The Foundations of Party Power,
The System of Collusion
excerpted from the book
The Politics of Misrule in America
by Walter Karp
Franklin Square Press, 1993, paper
[originally published - 1973]
Promised peace we get war, promised frugality we get waste, discontented
we get the status quo and nobody understands quite why. The savage
who consults his juju to explain a sudden cloudburst lives in
no greater ignorance of nature than we live today in regard to
our own politics.
The reason we no longer understand why things happen as they do
has one and only one source. We no longer understand who really
has power in America, how men have gained it and what they have
done to keep.
The Foundations of Party Power
In the past seven decades, the United States has fought four major
wars, undergone a profound economic collapse, seen the enormous
growth of cities, the virtual disappearance of the small farmer,
the rapid rise of giant trusts and corporations, the formation
of huge trade unions, yet as far as state party politics is concerned
next to nothing has happened.
This one-party predominance in many states
has an even more revealing substratum. Within most states-including
states where one party does not necessarily predominate in the
legislature-each party is permanently predominant within a particular
set of legislative districts. In these districts, the party is
impregnable; its candidates for the legislature rarely lose. In
many other districts of the state (if not all of them), its candidates
rarely win. Each party, the minority as well as the majority one,
has its own geographical strongholds, its own electoral bastions.
The reason the great majority of legislative districts are bastions
of one party or the other is that both parties act to keep them
that way. In a large majority of legislative districts, the abiding
policy of one party or the other is to lose deliberately and perpetually.
The desire to win elections is not the basic purpose of the political
parties, it is not their overriding motive and interest. For the
leaders of political parties, trying to win and trying to lose
elections are equally useful means to a quite different political
... Insofar as a state party is controlled
at all, the sole abiding purpose, the sole overriding interest
of those who control it, is to maintain that control. This, not
election victory, is the fundamental and unswerving principle
of party politics in America ...
Nominally a state party is a coalition of local party units-themselves
smaller coalitions of politically active citizens from each legislative
district of the state (the basic unit of a state party)-concerned
with electing candidates of their choice to the state legislature
and with voicing their views in the statewide party coalition.
Insofar as each local party coalition is competing for election
victory, it is independent, since the members are bound to concern
themselves first and foremost with representing local sentiment,
both in choosing local candidates to the legislature and in voicing
their preferences in the statewide coalition's choice of statewide
candidates. This is one meaning of the term "party,"
and the prevailing party doctrine describes to some extent the
politics of such a party.
The term also refers to a statewide party
organization, the local elements of which are not independent
coalitions but subordinate units of an organization, one whose
leaders are commonly and correctly known as "bosses"
and whose members, significantly, are often called party "workers."
In an organized party, and this is what defines it as such, a
few party managers concentrate in their hands the means to satisfy
or to thwart the varied ambitions of most party members. They
can confer rich rewards for obedience-campaign funds, patronage,
a favorable press, lucrative sinecures, nominations, uncontested
primaries, gerrymandered districts and so on. They can also inflict
harsh punishment-electoral defeat for one. I say rewards and punishments
to underscore a fundamental point: a party organization is not
held together by party loyalty-if it depended on party loyalty
alone it would fall apart overnight-but precisely by the capacity
of a few cooperating bosses to gather into their hands the means
to hold the membership in line, "to keep the boys happy."
The first sort of party-and it has been
approximated to some degree in several Western states-is one in
which no cabal can gain durable ascendancy since the local coalitions,
being formed around the determination to win local elections,
are too subject to local sentiment to be permanently obedient
to a state party oligarchy. The second sort of party is governed
exclusively by its fundamental principle of action: the constant
endeavor to prevent the organization from fragmenting into an
unbossed coalition of independent local coalitions, into a party
of the first sort. If it fragmented this way, the would-be party
bosses would lose control of the party and with it control over
nominations and political power itself. The prevailing doctrine
of the parties thus describes what party organizations are perpetually
striving to avoid
Given control over the nominations-which
itself requires control over most of the state party's members-organization
leaders can ensure to a great extent that no man can run for office
who has not proven himself amenable to the organization and willing
to serve its interests, or, at the least, shown himself indifferent
to reforms and issues that might weaken the party organization.
