Party Government in the United States

Why did Woodrow Wilson want to reform political parties when so many other Progressives wanted to try to abolish them?
How do Wilson’s views differ from the Progressive Party Platform of 1912?

Wilson wrote that the party system of the nineteenth century was untenable. Unelected and therefore unaccountable party bosses could no longer be permitted to control public officials. Parties needed to serve the will of the people and, once free of the party bosses, could be made more accountable to public opinion. Wilson also complained in his writings that American political parties suffered from a lack of strong internal organization and discipline. Rank-and-file party members frequently dissented from party leadership with no repercussions or penalties. This meant that parties were not held accountable to the party platform and by extension were not held accountable to public opinion. This was true even of the Speaker of the House, who was regularly held in check by the standing House committees.

In place of this arrangement, Wilson wanted a truly accountable party system. Parties aid in making the connection more immediate between the people and their governing institutions. Party members in the legislature, he argued, should be clearly organized and guided by leaders that are easily recognizable by the public. This would allow voters to accept or reject leaders as a way of making their will known on policy matters. This would keep members of Congress accountable to the people by reminding party members that the public was always watching and would hold responsible parties that failed to live up to voters’ expectations.

—Eric C. Sands

Source: Woodrow Wilson, “Party Government in the United States,” in Constitutional Government in the United States (Columbia University Press, New York: 1917), 198-222.


[Wilson begins the chapter with an extended history of Whig theory in England.]

… Just because, therefore, there is nowhere else in the world so complex and various an electoral machinery as in the United States, nowhere else in the world is party machinery so elaborate or so necessary. It is important to keep this in mind. Otherwise, when we analyze party action, we shall fall into the too common error of thinking that we are analyzing disease. As a matter of fact, the whole thing is just as normal and natural as any other political development. The part that party has played in this country has been both necessary and beneficial, and if bosses and secret managers are often undesirable persons, playing their parts for their own benefit or glorification rather than for the public good, they are at least the natural fruits of the tree. It has borne fruit good and bad, sweet and bitter, wholesome and corrupt, but it is native to our air and practice and can be uprooted only by an entire change of system.

All the peculiarities of party government in the United States are due to the too literal application of Whig[1] doctrine, to the infinite multiplication of elective offices. There are two things to be done for which we have supplied no adequate legal or constitutional machinery: there are thousands of officials to be chosen and there are many disconnected parts of government to be brought into cooperation. “It may be laid down as a political maxim that whatever assigns to the people a power which they are naturally incapable of wielding takes it away from them.” They have, under our Constitution and statutes, been assigned the power of filling innumerable elective offices; they are incapable of wielding that power because they have neither the time nor the necessary means of cooperative action; the power has therefore been taken away from them, not by law but by circumstances, and handed over to those who have the time and the inclination to supply the necessary organization; and the system of election has been transformed into a system of practically irresponsible appointment to office by private party managers,—irresponsible because our law has not yet been able to devise any means of making it responsible. It may also be laid down as a political maxim that when the several chief organs of government are separated by organic law and offset against each other in jealous seclusion, no common legal authority set over them, no necessary community of interest subsisting amongst them, no common origin or purpose dominating them, they must of necessity, if united at all, be united by pressure from without; and they must be united if government is to proceed. They cannot remain checked and balanced against one another; they must act, and act together. They must, therefore, of their own will or of mere necessity obey an outside master.

… It is interesting to observe that as a consequence the distinction we make between “politicians” and “statesmen” is peculiarly our own. In other countries where these words or their equivalents are used, the statesman differs from the politician only in capacity and in degree, and is distinguished as a public leader only in being a greater figure on the same stage, whereas with us politicians and statesmen differ in kind. A politician is a man who manages the organs of the party outside the open field of government, outside executive offices and legislative chambers, and who conveys the behests of party to those who hold the offices and make laws; while the statesman is the leader of public opinion, the immediate director (under the politicians) of executive or legislative policy, the diplomat, the recognized public servant. The politician, indeed, often hold public office and attempts the role of statesman as well, but, though the roles may be combined, they are none the less sharply distinguishable. Party majorities which are actually in control of the whole legislative machinery, as party majorities in England are, determine party programs by the use of the government itself,—politicians, I mean who are, at any rate in respect of that function, independent of the responsibilities of office and of public action; and these independent conventions, not charged with the responsibility of carrying out their programs, actually outline the policy of administrations and dictate the action of Congress, the irresponsible dictating to the responsible, and so, it may be, destroying the very responsibility itself. “The peculiarities of American party government are all due to this separation of party management from direct and immediate responsibility for the administration of the government.”

