Agora & Polis

Sovereignty In The Grand Old Party


L. Rhodes

How did I wind up reading James Burnham's Congress and the American Tradition? I can't quite recall where I first encountered the title. It's a fascinating book thus far, though already I'm forming certain misgivings regarding Burnham's philosophical assumptions. One thing I certainly did not expect was for the opening chapters to be so theoretical. Burnham goes on at length about the foundations of governmental legitimacy, the "syndromes" of political ideology, and the indivisibility of sovereignty. The last of those seems particularly relevant to the contemporary scene.

Leaning on classical political authorities (Rousseau, in particular), Burkham asserts that "political sovereignty must be one," (p.34) and that any division of sovereignty in a government will inevitably produce contradictions that threaten to topple the whole system. Gaps open, creating opportunities for usurpation. Competitors rush in to fill the void.

What put me in mind of current events was Burnham's account of the sorts of ideologies that emerge from that fray:

When sovereignty is broken up, divided or shared among many persons and agencies, then there tends to be a breakdown also in the theoretical sphere, with the intrusion of alternate ideologies, or the piecing out of the dominant ideology with scraps that cannot be harmonized with the original pattern. Conflicting aristocratic and democratic ideologies may be pasted together; or the holes in a democratic formula may be covered with aristocratic or racist patches. (p. 36)

This presents some serious problems for democracy in America, which, as Burnham explains, was founded in part on a resistance to the concentration of sovereignty. Rebelling from the abuses of monarchy, the Founding Fathers instituted a system that split effective sovereignty between three branches. Given the theory that sovereignty is indivisible, the implication is that this separation of powers will invariably tend toward internal contradiction. Indeed, that instability is an essential part of the functioning of democracy in the United States. But, on Burnham's account, we pay a price in the perpetually recurring opportunities for "aristocratic or racist patches."

Perhaps. It's difficult to deny that American political history has been prone to aristocratic outbursts (cf. the robber barons of the Gilded Age) and racist structures (inter alia). Connecting them back to the operation of the Constitutional division of powers seems less certain to me. There is, for one thing, the difficulty of identifying precisely where sovereignty is located in a democratic republic. Is it with branches of government? Or with the demos, whose will is expressed through elections? The location of sovereignty, according to the theory, is decided by the ideological foundation of the government, but the regular swings of American electoral politics function less like the application of a particular ideology than a mechanism for deciding which ideology will prevail at any given time.

It seems to me that, if U.S. politics afford a practical application of Burnham's theory, it's the party system. Political parties serve as a focal point where members concentrate in a kind of localized sovereignty that's unbroken by the mechanisms built into the Constitutional system. Because, as Burnham would have it, American parties are almost never strictly ideological or class-based, but form, rather, as temporary coalitions of converging interests, they are immune to the contradictions that arise when sovereignty is divided in a government. That, at any rate, is the theory:

The Founding Fathers deplored parties (or "factions," as they called them), and hoped that the country would be preserved from them. In actuality the parties, once they began to develop in the distinctively American manner, became guardians of the principles of the Fathers: guarantors of the diffusion of power, and a stalwart defense against the unrestrained plebiscitary democracy which the Fathers judged to be the greatest of all political dangers.

That may have been the case when Congress and the American Tradition was published in 1959, but waning fortunes have since driven the Republican Party to a strategy built around the cultivation of ideological loyalties. In turn, the sovereignty that holds the Grand Old Party together has been increasingly divided over the last several decades. A fulcrum group like the Freedom Caucus provides tangible evidence that power is increasingly distributed between ideological bases within the party. That's a situation created in part by its courtship of disparate allies — the religious right in the 1970s, libertarians and neoconservatives starting in the 1980s, the Tea Party in the 1990s. That the latter rallied around skepticism about the citizenship and religious affiliation of the first black president suggests that ground was clearing for a resurgence of overt racism.

That's not to say that either racist or aristocratic impulses are new developments within the Republican Party. This is, after all, the party that fought the Civil Rights Act. But it seemed for a while that those tendencies were, at least, muted. Looking back on Clinton-era criminal justice policy, with its talk of "super-predators" and program of mass incarceration, it is at least possible to believe that contemporary Republicans were merely expressing conservative versions of racial biases that were affective in both parties, precisely because they permeated the whole of society. If we grant Burnham's thesis, though, what we might say is that the contradictions rending the GOP from within unwound whatever internal progress the party had achieved since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Sovereignty divides and contradictions arise. Holes form in the fabric, only to be "covered with aristocratic or racist patches."