By their control over nominations, organizations and their leaders
hold the careers of elected officials in their hands, for they
can deny them renomination, remove them from public life or bar
their further political advance.
When Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader of the Senate (to cite
one example out of thousands), he appeared to be a peculiarly
powerful Senator, yet, according to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's
Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, he never once dared
to act independently of the ruling clique of the Texas Democratic
party. Since he depended absolutely on that clique to secure his
renomination, he did everything in his power to strengthen their
hold over the Texas party, which is to say, he served their interests.
What was true of Johnson is true of thousands of lesser elected
officials. When a party organization is in control, its leaders
do not merely put up candidates for elective office, they control
what a substantial number of these men do once elected. Such a
party does not merely "manage the succession to power,"
it has power and wields power.
... Under a representative system the
electors control those they elect, not by dictating their specific
actions but by holding them accountable for those actions. They
entrust an elected official with their power for a temporary period
and remove him from power should he be found to have betrayed
their trust. Party control works exactly the same way. The organization
entrusts an elected official with its power, holds him accountable
for his actions and removes him from power should he betray the
organization - the tacit threat is usually sufficient.
Control of elected officials means real political power, and party
organizations use that power, first and foremost, in order to
serve themselves-party organizations are neither malevolent nor
benevolent; they are self-interested. And the fundamental interest
of those who head a party organization is,(is I said) to maintain
that party organization, which is the sole foundation of their
power. In holding elected officials accountable to them, they
will see to it that no laws are passed which might weaken the
organization; that no public issues are raised which might strengthen
the chances of insurgents and independents; that special privileges
are not stripped away from special interests that have been paying
the organization heavily for protecting those privileges. They
use their power continually to maintain their control over patronage,
over campaign funds, over nominations, over the avenues to public
renown, over the whole arsenal of political rewards and punishments
without which the organization would collapse in a trice.
... A party organization has no choice
but to be self-serving. Should it lose control over elected officials,
the power of those officials can only, in time, work against it.
From the point of view of a party organization, every elected
official is a potential menace.
Suppose, for example, that a party's candidate
for governor wins the election. Nothing in principle prevents
him from ignoring the party entirely, from using his patronage
to build up a purely personal following, from attempting to oust
local party leaders, from bringing new men into the party ranks,
from passing reforms that weaken the party organization, from
winning public support so strong that the organization cannot
deny him renomination. This was done by Robert La Follette of
Wisconsin, Hiram Johnson of California and a half-dozen other
insurgent Republican governors who overthrew Republican organizations
in the Western states in the years before the First World War.
So far from gaining power by the mere fact of winning an election,
a party organization may see its power threatened and even destroyed.
There are times, therefore, when losing an election becomes an
Should the party organization fail for
some reason to prevent an insurgent candidate from winning an
important primary, its first recourse is to prevent him from winning
the election. When Democratic insurgents in Connecticut-former
supporters of Eugene McCarthy's insurgent bid for the Democratic
Presidential nomination in 1968-succeeded in nominating one of
their own, Reverend Joseph P. Duffey, in the 1970 Senate primary,
John Bailey, the state boss of the Connecticut Democratic party,
had former Senator Thomas Dodd run as an "independent"
to split the Democratic vote and ensure the election of a Republican.
In Vermont, in that same year, the Democratic bosses could not
prevent the Senate nomination of former governor Philip Hoff,
who had also supported McCarthy in 1968. Since his election would
have strengthened the nonbossed fragment of the losing Vermont
Democracy, the party bosses openly campaigned for his Republican
Senate rival. This is nothing new. Throughout the years between
1918 and 1922, insurgent party candidates imperiled so many state
party organizations in the West that dumping elections became
a virtual routine.
... The simple truth is, a party organization
will dump any election whenever its control over the party would
be weakened by the victory of its own party's candidate.
