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Political parties keep ‘the wise, the rich, and the good’ from taking over our democracy

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 11:54 a.m.
BDN

The endorsement by Maine’s millionaire Sen. Angus King of his fellow millionaire Eliot Cutler’s candidacy for governor of the Pine Tree State will no doubt be hailed by many as a breath of fresh air, a relief from “partisan politics,” the “two-party monopoly,” and all that those phrases imply. I beg to differ. I believe it is one more example of how politics in this state, and in the nation as a whole, are rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of the privileged few.

But first, two disclosures. I’m a partisan myself, currently chairman of my town’s Democratic committee. Second, I’m a retired history professor, whose main research interest touched upon political parties and their history.

Before anyone rejoices in the rise of “independent” candidates and the decline of parties and partisanship, it’s important to understand why we have political parties in the first place. As most students of American history know, the nation’s Founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to John Adams to James Madison, did not like political parties. That’s because, as today’s conservatives remind us over and over again, the Founders did not believe in democracy as we understand it today.

They believed in government by consent of the governed, but only after that consent had been passed through a number of filters, which did not include the masses. Women and people of color were denied the vote. Many white males were prevented from voting because they lacked sufficient property. And even those who could vote were usually expected to defer to “the wise, the rich, and the good,” the well-connected, well-educated, socially-prominent gentlemen who had the leisure time to make decisions and put forth candidates from whom ordinary voters could then choose. Most citizens were content to follow their lead, not because they were coerced, but simply because that was the social custom of the times. Historians and sociologists usually describe this world of the Founders as a “deferential society.”

Our political parties, however, were intended to undermine the deferential society. They weakened the power of “the wise, the rich, and the good.” Political parties make it possible for those who are not wealthy or socially connected to enter public service in ways that were impossible in earlier times. A little less than two centuries ago, a young and ambitious Illinois lawyer could thus work his way up from obscurity, first by serving in the state legislature, then in Congress, then trying for the U.S. Senate. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost, but ultimately he became president of the United States. Not being a member of “the wise, the rich, and the good,” Abraham Lincoln could never have made it in a partyless system. Yes, wealth and social prominence will always have influence in politics, but political parties open up the field to others as well.

Which brings us back to Maine’s gubernatorial election. Both this year’s major party candidates for governor competed within their party system. Both are self-made men, and not being of great wealth, could not have achieved success without the help of their party. On the other hand, well-heeled “independent” candidates like Cutler are today’s version of “the wise, the rich, and the good.”

They are enabled by their wealth, education, and connectedness to hover above the fray. They can avoid dirtying their hands with the endless meetings, caucuses, rallies, fundraisers and banquets that are part of the American political process. Then they can then swoop down from their lofty “nonpartisan” heights, demand to be considered alongside the partisan candidates, and if they are lucky, by short-circuiting the political process, gain elected office.

If this is the case, are we not slipping back to the partyless, deferential society we left behind two centuries ago? Without political parties to recruit voters, present the issues, and encourage participation, will politics once again become the exclusive domain of “the wise, the rich, and the good”? To some, this might be “progress,” but it is certainly not democracy.

Lynn H. Parsons is chair of Castine’s Democratic Committee. He is the author of “The Birth of Modern Politics,” published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

 

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