Edward Brooke on the Nature of our Political Parties

Over the past 40 years, the structure of our two major political parties has changed.  We are now close to the British system  of having the parties in a strict ideological  form.  This is does not seem to be working well with the gridlock in Congress.  I think it shows the gap between the have and have nots in our country.


Edward W. Brooke, Republican of Massachusetts,  wrote in his 1965 book The Challenge of Change-A Progressive Republican Manifesto.  This came one year before winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts.  They are just as valid today .

It is time to confront a troublesome that recurs periodically in the analysis of American politics.  Why don’t all liberals join the Democratic Party and conservatives the Republican Party.  Why don’t we stand up and be counted  in our natural homes-and at the same time bring a semblance of order to our chaotic body politic?

The merits of this notion have been debated endlessly by American political scientists.   Those who favor it argue that only cohesive parties, whose members  are committed to a common outlook and a common set of goals, are able to pursue their programs effectively and bear the responsibility-for actions both taken and not taken-of purposeful government and opposition.  There is no hope for vigorous, effective politics, say these scholars, as long as points of view in each party are scrambled into as meaningless maze, with  Republican senator Jacob Javits, working at cross purposes with a Republican Senator, Strom Thurmond, and a Democratic Senator, Wayne Morse, hardly able to agree on the simplest issue with a Democratic senator, Harry Byrd.  Why not put the Javits’s and the Morse’s and the Thurmond’s and the Byrd’s together where they belong and end the internal bickering that reduces the sense of common purpose in each party?

Other scholars, however, disagree.  Those who argue against the notion of regrouping the two wings of each party point out that the nation is composed not of two opposing political camps, liberal and conservative, but of hundreds of shifting minorities which group one way on one issue and another way on the next.(1) The unwritten laws of American politics demand that parties overlap substantially in principle, policy, character, appeal, and purpose or cease to be parties with any hope of winning a national election.  Far from being a disruptive influence, these analysts conclude, our major parties provide cohesion, stability, and responsibility in American politics.  For they must appeal to broad coalitions of regional, occupational, religious, and other interests-coalition broad enough to win national elections.  And the compromise achieved by thrashing out other issues is essential to the smooth operation of the two party system.

I can add nothing new to this venerable debate.  Both sides make strong points; one can select those he likes to support his own views. But this issue should not be argued in theoretical terms alone.  One must try to analyze the consequences of a liberal-conservative party cleavage in terms of practical politics.

The first of these consequences would be, I think, ‘a dreadful calamity’ (as Theodore Roosevelt put it) for the nation, and I think permanent disaster for the Republican Party.  In 1950, Governor Thomas Dewey made a classic prediction of what was likely to happen were are parties to be sharply divided on the basis of interest and doctrine.  “These impractical theorists…want to drive all moderates and liberals out of the Republican Party and have the remainder join forces with conservatives groups in the South.  Then they would have everything neatly arranged indeed.  The Democratic Party would be the liberal-to-radical party.  The Republican Party would be the conservative-to-reactionary party.  The results would be neatly arranged too.  The Republicans would lose every election and the Democrats would win every election.

No one can be sure if this of course if this hypothesis is correct.  But the election of 1964, the closest we have had to a laboratory test, seems to confirm it beyond a reasonable doubt.  It was as striking a proof as we shall ever see.

No one can be sure that the perpetual minority status for the Republican Party would cause deep, or even superficial, damage to the well being of our political system.  But this is an assumption we can all make: a rough balance of power and influence within both parties given a real chance of victory at most elections is the sine qua non for a vigorous two party system.  What ill serves a political party ill serves democracy, and hence all of us the same.

But even were this not the case, even if a conservative-to-reactionary Republican Party were able to stand its ground in most elections, I believe that a party split based solely on economic interest and ideological doctrine would be disastrous for the nation.

We hear a great deal about the classlessness of American society.  Surely this is overdrawn; surely we do have something approximating classes, as every society must.  Still, in comparison to other societies in the world, both contemporary and ancient,  America is remarkably classless.  Class lines are blurred; class interests are diverse, and there is enough opportunity to advance to a higher class, even the highest class, to justify emphasizing America’s class mobility, rather than its rigidity.  We are not classless, but we act as if we were, which in many ways has the same effect.

It might be said, in other words, that America’s classlessness is a myth.  But like all myths, this one helped shape reality in its image.

Both the myths and the reality it reflects would crumble were our parties to be organized along distinct liberal-conservative lines-which would mean, inevitably, along class lines.  Class barriers would harden; antagonism sharpen; political debate would grow cleaner but also more bitter.  Free of competing groups, which force both parties to make internal compromises, both parties would be able to present the voters with clear-cut alternatives and a coherent set of candidates and ideologies.  But this would introduce a tragically divisive atmosphere into American politics.

Intraparty compromise is the glue that holds our parties and our political system together.  Once dissolved, there is no guarantee that something will appear to replace it.  Nor is there a guarantee that parties based on a liberal-conservative split would not split further.  Once organized along class lines, our parties might splinter into small, tightly organized factions representing distinct economic interests as in some European countries.  One can picture the divisive tone such a development would bring to American politics.

European observers often suggest that a more divisive tone is precisely what we need.  But few European observers are able to perceive and understand the unique flavor of American politics, with its healthy atmosphere of compromise and tolerance.  Because of its size, regional and economic diversity, and federal organization, America is composed of an unusual number of divergent, competing interests.  Loose jointed parties able to appeal to divergent interests are essential therefore to sustain our atmosphere of compromise and tolerance.  ‘No America without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation’ Clinton Rossiter has said.

No simple conclusion can be reached about so complex a question as why all liberals do not join the Democratic Party and all conservatives, the Republican.  I think it can be fairly said that rearranging our parties to represent class interests and doctrinaire ideologies would constitute a cure more dangerous than the ailment.  “We do well to cherish our present parties” Professor Rossiter has written, “and work only gingerly for their improvement”


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