James MacGregor Burns: Strengths and Weaknesses of the American Political System

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James MacGregor Burns has been called a historian’s political scientist and a political scientist’s historian. He taught for over 40 years at Williams College in Massachusetts. In scores of articles and books, he probed the American political system, past and present, to understand its strengths and weaknesses. He won the Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, just one of many honors. Burns is not only a scholar of politics, he participates. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and once made a run for Congress himself. He continues to advocate major reforms to revitalize the parties. In this episode of World of Ideas, he talked about politics, parties and leadership.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. It was Benjamin Disraeli who told his countrymen, “Damn your principles! Stick to your parties.” W.S. Gilbert may have taken him at his word when he wrote in HMS Pinafore: “I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” But the poet Tennyson caught the best sense of what was happening when he spoke of party loyalty as a slowly dying cause. In this broadcast you’ll hear a distinguished student of the American presidency say that the creative life of politics depends upon the resurrection of party loyalty. And he offers as an example of leadership the role of Ronald Reagan in calling conservative Republicans back from the grave. Join me for a conversation with James MacGregor Burns.

[voice-over] James MacGregor Burns has been called a historian’s political scientist and a political scientist’s historian. He has taught for over forty years at Williams College in Massachusetts. In scores of articles and books, he has probed the American political system, past and present, to understand its strengths and weaknesses. He won the Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, just one of many honors. Burns is not only a scholar of politics, he participates. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and once made a run for Congress himself. He continues to advocate major reforms to revitalize the parties. At his rural home near Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the eve of his 70th birthday, we talked about politics, parties, and leadership.

The founders, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, feared either a mob, the popular uprising that would overthrow the government, or a monarchy, a strong, centralized totalitarian power. So they raised a system that would checkmate power, between the Congress, the courts, the executive. Yet each one of them in time argued that the national government does things that you might have thought they would not have wanted a national government to do.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: As soon as these people got into power and had to do things, like, say, buying Louisiana –the whole area, Louisiana Purchase, which was most of the country out there at the time — as soon as they had to do things, they forgot some of their grand principles of 1787, and they began to do exactly what had to be done to, mainly, to build a political party that could unite these fragmented parts of government. So for a century and a half we had a party system that made the constitutional system workable, by pulling together Democrats, pulling together Republicans, they had a good real fight for control over national and state governments. The sad thing is, Bill, that those parties have declined, so that one of the great unifying forces in our system has disappeared.

BILL MOYERS: Have they declined because in pan government has become so pervasive and immediate? Citizens don’t need the parties to mediate between them and the bureaucracy, the Social Security system, for example, they can go directly to the Social Security office or directly to their representative.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Well, I think that’s part of it. I think the main reason for the decline is, I have to say, television and the media generally. The media have given the direct contact to people that the ward boss used to give. The ward boss was a great mediator between the average citizen and the government. The ward boss would humanize government for the average citizen. Today there is that kind of access you’re talking about, which is quite desirable, we should have bureaucracies that are open and available, but it’s also that people — who even knows who the local party leader is, whom do you turn to? In the old days, they knew darned well that Boss Plunkett or Boss Tweed or somebody like that was right there, anxious to help out.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that television has helped our politicians, particularly our presidential candidates, to run as loners? They don’t need, therefore, as you just say, to organize a party, if they can go directly to the masses, so the party withers because it plays no practical role in the election of a president today.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, this is very much part of the whole problem. The candidate today — and having myself once been a candidate, I can sympathize with this — discovers that the party is not very helpful. The candidate builds his or her own personal constituency, and it is that constituency that that person will be responsive to, not the party, if elected.

BILL MOYERS: It’s what you call the old King of the Rock game.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: King of the Rock, that’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Each president, each candidate wants to be King of the Rock, he wants the machinery of power in his hands.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: And as soon as somebody is king of the rock, or perhaps queen of the rock, everybody else tries to pull him or her down, and you get a kind of guerrilla government, instead of the kind of orderly planning, relatively rational government that I look for.

BILL MOYERS: And politics becomes much more of a personal fight, a contest between individuals, than a political or ideological struggle.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Who’s up, who’s down; who’s up on the rock, who was just pulled down, right.

