A Primer on Party History in America

A POLITICAL PARTY IS TYPICALLY DEFINED as an organization of people who share the same views about the way power should be used in a country or society through government or policymaking or other such control. The essential aim of a political party is to elect officials who will attempt to carry out the party’s policies. Consider that a political party sets forth positions on issues that may range from war and taxes to how children should be educated. The latter might specifically include Common Core State Standards Initiative or creationism versus Darwinism.

Political parties may be large or small, national or local. Large political parties generally have millions of members and supporters. In democratic election campaigns, parties compete freely for votes. Such competition is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Of course, many people demonstrate “party identification” without formally belonging to a party. They show party loyalty by the individual for whom they cast their vote.

HOW PARTIES BEGAN

Political parties as we know them did not begin to develop until the late 1660s. The ancient Greeks, who were pioneers in developing democracy, had no organized political parties in the modern sense. The senate of the ancient Romans had two groups that represented the people with different interests—the Patricians and the Plebeians. The Patricians represented the interests of the nobles and the Plebeians represented the wealthy merchants and the middle class. Although these two groups often interacted, at times they voted as factions, or parties, on certain issues that were important to the groups they represented—issues on which they strongly disagreed.

REPUBLICANISM

Republicanism is a political ideology centered on citizenship in a state organized as a republic under which the people hold popular sovereignty. Many countries are “republics” in the sense they are not monarchies. In general, republicanism refers to the ideology embraced by members of a republic, which is a form of representational government in which leaders are elected for a specific period by the preponderance of the citizenry, and laws are passed by these leaders for the benefit of the entire republic, rather than select members of a ruling class, or aristocracy.

The Founding Fathers may have declared independence from England in 1776, but that was truly just the beginning. The real work of putting together a new government got underway at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. When deliberations ended and the delegates walked out, a member of the gathering crowd asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” I cannot help but think he was considering the importance of limiting elected representatives from monopolizing their office through maintaining a perpetual grip on the reigns of their districts.

To me, politicians should go to Washington, do their best—with the utmost integrity— and then come home to live with the legislation they’ve passed. Our Founding Fathers never imagined the rise of the career politician. They envisioned citizen legislators from various walks of life, each helping run this great nation. Elected office was never meant to be a career, nor was it meant to be a vessel for the centralization and maintenance of federal power. Here are some examples of career politicians: Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was a sitting senator for 51 years. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) served for 49 years. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) served for 46 years. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been serving for 39 years. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) has been serving for 37 years. Joe Biden (D-Del.) served for 36 years before becoming the 47th vice president of the United States. Seventy-nine current members of Congress have been serving for more than 20 years, and twenty of those members have been serving for over thirty years. Congress has an abysmal 17% approval rating. I find it unbelievable that we cannot fire these individuals. Of course, this would involve not re-electing them over and over again!

THE PROBLEM WITH POLITICAL PARTIES IN AMERICA

When the Constitution was written in 1787, the founders thought of political parties as “factions,” acting only for their own selfish interests rather than the public good. The founders saw instances in history when factions resorted to assassination and civil war if they failed to get their way. The writers of the Constitution believed that political parties would play no formal role in the new government. The Constitution made no mention of them. The leaders of the American Revolution did not like the idea of parties and political battles between parties.

Upon his retirement from public life in 1796, George Washington warned Americans against “factions” (parties). James Madison thought parties were probably necessary, although he did not entirely approve of them. He, along with several other Founding Fathers, were concerned that political parties would serve only to split the country. Madison believed factions to be sewn into the very fabric of man. He wrote in Federalist No. 10, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself  so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it.”

Madison wrote that when people split into groups the result is often anti-democratic. People argue and fight and ultimately bring down the government; by nature, factions are destructive. Madison believed that society could do one of the following to deal with the destructive nature of factions: (a) accept them; (b) destroy liberty and force everyone to think alike; or (c) bring all factions together under one group so they will cancel one another. In other words, factions and their problems can be eliminated by taking away their cause—free thought. Madison said, “There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”

WHY TWO PARTIES?

