James MacGregor Burns

A Capital Dynamic to Do the Framers Proud, Part I

VTR Date: March 17, 1995

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “A Capital Dynamic to Do the Framers Proud”, Part I
VTR: 3/17/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And, like Yogi Berra says, “Sometimes I think it’s déjà vu all over again”. At least that’s the feeling I have as I turn to my old friend and guest today, Williams College Pulitzer Prize winning historian and political scientist, James MacGregor Burns, biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and continuing chronicler of what he still sees as “The American Experiment”.

What I refer to, of course, is not one of Professor Burns’ more recent books, but rather his brilliant analysis more than 30 years ago of what he described as “The Deadlock of Democracy”, for he concluded his brilliant analysis of the American political dynamic by noting that, “The cure for democracy, people used to say, is more democracy. A half century of hard experience has shown this cliché to be a dangerous half-truth. The cure for democracy is leadership, responsible, committed, effective and exuberant leadership. The man and the party who take the lead in modernizing our political system, in establishing a majority party able to govern, and a minority part able to oppose, will have helped put an end to the dangerous cycle of drift and deadlock in our national affairs”.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet, Lord knows. What has is that even just shortly into Newt Gingrich’s first hundred days, what a New York Times story headlined “A capitol dynamic to do the framers proud” had surfaced featuring James Madison’s view of the House of Representatives as reflecting immediate popular sentiments and the Senate a more tempered, reasoned approach to the issues of our times.

And that’s why I though it well to invite Jim Burns here once again to parse this whole issue, seeing how he would set America’s apparatus for self-government against the framework of our rather self-contradictory and perhaps self-defeating concept of being, above all else, a fully checked and balanced democratic republic. In short, I would ask Professor Burns if he sees any more or less reason now than in the past for hoping that our politics will muddle through the millennium, and if he responds to what some think of as a rather sappy notion that we ought to cheer, no matter what, any capital dynamic that does the founders proud. Jim?

BURNS: Dick, we’ve been muddling through for decade after decade. We’re still muddling through. And I expect we’ll muddle through right into the next millennium. But two things have happened on your point about constitutional change or political change. One breakthrough after I wrote that book was LBJ. He’s sort of forgotten today in the sense of what he literally did. We remember him on Vietnam and the towering personality, but what he got through in that 1965 Congress is quite remarkable. And if we had continued with that momentum we would be, I think, much farther along. The second thing – and you might not expect to hear this from me – is that I think the Republicans, to some extent, have tried to meet the deadlock of democracy by at least having, I guess you call it an ideology, particularly the house Republicans. They know what they want to do. I don’t happen to agree with them. But I think they have posed a challenge to the Democrats who have been muddling; a challenge that may stiffen the spine of the Democrats so we might, before this century is over, have a grand encounter ideologically between the two parties.

HEFFNER: But the traditional wisdom, Jim, has always been: we must avoid this dichotomization; we mustn’t do what the rest of the Western world has done, or much of the Western world has done, by setting up liberals versus conservatives, and that the beauty of our system was that we muddied the waters.

BURNS: You couldn’t ask me a question that I feel more strongly about. I think exactly what we need is a strong confrontation between liberals and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, hopefully liberals of the Democratic Party and conservatives in the Republican Party. Dick, that last word I think you read from that quote was “leadership”. Great leadership does not come out of consensus, bipartisanship, sitting around the table and making the deals back and forth. To my mind, great leadership comes out of someone with a very strong set of views and a great deal of political skill coming up against an opposing person or party with views and political skill.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, if you had referred to one of your subjects, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or another subject of what you’ve written, John F. Kennedy, I could agree. And you’ve chosen the one beast in the jungle about whom I feel so negatively that it’s so hard for me to take that as a shining example.

BURNS: Well, aside from all the social and economic programs he put through, LBJ, take the foundations, the humanities, and the education foundations, NEF. They come out of this man, out of Texas, who you might think would not be very interested in that. And I could make a long list. But of course, all this depends on whether we think this is progress. I happen, as a Democrat, to feel it was progress. And the question is: What is progress today? Gingrich has a very different theory of progress. But he does believe in leadership. He’s calling on Clinton to show more leadership.