Party organizations cannot afford to take
chances. They will even try to defeat a party hack if his victory
would prove inconvenient. In 1956, Richard Daley, Democratic boss
of Cook County, was still consolidating his hold over the Illinois
party, and he feared that any Democratic governor might stand
in the way. Unfortunately for Daley, open scandal in the Republican
administration made the election of a Democratic governor highly
likely. To help ensure defeat, Daley gave the nomination to a
machine hack with proven lack of statewide appeal, namely the
former Cook County treasurer. By mid-September, however, when
it became clear that the Democratic candidate was faring well,
the newspapers were mysteriously provided with proof that the
former Cook County treasurer had been fiddling with public funds.
Having supplied the proof, Daley now indignantly demanded that
the guilty man step out of the race. In his place Daley put up
an even more obscure figure, who averted danger to the Democratic
organization by narrowly losing.
... Fear of the party's own elected officials
is often a determining feature of party politics regardless of
who holds the office. In Boston, according to Edward Banfield's
Big City Politics, Democratic regulars always fear an independent
mayor of Boston. Since the best way for an elected official to
pursue an independent course is to carry out popular reforms,
the constant practice of the Boston regulars is to see that Boston's
mayors do not "make a record." They do this by ordering
their minions in the state legislature to vote against the mayor's
requests in the legislature, which in Massachusetts virtually
governs the city. "Even when the governor is a Democrat,"
says Banfield, "the mayor of Boston does not get much from
the state." Neither, of course, do Bostonians, the perennial
victims of the interests of the Boston party organization.
Persuading one segment of the citizenry to blame another segment
for its troubles is a constant practice of party organizations.
... divide et impera is built into the very structure of machine
The grass-roots political activity of the citizenry and its inseparable
adjunct, the entry into public life of nonorganization politicians,
is a constant threat to party organizations. It spurs political
ambitions outside their control. It opens new avenues to public
renown. It encourages outsiders to enter party primaries and gives
them a chance to win. It opens to officeholders themselves the
opportunity to win public support on their own and thus render
themselves independent of the organization. It is therefore the
perpetual endeavor of party organizations to discourage and even
squash grass-roots movements.
... The moment Republican and Democratic
leaders saw Senators and Congressmen scrambling to address peace
rallies during the October 1969 Moratorium, the two national party
syndicates again closed ranks like a drill team. Spokesmen for
the Democratic opposition became spokesmen for President Richard
Nixon's Vietnam policies. Hubert Humphrey pointedly paid a visit
to the White House to demonstrate his support of the Republican
President, and the Democratic Speaker of the House, John McCormack,
had a House resolution passed to do the same. Uniting against
the peace movement at the exact moment when it began attracting
elected officials, the two party organizations then "took
the Vietnam war out of politics," as the newspapers put it,
for the duration of the 1970 election campaign, although every
poll showed it was uppermost in the minds of the voters. The party
organizations did not do this because they were afraid of the
peace issue; what they feared, as always, was the independent
activity of free citizens. Not until the peace movement was dead
did organization Democrats come out against the war.
Since a legislator would be vulnerable to defeat if the other
party tried to defeat him, party control of elected officials,
hence organization control of parties, cannot coexist with normal
two-party competition in all the legislative districts of a state.
There is only one way a given state party organization can maintain
itself in power, and that is to divide up most of the state's
legislative districts with the opposition party and make them
separate local one-party strongholds. The state party organizations
do not have to come to any formal agreement about this; the division
arises by virtue of each party organization following its own
interests, the minority as well as the majority party.
Suppose a minority party in a state is
confined to a local bastion where the party is tightly controlled
by a small ruling oligarchy or machine, for instance, the Vermont
Democrats in a few "ethnic" towns, New York Democrats
in New York City, Tennessee Republicans in East Tennessee, and
so on. Nominally, of course, the party exists at least pro forma
in all legislative districts of the state (it usually has to or
a third party might fill the vacuum), yet if local bosses can
ensure that the party loses in the legislative districts outside
the bastion, they reap inevitable and indispensable advantages.
Instead of being lively independent competitive coalitions striving
to elect independent state legislators, the perpetually losing
party units will shrink into little patronage gangs held together
not by the prospect of victory, but by the crumbs of patronage
and graft that the bosses in their bastions supply them with.
They become, in consequence, the obedient tools of the bosses
in all the state party's concerns and deliberations. The local
bosses in the bastion, together with their patronage clients in
the losing districts, form the core, the foundation, the sine
qua non of organization control over the entire state party, and
it is the bosses in the bastion who control the state party.