  • Consensus of Values. Obviously, it’s easy to complain about all this bickering between parties. We see it constantly. It seems to be magnified especially during elections as we’re force-fed relentless campaign ads day after day until 8:00 p.m. on election night. Regardless, both parties believe in liberty, equality, and individualism. Neither advocates that the Constitution be discarded. Candidates from both sides of the isle believe in the election process and concede defeat to the winners. What we sometimes forget is that Americans share a broad consensus, or agreement, of many basic political values. In many countries with multi-party systems, the range of beliefs is greater, and disagreements run deeper. For example, in modern day Russia, one party advocates a return to communism, some offer modified socialism and/or capitalism, and one promotes ultra-nationalism. Thankfully, I don’t see the potential for America running away from its constitutional form of government any time soon.
  • Historical Influence. America began from its inception as a two-party nation—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. During early American history politicians tended to take sides, starting with the debate over the Constitution, and continuing with the disagreements between two of George Washington’s cabinet members—Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The tendency has persisted throughout American history. Hamilton’s group was made up of merchants, bankers and manufacturers, with some wealthy farmers and Southern plantation owners. They were mostly well-educated and owned property. Most of them were in New England and along the coast. Jefferson’s cohorts were mostly artisans, shopkeepers, frontier settlers, back-country farmers and poor farmers. They were mostly ill-educated and illiterate. The majority of them were settled in the interior regions.
  • Winner-Take-All System. The most important reason for a two-party system is the winner-take-all electoral structure. In contrast to systems with proportional representation, the winner in American elections is the one who receives the largest number of votes. The winner does not need to have more than 50 percent, but only one vote more than his or her opponents. If a third party receives 15% of the vote for every contested Senate seat, that party wins zero seats in the United States Senate. Consequently, one of the two major parties almost always wins a plurality, and third parties are completely shut out of national offices. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader and their numerous supporters find this aspect of the two-party system most daunting.

PRESIDENTS AND THEIR PARTIES

Seal of the President of the United States

For George Washington’s initial election, political parties did not yet exist in America. He became associated with the Federalist party after he was in office. Accordingly, Washington was the first president elected solely for his integrity and political philosophy rather than party ideology or affiliation. Rather refreshing isn’t it? Abraham Lincoln was America’s first Republican. Donald Trump is our current Republican president. Others have included Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. I’m embarrassed to admit that I always thought (before I started doing research on the history of our nation) that both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were Democrats.

Democrats have included Andrew Jackson (the party’s founder), Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Obviously, Hillary Clinton wanted to be added to that list, and rumor has it Joe Biden might try to make it in 2020.

As noted, George Washington belonged to the Federalist party, as did John Adams. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams were members of the Democratic-Republican party. William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore were Whigs. Andrew Johnson was a member of the Union party.

PartyVotes-Presidents.png

FEDERALISTS VERSUS REPUBLICANS

At the end of his second term, Washington announced he would not run again for president. The bitter rivalry that had developed between the Federalists and Republicans deeply disturbed Washington. In his Farewell Address, he warned that parties were likely “to become potent engines by which . . . unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

Washington’s warning did not sway many. The presidential election of 1796, the first without Washington as a candidate, saw candidates backed by the Federalist and Republican parties. The Federalists favored John Adams and the Republicans backed Thomas Jefferson.

Neither Adams nor Jefferson actively campaigned. They remained at home while their supporters wrote letters and newspaper articles promoting their candidate. Adams won the presidency with 71 of the 139 Electoral College votes, one more than the required majority. Jefferson with 68 electoral votes came in second to become vice president. Thus the new administration had a Federalist president and Republican vice president.