BILL MOYERS: A solo act. Most presidential candidates these days are solo acts.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: But then when they get into government, they have to run a huge collective operation, not just at the federal level, but working with governors and legislatures. And their buildup, their personal buildup — going back to your point about, do you have power when you get to be president — they discover that power dissipates, and they have to keep reforming coalitions and alliances; they’re playing coalition broker politics all the way through their presidency, in a desperate effort to get things done.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a story, I’m not sure it’s true, it’s probably apocryphal, of when Dwight Eisenhower walked into the White House. He stood behind that huge desk in the Oval Office, looked around and said, “All right, what do I do now?” Apocryphal though it may be, it does suggest that men arrive at the White House having conquered their main objective, which is the election, without a clear idea of what it is they want to do once they get there.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Or they get there with a grab bag of policies that may not really relate to one another, and not with a really well-considered program. And you see, I feel that it’s programs and strategies and principles and indeed philosophies that are crucial to successful government, and I think it’s because the early leaders were men of committed principle, they were philosophers as well as very practical people, that we had that sunburst of leadership during the, well, just a couple of hundred years ago now.

BILL MOYERS: But the irony is that they almost set up a machinery that made it hard for the state to act, didn’t they?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, Bill, these great leaders established an anti-leadership system, making it very difficult to govern. But it turned out that it was a particular kind of leadership that they were fostering and a particular kind that they were preventing. They were fostering the kind of broker leadership, that as you know from your days in the White House, is what government mainly is and has to be in a democracy, a tremendous amount of bargaining with members of Congress and the like. They made it terribly difficult for men to rise to their stature by rising above brokerage, rising above what I call transactional leadership.

BILL MOYERS: Well, take one example and see how it applies to this, take the two trillion dollar national debt — actually I think it’s more than two trillion.


BILL MOYERS: Take the three-trillion-dollar national debt. All the politicians talk about it, or they run from it, knowing that it’s a monster, but none of them seems able to solve it. What’s wrong with the political system that makes it difficult for politicians to solve the deficit problem?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: It’s a system that does not clearly put responsibility on people in power, so that when the election comes, instead of assuming responsibility, say, for the deficit after eight years of Reaganism, they can evade it through, not a real election, but through finger-pointing. They point the finger at somebody else. Reagan says, “I tried to save money, I tried to deal with this, and the Democrats wouldn’t let me.” It’s very hard for the average citizen to figure to what degree is Reagan responsible for this deficit, and to what extent the Democrats are.

BILL MOYERS: Ronald Reagan says, well, the Democrats spent too much money on domestic concerns; the Democrats say Ronald Reagan spent too much on defense; the Republicans in the executive branch say yes, but the Democratic Congress voted all that money for these bases and these weapons; so it is very hard to find out who is ultimately accountable.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: That’s what I mean by finger-pointing and really buck-passing.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the current paralysis over the debt is not new. I remember in 1963, when your book The Deadlock of Democracy came out– I believe that was the year, wasn’t it?


BILL MOYERS: I gave a copy of it to then-Vice President Johnson, and he said, “Yes, that is exactly right, we are deadlocked up here; no civil rights legislation is passing, the war on poverty is dead, nothing is happening up here.” After the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy, he asked me one night for that book, and I went and found it at what was then the Vice President’s residence — he had not yet moved into the White House — and he wanted copies of it, to ask his aides and others to read, he himself refreshed on. He said, “We have to break this deadlock, we have to get government moving again.” Kennedy had talked about getting the country moving; Johnson talked about getting the government moving. And by a fortuitous set of circumstances, he was able to do that, but that hasn’t happened often. I can think of twice in your recent and my recent lifetime when it’s happened; with Johnson in ’64 and ’65, and with Ronald Reagan in ’81 and ’82.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes. But the Reagan example is very important, because Ronald Reagan showed that if you’re really committed to principle, and he was committed to conservatism by the late 1970s, and if you want to work within your party, and he’d decided to work within the Republican Party, you can at least have a couple of good years in the presidency. And what impresses me about the Republican Party is that they got their act together, they made up their mind that they are the conservative party under Reagan’s leadership, they dropped that Rockefeller liberal wing that they had fought with over the years, they drew up a conservative platform, and then to the amazement of a lot of people, including a lot of Democrats, they promptly began to carry out exactly what they’d promised to the people. I’m impressed by that, even though I might disagree with what they did.

BILL MOYERS: You’re impressed because?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Because I like the idea that a party will go to the people with its own vision and sense of commitment, and then carry it out. Because to my mind then the system is working. All I ask, Bill, is that the other party do the same.

BILL MOYERS: The Democratic Party, in this case.


BILL MOYERS: You’re saying you admire the Republican Party because it has decided to be a principled party of conservatism.


