"Will the real oligarchs please stand up," by Nicholas Strakon, part two.
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One-party America

Everyone knows about the one-party South of yore — but it was a regional fluke, an exception to the general rule of glorious American democracy. And, well, yes, there were those big-city machines in the North — but those were flukes, too. And, all right, there used to be a lot of Republican one-party states in New England, the Midwest, and West — still more flukes. It took Karp to notice that, decade after decade, there were an awful lot of flukes swimming in the American political waters, and damned few other fish. Writing in the early 1970s, he pointed out:

In more than two-thirds of the states of the Union, one party or the other has been predominant for thirty, fifty or even a hundred years. Measured by control of the state assembly ... most states can be described as permanently Democratic or permanently Republican. In those states the second party is a more or less chronic legislative minority; on the occasions when it does gain a majority, it usually loses it in the following election like water seeking its own level. (p. 9)

Many states, he writes, featured a "geographical division ... into more or less distinctive party satrapies." (p. 11) In New York, Democrat strength traditionally was confined to New York City; in Indiana, to the southern section and a few cities. In Missouri, Republican strength was restricted to the western part of the state; in Oklahoma, to the panhandle and north-central section. And so on.

In accounting for that, Karp fires a withering barrage of facts and analysis at the usual explanations, which advert to sociological factors, local traditions, or the "natural affinity" of voters for one party or the other. He also dynamites into dust "the axiom that political parties have but one principle of action: to win election victories at all costs." (p. 9) The principle actually shared by those who control the party organization, he demonstrates, is maintaining that control.

This is not just ordinary careerism, for vast boodle is at stake: party regulars must see to it that "special privileges are not stripped away from special interests that have been paying the organization heavily for protecting those privileges." (p. 22) To maintain control, the party regulars will dump elections as necessary, deliberately carve states into those "party satrapies," and accept permanent minority status in whole states or even whole regions. Here is a nice illustration of the prevailing philosophy:

It was a Republican state party boss, Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania, who early this century stated with notable candor the basic principle and purpose of present-day party politics. In the face of a powerful state and national resurgence of reform and the sentiments of the majority of the Republican rank and file, Penrose put up a losing slate of stand-pat party hacks. When a fellow Republican accused him of ruining the party, Penrose replied, "Yes, but I'll preside over the ruins." (pp. 18-19)

Knowing which side their bread is buttered on, the regulars of one party systematically cooperate with the regulars of the other party — their "indispensable enemies" — to foil the rising of mavericks in either party. Thus, for instance, "It is the common practice in many state legislatures for the minority party to throw its votes for Speaker of the House and other key posts to the regulars' candidate whenever the majority party's insurgents have a strong candidate of their own." (p. 44) And when a third party arises that might pose a genuine threat to the duopoly parties, they routinely unite against it. In many states, the duopoly parties have unashamedly written their collusion right into the statute books in the form of draconian ballot-access laws.

In proving his point, Karp spreads out a royal feast for connoisseurs of outrageous political stories. Typically delicious is his account of how the bosses of the Virginia GOP always came to the aid of Robert Byrd's Democrat machine whenever it was threatened, mobilizing the Republican rank and file to vote for Byrd candidates against insurgents in the Democrat primary and deliberately nominating weak GOP candidates for the general election. In 1964, a "Byrd machine candidate for Congress won very narrowly over a Republican. Two years later political observers — the 'authoritative' Congressional Quarterly among them — predicted a hotly contested fight for the seat. Instead the Republicans put up nobody." (p. 45) Mr. Nobody runs again!


Winning elections can be calamitous. On that subject, Karp's treatment of the 1937 court-packing fight may impress conscientious haters of Franklin Roosevelt as the author's most breathtaking tour de force. [2] Simply put, the Democracy won too big in 1934 and 1936: "Far from being an opportunity, the landslide Democratic majorities ... were a stark danger to the Roosevelt Administration. Lopsided majorities always are, because they weaken the ability of the party oligarchs to control legislation." (p. 127) Libertarians who understand that Wall Street-aristocrat Roosevelt's mission was to save and extend American state capitalism will see the problem immediately. As a result of the 1934 and 1936 landslides, all manner of Democrat mavericks and radicals had poured into Congress. The party oligarchs had to get rid of as many of those wild men as possible.

Karp's chronicle of the "charade of 'blunders'" that followed is high entertainment indeed. Roosevelt, "blundering" brilliantly in the struggle to pack the Supreme Court, "tie[d] up and virtually kill[ed] the first session of an unruly, reform-minded Congress"; "prove[d] that Congress could defy him," which set up a ready excuse for the failure of future reform; and "tie[d] an albatross around the necks" of the Democrat reformers from normally Republican districts who had bought his reformist rhetoric and loyally stood by him. (pp. 137-38)

In 1938, the Republicans gained 75 House seats, and the Democrat wild men were slaughtered.

To the next part: "Plague of locuses."

Posted June 8, 2002

Posted in 2002 by WTM Enterprises.

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