Private Power and American Democracy

by Grant McConnell

Vintage Books, 1966, paper


Part I

There have been many attempts to explain American politics in terms of class, but the Marxian formulas have fared ill over the long span. Socialism seemed for a period near the turn of the twentieth century to be a viable movement; there are even grounds for believing that the recording of its strength was seriously minimized by the mechanics of the American electoral system. Nevertheless, socialism as a movement was largely ended by 1912, though there was a brief renewal of class thinking during the worst years of the Great Depression, when it seemed possible that the economic order was in a process of collapse.

The Progressive Legacy

During the two decades divided by the year 1900 the problem of private power confronted the American people openly on a scale unmatched in the history of the republic. The corporation assumed its modern form and the institutions of transportation, exchange, and finance acquired an unprecedented influence over the affairs of ordinary men. Government appeared to do the bidding of those who directed the new behemoths of capitalism. A newly elected member of the United States Senate, on arriving in Washington, was told by one of his seniors, "Young man, tariffs are the whole of politics. Study them." This was not just cynicism; it was the practical wisdom of a political oligarchy whose power had endured for more than a generation. Yet there were other political topics of concern to members of this oligarchy. They included the control of legislatures and cities. They touched upon the distribution of the public lands and the content of the coinage. They bore upon the control of labor and its unions.

The response to the emergence of this power took different forms. By 1900 Populism, the greatest agrarian movement the nation had known or ever would know, had collapsed. There had been an incipient mass movement of workingmen in the Knights of Labor, but it too had disappeared. Marxian socialism had immigrated with the new tides of Europe's outcasts, and there was even a native movement of anarchosyndicalism in the new Industrial Workers of the World. These, however, were already locked in struggle with the forces that would before long reduce them to impotence.

All of these movements were symptoms of a deep and widespread sense of exploitation and disorder. They centered in those segments of the population with the most specific grievances. By the same token, however, these were groups apart from the main current of American life in the new century. Without doubt many people in that current, the broad middle class of increasingly urbanized Americans, saw nothing disturbing in the rise of the new aggregations of power. Nevertheless, the sense of an evil turn in national development was pervasive; the public's preoccupation with corruption was the most certain symptom. Although critiques by the Populists, organized labor, and even the Socialists influenced to some degree the more widespread uneasiness, it derived from an older vision, the vision of the public good. This vision, handed down by the founders of the republic, was one not often elaborated or easily defined. Yet it became the point of departure for a tradition of much importance to the development of American political life in the twentieth century.

The movement which assumed the role of defender of the public came after 1900. It had many aspects-so many, in fact, that it may be misleading to place them all within a single movement. Yet there were lines that connected them, and without minimizing their sometimes contradictory aspects, it is appropriate to use for them the term applied to the most conspicuous political movement of the time, Progressivism..

Progressivism was a movement of many paradoxes. Built on the foundations of Populism, it was yet more an urban than a rural phenomenon; speaking in the name of the mass of men, it was blind (when it was not hostile) to the organizations of labor; strong in language, it was weak in action. The most important paradox, however, was much more complicated and went to the very heart of what the movement meant. Essentially, Progressivism was an attack upon private power, reasserting the public's interest and decrying the "special" interests, sometimes in extreme terms. Yet the doctrines of Progressivism led to justification and acceptance of the evils it set out to destroy.

Attack on "the system" has been a stock-in-trade of radical dissenters for much of our history. Although today we tend to associate it most commonly with Marxists, it has never been their peculiar property. "The system" was a perception of John Taylor of Caroline; many of the later Populists were also convinced of its existence. It passed readily over into the thinking of Progressivism.' This kind of explanation is partly the result of a common attempt to understand and find order in apparent chaos. It was also the result of a craving for simplicity, for reducing the diversity of things to clear-cut moral issues on which clear-cut judgments could be passed. In one way or another, however, "the system" was rarely considered that normal and to-be-expected web of institutions and relationships by which men are governed and their work is given meaning. The idea was, rather, that there existed a coherent, carefully thought out, and coordinated achievement of a singularly gifted, secret, and selfish band of plotters.

If this type of explanation often had its own beguiling simplicities, underlying it was a view of politics whose latent tendencies were not fully seen during the Progressive era, but which had important possibilities for later years. Of the many writings on political problems that appeared during this time, one published in 1907 best expressed the quality of the Progressive impulse. J. Allen Smith's The Spirit of American Government anticipated much of the argument in Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, but, lacking the latter's mass of factual detail, so appealing to American readers, it has been relegated to the role of its precursor. Smith explained his purpose: "to call attention to the spirit of the Constitution, its inherent opposition to democracy, the obstacles which it has placed in the way of majority rule....". Better than anyone else he provided the theoretical foundations the ardent pragmatists of the Progressive movement had refused to bother with.