BILL MOYERS: And the Democratic Party?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Has not yet decided to be the principled party of liberalism.


JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Because it’s still a great coalition; because tens of millions of people are not voting who would form the solid liberal constituency of the party. And Bill, to my mind, the central problem of our democracy today — our democracy, not just our government — is that 30 or 40 or 50 million Americans who have a deep stake in what this government does, are not showing up at the polls, even to vote for president.

BILL MOYERS: What was it, in 1980, in the national elections of Canada, 70 percent of the eligible voters turned out; in this country only 53 percent of the eligible voters turned out.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: We have the worst record of any democracy.

BILL MOYERS: But your assumption is that those lost voters are all liberals, they’re all —



JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: By no means. I think because of their socioeconomic status, most of them with proper leadership would vote liberal and would want a liberal Democratic Party. They’re out there; they’re just not heard from, they’re turned off by the system.

BILL MOYERS: There is such a pronounced tendency in this country toward consensus, toward the center. Coming up here in the car I was listening to the radio news, and there was a report of George Bush proposing to a convention of women a two-billion-dollar childcare program, as if he were the Democrat running — as if he were Walter Mondale, although unlike Mondale, Bush was silent on where he’d get the money to pay for this. And there was Michael Dukakis, your governor, out in St. Louis speaking to a Baptist church, invoking images of God, country and patriotism, as if it were Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Well, I think this is at the heart of our intellectual problem, problems of our, of our national mind, and that is the tendency to think that the middle way is the best way. If we can only get everybody around the table, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, we’ll work out a compromise, and this is the solution. Usually those compromises are exactly that, they’re compromises, they’re ineffective. And I think a much better kind of government is one where a majority wins, carries out its mandate as Reagan did for a year or two, and then gives way to another majority that carries out its left-wing or liberal or labor-type mandate, and that’s exactly the kind of government we don’t have.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about the need for leadership, and you talk about two kinds of leadership. Let’s define those. You talk about transactional leaders, what do you mean by that’?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: That’s the broker type of leader. That’s the leader who makes progress by making a deal here and moving ahead a foot here.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: That back-scratching and all that.

BILL MOYERS: At which Lyndon Johnson was so great in the Senate.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, that’s right.

BILL MOYERS: He knew at the moment what each Senator wanted, and he was able to trade for it.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: These are temporary, shifting coalitions that often get some immediate objective accomplished, and hence this kind of leadership is about 90 percent of the leadership of the American system. Because the very fact that we have a fragmented system means that we need lots of people to grease the joints, and that’s what these broker politicians do. They’re absolutely indispensable. But there comes a time in the history of every nation when a leader has to rise above brokerage. It came in England in the case of Churchill, it comes in our country in the case of the Depression or Nazism and other great crises, and the question I raise is whether presidents and governments can rise to the enormity of some of these fundamental problems. And they cannot be solved, Bill, through every day, adhoc brokerage; they have to be solved by an enormous effort like the New Deal.

BILL MOYERS: So you have to rise above what you call the transactional nature of politics to?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: What I call transforming leadership.

BILL MOYERS: Which does what?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Which can change the governmental system to make it more effective; can change the party system to bring in, let’s say, tens of millions of people into the Democratic Party who are presently unrepresented, or indeed to both parties; can bring about what I like to call a planning system. Remember Hubert Humphrey used to talk about — he would say he did not believe in a planned society, you know, liberals always attack, they believe in planning, in nuts and bolts. He said, “No, I don’t believe in this.” He said, “But I believe in a planning society, one that constantly plans ahead.” And our government simply cannot plan ahead. It can plan for next year, maybe, or this year, but in terms of the problems that are arising in this country and around the world, we’re going to continue just to be behind.

BILL MOYERS: So a transformational leader not only deals with the immediate problem, but he changes the way we think about the problem?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, that’s even more fundamental. The way Roosevelt, who above all, was a preaching president —

BILL MOYERS: Yes, he was.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Who taught the need for government. He taught people, you don’t need to fear government, you must use government for your own purposes. So you have to change habits of thought about government, you have to change the system, and you have to change parties. A very good concrete example of a transforming leader would be some Democrat who could realign the party system the way Reagan realigned it on the right. Reagan created a conservative party out of the Republican Party by sloughing off the old Rockefeller wing. We will have a transforming leader on the left, on the liberal side, the day we get — it probably has to be a president, who will attract so many tens of millions of American into the Democratic Party that, A, he wins elections, and B, he will have the support of a huge constituency to do what he wants to do.

