Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/True Non-Partisanship

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Fault has been found with Mr. Seth Low for saying in his letter accepting a non-partisan nomination, “I am a Republican, and I expect to remain one.” But a moment's candid reflection should convince any fair-minded man that this averment of party affiliation in the connection in which it was made did not only not clash with the non-partisan character of the movement of which Mr. Low accepted the leadership, but rather served to elucidate and to emphasize its true nature. Mr. Low followed up that averment by saying: “But I am completely in sympathy with the purpose of the Citizens' Union to secure a Mayor for the great city who shall be 'free from all partisan obligations.' Such a Mayor, if elected, I shall certainly be. In making appointments it shall be my endeavor to fill every place with an eye single to the public good. The patronage of the city shall not be used, so far as it is in the Mayor's power to prevent it, for the purpose of either strengthening or weakening one party or another, or any fraction of any party. I shall try to make an administration that will be honest, broad-minded, efficient, and businesslike, and considerate of the interests of every citizen.”

A clearer and more accurate definition of what non-partisan municipal government is can hardly be given. It is not required that the man at the head of such a government should not belong to any party as to national and State politics. It is only required that he should not permit any considerations of party interest to interfere with the administration of the municipal business, with which national and State politics have nothing to do. It is not required that he should appoint to the municipal offices only men who have no party affiliations. It is only required that no man should be appointed to municipal office on account of his party affiliations, and that he who is appointed notwithstanding his party affiliations shall consider it his duty to serve the city alone, without regard to the interests of any political party. This is true non-partisan government, and it is just this that has found in Mr. Low's letter of acceptance a very apt and striking illustration.

We hear it said by some otherwise well-disposed and respectable persons that such truly non-partisan municipal government is practically impossible. The only plausible reason given for this despondent view is that party spirit is very strong among people generally, and that in voting for municipal officers a large majority of the citizens will be controlled by it almost in spite of themselves. Here two questions are to be considered. The first is, ought it to be so? And the second, is it so?

As to the first question, whether it ought to be so, it may be said that the problem of good government in our large municipalities is one of the most important problems before the American people, and also that our large municipalities have, with the exception of occasional short periods following spasmodic uprisings of the moral sense of the communities concerned, been generally very bad. It may further be said that those scandalous governments have been carried on by rings of corrupt and greedy politicians put and kept in power by political organizations pretending to serve this or that national party. Nay, it will even be admitted by every candid observer that municipal administrations issuing from the spasmodic moral uprisings before mentioned have succeeded in giving the communities concerned really good government only in the same measure as they kept clear of the control of party organizations. Thus our actual experience is that partisan municipal government has, on the whole, proved a disastrous and disgraceful failure, and this for the very reason that municipal interests were controlled by political party organizations which had wholly different interests in view, and used the municipal governments as pastures for their hosts. The question, therefore, whether this ought to continue, and whether citizens ought to cultivate a party spirit which will insure its continuance, is simply whether the citizens of our great municipalities should desire to be fleeced by corrupt and rapacious rings of politicians rather than have their interests honestly taken care of for their own sake.

The second question — whether party spirit among our citizens is so strong as to make truly non-partisan municipal government impossible — may also be answered by the light of actual experience. In the first place, can a municipal department be administered in the genuine non-partisan spirit? We have one, the Street-Cleaning Department, before our eyes, which has been and is being so administered. Nobody denies this; nor will anybody deny that this is the most successfully administered department in the city of New York. Nor will any candid observer deny that it could not possibly have been so successfully administered had its working force been in any sense under the control of any political organization bound to take care of its adherents, instead of being controlled by a man who held himself bound to take care of the public interest without regard to the interests of any party organization. Now, is there any reason in the world why, for instance, the Department of Public Works could not be satisfactorily administered in the same truly non-partisan spirit? And so with all the other departments. The only thing necessary is that men be put in control of them that are animated with the same purpose and have the same power of resistance. As it has been done in one case, why should it be impossible to do it in another or in all?

In the second place, is party spirit really so rampant among our people as to make non-partisan municipal government impracticable? That it is the ruling motive of a good many people in their political action cannot be denied. But is it the ruling motive of people also with regard to matters outside of its natural sphere to such an extent that every effort to make the citizens see their true interests as to municipal affairs would appear hopeless? To affirm this would be equivalent to saying that the great majority of our people lack not only public spirit, but also ordinary intelligence. Have we not very encouraging signs to the contrary before us? The present movement for non-partisan municipal government in Greater New York differs from the anti-Tammany uprising of 1894 in some essential points. That excitement made the disregard of party relations uncommonly easy in the fight against a common enemy. Such conditions do not at present exist. Tammany having in the main been out of power for nearly three years, the anti-Tammany furor has cooled down for want of inflammatory material to feed upon. The Strong administration, with its virtues and failings, has even had the effect of putting many people in a critical mood. And yet, under circumstances apparently less favorable than those existing three years ago, the present non-partisan movement is not only far clearer in its purposes, and for this reason far stronger in its staying power, but also apparently no less strong in its numerical support. And certainly nine in ten of the untold thousands actively promoting or following it are, as to national and State politics, as decided party men as they ever were. The frantic cries and the desperate waving of party flags, with which the political machines have labored to stop that movement, only prove that it is irresistibly advancing, and that the necessity of separating municipal from national and State politics is being recognized by a constantly growing number of party men.

What reason is there, in the face of all this, for saying that non-partisan municipal government is impossible because people generally will always be controlled in municipal elections by party politics? The non-partisan principle for municipal affairs having been adopted by so many citizens in a state of mind of normal coolness, why should we despair of seeing it adopted by a great many more, and at last by a large majority? Indeed, if those dismal pessimists who at heart are convinced of the necessity of non-partisan municipal government, instead of sagely and lazily shaking their heads as to the possibility of it, would resolutely and vigorously do their part in pushing forward popular education with regard to it, that end would certainly be reached in the near future. The most singularly illogical position in this respect is taken by some of the sound-money Democrats in New York, who, loudly professing to be in favor of good municipal government, still insist that the Mayor should be “a Democrat,” while at the same time they know, or at least ought to know, that they cannot elect a Mayor for the reason that he is a Democrat without again exposing municipal government to the deleterious influences of organization politics; and while they also ought to know that under existing circumstances they cannot co-operate in electing a Democrat without combining, for the sake of office, with those elements of the Democratic party coalition with which will cost them, as sound-money Democrats, their moral standing, their very identity, the public confidence, and their chances of future usefulness.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1897-10-02 - True Non-Partisanship.PNG