The losing efforts of the minority party do not, of course, take
place in a vacuum. By confining itself to its strongholds and
not competing elsewhere, the minority party automatically gives
the majority party its necessary majority. Far more importantly,
it gives the leaders of the majority party the necessary condition
for controlling their party's numerous legislators, namely noncompetition
in the elections. A legislator who faces token opposition-if any-from
the other party has little to fear from the electorate. With no
one prepared to expose and attack his record, he can betray with
considerable impunity the interests of his constituents. On the
other hand, he has a great deal to fear from party leaders, for
his reelection depends entirely on carrying the party label. Since
the organization can elect virtually anyone it puts up, what appeal
the incumbent has to the voters-if any-gives him little hold on
the renomination. The incumbent in an uncontested district has
very little reason to defy the party leaders and very good reasons
to obey them.* Since they were usually chosen in the first place
for their qualities of compliance, state legislators rarely give
party organizations much trouble-which is why our state legislatures
are so uniformly corrupt.
The common bond of interest between the
minority party bosses and the majority party bosses is therefore
clear and obvious: As long as the minority party bosses can retain
control of their party-and therefore confine their electoral efforts
largely to the party stronghold-the majority party leaders can
control their far more extensive party. The, majority party leaders
therefore have every reason to protect the power of the minority
party bosses, since it is by virtue of boss control of the minority
party that the majority party can be controlled at all. What the
minority party bosses need to maintain their power and their control
over their party is equally obvious: they need just what the majority
organization needs: token electoral opposition in their party
bastion, and that is precisely what the majority party bosses
provide them. Mutual noninterference in their respective party
bastions is the reason both parties retain bastions at all. It
is not electoral competition which characterizes the relation
between two state party organizations, but strict and pervasive
collusion. That collusion does not necessarily require conspiratorial
plotting in smoke-filled back rooms. It springs up automatically
between two state party organizations by virtue of powerful bonds
of common interest. Neither party organization could retain control
of its party unless the two party organizations were in collusion.
As Senator Robert La Follette rightly remarked in 1912: "Machine
politics is always bipartisan." It is because it has to be.
The System of Collusion
State party bastions are one consequence of two-party collusion,
a collusion so tight in many states, and in almost all the large
ones, that the two party organizations actually form a single
ruling oligarchy. These bastions, however, are not arbitrary divisions.
They are, for the most part, districts whose inhabitants did strongly
support one party or the other at a much earlier time in our history.
As party organizations gained control of their parties, their
mutual cooperation simply froze the earlier pattern of partisanship.
Each party organization ceased to compete seriously where the
other party had been strong, for only through mutual cessation
of electoral competition can party organizations maintain themselves
and so retain their power. This is the reason for "the long
persistence of county patterns of party affiliation" in so
many states, to quote an essay by V. 0. Key, Jr., and Frank Munger
in Democracy in the Fifty States. It is also the reason these
partisan patterns often reflect Civil War party divisions: it
was in the decades immediately after the war that bipartisan machine
politics began taking hold in one state after another.
Given the motives of state party organizations, it does not matter
whether two districts have become virtually alike since the Civil
War. Under two-party collusion, a district is permanently marked
off as "Republican" or "Democratic," and the
voters in these districts can only follow suit, which means, simply,
that the majority of voters will not often support candidates
who are put up to lose.
... it is by confining its winning efforts
to a restricted set of legislative districts that party bosses
controlled the basic units of the party.
... Historically, the Democrats have long
confined themselves in the North to districts where the preponderance
of voters were Irish or Catholic or immigrant or poor or urban.
This historical choice has been deliberate. As the first machine
party in the Republic (it became "mechanized," so to
speak, in the 1840s), the Democratic machine found it safest to
direct its appeal to the voters who were the easiest to control,
people whose common denominator, politically speaking, has been
their ignorance of the possibilities of free political action
and a consequent gratitude for small favors.
At the same time the Democrats have been less than eager to extend
their winning efforts to districts and states where the voters
are not as manageable. This is why the Democrats have usually
been a tiny legislative minority in Northern states possessing
few cities, few immigrants and large numbers of unruly farmers.