The root of the evils with which American political life was troubled, Smith argued, was in the Constitution itself, and its origins went back to the nation's beginning. Some colonial institutions and most of the system of law were inherited from England, where they rejected the supremacy of the well-to-do minority. During the revolutionary period there was a drift toward democracy and a rejection of "the English theory of checks and balances." Some of this attitude was carried over to the government under the Articles of Confederation, but this was followed by the Constitution, "a reactionary document." The change was the work of wealthy conservatives, the democrats who had signed the Declaration of Independence were very slightly represented among the framers of the Constitution. As a result, "democracy was not the object which the framers had in view, but the very thing which they wished to avoid."

According to Smith, the system produced was undemocratic in both spirit and detail. Perhaps most important in his eyes was the difficulty of amending the Constitution. "All democratic constitutions are flexible and easy to amend. This follows from the fact that in a government which the people really control, a constitution is merely the means of securing the supremacy of public opinion and not an instrument for thwarting it." The independence of the judiciary and its power to review legislation were almost equally important, and these were inherently characteristics of aristocratic government. Checks and balances operated-and were intended to operate-against the majority will. Party, which had developed in spite of the framers' intention, was potentially a mechanism for insuring majority rule, but it had been so corrupted that the choice of candidates was made in the secret councils of the ruling minority. And in any event, party was doomed to frustration by the separation of powers provided by the Constitution. The general result was government by and for the wealthy interests.

In the mainstream of Progressivism, however, the problem was simpler: to exorcise private power, rather than to oppose it with a greater. The program of Progressivism, wherever it was found, had this consistency: to restore honesty to government and society by returning government to the public.

Locally, this meant essentially the same list of reforms. Probably the first item everywhere was to exclude the corporate interests" from politics and nearly everywhere this meant primarily the ejection of railroad influence. The railroads, bete noire of the Populists, were perhaps no more than the first of the large corporations to attract public attention, but the fact remains that almost everywhere they were deeply involved in politics. The machine Robert La Follette set himself to unseat was primarily the railroads."

The evidence seemed to indicate that the "special interests " had used the party organizations (usually the Republican) to fasten their control upon the people. Parties had provided the machinery by which the railroads, the trusts, and the other special interests had come to control the government. City machines had been corrupted by businesses (both good and bad); state organizations had fallen into the hands of men such as Philetus Sawyer and William Herrin; the party organization of the United States Senate was Nelson Aldrich's personal machine, working for the high tariffs that benefited only the largest of the interests. To strike at the interests themselves, it was necessary to change the party system. The fault was not simply with one party; the evil was latent in both. Whichever party was elected, the interests were the real winners:

The people vote for one party and find their hopes turned to ashes on their lips; and then to punish that party, they vote for the other party. So it is that partisan victories have come to be merely the people's vengeance and always the secret powers have played the game.... Under this boss system, no matter which party wins, the people seldom win; but the bosses almost always win. And they never work for the people. They do not even work for the party to which they belong. They work only for those anti-public interests whose employees they are. It is these interests that are the real victors in the end.

The general Progressive conclusion, then, was that parties were a medium of special-interest power; to strike at the special interests themselves involved some kind of change in the party system. The logic of this approach was carried further in California than perhaps anywhere else the Progressives came to power. The first step was achievement of the initiative, referendum, and recall in Los Angeles in 1903. In 1909 the state legislature passed a direct primary law requiring a test of party affiliation for candidates seeking nomination. In the "reform" legislature of 1911 the initiative, referendum, and recall were adopted for the entire state. In that year also, the test of party affiliation for candidates seeking party nomination was weakened. In 1913 city and county offices were made subject to nonpartisan election. In the same year the requirement of an affidavit of party affiliation was removed from the Primary Act and the following statement was added: "Nothing in this Act contained shall be construed to limit the rights of any person to become the candidate for more than one political party for the same office upon complying with the requirements of this Act." This provision, the famous "cross-filing" device, was adopted with no controversy and its significance was hardly noted at the time, but it was not an accident; its terms appeared at several places in the state Elections Code. Moreover, parties were circumscribed by a set of provisions determining their governing bodies, times of meeting, and manner of operation so rigid and detailed that the private character of parties was virtually destroyed. In 1915 a capstone to this anti-party legislation was offered in a measure to make all state elective offices, including that of governor, nonpartisan. The measure narrowly missed acceptance in a referendum vote.

Progressivism did assert a public interest, but its vision of this interest was never clear. Destruction of private power was a clear enough goal, but what should take the place of such power? If public power, how should it be organized and exercised? If parties were to be emasculated, what would be left save government by the expert, government in the name of a public whose multitudes could never speak except through interest groups-the very instruments of that hidden government whose destruction constituted the Progressive mission? There were no answers for these questions.

