Wanted— A Party

How did Woodrow Wilson believe that parties could be made stronger?
Do Wilson’s ideas have merit given the state of the big city machines (See Plunkitt of Tammany Hall)?

Woodrow Wilson took an untraditional route to politics. He earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1886 and took a teaching position in the politics department at Princeton University in 1890. In 1902, he became president of Princeton. He was then elected governor of New Jersey in 1910 and became the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1912.

Wilson wrote extensively about American politics and believed that many flaws existed in the American political system. In particular, Wilson was quite critical of America’s political parties which he believed did not provide voters with clear choices on policies. He was also critical of the separation of powers and felt that the separation did not allow for an alignment of purpose and action between the executive and legislative branches. The solution he proposed was for stronger political parties to bring harmony between the different branches and to allow coordinating action to take place.

—Eric C. Sands

Source: Woodrow Wilson, “Wanted—A Party,” September 1, 1886, published in the Boston Times, September 27, 1886.

A man must nowadays either belong to a party through mere force of habit, or else be puzzled to know what party he belongs to. Party platforms furnish no sort of chart by which he can shape his political course. Unless they are carefully labelled, he cannot tell which party speaks through them, for they all say much the same thing. If voters chose their party instead of happening into it, they would probably choose by the aid of two questions, namely, first, “What policy do we favor?” and, second, “Which party advocates that policy?” Perhaps it is fortunate, therefore, that so many drift to the ballot-box and so few choose; for, otherwise, multitudes would lose their votes before answering the second of these questions. They would practically disfranchise themselves if they waited to answer it. The professions of existing parties do not furnish any satisfactory reply to it; still less do their actions. Does anyone favor civil service reform? The present act establishing competitive examinations and a commission was proposed by a democratic senator to a republican senate, was passed by that body and a democratic house, and signed by a republican president.[1] The senator who proposed it was afterward cast aside by his constituency because of his reform sentiments. His measure is now administered with full sympathy for its purposes, by a democratic president elected because of his record on this question; but it is covertly attacked in a democratic house, and openly sneered at in a republican senate; and the democratic chairman of the house committee on civil service reform fails of a renomination in North Carolina because of his fine reform work on that committee.[2] Which party, then, advocates civil service reform?

…But why extend the perplexing recital? It is sadly confounding to think about so much confusion. And, be it observed, I am not speaking of these things in ridicule of our national parties, or in disgust with our national politics, nor yet in despair of our national institutions. I am simply gathering facts to serve as food for reflection, and in order to state what my own reflections upon them have been. My chief reflection has been… that such a course of things is tending, so to say, to individualize our politics….

First, let me explain what I mean by the individualizing of our politics. I mean simply that the voter who exercises any choice at all, is being obliged to choose men, particular individuals, to tie to, instead of parties. Of course, the conscientious voter always choses between men, between candidates, in voting; but formerly he could choose them as representing parties. Now he must choose them instead of parties. The feeling is: “No party means what it says; some men do seem to mean what they say; we will tie to them when we can.” The last presidential election of course furnishes the most striking illustration of the operation of this feeling. The mugwump[3] is the man who has cast loose from parties, which don’t mean what they say, and offers to follow men who do speak with a purpose. Mr. Cleveland[4] is a democrat. But he was not elected because he was a democrat, but because the civil service of the country needed reforming, and he evidently meant to reform it, if given a chance. A man of that sort in the presidential chair would be worth any number of party platforms; a great number of discriminating voters accordingly followed him in preference to any party—“irrespective of party,” to use the orthodox phrase.

Mr. Cleveland’s case was only a conspicuous one, however; it was not isolated. There is a yearly increasing number of mayors, governors, and congressmen holding their offices because of personal qualities or opinions pleasing to constituencies who do not stop to ask, in choosing them, whether the parties they formally represent possess like qualities or opinions.

Various reasons, historical and others, might be offered to explain this interesting but necessarily transitional state of affairs; as, for instance, that the republican party has outlived the purposes for which it was organized, and that the democratic party has ceased to be opposed to it in most matters, except in a Pickwickian[5] sense. The republican party rendered the country some inestimable services, and the country, in natural gratitude, pensioned it with a quarter of a century of power. Meantime, the democratic party kicked its heels with what philosophy it could command on the cold outside of the offices, comforting itself with dignified repetitions of certain old and important constitutional principles which had all of a sudden apparently lost their old power as charms to conjure with. But the republican pension has run out now. It could not reasonably be claimed for a second generation. The pensioners, too, got intolerable as they grew old. We, accordingly, have a president who is a democrat in favor of civil service reform, and a congress which is nothing in a particular and in favor of nothing unanimously, save large expenditures of money. The old parties, to put it in the vernacular, have “played out,” and we are choosing here a man and there a man who means what he says, while waiting for a party which shall mean what it says.

The new parties which are hoped for in the future do not form readily or quickly for the same reason that the old parties have not adapted themselves to changed circumstances. Our system of government has supplied no official place, no place of actual authority, for leaders of parties. A party, consequently, must be merely a fortuitous concourse of atoms; and we must wait on the atoms. Even after it is formed, any party of ours must keep together rather by grace and enthusiasm than by vital organization. There is no ruling station in the government for its leaders. It must follow them rather for what they eloquently profess than for anything that they can actually do. The most leader-like post in politics is the speakership of the house of representatives, which is the most unsuitable place possible for a party captain. If we did not have a natural talent for forming parties, and it were not the fashion in all popular governments to have parties, it is to be seriously doubted whether we would not approximate that “natural society,” of which some philosophers and some anarchists have dreamed, in which everybody would act for himself and nobody act, except accidentally, or through chance amiability, in concert with his neighbors.

There is, however, another and a better reason why we always have parties, and that is, that we have a splendid habit of all believing in certain great principles of human liberty and self-government, without being tamely all of one mind about the way in which those principles ought to be applied in particular cases. No time was ever bigger than this with unsolved problems as to the best ways in which to make liberty real and government helpful. Labor questions, financial questions, administrative questions must all tax the best thought of the country from this time on, until some clear purpose of reform, of financial reconstruction, or of governmental betterment is conceived by some group of men who mean what they say, who all mean the same thing, and who know how to say it, begin to speak their purpose, so that the nation will wake as at a new voice—a voice which calls with authority to duty and to action. Then a new party will be formed—and another party opposed to it. All that is wanting is a new, genuine and really meant purpose held by a few strong men of principle and boldness. That is a big “all,” and it is still conspicuously wanting.

But the generations that really loved the old and now disintegrated parties is fast passing away. It is largely the new generation that wonders that anyone ever doubted that the war was over—even sometimes wonders what the war was all about—that is compelling a clearing away of the worn-out formulas of the old dispensation and a hastening of something not stated to determine their politics. With the growth of this new generation we shall unquestionably witness the growth of new parties.

  1. 1. The Pendleton Act was introduced into the Senate by Democratic Senator George Pendleton (Ohio) and was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, who had ascended to the presidency after the assassination of President James A. Garfield. Passage of the act reduced Pendleton’s popularity in Ohio, and he was not nominated for another term as senator.
  2. 2. The new president was Democrat Grover Cleveland.
  3. 3. Republican voters who bolted the party in the election of 1884 in response to corruption and opposition to the Republican nominee James Blaine.
  4. 4. Served as the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.
  5. 5. Taken from Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which dealt with the inequities of the justice system. The book became quite popular, inspiring theatrical adaptations and related merchandise.
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