I ring the news with no particular pleasure, but we are at the threshold of the political conventions, opening the presidential campaign. At every turn, I’ve been hearing a revulsion I’ve rarely heard before over the presumptive candidates for president in both parties. I’ve made the point in these columns that we have a sober choice this year between a Brutal Sure Thing and a Wild Card, and I’d have no choice but to play the Wild Card.
Of Donald Trump, I have no illusions. I find my analogy in the old Dean Martin roasts, in a commentary on Don Rickles, who made personal attack his form of comedy: It was said of Don Rickles that he was vulgar, obscene, and lewd. “And yet, anyone who knew Don privately, knew that it was just the opposite: first, he was lewd, then obscene. . .”
But what has been striking to me is that the frustration over these choices has been focused on the persons here, on Trump and Hillary Clinton – as though the measure of these two persons exhausted the range of questions that we need to weigh seriously in making a judgment this year. What I find curiously absent from that conversation is an understanding of the meaning of political parties – and what makes them different from any other organization in the landscape.
And what is missing at the same time is an appreciation of that “alchemy” that parties are able produce: those wondrous blends they mold as they bring different groups into coalition, and induce them to treat the interests of their allies as their own.
An example or two may recall the dynamic at work. Harry Truman succeeded FDR in the presidency, and the odds were tilted against him when he ran on his own in 1948.
What made things worse was that the Democratic Party was suffering a hemorrhage from the Left as well as the Right. Henry Wallace was leading a Left wing to form a new Progressive Party, with a strong Communist presence. What pushed Wallace out of the party was the stance of the Truman Administration in finally taking a firmer stand against the Soviet Union.
On the Right, Strom Thurmond walked out of the Democratic Convention to form a Dixiecrat Party. The trigger for them came with the modest moves of the Truman Administration in opposition to racial segregation in the military and employment.
With these critical defections, the prospects for Truman seemed to be rendered hopeless, no?
Well, no. In fact, these defections strengthened Truman and the Democrats. For the very thing that drove off the Wallace Left – the strong stand against the Soviet Union – brought back the conservative Catholics who had moved away from the Democrats during the war, when Roosevelt had given strong support to Stalin and the Russians. And the very thing that alienated the segregationists in the South just drew firmer support among blacks in the North.
Wallace prevented Truman from winning New York, and Thurmond himself carried South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. But Truman won decisively, even with the Republicans carrying New York and fifteen other states.
What was at work here, in the life of parties, was a contest for political power carried out in public. What is gained in appealing to one group may come at the cost of alienating another. The statecraft in building a party is to reconcile the interests of the groups coming together in alliance, so that they can stay together in a stable way.
As the parties do that, they find themselves, in effect, working out a set of principles that explain how these interests can converge. And as they do that, they are doing nothing less than developing a perspective on the regime itself: for they are making their way to the principles that explain how they see the rightful ends of the law, and the rightful uses of political power in pursuing those ends.
It made a difference, at the time of the Civil War, that the new Republican Party brought northern businessmen into an alliance with smallholding farmers to support free labor and a restraint on the extension of slavery. There were many interests that connected businessmen in the north with slavery in the South. The way the coalition was formed made a profound difference to the regime shaped by the Republicans.
In our own time, it is no random event that pro-lifers have come to settle firmly in one of our political parties, making it the pro-life party. On the other side, the rival party has taken the “right to abortion” and sexual freedom as their most defining principles, deeper than the freedom of religion, and they are fully willing to make war now on the religious institutions and people who stand in moral opposition.
And through the powers of the courts, lower and higher, they would project that ethic into more zones of our private lives and businesses, brought under the controls of the law.
It is not simply a choice, then, in this election, between two repellent candidates at the head of their tickets. It matters profoundly as to whether we will be given an administration filled, for the most part, with people drawn from either of these parties, offering radically different views of the regime and the way we shall live together.