Peril in the Machine

Why does La Follette believe that parties fall apart into machines? What is the remedy for machine politics?
Does La Follette propose remedies that could address the likes of George Washington Plunkitt?

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, national conventions selected the presidential nominees of each party. In earlier times, these conventions were highly participatory and did a fairly accurate job of gauging voter intentions. Over time, however, these conventions fell increasingly under the power of political bosses (individuals who control various parts of a political party, such as a ward or precinct) who controlled the selection of delegates to the state party conventions and thereby indirectly decided the delegates to the national conventions. The selection of party nominees thus lost its democratic character and became a function of party elites doing the selecting in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.

Robert La Follette was the leader of a group of progressive reformers who led an attack on the power of state and national conventions. La Follette and others advocated the use of primaries instead of conventions as a way to carry out the task of nomination. Primaries were popular elections that would replace the conventions in nominating candidates for office. They had the advantage of removing control over the conventions from party leaders and giving the public a real voice in the nominating process. In 1912, La Follette challenged incumbent president Howard Taft for the Republican nomination in the first presidential election to use primaries.

—Eric C. Sands

Source: Robert La Follette, “Peril in the Machine,” Chicago Times-Herald, February 23, 1897.

In every democracy men will affiliate with one or the other of two great political parties. The ballot must determine which party shall administer government, enact new legislation, adjust the laws to all the complex social relations of life, to all the complicated business transactions of millions of human beings with order and justice. The ballot can achieve the kind of administration desired, establish the economic and financial policies essential, only through the election of men of integrity and ability, embodying the ideas expressed in the ballot. That the voter may be thoroughly informed upon the questions involved and upon the men to be chosen as the representatives of his convictions there should be the widest discussion and the most searching investigation.

The fundamental principle of a republic is individual responsibility. The responsibility is personal at the point in our political system where the citizen comes in direct contact with the system itself. This is the initial point of all legislation, all administration. In all the activities preliminary to the primary, and in the primary itself, the citizen is an elementary force in government. Here the voter can lay his hand directly upon the shoulder of the public servant and point the way he should go. But this ends with the adjournment of the primary or caucus. From that moment the citizen in a representative democracy, under a caucus, delegate and convention system, does not again come in direct personal touch with the work either of legislation or administration. How essential, then, if he is to be a factor in government, that he take part, and intelligently, too, in this fundamental work. If there be failure here, there is failure throughout….

Remedy Is Suggested

What, then, shall we do to be saved?

Waste no more time in vain sermons on the duty of attending the caucus. It is too late for that. Except at long intervals, when in a sort of frenzy the citizen strikes at the machine shackles, men can be no longer drafted into caucus attendance. They have seen the game before. They know the dice are loaded. They are no longer indifferent to their duties, nor ignorant of the situation. They well understand that their only part in government is to vote the ticket prepared for them and bear the machine rule of their own party, or the machine rule of the other party. They know they do not get the kind of government they vote for, but they do the best they can. They still attend the elections. They are as vitally interested in good government as ever. They are only waiting to find the way to achieve it. Here is our final safety. Here is the ultimate overthrow of the machine. If we provide the same safeguards, the same certainty, the same facility for expressing and executing the will of the people at the primaries as now prevail at the elections, we shall have the same general interest, the same general participation in the one as in the other.

Aye, more than this, if we guarantee the American citizen a full voice in the selection of candidates, and shaping the policy of his party and the administration of government incident thereto, then shall we invest not only the primaries, but the elections as well, with an abiding interest for him, extending beyond the day of the primaries and the day of the election, the weeks of the campaign—indeed, we shall make the primary and the election of vastly deeper significance, appealing in a new way to his deliberate judgment, his patriotism and his personal responsibility.

It is as much the interest and as plainly the duty of the state to as carefully perfect and guard a system of nominating candidates as it perfects and guards the system of electing them.

The caucus, delegate and convention system is inherently bad. It invites to manipulation, scheming, trickery, corruption and fraud. Even if the caucus were fairly conducted, the plan of which it is a part removes the nomination too far from the voter. Every transfer of delegated power weakens responsibility, until finally, by the time it is lodged in the hands of a nominating convention, the sense of responsibility has been lost in transit, unless it has been ticketed through by instructions from its original source. And even then all along the journey, from the primary to the convention, the confidential agents of the machine are introducing delegates to the mysteries of “gold brick” and “three card” political schemes.[1]

The convention under the most favorable conditions is anything but a deliberative body. Its work is hurried and business necessarily transacted in confusion. There is great excitement. It is the storm center of a political tempest. There are rumors and roorbacks, challenges and dentals. There is no time for investigation and no opportunity to distinguish the real issue from the false issue. Charges are withheld and “sprung” in the convention purposely to avoid disproval and mislead delegates; and the dark horse is ever in reserve, waiting a favorable opportunity to take the convention unawares. Add to this all the corruption which comes with machine domination of a convention and you have political disaster and political crime as a result.

If, after long suffering and misrepresentation, the people by tremendous and united effort could succeed in defeating and even destroying the machine, the opportunity offered by the caucus and convention plan would simply restore the old or build up a new machine in its place.

Drop Caucus and Convention.

No, no! Beginning the work in the state, put aside the caucus and the convention. They have been and will continue to be prostituted to the service of corrupt organization. They answer no purpose further than to give respectable form to political robbery. Abolish the caucus and the convention. Go back to the first principles of democracy. Go back to the people. Substitute for the caucus and the convention a primary election—held under all the sanctions of law which prevail at the general elections—where the citizen may cast his vote directly to nominate the candidate of the party with which he affiliates and have it canvasses and returned just as he cast it.

Provide a means of placing the candidates in nomination before the primary and forestall the creation of a new caucus system back of the primary election.

Provide a ballet for the primary election and print on it the names of all candidates for nomination who have previously filed preliminary nomination papers with a designated official.

Provide that no candidate for nomination shall be entitled to have his name printed on the primary election ticket who shall not have been called out as a candidate by the written request of a given percentage if the vote cast at the preceding election in the district, county or state in which he is proposed as a candidate in the same manner that judicial candidates are now called out in many states.

Provide for the selection of a committee to represent the party organization and promulgate the party platform by the election at the primary of a representative man from the party for each county in the state.

Under severe penalty for violation of the law prohibit electioneering in or about the election booth, punish bribery and the singular attempt to bribe and protect fully the counting and return of the votes cast.

Do this and the knell of the political machine has sounded in the state.

Then every citizen will share equally in the nomination of the candidates of his party and attend primary election as a privilege as well as a duty. It will no longer be necessary to create an artificial interest in the general election to induce voters to attend. Intelligent, well-considered judgment will be substituted for unthinking enthusiasm; the lamp of reason for the torchlight.

The voter will not have to be persuaded that he has an interest in the election; he will know that he has. The nominations of the party will not be the result of “compromise” or impulse or evil design—the barrel or the machine—but the candidates of the majority honestly and fairly nominated.

To every generation some important work is committed. If this generation will destroy the political machine, will emancipate the majority from its enslavement, will [a]gain place the destinies of this nation in the [ha]nds of its citizens, then, “under God this government of the people by the people and for the [peop]le shall not perish from the earth.”[2]

  1. 1. Gold brick schemes involve selling a tangible item for more than it is worth. They are named after a scam in which a buyer pays for a golden ingot which turns out to be gold-plated lead. Three card schemes, also known as three-card monte, involve tricking the victim into betting that they can find the “money” card among three face-down playing cards.
  2. 2. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
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