Chapter XVIII of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)
The questions to be answered by the people of Wisconsin at this time are: Is the primary election law worth what it has cost the state in money and bad blood? Has it fulfilled any of the promises of its advocates? Has it dethroned the political boss and destroyed the political machine? Have the political morals of the state been elevated by it? Has it improved the personnel of the office holding class? Has the public service been benefited by its operations? Has it made corrupt practices in the nomination of candidates more difficult? Has this law, which was recommended as "going to the very groundwork of popular government" by giving the voter a direct voice in the nomination of candidates, resulted in any benefit, direct or indirect, to the voter himself? Has it brought the government "closer to the people?" Are the people's liberties more securely guarded? Are the people better governed since that law went into operation?
If these questions, or any of them, can truthfully be answered in the affirmative, let no man lay impious hands upon that law. If a negative answer must be given, the statute should be changed to correct the mistakes of its authors. This is all there is to the matter. No partisan or personal interests, no factional considerations, must be permitted to postpone the work of framing the needed amendments, nor should the remodeling of the law be taken up in a spirit of controversy. There has been enough of controversy; enough of crimination and recrimination; enough of factional strife. The time is come when cool, calm reason should hold sway and the work of real reform must be undertaken with the sole aim of adjusting the law regulating the nomination of candidates to the needs of the state as indicated by the experiences of the last twenty years.
The primary election law was not the cause of the factional war that has made the last decade a memorable one in the state. It was merely an incident, one of several, that made the controversy peculiarly exasperating by reason of the bitterness with which the issues were supported and opposed. But, under its influence and by reason of the opportunities it offers for personal politics, the work of party disintegration is going forward at an alarming pace and there is urgent need of some means by which order may be brought out of the prevailing political chaos and government by parties--real representative government--restored to the people of the state.
Government by parties and government of parties by the members of the parties themselves are essential to the perpetuity of our institutions. Government by individuals, however able, inevitably spells despotism. Party responsibility on the one hand and a wise distribution of powers between the co-ordinate branches of the government on the other are the means by which the necessary checks and balances are provided for the protection of our rights and as a guaranty of our liberties.
The overthrow of parties through the ascendancy of the individual destroys party responsibility. Party organization and party leaders disappear with party principles, and individuals take their places with organized personal followings bearing the motto, "Anything to win," as their most sacred principle. The discussion of real principles is lost in the public exchange of bitter personalities. Even factional strife, deplorable as such a condition must be, is soon displaced by something worse--personal contests for power. This is not a theory; it is a plain statement of fact based upon recent experience in this state.
Wisconsin has reached a stage in the development of personal politics where parties are a negligible quantity, and the primary election law has contributed to this result by putting a premium on office seeking through direct personal effort, unflagging energy, self advertising and a liberal expenditure of money. This condition is illustrated by the city of Milwaukee. In 1898, after the municipal election, there were filed under the corrupt practices act 175 expense statements by candidates, amounting in the aggregate to $8,280.93. Of this amount $2,669.49 was contributed to ward clubs and committees by the candidates. Following the municipal election in 1908, ten years later, the expense statements filed, 274 in number, amounted to $50,479.49, but there were no contributions to ward clubs because there were no ward clubs.
Where are the Wisconsin political clubs of former years? They have disappeared with the political parties they were organized to support and assist. There is not at present writing in the city of Milwaukee one effective club organized to work for the success of a political party. There are personal organizations, or clubs, designed to advance the political fortunes of some favorite leaders and made up for the most part of followers who hope to profit by the success of those leaders, but there are no party ward clubs composed of business and professional men whose sole aim is to work for the triumph of party principles in which they believe.
Under the old system of making party nominations in conventions composed of representatives of the voters of the party, the party could and was held to a strict accountability for the acts of its officers. It therefore selected its candidates with some degree of caution. It is true that large sums of money were expended in some of the campaigns in electing, or trying to elect, party tickets. This money was expended by party committees and the fund was derived from contributions by members of the party. The nominees of the party usually contributed to this fund according to their ability, but the, largest part of the fund came from members a of the party who were not candidates for office.
When an officer was elected in this way, the party paying the expense, he was accountable to his party for his official acts and his party was responsible to the people. The contributions to the campaign funds were not as a rule made with a great amount of publicity. In point of fact, it was seldom that the candidates knew to whom the party was indebted for contributions to its campaign fund. The hands of state, county, or legislative officers were not tied by financial obligations of any kind. No demands were ever made upon officers in this state for favors based upon campaign contributions to parties.
Under the primary system all the money contributed to a primary campaign must go directly to the individual seeking the office or his agent, and, while there may be no contract in definite terms between candidate and contributor with respect to a quid pro quo, should that contributor's interests become involved at any time in such a manner as to require official action on the part of the candidate who has been favored, it is not difficult to guess what would be the result. However honest he may be, the official is likely to stretch a point in order to favor a friend who has placed him under obligations. He will not care to be classed as an ingrate.
Much has been said in the past about the influence of large corporations in politics. The most effective way in which those great industrial and commercial bodies can wield an influence in political circles is by the use of money. The easiest way to use money in politics is to place the individual officeholder under direct obligation to the contributor. The primary election law offers an ideal opportunity for the use of money in this way. Should the big corporations feel so disposed they have an opening now by which they can enter the political field in Wisconsin and rope, throw, hog tie, and brand a large number of public officers by a judicious use of corporate funds. As it stands, the law not only permits, but forces candidates to spend large sums of money in primary campaigns. As the emoluments of public office are not as a rule so liberal as to warrant the expenditure by a candidate of a king's ransom in the effort to secure an office, there is an opening for the generous contributor, be he personally interested or merely a representative of a corporation, to step in and offer to carry a part of the burden.