In practice as well as in theory Progressivism faltered. The antimonopoly policy was applied in desultory fashion. The zeal for direct democracy via initiative and referendum brought reforms, but the results were trivial beside the promise. Government was returned to the people in some places, but where this took place nothing was left to politics; quietism, good government, businesslike management, administration were all that remained.

Perhaps among the Progressives, J. Allen Smith understood the movement best. He had drawn-ruthlessly-its fullest implications. Years later, looking back upon the movement, he said, " The real trouble with all reformers is that we made a crusade against standards. Well, we smashed them all and now neither we nor anybody else have anything left."

What came of the Progressive movement? Was the result as bleak as Smith in his disillusionment believed?

With a movement as diffuse and as frequently contradictory as Progressivism, it is neither safe nor easy to judge. Moreover, since the tendency best illustrated by the Progressive movement reaches back into remoter stages of American history, it is not always clear what is properly to be called Progressive and what is not. Nonetheless it is certain that here was the zenith of reform, of the impulse, in secular form, for the achievement of virtue.

The simplest answer is to say that the goal was not reached. Certainly the narratives of the preceding pages would support such a conclusion. With some tolerance one might add, as does Hofstadter, that catharsis was achieved, but this is faint praise for so much effort. Such a judgment, however, is too severe. If a fair estimate of the strictly moral aspects of the republic's health were to be made, it might very well show that in the years since the muckrakers were hardest at work corruption has greatly declined. Dismissal of Progressivism would also be mistaken on a different and probably more important score. The movement was too strong and of too long duration to be without effect. Moreover, as suggested earlier, it was not itself something discontinuous with the American past, but rather the intensification of an important trend in this country's politics. A generation of political dissidents was schooled in the Progressive era. Its leaders were in eclipse for almost two decades, but enough of them survived to join the next burst of reform when it came with the New Deal. In a multitude of ways the reforming ideas of the first decade of the twentieth century found their way into the actions of the fourth decade.

Actual consequences, however, are sometimes different from those intended. Some factors impinging upon a situation may not be taken into account, those that are may be misunderstood. So it would seem with the Progressive hostility toward parties. To a remarkable degree this hostility and the "reforms" it engendered were successful in impeding the development of party systems, most strikingly in California. The measures the Progressives wrote into the California elections code went far to make efforts to develop party organization sterile-as intended. Only in the 1950s when the most stringent of these measures were repealed and the Progressive program circumvented by extralegal organization parallel to the emasculated official party forms did that state begin to have a genuine party system. In this sense Progressivism had succeeded, but it had based its program upon the theory that the political machine to be smashed was a party machine. In retrospect, however, it can be seen that the actual machine was purely a creature of the Southern Pacific and a few allied interests, not a party machine. Moreover, the conditions created by the anti-party "reforms" were at least as favorable to the growth of new pressure-group machines as any previously existing. Such a machine developed under the leadership of Arthur Samish, whose tenure of power was not broken until 1949, when a popular national magazine gave wide publicity to some very rash statements Samish made, and the Internal Revenue Service secured his conviction on tax charges. The program designed to prevent political bossism and corruption only the more surely produced his machine.

But J. Allen Smith was correct in a more important sense. The administrative sphere of government has grown enormously in the years since the height of Progressivism. A long list of new administrative agencies has been added to those heralded early in the century as the scientific solution to the problem of ensuring the public interest. Some, like the Federal Communications Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the National Labor Relations Board, are modeled on the ICC and the Wisconsin commissions. These appointive, determinedly nonpartisan bodies were to be the solution to the dilemmas of Congress when it was faced with the problem of regulation in highly technical and complicated areas. But almost nowhere were these commissions equipped with guides to their conduct other than the very general Congressional admonition that their rules and decisions should be "in the public interest", and the "science". La Follette thought he saw at work in his own Wisconsin commissions has failed to develop to fill the void. The evils which the Legislative Oversight Committee found in the late 1950S were not intended, but it is not altogether unthinkable that they might have been foreseen long before they were exposed. The lack of principled guides to action led to a sense of the arbitrary character of the situation. In sheer self-defense, if nothing else, the commissioners were forced into a search for accommodation, and accommodation slipped imperceptibly into corruption.

Nor was the situation different in the ordinary agencies of government. The severity of the problem differed from bureau to bureau, but the effects of weaknesses in the Progressive attitude are to be seen in many places. They became clearest, perhaps, in that great administrative creation of Progressivism, the United States Forest Service, where virtual autonomy was achieved within a departmental structure and the demand for extreme administrative discretion was clothed in an appeal to science and a policy without standards-the so-called "multiple-use policy." Inevitably, with the formal channels of responsibility all but closed and with no effective or certain guides for action other than those personal to the administrators, the Forest Service developed its own informal lines of responsibility, its own political ties to a particular constituency. In short, simple insistence upon the virtue of administrators as wardens of the public interest led deviously but certainly to ties with the special interests, opposition to which had been the point of Progressive beginnings.


