The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
The Party State: Partisan Government in a Partisan Political Nation

THE ESSENTIAL POWER OF the American political parties was most prominently displayed, after the 1830's, when they repeatedly rallied the electorate on behalf of different political visions. The Democratic, Whig, and Republican parties were indispensable vehicles for mobilizing and ensuring popular participation in elections and for the expression of the interests and tensions of the pluralist society they inhabited. Party activities did not end on election day, however. The American political nation from 1838 onward involved more than its fervid electoral dimension. There was always a purpose behind each party's activities that went beyond victory at the polls. Advocacy and the struggle to control the government were preliminary to the parties' efforts to put everything together, to decide what to do and then to act on behalf of desired ends, to follow through and govern.

But could American political parties do so effectively? And, if they could, what did that mean specifically? The raw materials for governing-the formal institutions of the constitutional order -- were at hand. Presidents, governors, congressmen, state legislators, administrative agents, and the judiciary all had specific duties to carry out. But there was a potential problem, first, in converting intense electoral excitement and polarizing campaign pronouncements into expected results once in office. Almost a century after this political nation ended, an editorialist in the New York Times cogently suggested that "individuals (and parties) have attitudes, but governments need policies." Unfortunately, the Times writer continued, problems usually arise out "of turning a campaign into a government." 1

Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, throughout the nation's history, party leaders have usually been able to shift from campaigning to governing once an election has been decided. That was certainly

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