All government is a compromise, in that it is adopted or created for the purpose of harmonizing the interests of the individual with the interests of the group. The types of government are numerous, varying with the character of the group, and with the particular conditions under which it exists. But we know of no government which is perfect: all have shortcomings, some very serious, others less so. There is nothing to be gained, therefore, by debating whether or not a certain government is imperfect. A much more profitable question is this: What are the faults of a democracy, and how may they be eliminated or minimized? The most constructive work which the citizen is called upon to do is to grasp the character of the problems confronting his country, and then to attempt their solution.
Where life is dull and civilization static, there are relatively few problems; where life is progressive and civilization steadily advancing, problems are numerous and pressing. Problems imply adjustment, development, the desire for improvement and advancement. They are signs of progress, the growing pains of civilization. If we bear this in mind, we shall be in a fair position to see democracy in true perspective, without undue distortion of our viewpoint, and without prejudice to our judgment.
Though party government confers substantial benefits, it is likewise true that the power of the political party has been frequently abused. Party organizations sprang up silently, and developed largely without legal control. Increased power has been accompanied by diffused responsibility; increased power and diffused responsibility have led to the abuse of power. The evils of the party are numerous, and only those of fundamental importance can be discussed. In every case, it should be borne in mind; the basic defect of party government is that the party has tended to use its power primarily, for private rather than public ends.
Throughout much of national history, one of the great evils of the political party has had to do with contributions to the campaign fund. A few decades ago it was the custom of parties, not only to accept large sums of money from special interests, but actually to demand substantial contributions from railroad and other corporations on pain of unfriendly legislation when the party got into power. Gambling houses and other vicious interests habitually contributed to the campaign fund of the party, with the understanding that the party so supported would, if successful at the polls, protect these unlawful businesses. Large amounts were also secured from officeholders who feared to incur the ill will of the party by refusing to contribute to the campaign fund. The enormous sums got together from these various sources were used to finance election contests.
A great problem of party government is to prevent parties from unduly influencing the choice of public officials. Leaving until later the general question of nominations and elections, it may be pointed out here that very often the whole weight of party power is directed toward securing the election to office of candidates deemed desirable by the party machine. The political "boss" has consistently used his power to manipulate the caucus or the primary so as to advance his own interests at public expense. Caucuses have been held without proper notice being given, and party henchmen have been employed to work for an inside clique or ring. Formerly the rolls of party members were padded with the names of men dead or absent. Too often elections were characterized by the stuffing of ballot boxes, the intimidation or bribery of voters, and the practice of voting more than once. The effect of these and similar practices has been to thwart the will of the majority of party members, and to elevate self-interest above the general welfare.
The last few decades of American political history have been characterized by a number of laws designed to safeguard the process of nomination and election. In practically every state in the Union there are corrupt practices acts which aim not only to prevent the misuse of the campaign fund, but to control the party in other respects also. In all but two states registration is a prerequisite to voting. The introduction of the Australian ballot, and its rapid spread among the states after 1890, has made the ballot secret. By preventing the intimidation of the voter, and by otherwise safeguarding his rights at the polls, ballot reform has remedied many abuses which formerly resulted in illegal and unrepresentative elections. Bribery and illegal voting are no longer glaring evils. It is now the general practice for state laws to provide definite polling places, and to guard the receiving and counting of the ballots.
During the first forty years of US national life it was taken for granted that subordinate executive officials should continue in office during good behavior, regardless of a change of administration. After President Jackson's first term, however, it became the general practice for the incoming party to use offices to reward party supporters. Senator Marcy's original declaration that "to the victor belongs the spoil" was accepted by both Democratic and Republican parties. Each party, upon coming into power, habitually turned out appointive officials placed in office by the opposition party. The positions thus made vacant were filled by individuals from the ranks of the victorious party.
The spoils system is a serious evil for which party spirit must be held accountable. By virtue of their patronage, party leaders have exercised an undue influence over the rank and file of the party. Frequently a candidate has been named for office, not because he possessed marked capacity for public service, but because he showed promise of being a good vote-getter at election time. Very frequently, therefore, officeholders have secured their positions as the reward of party support, rather than because of merit. The spoils system has encouraged the holders of executive offices to pay more attention to the political fortunes of their party than to their public duties. Knowing that with a change of administration they would probably be ousted to make room for the supporters of the rival party, officials have been tempted to use public office for personal ends.
The tendency of the political party to extend special favors to private corporations has constituted a serious evil in American politics. In some instances powerful corporations have corrupted party politics; in other cases party organizations have blackmailed corporations under the threat of unfriendly legislation; in many other cases both party and corporations have been to blame. In every case, however, the essential fact is that often the party has been used for the advancement of special interests rather than to promote the general welfare. Unfavorable legislation has been bought off and favorable laws secured by trusts, public service corporations, and other large industrial interests. Exemption from prosecution has been purchased by gambling houses and other illegal businesses. Public service corporations have secured valuable franchises for inadequate consideration. Contracts for paving and other public works have many times been awarded, not to firms offering the best work at the lowest price, but to incompetent or dishonest corporations. Such contracts have been secured by these corporations because of favoritism shown them by political henchmen holding office under the spoils system.
Nothing could be more mistaken than the belief that defective government is due primarily to the existence of an entity known as the political party. The party is merely an association of individuals, and if it is corrupt it is so because of the corruption of the individuals comprising it. It is time that political pessimists stopped blaming the party for the defects of party government, and time they began to see that the indifference and shortsightedness of the individual voter is at the bottom of the trouble. One of the greatest sources of corruption in American life is the knowledge of political bosses that many of their adherents will follow the party standard regardless of its platform and no matter what the character of its candidates. The party boss is given an opening when individuals neglect to perform their civic duties. The failure to vote, or to serve in office when the opportunity offers, the failure either to protest against candidates chosen unfairly, or to demand an accounting of officeholders, spell corruption and inefficiency in government.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Problems in American Democracy by Thames Ross Williamson)