By confining themselves to safe voters in these states, they have
condemned themselves, of course, to a lowly minority status, notably
in the Western states
... Since it is in the interests of each
party's bosses to protect the other party's bosses, neither party
will try, if it can help it, to make permanent inroads into the
other party's normal voters.
Setting one segment of the citizenry against another-Protestants
against Catholics, rural people against city people, "natives"
against "ethnics," one ethnic group against another,
blacks against whites, downstaters against upstaters-is ... built
into the very structure of two-party collusion. Yet the prevailing
myth about the parties makes a truly vicious inversion of this
practice. On the false assumption that parties are ceaselessly
trying to win elections, political scientists and historians conclude
that the parties, those "translators of public opinion,"
are merely voicing the spontaneous bigotries of a bigoted electorate
... The citizens are ... blamed, are asked
to blame each other, for what party bosses in their own interest
perpetually do against them. Since political fictions breed more
fictions, the prevailing political myth carries this even one
step further. The parties have actually been lauded-by Walter
Lippmann, for example-for keeping a divided nation together. The
truth is, the American people would be less divided if the parties
were less united.
... since the disposal of judgeships is
an indispensable patronage tool (they are needed to satisfy aging
hacks at the point where even a hack may become unreliable-when
his political career in the party has come to a standstill), the
ruling party distributes this patronage to the minority party
under cover of bipartisan nominations. Both parties nominate the
same candidate-which guarantees his election-while behind the
scenes one party boss or the other makes the actual selection
... Reapportioning of legislative districts
provides another opportunity for collusion. To the mutual satisfaction
of both party organizations, for example, incumbents who have
won where they are not supposed to are gerrymandered out of office;
an insurgent's supporters will be split into five different districts;
two independents will be put in the same district, thereby eliminating
one; party hacks will be protected; those groomed for higher office
will be given safe districts so they can win "impressive"
victories in the next election and become "front-runners"
for higher office-as if their whole careers were not put-up jobs.
These actions, of course, are part of the whole system of rewards
and punishments by which party bosses keep elected officials in
line. The threat or promise of redistricting is itself a powerful
weapon of organization control, and the minority party only wields
it because the majority party obliges. Yet these maneuvers are
invariably described in the press as prime examples of two-party
competition. In 1970, for example, a troublesome New York Democratic
Congressman named Allard Lowenstein, leader of the "Dump
Johnson" movement, was shifted into a Republican district
to ensure his defeat. The press described this as an effort by
the state's ruling Republicans to gain an extra Congressman. The
more important motive was the Democratic bosses' wish, which their
Republican allies met, to get rid of a political nuisance ...
... Based on the assumption that the parties
are unsleeping rivals, the election laws in most states give the
parties responsibility for policing elections and operating the
electoral machinery. If the two parties were in competition, this
would work well enough, but where they are in collusion electoral
fraud and chicanery can be practiced with impunity on each party's
unwanted candidates. The victim may complain, but his losing party
will not go to the trouble and expense of backing his claims for
In New York ... 'the state Republican organization protects the
Democratic bosses of the city by the usual methods of nominating
inept candidates, providing no campaign funds, raising no public
issues, sabotaging local Republican candidates who show an unseemly
desire to win, keeping local Republican clubs in the hands of
leaders who want to lose and so on.
... Occasionally, an ambitious New York
Republican will defy the party organization by trying to win the
mayoralty, as La Guardia did in 1933 and twice after, as John
Lindsay did in 1965. Should that unwanted victory threaten the
local Democratic machine, the Republican state organization will
become the determined enemy of New York's, Republican mayor. During
Lindsay's first term he was continually harassed by his fellow
Republican, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was simply carrying
out the elementary machine practice of preventing an independent
officeholder from making a record with the voters. In 1969, the
Republican organization successfully unsheathed yet another party
weapon: it threw a local Republican hack into the mayoral primary
to contest Lindsay's renomination and eliminate him. This was
the first such contested Republican mayoral primary in twenty-five
years; when New York City Republicans put up a losing candidate,
there is never a contest. The previous primary was occasioned
by the state party's efforts to repair the damage which twelve
years of La Guardia's rule had inflicted on the New York City
Republican organization. That year, for example, Governor Thomas
E. Dewey replaced La Guardia's New York party leader with one
Thomas Curran, who knew what was expected of a New York City Republican
chairman, namely nothing. When the local Republicans in 1953 put
up a hotel manager for mayor, New York politics was back to normal.
