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The Initiative in the Choice of Elective
By HON, CHARLES J. BONAPARTE,
To avoid any possible misconstruction, it may be well for me to say at once that the word " initiative ”, in the published title
of my address, is used in no technical sense, and Meaning of Initiative and has no connection whatever with the “refer
recall ”. I here employ the term as substantially equivalent to "authoritative suggestion " or "presentation for consideration"; and mean by it the process whereby a candidate is found and his name put before the people or before a political party when an elective office is to be filled. In the title I speak only of municipal offices, and these are primarily in my mind; but the views I shall express are, in the main, no less applicable to state and federal offices: indeed the problem with which I deal arises inevitably in any form of popular government.
When any body governed by elective officers, say, exempli gratia, the National Municipal League, has to provide itself with a new ruler or new set of rulers, it is obliged to develop some organ or devise some mechanism which looks up a man or several men believed to be fit for the job and willing to undertake it: the League provides this agency in the form of a committee on nominations, and the same somewhat rudimentary device, or one identical in principle, supplies the same need for all voluntary associations with which I am acquainted. What shall take the place and fulfil the purpose of a committee on nominations when a vast municipal corporation, say one of our great American cities, has to choose its rulers by popular vote?
The simplest and most convenient way to deal with this problem, that is to say, the way certainly most convenient for the person asked to solve it, is to ignore its existence; and I must
own, that, so far as I can see, it is thus dealt with by many thinkers, talkers and writers on public questions in our midst, and
almost universally by our laws. We seem to Ignoring the Problem
assume that the voters can and will, or, at all
events, that, but for some artificial hindrances, they could and would, always and readily name by acclamation the man of their choice, very much as the Frankish warriors raised their future king on their bucklers; and that for a man thus honored to decline with thanks would be as unlikely in the one case as it probably was in the other. The only objection to this highly satisfactory solution is that probably found in practice to the ostrich's traditional habit of burying his own head in the sand when his enemy approaches: the enemy isn't seen, but he's there all the same, and, although we may put inconvenient facts out of our mental ken for purposes of ingenious speculation, when we are re-called to earth by such trifling details as ruinous taxes or extravagance, abuses or scandals in our city government, we find these same shameless facts unblushingly staring us in the face. In the words of Champernowne's "Boss":
“ It is well understood that a small body of well-disciplined troops will defeat a much larger force of troops that are illdisciplined, even if they have the same arms; but it is not so well understood that a similar thing is true of political contests; yet such is the truth. Although it is the law that the greater number shall rule, yet nearly always a smaller number, voting under orders as one man, will prevail over the greater number; because the latter are divided in their counsels, and many of their votes merely offset one another by being cast for different men.”
If we leave the many thousands of voters in a great city without other guidance than their own hap-hazard notions, we practically abandon the public offices to some small and probably contemptible, but disciplined, minority.
It is hardly more practical to propose that the national political parties, or permanent municipal parties modeled on their local
organizations, shall serve the voters as competing Parties
committees on nominations; although it is quite true that this was precisely the purpose which “parties”, as first
known in popular government, were formed to fulfil. We have, however, so modified by custom and, of late years, by law, the organization of our parties that the name now denotes something totally different from its original significance: as to this, I shall speak more at length a little later; it is sufficient to say at this moment that when a nomination is made at a "primary" which, for all practical purposes, is a preliminary election, the fifty thousand voters entitled to take part in it constitute a mass no less amorphous and helpless than the hundred thousand or hundred and fifty thousand who will vote some weeks or months later at the polls. The primary needs a pre-primary or some sort of process to do for it the work of a committee on nominations quite as clearly as does the general election which follows it.
This work can, indeed, be done, either for the party primary or, to my mind, preferably for the entire electorate, by a self-con
stituted committee or association of citizens, Associations of
formed to recruit and recommend candidates; Citizens
and, on occasions of exceptional importance, especially with respect to offices of great prominence, such an agency is often effective and very useful. Its value, however, steadily lessens when we try to make it permanent; the credit and influence of a “committee of one hundred” or a
“ citizens' association” decline rapidly after the exigency which led to its formation has passed; it soon begins to show the vices inherent in any political close corporation, and, moreover, even in its best days, it usually finds great difficulty in providing satisfactory or even reputable candidates for minor offices. When “reformers ” have to “get up” a full ticket, they are too often compelled, by sheer inability to find anything better, to accept mediocre, if not worse, material for its “ tail”; and, in addition to these considerations, there is always some suspicion, and sometimes good cause for suspicion, that a volunteer committee is merely a hypocritical subterfuge to cloak the candidate's virtual announcement of his own candidacy. Such an announcement, made frankly, is apparently contem
plated by the statutes now regulating primaries Seeking Office
in many of our states and, of course, there always has been and always ought to be a right on the part of the
humblest citizen to ask of his fellow citizens the highest office in their gift; but, if the end we seek be, not merely to fill the public offices somehow, but to fill them well, self suggestion will furnish a wholly untrustworthy source of supply. In my annual address of 1906, delivered at Atlantic City, I called to the League's attention how hard it was and how constantly it was growing harder "to find worthy workmen for the people's work and to keep them at such work when found ”, and I further pointed out that "really first-class men, as a rule, shun public employment in its higher grades, and too often oblige their city, state or nation to be content with the second-class; if, indeed, even these can be secured and our public trusts are not abandoned to the clearly unfit.” On this subject I have now nothing to add to (and certainly nothing to subtract from) what I then said: under existing conditions there is, in some sort, a survival of the least fit among candidates for public service; we have made the incidents of such service so repulsive to those we wish and so attractive to those we do not wish to employ, that when the office shall find the man ready to seek it, or even inclined to yield readily if himself sought, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the office will do wisely if it display considerable agility in getting out of his way.
Since the work of a committee on nominations will be simply left undone if entrusted to the people at large, or to a modern
political party, or to would-be candidates for Bosses
office themselves, and since this work will be done uncertainly and often unsatisfactorily and yet more often not done at all when mere volunteers are expected to do it, we are led to consider the true substitutes for committees on nominations in our present municipal governments; and these are no other than the “ bosses ” in the local organizations of the two great national parties. It is the business of a boss to provide a candidate for every elective office; of course, if he be a wise boss, he will weigh and welcome suggestions, from whatever source they may come, which can aid him to do his work satisfactorily, —at least to himself. Moreover, since a boss, like Saturn, is usually encircled by a "ring”, or more frequently by two or more concentric rings, he is habitually assisted in his labor by the counsels of his lieutenants and apprentice-bosses, retaining, how