HEFFNER: Well, explain, please. I know what you wrote here, because it struck me at the time, and it struck me again as I went back to your book and the concept of deadlock struck me as so appropriate, but you set aside the filial pietism that we have suffered from for so long. What leads you to do that, to look at Madison and look at Jefferson, and in a sense say, “Maybe Jefferson understood in his efforts to organize a party initially, but that the whole business of balancing and of balance, of checking, has been our downfall?

BURNS: Well, I honor the framers for what they did in their time, and indeed for another century or two. I’m a great admirer of the framers. I think they gave us the kind of brilliant political and constitutional leadership that I believe in. But that was for the first century or perhaps the second century. Today we’re going into a third century, already have, actually, since the Constitution was adopted in 1787. And the question that I’ve been raising in that book and elsewhere is: Can a, what I call a kind of a “stagecoach government” make it through the third century, that is the next millennium, or the next century, that what will be the 21st Century that we’re coming into? And I don’t think it will.

But on your point about balancing, there was a good reason to have a balanced government in those days. They were so terrified by the experience of the European monarchies, they had fled, many Americans, from those monarchies. They wanted to set up a government that could just do enough, what had to done, but not too much, and would not in any way interfere with people’s liberties. So they set up this elaborate contraption. It’s a fancy stagecoach with six horses and a great body, a limousine to it, and wheels and so on. And it’s lurching along in the jet age.

HEFFNER: But, Jim, you can’t say, certainly, that in the 20th Century, though it’s rolling to a close, we haven’t had good reason to see, outside of our country, and to fear concentration of power, which is, as you say, what the framers, the founders, in constructing the Constitution , sought to avoid. Now, are you saying that this is not a phenomenon that we have seen in our times?

BURNS: If the concentration of power is in a leadership that represents the majority, a leadership that has won the last election, a leadership that has to go back to the people to get another majority, I want it to have great power, except the power to interfere with the kind of liberty you and I are enjoying at this very movement. That is, freedom of speech. And I think we have done that in this country to a great extent. We do have a pretty thriving Bill of Rights, and we do have a somewhat effective but not very effective national government. You can have strong government and individual liberty.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the deadlock that you wrote about and that you decry even today is the antithesis of that. Now, do you see that we have succeeded? Or do you see that we are on the verge of failure?

BURNS: I like to say, just take the New Deal to be more concrete about succeeding, that the New Deal was two-thirds dealt. That it never finished the great job. LBJ again, I think, tried to push it further, but he ran into other difficulties, as you know, Vietnam. I would say that we are on the verge of a breakthrough if the American people and their leaders can be as brilliant in planning the system for the next century as the framers were for the last two centuries. But to get back to your main point, the thing I worry most about, Dick – and you remember back into those years when democracies were going down – is that because of deadlock or gridlock, democracy cannot do a job, it cannot meet the needs of the people, and that’s where I think democracy will be imperiled along with the Bill of Rights in the democracy.

HEFFNER: So that the emergence of dictatorship was a function of deadlock rather than of a natural-born leadership taking over?

BURNS: Yes. And the classic example is the Weimar Republic, which was beautifully set up to be a democratic republic, and it was in terms of machinery, but it could not meet the crisis of the late 1920s.

HEFFNER: If you feel that what is going on, what has been going on since the beginning of 1995 in the new Congress is a reflection of what it is that you are looking for, a strong statement of ideology, and then a counterstatement, you must be rather pleased by what’s happening. Or are you only going to be pleased not by the process but by the outcome?

