A Russian Critic

Baltimore Sun/September 19, 1910

Studies By Foreigners

The best books upon American political institutions early and late have been written by foreigners. De Tocqueville’s great work and the “American Commonwealth” of the Right Hon. James Bryce, British Ambassador to the United States, at once come to mind. Of less importance, but still notable for its shrewd insight and ingenious conclusions, is the “Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties,” of M. Ostrogorski, the Russian.

Ostrogorski, like Bryce, is a political power in his own country. He was a leading member of the first Duma and played a conspicuous part in the agitations preceding its organization. Not long ago he returned to the United States to resume his former studies of our party system, and the result now appears in a new edition of his excellent work, in part condensed and in part much expanded. His remarkably accurate accounts of the growth of our parties and our extra-constitutional party machinery is retained, but he now devotes a good deal of space to a consideration of the present posture of events and to a discussion of the probable route of future evolution.

A Return To First Principles

Ostrogorski seems to look for an early breakup of the present party organizations and a return to that accentuation of personalities, that magnification of the man, which marked American politics in the early days of the republic. The voters of the country, he says are becoming more and more critical of candidates and more and more impatient of party machines. In consequence there has arisen a movement in favor of freeing elections from party control.

The direct primary is its leading manifestation, but it is also showing itself in many other ways. Most of the devices adopted or proposed are extra-constitutional, like the party organization they are designed to attack. That is to say the people are building up, outside the Constitution, a body of law and custom which shall provide machinery for the ready enforcement of their desires, just as the machinery of party enforces the desires of an organized group, always very small, of professional officer seekers and manipulators.

Opposes The Direct Primary

Strangely enough, M. Ostrogorski is a bitter opponent of the legalized primary. He holds, in brief, that the State should take no cognizance of parties and compares their recognition to the establishment of state churches. That there is some basis for his objections may be admitted freely, for no political institution, however carefully safeguarded, can be without grave defects, but in pointing out the shortcomings and possible evils of the legalized primary he seems to overlook its abounding and assertive merits. A force exerting some opposition to “the free competition of new political associations” it may be, true enough, but it is also a powerful force in opposition to bribery, repeating, bossism and a host of other detestable things.

Ostrogorski, in brief is here too much the political theorist and too little the practical statesman. He seems to forget for the moment that all free government is a compromise and that the value of an institution is to be measured not so much by its agreement with a priori theories as by its actual net effectiveness. There is no need to argue that the legalized primary is actually effective, for that fact has been well established by abundant experience.

Some of M. Ostrogorski’s other conclusions and suggestions are of considerable interest. He believes, for example, that the members of the president’s Cabinet should have seats in both houses of Congress, with the same general duties and responsibilities there that fall upon the members of the British Cabinet in the House of Commons. At present he says, there is always a gulf fixed between the executive and legislative departments, and the practical need for bridging it, when important legislation is under way, leads to lamentable bargaining and jockeying, in which even the best of Presidents must take a hand.

The Cabinet In Congress

He holds that the seating of the Cabinet would evolve a “parliamentary leadership more worthy of the name than the miserable counterfeit supplied by the Congressional caucus and the House oligarchy.” Such is M. Ostrogorski’s prediction, but it must be confessed that he offers it entirely unsupported by evidence or argument. His proposal, in itself, is far from new, and all of us are familiar with considerations which urge its rejection.

The direct election of senators is an extra-Constitutional device to which the Russian author gives his approval, but he feels that it would be unwise to choose the members of the upper house by an ordinary plebiscite, as the members of the lower house are chosen. “The Senate,” he says, “should represent the mature thought of the country and ought to be elected by voters who have reached the age of experience, say, not less than 35 years.” But even this device, he maintains, will not “suffice to bring about that infusion of new and purer blood of which it (the Senate) is in so great need.”

Reforming The Senate

What, then, will do so? M. Ostrogorski believes that there must be some change in the scheme of representation. Let each sovereign state retain its two senators, but let there be added a number of associate senators representing “the great economic and social forces of the country”—one, for example, representing the labor unions, another the farmers’ organizations, another the universities, another the churches (“not as ecclesiastical, but as great social organizations”) and yet another, perhaps, the trusts. “The associate senators,” says M. Ostrogorski, “would be, above all, the authoritative experts on the great social and economic problems of the age. Their number could be fixed at one-fourth, or even at one-third, of the old membership, but not more. The historic foundation of the Senate would be preserved, not only as a memory of times contemporaneous with the birth and growth of the Union, but as an actual basis of the structure, harmoniously blended with the additional building answering the call of the age and the wants of an ever-developing Democracy.”

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

 The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.