The chairman bangs his gavel -- "The clerk will call the roll!" he cries. The moment of truth has come in the Republican National Convention of 1980. Alabama. . . !" booms the clerk.
Television carries the tremendous pageant to a nation where polls already show Republicans to be in their most favorable position in a dozen years. Soon ronald Reagan will be nominated to represent his party as potential world leader.
The bands, the placards, the speeches, the tumult, and the jammed galleries at the Detroit convention may give the impression that nothing has changed in American government. But many political scientist agree a revolution has oc curved, resulting in a "new political system."
It affects the forthcoming democratic National Convention in August in New York as much as the it does the Republicans here. Both parties are writing platforms, and there are convention disputes over details. But everyone knows that the real "platforms" are the positions taken by the candidates in the weeks ahead.
A recent 400-page symposium from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, chaired by Anthony King, tells the story of this political revolution in its title, "The New American Political System." It includes such figures as Samuel H. Beer of Harvard University and Richard A. Brody of Standford University. One passage reads:
"With regard to the parties, it is open to ask whether the United States any longer possesses such things; at least for the purposed of nominating and electing presidents . . . Presidential politicals has become almost entirely candidate-centered . . . The changes in the parties rules, together with the increase in the number of primaries, have rendered the concept of party membership . . . virtually meaningless . . . .
Turnout at elections should have increased. Instead it has tendered to decline. Apparently for millions of voters, in an era that emphasizes the value of political participation, turning out the vote has ceased to be worth the effort."
Mr. King calls it a system of "atomized politics."
He says, "the one American institution that the future may not be able to mend is the political party. Direct primates mean the end, as they were meant to, of old-fashioned party organization . . . It seems unlilely that political parties can ever exist again in the United States as they did in the century and a half up to about 1968."
The volume could serve as a sequel to an earlier study published in September 1950, initiated by the prestigious American Political Science Association.It warned that two-party responsibility is yielding in America to a presidential cult that could lead to "the embodiment of personal government."
The report proposed federal financing of elections, which has been adopted -- though instead of the money going to the political party, as the report urged, it goes to the presidential candidate. It proposed biennial party conventions (tentatively used by the Democrats) and a continuing 50-member, "party council" to give integrated party leadership. Instead, today party discipline is probably at its lowest point in history.
Thirty years ago, the panel called presidential conventions "unwieldy, unrepresentative, and less than responsible." It warned against "growing voter cynicism," the shifting of "excessive responsibility to the president," and it called political parties "archaic," whose organization "is still substantially what it was before the Civil War."
Many feel that the deterioration of the parties forecast 30 years ago has occurred.
James L. Sundquist of the Brooking Institution says every recent national poll indicates public "alienation" from the political process. Then he cites five developments which, he argues, "all militate against governmental effectiveness."
1. Party disintegration. Patronage no longer holds parties together. Platforms have declined in meaning, "candidates are marketed through television."
2. Haphazard presidential selection. Other democracies make the final choice of national leader among the parties' nominees; in the US alone do the people themselves also make the nominations. The new extended primary system more than ever encourages "outsiders" to take over.
3. Rejection of presidential leadership. In revulsion from the Nixon era, Congress has asserted itself, but no satisfactory compromise in control has yet evolved.
4. Limitation on congressional leadership. Chairmen and party leaders have lost authority in congress, where there is a new individual assertiveness.
5. Deterioration of administrative competence. The US has developed no corps of career government administrators in the European sense, Mr. Sundquist feels. He thinks the US Civil Service does not fill the bill.