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Party Promises

Thursday, November 09, 2006

With election day safely behind us, I thought it fitting to reproduce for you the following from the book I just finished, The Spirit of American Government. The author is headed in another direction with the chapter on political parties, but the words--when ripped from the whole--may shed some light on why those elected never seem to perform as well as they promised to do. I'll give you a hint: its by design.
The political control, it is true, has come to play an important role under our constitutional system; but its power and influence are of a negative rather than a positive character. It professes, of course, to stand for the principle of majority rule, but in practice it has become an additional and one of the most potent checks on the majority.

To understand the peculiar features of the American party system one must bear in mind the constitutional arrangements under which it has developed. The party is simply a voluntary political association through which the people seek to formulate the policy of the government, select the officials who are to carry it out in the actual administration of public affairs, and hold them to strict accountability for so doing. Under any government which makes full provision for the political party, as in the English system of to-day, the party has not only the power to elect but the power to remove those who are entrusted with the execution of its policies. Having this complete control of the government, it can not escape responsibility for failure to carry out the promises by which it secured a majority at the polls. This is the essential difference between the English system on the one hand and the party under the American constitutional system on the other. The one well knows that if it carries the election it will be expected to make its promises good. The other makes certain promises with the knowledge that after the election is over it will probably have no power to carry them out.

It is this lack of power to shape the entire policy of the government which, more than anything else, has given form and character to the party system of the United States. To the extent that the constitution has deprived the majority of the power to mold the policy of the government through voluntary political associations, it has defeated the main purpose for which the party should exist.

The fact that under the American form of government the party can not be held accountable for failure to carry out its ante-election pledges has had the natural and inevitable result. When, as in England, the party which carries the election obtains complete and undisputed control of government, the sense of responsibility is ever present in those who direct it. If in the event of its success it is certain to be called upon to carry out its promises, it can not afford for the sake of obtaining votes to make promises which it has no intention of keeping. But when the party, even though successful at the polls may lack the power to enforce its policy, it can not be compelled by a sense of direct responsibility to the people. Promises may be recklessly and extravagantly made merely for the sake of getting votes. The party platform from the point of view of the party managers ceases to be a serious declaration of political principles. It comes to be regarded as a means of winning elections rather than a statement of what the party is obligated to accomplish.
Truth in advertising? Hardly! So don't be surprised to find that all those things you were promised "if only Democrats regained control of Congress" don't ever get done. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you were duped yet again. This is why it is so important to send men of integrity and character to Congress. If you fall for any silver-tongued fox that comes along at election season, you'll end up with--well to be quite honest--you'll end up with a government that looks much like ours right now.

The author of the book advocates giving more power to political parties. I'm not so sure that's the right answer. The parties have been fooling us for so long they may have forgotten what honesty really means. No, our system of government was built on the foundation of personal liberty, respect for property, and the guarding of individual rights. Sending someone to Congress--regardless of party affiliation--who does not understand these basic concepts is to send him on a fool's errand. Oh, occasionally they'll manage to secure something for the majority like Social Security, but on the whole, they'll be thwarted at every turn. As Martha Stewart would say, "And that's a good thing."


Blogger Mark said...

The defect in democratic government is not whether political parties have the power to "do the right thing" after winning an election. They do. It is the simple fact that government is force and the "right thing" is not universally agreed upon. That means there will always be many people for whom the "right thing" is oppressive. The bigger the country and the more centralized the government, the more oppression is perceived. But since government is force, the "right thing" can be imposed on everyone, whether or not they want it.

The remedy for bad government is often seen to be "leaders" with the "right" intentions; morally upright and principled people. But there is no test that can be administered to political candidates to ensure they are the "right" kind of people. Good people in government are an accidental by-product of the selection process. So, sending the "right" people to run the government will always fail. This is the Trotskyite position, the claim that socialism failed in the USSR (or anywhere else) because the wrong leaders were chosen.

The way to prevent bad government is to abolish government or, if you can't be an anarchist, make it as small as possible.

8:17 AM  

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