… The machinery of party rule is nominally representative. The several assemblies and conventions through which the parties operate are supposed to be made up of delegates chosen by the voters of the party, to speak for them with a certain knowledge of what they want and expect. But here again the action of the voters themselves is hardly more than nominal. The lists of delegates are made up by the party managers as freely in all ordinary circumstances as are the lists of the candidates in whose selection they concur. To add the duty of really selecting delegates to the duty of selecting men for office already laid upon our voters by law would be only to add to the impossibility of their task, and to their confusion if they attempted to perform it. When difficulties arise in the process, rival bodies of delegates can always be chosen, and then the managing committees who are in charge of the party’s affairs—the county committee, the state committee, or the national committee—can dictate which of the contesting delegations shall be admitted, which shall have their credentials accepted. It is to this necessity we have been brought by farming the functions of government out to outside parties. We have made the task of the voter hopeless and therefore impossible.

And yet at the best the control which party exercises over government is uncertain. There can be, whether for the voter or for the managing politician himself, little more than a presumption that what party managers propose and promise will be done, for the separation of authority between the several organs of government itself still stands in the way. Government is still in solution, and nothing may come to crystallization. But we may congratulate ourselves that we have succeeded as well as we have in giving our politics unity and coherence. We should have drifted sadly, should much oftener have been made to guess what the course of our politics should be, had we not constructed this singular and, on the whole, efficient machinery by which we have in all ordinary seasons contrived to hold the personnel and the policy of our government together.

… It is in this vital sense that our national parties have been our veritable body politic. The very compulsion of selfishness has made them serviceable; the very play of self-interest has made them effective. In organization was their strength. It brought them the rewards of local office, the command of patronage of many kinds, the detailed control of opinion, the subtle mastery of every force of growth and expansion. They strove for nothing so constantly or so watchfully as for the compact, cooperative organization and action which served to hold the nation in their hands.

But we have come within sight of the end of the merely nationalizing process. Contrasts between region and region become every year less obvious, conflicts of interest less acute and disturbing. Party organization is no longer needed for the mere rudimentary task of holding the machinery together or giving it the sustenance of some common object, some single cooperative motive. The time is at hand when we can with safety examine the network of party in its detail and change its structure without imperiling its strength. This thing that has served us so well might now master us if we left it irresponsible. We must see to it that it is made responsible.

I have already explained in what sense and for what very sufficient reasons it is irresponsible. Party organizations appoint our elective officers, and we do not elect them. The chief obstacle to their reform, the chief thing that has stood in the way of making them amenable to opinion, controllable by independent opposition, is the reverence with which we have come to regard them. By binding us together at moments of crisis they have won our affectionate fealty. Because the Republican party “saved the Union,” a whole generation went by, in many parts of the country, before men who had acted with it in a time of crisis could believe it possible for any “gentleman” or patriot to break away from it or oppose it, whatever its policy and however remote from anything it had originally professed or undertaken. Because the Democratic party had stood for state rights and a power freely dispersed among the people, because it had tried to avoid war and preserve the old harmony of the sections, men of the same fervor of sympathy in other parts of the country deemed it equally incredible that any man of breeding or of principle could turn his back upon it or act with any other political organization. The feeling lasted until lines of party division became equally fixed and artificial. But with changing generations feelings change. We are coming now to look upon our parties once more as instruments for progressive action, as means for handling the affairs of a new age. Sentimental reminiscences is less dominant over us. We are ready to study new uses for our parties and to adapt them to new standards and principles.

The principle of change, if change there is to be, should spring out of this question: Have we had enough of the literal translation of Whig theory into practice, into constitutions? Are we ready to make our legislatures and our executives our real bodies politic, instead of our parties? If we are, we must think less of checks and balances and more of coordinated power, less of separation of functions and more of the synthesis of action. If we are, we must decrease the number and complexity of the things the voter is called upon to do; concentrate his attention upon a few men whom he can make responsible, a few objects upon which he can easily centre his purpose; make parties his instruments and not his masters by an utter simplification of the things he is expected to look to.

  1. 1. A member of the British parliament constitutional party that sought the supremacy of Parliament in government.
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