as school prayer. That weakens his earlier argument that the Founding Fathers' statements are not very relevant to those modern disputes, in part because it was only after ratification of the 14th Amendment, long after the Founding Fathers were gone, that courts have interpreted that portions of the Bill of Rights apply to the states, and not only to activity of the federal government.

Image: Architect of the Capitol

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Commentary on Civic Religion

After I mentioned here the issue of distinguishing one's religion from the American civic religion, I noticed this interesting post from another blogger, who comes from a somewhat different relgious perspective than mine, going into more detail on that question.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bridges to Nowhere

Did James Madison predict earmarks and bridges to nowhere?

Looking further into Federalist 10, have the evils that Madison associated with political parties come to pass, now that political parties have been a fixture of American politics for over 200 years? He feared that special interests could achieve economic gain by becoming the majority party:

Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

Whether you label government support of specific economic interests favorably as “industrial policy” or unfavorably as “corporate welfare”, I don’t think anyone can dispute that such support exists, and has existed for a long time. Does a partisan political system produce such results? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know what a non-partisan system would have produced. I can’t think of any democratic country that doesn’t have competing political parties. Indeed, some deem that necessary to democracy. In other words, I know of no controlled experiment on that question.

But can one point to any aspect of parties that specifically works toward those types of policies? I’m reminded of a classic political quotation: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics”, usually ascribed to Jesse Unruh, late speaker of the California State Assembly. One could think of money as being recycled through the political system: part of what gets paid out as government subsidies comes back as political contributions (or outright bribes). Does the need for money to finance the competition between parties cause the politicians to support economic interests who will then fill the parties’ coffers? And to close the loop: did that cycle eventually go on to produce the bridge to nowhere? Please comment on what you think of those questions.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”

In dealing somewhat lightheartedly with the issue of the deification of Washington, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of American civic religion. In a country that has eschewed an established church (at the federal level in 1791, but only later in some states), and therefore lacks the unifying power of, for example, the Orthodox church in Russia or Islam in Saudi Arabia, that civic “religion” has been important in building the sense of an American nation.

In this more-cynical age, the civic religion idea has lost much of its power. There are those who argue that there is a dark side to it. While I think we’ve lost something valuable that way, with consequences for our national polity, I have to agree that some expressions of it have been a bit over-the-top. And, of course, for those of us who are adherents of monotheistic religions, making gods of our civic leaders borders on the blasphemous.

Monday, June 9, 2008

He did die, right? I mean, it’s not like he’s Elvis, or something.

George Washington, that is.

In the preceding post, I argued that Washington’s leaving the national stage allowed for a two-party system to fully emerge. He left the presidency in 1797 and died less than three years later. So, Washington was a mortal man. Of course he was. But many people have tried to raise him to the status of a god. This mythology is reflected in popular culture, but also in public art in government buildings in the District of Columbia.

There is a huge mural on the underside of the Capitol dome called the “Apotheosis of Washington”. According to the website of the Architect of the Capitol, “the word "apotheosis" in the title means literally the raising of a person to the rank of a god, or the glorification of a person as an ideal.“

I recall seeing two other indications of this tendency at tourist sites in and around the city that is named for him. One was a statue in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum with Washington’s head on the body of a Greek god. I’m not sure of the current status of that statue; the museum is closed for renovation. The other was a sign in front of a museum house in Fredricksburg, Virginia, where Washington’s mother had lived. The sign, which reads “Home of Mary, Mother of Washington” is apparently meant to draw a parallel with another Mary and another son.

Image: Library of Congress

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Were the Founding Fathers Party Animals?

Political parties were well on their way to becoming institutionalized in the U.S. at the time George Washington announced his retirement from the presidency in 1796. Therefore, it’s interesting that one of the central figures among the Founding Fathers had written, in "Federalist 10", just nine years previously, that parties are 1) bad things, and 2) less likely to arise under the Constitution than under other forms of government.

"Federalist 10" was published under the pseudonym “Publius”, as were the other essays in the series, although we know it to have been authored by James Madison. He wrote that a major advantage “promised by a well constructed Union“ is “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction“. Lest we underestimate his passion on this question, Madison goes on to describe faction as “this dangerous vice”. He defines faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community“. This amounts to a political party, and the words “party” and “faction” are used interchangeably throughout the document.

Madison distinguishes between removing the causes of faction and controlling its effects. One way to remove the causes is “by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence“. In his time, Madison was probably thinking of absolute monarchy. Later on, the one-party dictatorships, such as the Soviet Union, fit that description. In either case, multiple parties do not exist but, as Madison says, the “remedy … is worse than the disease”. The second way to remove the causes is to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests”. Madison calls that “impracticable”.

