Commentary Magazine


The Deadlock of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns

Checks and Imbalances

The Deadlock of Democracy: Four Party Politics in America.
by James MacGregor Burns.
Prentice-Hall. 388 pp. $5.95.

James MacGregor Burns, the genial professor of political science at Williams College, has a deceptively bland way of advancing revolutionary readings of the past and revolutionary proposals for the future. As for the present, the conventional field of operations for political scientists, his estimate of the situation might have been more accurately represented by substituting in the title of this book the word “Breakdown” for “Deadlock.” For all his mild-mannered tolerance and all his deference to classical authorities, Mr. Burns has struck a telling blow at both the American political tradition itself and at all the scholarly and public complacency about that tradition.

Mr. Burns devotes half his book to a revision of American political history. Not since Charles Beard published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution fifty years ago have the framers of the Constitution had so rough a time. Unlike Beard, Mr. Burns attacks neither the motives nor the methods of the framers, but rather their often celebrated handiwork of checks and balances: elaborate safeguards, countervailing forces, separate constituencies, staggered elections, separated powers, counterbalancing vetoes, overlapping authorities. The fragmentation of power thus produced was further aggravated by the federal system, with its rivalries between state and nation, governors and legislatures, city mayors and state governments. Mr. Burns labels this fragmentation the “Madisonian Model,” and he is persuaded that it has long since outlived its usefulness.

In contrast to the Madisonian Model, Mr. Burns describes what he calls the “Jeffersonian Strategy.” Relying on a vigorous competitive party under strong presidential leadership, Jefferson overrode congressional prerogatives, by-passed constitutional processes, and avoided the difficult and tedious process of constitutional amendment. While the Constitution discourages Jeffersonianism and strongly favors Madisonianism, Mr. Burns believes that such presidential initiatives as he advocates are nevertheless permitted within its framework.

The strong Presidents who have followed with varying success the Jeffersonian Strategy earn Mr. Burns’s praise. He quotes with approval, for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s conception of presidential leadership:

For he is also the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country. . . . If he rightly interprets the national thought and boldly insists upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when its President is of such insight and calibre.

But Mr. Bums points out that the Presidents who have tried to play this role have been dogged by frustration. They have been hobbled by Madisonian checks and hamstrung by coalition politics. For only nominally is ours a two-party system; in order to govern, these Presidents have been compelled to manipulate multi-party coalitions more complex than those of France before de Gaulle. Ours is in fact a system of four parties, each of which is made up of coalitions. Both the Democrats and Republicans are divided into a presidential party and a congressional party, and Pennsylvania Avenue is approximately as long for the Democrats as for the Republicans.

In Mr. Burns’s view—and the historian will not accept this without qualifications—the congressional parties have a common ideology. It is generally conservative, isolationist, and intrinsically negative. It is basically Madisonian and rests on states’ rights, local elections, rural over-representation, restricted franchise, powerful congressional committees, the seniority system, and the filibuster. Its prophets are Madison and Calhoun and its contemporary spokesmen are James Burnham, William S. White, and David Lawrence. The congressional parties fear “the tyranny of the majority,” stress (certain) minority rights, and are rooted in the one-party areas, North and South.

Presidential parties are typically, though not uniformly, majoritarian, activist, and welfare-minded and internationally oriented. They tend to work the two-party states. Their own counterpart of the gerrymandered congressional district is the electoral college. The President flanks Congress with legislative powers, just as Congress flanks the President with executive powers. Congressional committees are countered by presidential commissions. The parties move in and out of coalition; at any time any one of the four might coalesce with any one of the others. A standard device of both presidential parties is to choose the Vice President from one of the congressional parties.

To get any major legislative program off the ground in our Madisonian maze of countervailing and overlapping powers, politicians are compelled to piece together a new patchwork of factions, congressional votes, and temporary coalitions. Presidents do this by endless maneuvering, manipulating, compromising, persuading, and bargaining; and on the other side, congressional leaders use the same methods to hamstring them. Any sort of movement comes only through some painfully achieved consensus, the concurrence of majorities of different sets of voters organized around leaders in “mutually checking and foot-dragging sectors of government.”

The result, Mr. Burns believes, is that “we have lost control of our politics.” We occasionally choose bold and courageous leaders, but we withhold from them the power to govern. We have lost our sense of purpose, our power to act in the face of crisis; power itself is so fragmented and splintered that it cannot be marshaled for effective use. In the past our geographic isolation and other natural and historical blessings served to provide us with a cushion of time, and the endless stalling and deadlock of the Madisonian Model did not matter so much. But now the cushion of time has all but vanished. The pace of change has become furious, the abyss is always at hand, and we must strain every nerve to hold our own, to say nothing of making headway against the competition we face.

With all the considerable eloquence at his command, Mr. Burns adjures us to abandon our emotional and intellectual commitment to the Madisonian Model. “We cannot unfreeze our politics until we unfreeze our minds.” Our minds are still too much under the sway of Hobbesian-Hamiltonian suspicions of the majority as “a great beast.” We must learn to trust majority rule and appreciate once more the possibilities of the Jeffersonian Strategy.

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While Mr. Burns deprecates “a gimmick approach to political problems,” he is nevertheless at pains to spell out his own program of reforms. These include: full national control over the election of national officials; the merging of presidential and congressional parties by encouraging a straight national party ticket; public financing and systematic control of campaign expenses; and the establishment of responsible party leadership in Congress after wiping out the ancient seniority system. He does not on the whole believe in constitutional amendment as a way of reform—“partly because it is so difficult”—and holds that his essential reforms “do not call for constitutional change.” He does admit that three amendments, though not essential, “would be extremely helpful and might achieve enough support to pass.” These would provide for a four-year term for Representatives, to coincide with presidential terms; repeal of the 22nd Amendment barring a third-term President; and elaborate reforms and changes in the Electoral College. More important than these, however, are the reforms designed to clear away the checks and balances that frustrate majoritarian government and presidential leadership. And these he conceives to be possible within the given constitutional framework.

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Granting without too much argument the desirability of Mr. Burns’s reforms, his hope of realizing them peacefully seems to me to require a willing suspension of disbelief. To begin with, Mr. Burns makes use of a “model of his own: “It may be that Kennedy will be the first President to grasp the great possibilities open to a creative party leader.” Thus his historical analysis settles concretely into the present with the somewhat blithe assumption that he has found the hero for his peaceful revolution. Yet by Mr. Burns’s own admission Mr. Kennedy, although “a policy activist and liberal,” is also “an institutional conservative” and “a Madisonian at heart.” Certainly thus far the President has shown no eagerness “to take sweeping action, no matter how controversial,” and no impulse to embrace “root-and-branch reorganization” such as Mr. Burns demands.

But an even greater strain on credulity is any expectation of peacefully wresting from the powerful lords of Senate and House the institutional buttresses of their power, including the seniority system, the Rules Committee veto, unlimited filibuster, malapportionment of representation, and the one-party districts. The more or less voluntary relinquishment of these institutions would require the greatest wholesale foreswearing of privilege and prerogative since the Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution. The present personnel and mood of Congress scarcely suggest a Tennis Court situation. Thus conceived, the politics of reform comes near to being the art of the impossible.

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