BILL MOYERS: Has any president ever done this?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, Roosevelt again did a partial realignment of the party system. He made the Democratic Party into essentially a liberal party, although it always hung on to its Southern conservatives, but also he brought out liberalism in the South. But that was half realignment, and we’ve kind of gone back to the old system of the Democrats being all things to all men and women

BILL MOYERS: If you could wave a wand and bring about some changes in this constitutional and political system, what would some of them be?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Change the two-thirds treaty requirement in the Senate, so that it’s easier to put through treaties.

BILL MOYERS: Right now, two-thirds of the Senate must ratify a treaty the president has recommended.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Yes, but what’s happened is that because presidents knew they could not get treaties through the Senate, they did things by fiat, through executive agreements. There are hundreds and thousands of executive agreements that the president individually signs with other nations. They are just as important as the treaties, they have the same standing in law, and here’s a case of where we let the president become much too powerful, because we won’t bring in the collective government through making it easier to get a majority in the House and Senate.

BILL MOYERS: Also presidents trade away such tiny things, they have to play such a grubby game to get an important treaty passed.


BILL MOYERS: They have to give up a judgeship here, give up a contract there.


BILL MOYERS: Second change.

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: A second change would be a very simple one, and that is to give members of the House of Representatives four-year terms, coterminous with the presidential term.

BILL MOYERS: And what do you think this would change?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: First of all, it would allow a congressman or woman to start being a good legislator without immediately having to raise money for the next election. The thing is just brutal, what it calls for in terms of money. Secondly, it gives them a chance to be a little bit more forward-looking and even visionary. That is, they can figure, I got four years and maybe I’ll have a tough year or so, but I can plan for the long run, son of the marathon aspect. And it also docs enable more teamwork, in that in every case members of the House would be running on the same ticket as the president, so you get a little more teamwork between president and House of Representatives.

BILL MOYERS: Another suggestion?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: The other suggestion is my most basic one, it’s a very old-fashioned suggestion, and that is to go back to the strong party system we had in the past, to try to do away with the mechanisms that have destroyed that system. For example, not to have so many party primaries, so-called party primaries, they are really King of the Rock type primaries, where people seize control of the party and don’t necessarily represent the party; to repeal a lot of anti-party laws that we have on the books. But above all, to try to develop among the people a sense that the party has been historically in this country a great democratizing force, and has been a great force for good government, in that when one party gets control of all branches of government, that party is responsible, that’s the party you can happily kick out if they don’t do the job and put the other party in, and kick them out if they don’t do the job, but that’s the best way to deal with politicians in office.

BILL MOYERS: You ran unsuccessfully for the Congress in 1958?


BILL MOYERS: History would have lost a distinguished practitioner if you had won, but do you have —

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: Wish you should have been my campaign manager.

BILL MOYERS: If you had won, what do you think, looking back, would have happened to you? Would you have had to play the game, King of the Rock?

JAMES MACGREGOR BURNS: That’s a very fundamental question I have wrestled with, and the answer is, I am afraid I would have had to play the game, And let me give you a good example that goes back to much of this discussion. I had some wonderful textile worker unions in this district, everything’s gone now, but these were my troops, a wonderful union, the Textile Workers Union of America. Marvelous people, Polish and Italian and French Canadian and Irish and WASPs and so on. They knocked themselves out for me, that union in Holyoke and Pittsfield and North Adams. The party did its best, but even then the party wasn’t very strong, and I had been a party chairman and I knew it wasn’t very strong. Burns gets elected to Congress; a tariff bill comes up, and the party, being a low-tariff party historically, would say to me, vote for a low-tariff bill, and my textile people and employers are saying we’re losing, we’re going out in this district, you must help us. And when it came to the crunch, I would think of those workers out there on that wet election day working for me, and I would do exactly what I deplore in politicians generally, I would have, in the crunch, gone their way. I would have tried to work out ways of compromising and so on, naturally. But the reason for this would not only be my moral failure, it would be the system. I would say to myself, I can do so much good in this job that if I just make a compromise here I can get re-elected, particularly in these tough off-year elections, and that’s the way the system works. So, I in the end, Bill, think much more in terms of the nature of our institutions, the nature of our thought, than I do about the politicians, I feel the politicians more than any of us are the victims of this system, and I would like a system that let the politicians rise to the greatness that I think is in them.

BILL MOYERS: From Williamstown, Massachusetts, this has been a conversation with James MacGregor Burns. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 28, 2015.

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