Madison goes on to argue that the government established by the Constitution would control the effects of the tendency toward faction. The Constitution established a stronger central government than had existed up to that point, although it would not seem all that strong to us today. Madison compares that plan of government to both direct democracy, and independent republics in the individual states. The latter describes more or less what existed under the previous constitution, the Articles of Confederation of 1781.

What Madison calls “pure democracy” sounds like what we tend to think of as the New England town meeting style of government, where the citizens meet and vote on issues directly, rather than having their representatives do so. The “initiative and referendum” system that developed in some states (most notably California) in the 20th century is another example. He thinks that a majority faction will always arise under such circumstances, to the detriment of the minority.

He then discusses “a republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. Here he makes an elitist argument that to the extent decision-making is delegated to a small group, who presumably constitute the highest level of society, the base passions of the common people will be filtered out. Therefore, those decisions will be made for the general good of society, rather than special interests. And that will be even more likely to take place if the republic constitutes the entire U.S., rather than being on a smaller scale. I admit that I’m paraphrasing quite liberally here, but that attitude does seem to pervade the constitutional views of the founding fathers (see discussion in a later post of the original form of the electoral college). While there have been many abuses in favor of special interests in the system as it developed, I don’t know that many people today would make such an elitist argument.

Did it all work the way Madison envisioned? Of course not. The Constitution did not prevent the party system from coming into being in the U.S. Instead, what postponed it for a short time was something less long-lasting: the person of George Washington. As long as he was president, he was able, to some degree at least, to keep the political leaders united. For example, future party antagonists such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton coexisted for a while in Washington’s cabinet. But by the time Washington had decided to retire at the end of his second term, the first American two-party system had come into existence.

So, back to the original question: were the founding fathers party animals? Yes (at least those who remained in office after Washington). There is some humor (that cannot have been intended) in the last paragraph of Madison’s essay, where he mentions the two words that would go on to become the names of the first two American major parties: the Federalists and the Republicans.

Image: Library of Congress

Presidential Nominating Conventions, and the Parties Who Love Them

During which national political convention did the phrase “smoke-filled room” originate?

Four years later, which party took 103 ballots before deciding on a presidential nominee?

Who was the first nominee to fly to a convention city and set a precedent by accepting a nomination in person?

In which year was one party’s convention so chaotic that the presidential nominee gave an acceptance speech in the middle of the night, while the other party’s convention was the first to be run strictly according to a television script?

Find out the answers to these questions, and more! In the run-up to the parties’ 2008 national conventions, I will write about the history of party conventions, and of the previous methods by which presidential candidates were chosen. Once again this year, the parties’ presidential nominees have been decided before the conventions begin. And it is anticipated that Senators Obama and McCain will have announced their vice presidential choices in advance, as well. All of that has become the norm in recent decades. But there has been significant drama at past conventions.

It seems appropriate to preface a discussion of conventions with a history of political parties in the U.S. And the place to start that discussion is with "Federalist 10", one of the series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, advocating ratification of the Federal Constitution of 1787.

Photo: National Archives via

Welcome to "Exploring the Political Spectrum"

This will be a political blog. But I don’t intend it to be an opinion blog. There are many excellent opinion blogs in the blogosphere, and I don’t plan to compete with them. I will instead write about the political process and political history (mainly U.S. but also other countries). For example, later on this year I might blog about how the electoral college works and the history of how it came into being and developed into its present form. However, I will not say anything about which side I took in the dispute over Florida’s electoral votes in 2000, or what side I might take if, God forbid, something similar happens in 2008.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will describe my political leanings. I’m sure they will seep out into my writing, despite my desire for this blog to be nonpartisan. I am registered Republican. I lean toward a libertarian point of view, but am nowhere near as extreme as members of the party that bears that name. Most would probably describe me as a social-liberal economic-conservative (although I plan at some point to write about how the words “liberal” and “conservative” have lost their original meanings).

I’m an amateur, although not totally lacking in credentials. I have a B.A. in Political Science from a pretty good college. I dabbled in campaigning early in life, and did a Capitol Hill internship as a college junior. But I have not been politically active in those ways for almost a quarter of a century.

Please add comments to this blog. I hope to stimulate a discussion of ideas, not of people. I hope commenters will dispute and develop ideas that have been put forward by other commenters and by me. But please refrain from personal attacks on any of us.

I will delete in their entirety any comments that:

1. Contain profanity.

2. Include personal attacks on anyone who has published their ideas in this blog.

3. Constitute spam (as determined by me).

4. Are completely off-topic (but I’ll be lenient on this one).

I plan to publish one article-length post every Sunday. I hope to add shorter posts during the week as events dictate, and my muse inspires me.