BURNS: (Laughter) I’m pleased by the process. I again say that the Republicans very carefully, very thoughtfully, in my view, over the last ten or 15 years have done their homework, have had their think tanks, have advanced a conservative doctrine, which I don’t happen to believe in. But I respect that. It comes out of American conservatism, and we have in the House of Representatives a group of rather extremist people, but I think the core of their belief is the classic conservatism of America, which is less government and lower taxes and all the rest. They’ve done their job. I say to my fellow Democrats, we’re not doing our job. We’re not mobilizing people the way Gingrich did, at least in those congressional races. If we could, then we could make elections meaningful. Dick, the most awful aspect of our system in the last 30 or 40 years, as you know as a historian, is the turnout, the low voting turnout that overall is going down. Millions of people are not playing our game of democracy. They’re turned off by the system. I think they will be turned back on the day when there is an FDR, with his eloquence and his strong ideology, posed against a Gingrich, who I mentioned not because I admire him so much as a person, but I rather admire him as a thinker. He is, I think, a thinking conservative who really believes powerfully in what he is talking about. And the day that we have that kind of confrontation and we have a victor, and it might well be conservative Republicans, I would say let them have their chance. My worst reservation about our system is that good people in both parties go in there really wanting to make some good changes. Clinton is a classic example. And they get so messed up by the system, aside from their own failings, that they can’t get the job done. And we never have a real test. I would like to see a real test of the Republican ideology. We didn’t get it under Reagan. He had a year or two and then he pulled back and we had a Democratic Congress. I’d like to see a clear-cut victory for a party – we haven’t talked much about party here – that wins over the other party, you give that party authority and power to do its job, and if they don’t do their job, they have no excuses, they are voted out at the next election.

HEFFNER: You say we haven’t talked much about party. Do you really want to – do YOU really want to – talk about party? Because you seem to be putting your emphasis upon person. You seem to be putting your emphasis – if I wanted to be nasty – upon the man upon horseback. And I know you don‘t mean that in its traditional sense. But that’s what you’re saying. You’re saying Roosevelt, you’re saying Johnson.

BURNS: That’s a very well-taken point. And it means a lot to me that you’ve taken that position, because actually I believe in collective leadership. I believe in party leadership because it is collective leadership. And I do fear one great tendency, which is what you’re talking about: presidential power unconfined, the very thing that the farmers most disliked. But again I would make the point you get presidential power because the system doesn’t work. The main force for creating the kind of presidential power, as with LBJ, that you are rightly concerned about, is the system doesn’t work, the people turn to somebody who may make it work, and the president, as in the case of FDR, overrides Congress, or, as in the case of LBJ, deceives Congress.
So, if we could get a powerful, dynamic, competitive, tow-party system, yes, with collective leadership on both sides. That would be my ideal.

HEFFNER: But, Jim, we seem to move parry and thrust in a kind of dialectic in which we, as a people, move from a kind of success, in your terms, Johnson and a strong party, well, not a strong party, but acting under his leadership, a group that functioned. Moving back and forth, back and forth. Isn’t that the nature of our society and inability to have the kind of consistency, the wise consistency that you’re looking for in our political organization?

BURNS: I think that’s that failure of the system, because when I or you talk about consistency we mean leadership that is consistent, that tries to live up to its promise, that gets elected on a set of promises, party platforms, and so on. And I want the leadership to be consistent with the party that won, and consistent with the platform and with his own personal agenda that he offered to the American people.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask whether, without term limits, you can really have that consistency. Because don’t people who think in terms of staying election after election, term after term, in the Congress, don’t they stay by trimming their sails rather than maintaining the ideology you want to see foremost?

BURNS: Yes, but I think the system, present system, encourages that. You have the two-year term for Representative. That’s 18th Century the two-years term. You have the six-year term for Senate, which means that they have to collide all the time for the House. So, then you have the president with his veto power, and Congress with its power to override the president. Now, I don’t see much consistency in that. I see endless confusion, factionalism, corrupt money. What I see in two parties, posed against each other, and yes, winner take all, except not with the Bill of Rights – you don‘t touch the Bill of Rights – but winner takes all, even though the other side hates it. What I see is getting away from the sluggishness of the government and the apathy of the people as they see government not performing.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t that thought be more appropriate for a time when the question is: Social Security program or no Social Security program? Withholding taxes or no withholding taxes? What is there, Jim, in our time, that wouldn’t impact upon and infringe upon the one thing that you say is inviolate, our liberties, our freedoms? And that’s always been your theme: liberty. How can you say in our times that there would be any war, political war, with a victory, that wouldn’t impinge upon the question of liberty?