Part II

The object of most persistent concern for Americans as they have confronted the existence of strong interest groups in their midst has been the public interest. At times this concept has seemed vivid, as though it were etched against the horizon and clear for all to behold, standing in contrast to the sometimes insistent, sometimes devious demands of particular and special interests. Occasionally, it has seemed that the public interest was almost wholly defined by antithesis to these special interests, especially in earlier and simpler times, when the rapacity of railroads, bankers, land speculators, and all their kind was crudest and most glaring. It was self-evident in the Progressive era, when the promise of science in government and administration seemed brightest and "the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run" meant very simply that the people wanted what was good for them as revealed by the emerging administrative science. In even simpler terms, it was the vision against which the sordid practices of lobbyists from the National Association of Manufacturers early in the century down to the influence peddlers of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were measured and condemned.

Gradually, however, the vision grew hazy and indistinct. Little action came out of the recurrent investigations of lobbying; the public indignation that each time seemed so strong soon cooled, and the scandals that developed every few years invariably were quickly forgotten. The reason for failure of congressional and public indignation to produce significant reform was in part the hard rock of the First Amendment and its guarantee of the right to petition the Congress for redress of grievances. In practice, the hallowed principle of liberty of expression seemed to give great favor to all the special interests but none to the public interest. But there were also growing doubts that the public really cared for what was presumably in its own interest. Thus, for example, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, after watching the failure of efforts to generate public support for tax reform in 1963, remarked, "The average American doesn't mind other people having their own loopholes-he only cares about getting his.''

... the California Senate ... has offered the contrast of one district in the Sierra with less than 15,000 voters electing one senator, and Los Angeles County with more than 6,000,000 voters also electing one senator.

Inasmuch as the legislatures controlled Congressional redistricting, the Court's refusal to deal with inequitable districting for state legislatures was tantamount to placing all districting beyond popular recourse.

One of the unpleasant realities of government is its frequent I and great preoccupation with war. In the modern era this preoccupation has extended over more years than we like to acknowledge. It is an almost ingrained conviction that the conditions of war or preparation for war are abnormal, whereas those of peace are normal. Nevertheless, war and the possibility of war have heavily influenced the character of government in the United States. They have also profoundly affected the pattern of relationships of business with government. The years of crisis and near-crisis, although aberrations in life as we would wish it, have been integral parts of OUT history and have left a stamp upon institutions that will not soon be erased. Among the many changes wrought by the influence of war is a much closer meshing of business and government, involving a major part of the directorate ~f the economy. And under modern conditions, the economy is intrinsic to war itself.

World War II was very different from World War I. It was greater in scale, American participation was bigger, and the period of preparation (however inadequate) was bigger. American industry and the American economy were vastly greater. Moreover, the experience of mobilization in the first war lay behind mobilization in the second. Despite all the differences, however, the fundamental political problems of mobilization were the same for both wars. In the organization of the economy it was essential to enlist the cooperation of industrial leaders, whoever they might be. Whoever had power that could obstruct had to be co-opted. There was no time to discover and train new managers of industry, even had this been desired. All thought of social reform had to be postponed before the urgency of immediate production. Given the conditions and the necessities of the time, there can be little criticism of the determination to subordinate other considerations to the objective of maximum production of war material. Yet in the second war, as during World War I, this determination and the basic political decisions that followed from it had a strong influence in the set of political currents that continued after he ultimate victory.


Power is an exceedingly diverse and complex phenomenon in America. Almost everywhere elusive to analysis, it is especially so in the greatest of the democracies. The theories about its nature, its sources, and its holders are varied, and some are deeply at odds with others. At one extreme is a view that power is highly concentrated in the hands of an elite the unity of which has steadily been growing and which acts largely without regard to the supposed values of a liberal society. In its most recent form, this has been termed a "power elite," woven of the highest leadership of the large corporations, the government, and the military. The great decisions are made in these higher circles and what lies beyond their reach-or, perhaps, concern-is unimportant. At the other extreme is the view that power is so scattered, balanced, and counterbalanced as to be almost nonexistent; what it amounts to is no more than a bewildering array of "veto groups," each having the capacity to block the ventures of the others.

Some evidence can be cited for each of these differing views. The exchange of posts between industrial and military leaders has been noted by many observers since the end of World War II. President Eisenhower gave this often close relationship special emphasis when, on leaving offlce, he warned of a "military-industrial complex" which might take complete control of government.

Democracy in America

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