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Thanks, Woodrow Wilson

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Thanks, Woodrow Wilson

The seeds of Donald Trump’s victory were sown during the Progressive Era. November 11, 2016
Politics and law

Some conservatives blamed Donald Trump’s rise on liberals who cried wolf over previous Republican presidential candidates’ allegedly authoritarian impulses. In an episode of Real Time that aired four days before the election, comedian Bill Maher fessed up to taking things a bit too far with his attacks on George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain. But in order to understand how the Left gave us Trump, one must look to the Progressive-with-a-capital-P era. Donald Trump would never have become our president-elect if not for the party-reform program launched by Woodrow Wilson and his allies.

Traditionally, party organizations existed to broker political conflict peacefully, facilitate ordinary citizens’ participation in political life, and distribute the spoils of electoral success. By the early twentieth century, however, many Americans were outraged at the corrupt and incompetent nature of the nation’s political class. Both the Democratic and Republican parties pursued graft with an openness almost unimaginable today. Party bosses themselves were generally not top officeholders; they preferred to put up easily controlled candidates for mayor, senator, and president, while reserving their right to direct matters from behind the scenes. From a good-government perspective, though, a great nation deserved better than William McKinley and Warren G. Harding.

Progressives therefore launched a sweeping program of party reform. Some proposals, such as civil-service reform, ballot initiatives, nonpartisan elections, and council-manager government, were aimed at weakening parties’ role in the political process. Others sought to recast parties as vehicles for the delivery of a particular policy agenda. Hence, the century-long purge of liberals from the Republican Party and conservatives from the Democratic Party. 

Direct primaries, which the Democrats and Republicans didn't fully embrace until the 1970s, would be the most important change. It is now understood that the people, not horse-trading by party bosses at national conventions, should determine who gets to be a candidate for high office.

Party reform was an overcorrection. Like every other plank in the Progressive platform, it has led to a host of unintended consequences. For all their faults, the party bosses would never have nominated someone as volatile as Donald Trump. As Reihan Salaam points out, Trump will come into office feeling totally unrestrained by any sense of obligation to his political allies. If you’re concerned about that prospect, then you should reconsider whether you think direct primaries are a good idea. 

Where the people rule, someone still has to be in charge. The principle behind a strong party system is that someone should also be in charge over who gets a shot at being in charge. No healthy republic has ever been a pure democracy. Aristotle recommended a “mixed” regime, composed of democratic and oligarchic elements, and that’s arguably what America had during the golden age of the party system. The party system was undemocratic, but no more so than federalism, the Bill of Rights, and checks and balances. 

The solution to democracy’s defects is almost never “more democracy.” 

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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