The Foundations of Party Power,

The System of Collusion

excerpted from the book

Indispensible Enemies

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 end.

... 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 absolute necessity.

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 politics.

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 him.

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 his man.

... 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."

Indispensible Enemies

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