Genuine third parties also expose collusion, for as soon as such
a party emerges-e.g., the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party, the Wisconsin
Progressive party-the two major parties invariably unite against
it. If a minority party actually wanted to win, it would have
no reason to unite with the threatened majority party of the state.
Under the system of collusion, however, the minority party has
every reason to help the ruling party, since any threat to that
party's bosses threatens the system of bipartisanship and thus
the interests of the minority party bosses as well. The two major
parties come together, therefore, to crush the common enemy of
the one ruling state oligarchy, which consists of the bosses of
the majority party and their junior partners in the opposition.
... no-issue politics characterizes so many states despite the
pervasive authority which the United States Constitution grants
to state governments ... Anything that stirs up the electorate,
anything that rouses their interest in politics, is harmful to
party organizations and, most directly, to a state's ruling party.
Hence the absence of issues which the minority party helps to
secure. Party insurgents not only have to challenge their party's
bosses, they have to create the public issues on which to make
their challenge, a difficult and expensive task in the face of
dead silence from both party organizations.
In Virginia, whenever an insurgent Democrat threatened the candidate
of Senator Harry Byrd's statewide machine, Senator Byrd would
also call on Republican leaders to get out a primary vote for
... The irresponsible power which a fake
opposition can bestow on rulers of a majority state party is well
illustrated, in fact, by the politics of Virginia, where the Byrd
machine for decades bent every instrument of government to its
service and, in consequence, left Virginia with worse schools
and poorer public services than any state of comparable wealth.
... Thanks to the silence of the Republican
opposition, the one public issue in Virginia was "fiscal
integrity" which meant in practice lauding Harry Byrd for
not borrowing money for state public services. This was one reason
so few Virginians bothered to vote; the less a government can
do, the less political interest the electorate has. Indeed the
chief reason for Byrd's famous pay-as-you-go financing was to
keep Virginians apathetic.
The one, unswerving principle of state party organizations is
to do all in their power to maintain themselves, for the organization
is the source of political power to those who control the organization.
The automatic and inevitable consequence of that principle of
action is collusion between the two party machines in a state,
for without it neither party organization could long survive.
... If a state's fake opposition party
never raises a serious public issue, voters will eventually forget
that state politics is even capable of generating such issues-and
who remains in public life to jog their memories? If a state government
does nothing for thirty years, voters will readily believe that
state governments have lost their importance-and who will remind
them that the Constitution grants and no one has yet taken away
the states' constitutional quota of broad responsibility? When
collusive parties are unchallenged, the routine results of collusion
appear to be natural phenomena and not the result of political
action at all. The aversion to Democrats of voters in normally
Republican districts readily appears the result of "local
tradition" or sociological "affinity" as long as
the losing Democratic organization can prevent local Democrats
from trying to win. Indeed, it is the explicit and constant endeavor
of the party organizations to make the results of their deeds
appear the consequence of social "forces" and "tendencies"
and even Marxian "laws" of history. In short, when political
activity is monopolized by collusive party organizations, collusion
itself is well hidden. This is not to say that Americans do not
suspect the existence of collusion. Millions of Americans harbor
that suspicion, but it is confirmed neither by frequent acts of
blatant collusion, for the party bosses are little challenged,
nor by any eminent public men, for men who would do so are kept
from eminence by the party organizations. So the suspicion festers
in the hearts of many Americans as a private, embittering grievance
and expresses itself, if at all, only in a refusal to vote.
State governments today are exactly what party organizations have
made them, namely instruments bent to serve the interests of state
party organizations. The matter, however, does not rest there.
The corruption of state politics is not confined to the states
alone. Self-serving, collusive state party organizations are the
preponderant elements in the national party syndicates and the
union of these elements does not produce, by a sort of alchemical
transmutation, national "handmaidens of democracy."