To the Editor:
Aaron Wildavsky’s article [“Government and the People,” August] raises anew, and in striking fashion, the most serious questions about the future of the American constitutional system. The article’s pathbreaking significance is to have placed Watergate into the context of a long overdue redefinition of the purposes of government. Watergate didn’t happen because a handful of terribly ordinary people mistook themselves for philosopher-kings. The subversion of the American constitutional system attempted by the Watergate conspirators was aided by the piecemeal alteration of that system, over many years, from one of separate institutions—President, Congress, the Courts—sharing powers to a system of all-power-to-the-people participatory, communitarian democracy in which power would run directly to the President in the name of the People. In other words, President Nixon and his White House camarilla were exploiting for their purposes what had become the favorite design of New Left politics. This is not to blame the New Left for Watergate. It is to indicate that, as so often has happened since the Bolshevik Revolution, the differences between the so-called Left and Right may not be differences at all.
In actual fact, our constitutional system depends for its successful functioning on a fourth institution which has no constitutional existence: political parties. The most famous of the Federalist Papers, No. 10, inveighed against them, reflecting the Washington-Madison-Hamilton animosity toward parties as “factions.” Yet when it came to the realities of governing “the first new nation” and assuring an orderly transfer of power from an incumbent administration to a victorious political party in opposition, the Founding Fathers substituted experience for ideology. They “constitutionalized” political parties and thus avoided the excesses of plebiscitary democracy and, in Mr. Wildavsky’s phrase, a “plebiscitary Presidency.” President Nixon attempted to deconstitutionalize the party system by transforming both political parties into a Presidential appanage; he almost succeeded. Not only did he ignore the Republican party qua party and actively oppose candidates of his own party—other Presidents have done the same thing in greater or lesser degree—but he also sought something different: to bring about non-party government through the creation of a Presidential party organized along personalist lines.
The Watergate mafia sought not only to delegitimize the Democratic party, it sought to delegitimize the Republican party as well. Previous Presidents have had their troubles with the party system, but the exigencies of warmaking and foreign-policy crises probably discouraged FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson from engaging in any remaking of the parties. (General Eisenhower left the parties alone because, with Senator Lyndon Johnson as leader of the Loyal Opposition, there was no need to combat them.) It is no coincidence at all that the Nixon campaign to establish non-party government came with the ending of the Vietnam war and the waning need for bipartisan support to prosecute that war.
The anti-politics of the Nixon administration reveals a sad ignorance of how a large, powerful, and democratic country should be run. Without the mediation, the brokerage, of organized political parties, a stable American polity becomes difficult to obtain. Political parties exist to take the heat off elected representatives, to make possible a Burkean relationship between voter and legislator; they exist to negotiate with clamant pressure groups whose power they measure not by decibel output but by vote input. In a heterogeneous society, parties are administered by politicians or, as Mayor Lindsay called them quite accurately, “power brokers.” New York City is ungovernable for many reasons, not least of which is the debilitation of political parties, a process which began with Fiorello H. La Guardia (in his three mayoral campaigns, he ran under nine different party labels) and reached its climax with Mayor Lindsay, who couldn’t run for reelection in 1973 under any party label.
The weakening or even disintegration of effective (not responsible) political parties leads to instability if not to ungovernability of a democratic polity because it removes from the political process an unideological organized interest group capable of brokering for ideological “single-issue” interest groups. In other words, as politician-brokers, parties are compromisers, trimmers, sell-out artists, amoralists, what you will; they are not, however, rule-or-ruin ideologues. In a democratic society, ideological politics are no politics at all. In the 1972 elections the Nixon administration came closer than any administration in history to producing an end of politics. It was a process furthered considerably by the McGovern campaign, which dismantled the Democratic party in favor of a personalist machine. Is it not striking that none of the Watergate conspirators could be described as a professional politician? The Haldemans and the Ehrlichmans thought that the United States could be run “scientifically,” without politics; they have since learned better.
As he nears the end of his long political career President Nixon finds himself alone with few enthusiastic supporters even in what would be called his own party. In whose political-party interest is it that President Nixon should succeed? What 1974 GOP candidate for Congress or Governor—particularly in a tight race—will seek a Nixon endorsement or a Nixon campaign appearance in a local constituency? A President who tries to take on everybody, including political allies in his own party, ends up crippled, unless he has the temperament and the apparat of a Stalin. Nixon has neither, although he did seek his own version of a “one-party” state.
Watergate is not merely something for Senators and newspapers to examine to insure that it does not happen again. Watergate also means that the political parties in the country should see to it that they are not ever again so weakened as to become superfluous to politics. This is not a call for the return of powerful political bosses like Mark Hanna or Boies Penrose or political machines like Tammany. (Is New York a better place to live in since the fall of Tammany?) It is a call to realize that political parties are not some luxury which we can do without. Parties are also part of the checks-and-balance system. Watergate has shown how ethically corrupt politics without parties can become.
University of Massachusetts