BURNS: Well, once upon a time we did have a great victory. Again, FDR. Both in ’32 and again in 1934. And then you had Social Security. That was looked on by a lot of people, like my uncles in Boston, as the most outrageous thing. And I would hear, even as a young, as a boy, I would hear about how Social Security, speaking of individual liberty, “They’re going to tattoo your Social Security number on your arm”. I doubt that you would see any threat to liberty in Social Security.

HEFFNER: Absolutely. But suppose, you and I wouldn’t, but your uncles did, and those who objected to withholding taxes and a whole panoply of economic moves. But today, if you talk about abortion, if you talk about welfare, you are touching upon areas that infringe upon the liberties that you want to sort of isolate from this absolute victory and absolute defeat along political lines. How can you do it?

BURNS: Through the courts. The courts, as in the case of FDR – and much as I agreed wit their point of view, they did curb FDR to some extent – the courts would step in and protect civil liberties. If any of these new programs…Perhaps you should mention the kind of program you’re seeing adopted by either left or right party, that economic and social programs that might interfere with individual liberty.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s use abortion as an example. Certainly that’s the prime example today. If conservative Republicans win an overwhelming victory today, if they gain not only the House and the Senate, but the presidency, then mustn’t one assume that what you consider – I’ll bet; I mean, you can tell me that I’m wrong, but I’ll bet that you consider – a civil liberties question, the question of abortion, won’t that work in a very different way than it does today?

BURNS: To me, abortion is more a right than a liberty. And I like to keep that term “liberty” confined to the Bill of Rights kind of liberty which was the absolute bedrock, again, freedom of speech and religion, so…

HEFFNER: No penumbra?

BURNS: Well, we could come to that. But, to my mind, abortion – and I’m a strong supporter, of course, of choice – would be abhorrent if the Republicans got control or any conservative party got control and tried to abolish abortion, or, as they did in the old days, by the way, abolish drinking – they’re very different things, but in terms of personal liberty or personal right – I’d be appalled. On the other hand, to me the crucial thing is how the people feel in a democracy. And if a majority, after an open debate where each party states its position, took the position that there had to be some curbs on abortion, like paying governmental pay for abortion, I would be terribly disturbed and upset. But do you believe in democracy or not? There’s a big difference, it seems to me, between a curb on abortion that a curb on individual Bill of Rights liberties, because that abortion thing can be changed back. I would expect if Republicans or conservatives did that, there would be such a revolt in the country, at least people would get aroused, at last they would go to the polls, and there would be a decisive determination by the American people at the next election. And probably would go back in favor of the right to an abortion.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m very puzzled by the person – although the way you explain it I think I see it a little more clearly, a matter of definition – that my friend, James MacGregor Burns – I guess it’s the first time I’ve realized it, though I think I’ve read everything you’ve ever written – essentially what a Democrat you are in the sense of believing in the voice of the people. The voice of the people, it seems to me, is, in our terms, the voice of God.

BURNS: No. The voice of the people is not the voice of God. The voice of the people is rather limited. The voice of the people speaks out at election time, we hope, at least some of them, and the voice is, if you wish, God for another two or four year. That’s a rather short godness.

HEFFNER: Boy, I was thinking Jim, it’s a rather long period.

BURNS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But this, essentially, is your concern, that the limits we have placed, the balances we have written into our Constitution prevent a kin of two-year or four-year consistency and action?

BURNS: Prevents planning ahead, prevents making tough decisions that will help us deal with the future. Yes. I think it’s a very short-term system. Today we have perpetual campaigns. The campaign of ’96 has already started. I don‘t think that’s very helpful, when what we really need is a, again, a confrontation between two – let’s not say “ideological”; that makes people fearful – to programmatic parties, parties with a coherent program that they present to the American people.

HEFFNER: And let the winner, just let it rip?

BURNS: No, because again you don’t violate the Bill of Rights, and you have courts. Now, the courts do intervene in more than just literal liberty questions. They also intervene on process question, due procedure. I would expect the courts to continue to have a very important role. And you can push me on that because I take a more favorable view of courts than I used to.

HEFFNER: Jim let me push you on that. But sit where you are. I’m getting the signal that our time is up. Let me say, Jim Burns, thank you for joining me today. Stay where you are. We’ll do another program, Okay?

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.