Democratic Dilemmas: The Party and the Movements

Democratic Dilemmas: The Party and the Movements

Todd Gitlin, Frances Fox Piven and Michael Walzer spoke at a City University of New York symposium on “The Vanishing American Left” in September 2006. These essays are drawn from their talks. —Eds.

IN HEAVEN, POSSIBLY, ideals speak for themselves. But on earth ideals require translation; they require action. If the world were logically ordered, politics would begin with ends—so Plato and Aristotle would insist. But a little experience demonstrates that the ends crash and burn without means. So, over time, human beings have learned that their ideals need means, vessels, escorts—and that’s where the trouble begins. The need for means is the terrible requirement exacted by an unforgiving world, and in this requirement, and the possibility it creates of a fatal mismatch between ends and means, lies the taproot of political tragedy. Ideals are the necessary motives of practical action, but ideals without wherewithal are empty dreams, and ideals yoked to the wrong means are likely to turn into nightmares.

In democracies, the people who either bear the ideals or bury them, or both, are politicians. And organizations of politicians—parties—are the indispensable means of political power. But parties are impure vessels. They consist, by definition, of people who aspire to political power, along with staffs whose members also possess personal ambition. They win public support by making promises, but they lead you to a compromised land. They may originate in passions; they insist that their sojourn in the compromised land is only short-term, but parties end up in the hands of insiders, and insiders have interests. Officeholders like to retain their offices, toward which end parties are helpful.

Most Americans, by contrast, are less than attached to parties, even the ones they vote for. With good reason, they think that parties stink of corruption; that even at best, parties are the property of professionals while they, the citizens, are only amateurs—and like it that way, for they have private pursuits, a pleasing luxury of liberal societies. And for the most part, except during fundraising spurts, or in those retrograde zones where remnant machines deliver the equivalent of Thanksgiving turkeys, the parties return the favor: day by day, they offer citizens next to nothing. In the United States, national parties scarcely exist. Walk the streets of any American city and you will be hard-pressed to find a party office, let alone a meeting.

A crucial asymmetry has opened up in the relationship between parties, focused on interests and power, and movements, focused on ideals. In the early 1960s, the conservative movement set out to take over the Republican Party, warts and a...

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