Adams continued Washington’s pro-British trade policies. In retaliation, France began to attack American merchant ships. The attacks enraged the American public and prompted Adams to threaten war against France. He also proposed increasing taxes to create a navy and expand the standing (permanent) federal army. Jefferson and the Republican Party were alarmed at the rush to war and opposed the idea of building up the military. They viewed a large military as a threat to the power of the states.

As war loomed, the Federalists claimed that French spies and Americans who insulted federal officials were undermining the security of the nation at home. In 1798, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws outlawed any malicious criticism of the president or other federal officials. In a series of sensational trials, Federalist judges and juries convicted about a dozen Republican writers and newspaper editors, mainly for defaming President Adams. Jefferson condemned these prosecutions and charged the Federalists with trying to destroy the Republican Party.

IS PARTY POLITICS DESTROYING AMERICA?

Partisan Politics Graphic

According to Michael Coblenz, reporter for The Hill, the two-party system is destroying America. He writes, “Democrats and Republicans are in a death match and the American people are caught in the middle.” What does he base this vitriolic rhetoric on? He says our nation faces numerous serious problems, from what he sees as growing inequality to a proliferation of international terrorism. His concern is that the bitter fight between Democrats and Republicans “…has largely ground government to a halt.” He believes partisans on both sides are so angry they can barely speak with the other, much less work together. Frankly, I see his point. I’m just not sure the root of the problem lies with the two-party system. Rather, it seems the hostility itself is causing gridlock in Congress. Moreover, polarization does not lie solely with politicians; it is less a them problem than an us problem. Polarization is often blamed on Washington, but it actually has its roots in us, the electorate.

Let’s take a moment to consider the nature of polarization among the masses. In the 7th season of the series American Horror Story, Cult, the fictional city of Brookfield Heights, Michigan is left divided by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Local restaurant owner Ally Mayfair-Richards is utterly distraught by Donald Trump’s victory and several of her longstanding phobias flare up as a result. In fact, she’s reduced to a dysfunctional mess of fear and emotions. Ally is a lesbian in a same-sex marriage and co-owner of a trendy restaurant. They are parents of a young boy. They’re concerned that their entire life is doomed under Trump. Indeed, liberalism, pluralism, freedom itself, is under attack. The initial episode is littered with newsreel footage of campaign speeches of Clinton and Trump and countless reactions from liberals hysterical over Hillary’s loss. It also includes numerous minorities and LGBTQs complaining that their lifestyle will come under attack. Minorities claim that “white nationalists” will hunt them down.

James Q. Wilson once wrote, “By polarization I mean… an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong [Italics mine].” This is a textbook example of polarization among the masses.

Coblenz said a recent Pew Research survey found that 36 percent of Republicans supposedly believe liberal policies are “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” Over the last thirty years the nation has grown more partisan and Congress has become less effective. I’m not sure if there has been a cause-and-effect that has trickled up from constituents to Congress. In any event, each side is more extreme, and each bases their political agenda on demonizing the other side. Each side engages in political manipulation, gerrymandering, and manipulating the rules of Congress to get their way, stymie their opponents, or completely deny them access to political office or committee membership. When that doesn’t work, they often resort to character assassination or impeachment. Consider what liberals attempted when Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the presidential campaign of 2016 there were chants of Lock her up! ringing through Donald Trump’s rallies, often encouraged by Trump himself. There was Hillary Clinton’s famous comment that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were nothing but a  “basket of deplorables,” and her suggestion to a reporter, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” The mudslinging from both sides reached new lows in an election involving the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. During a recent episode of the reboot of Murphy Brown, a colleague awoke from a ten-year coma to learn that Donald Trump was president of the United States. She screamed, then said, “Put me back in a coma!”

THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POLITICS

For political observers, 2016 felt like a tsunami. Something we won’t likely see for many election cycles to come. The Republican Party seems to be splitting over support for Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, attempted to command the Democratic party and move into the White House. It feels as though a new era of politics is beginning in America. It seems we’re seeing the beginning of a policy realignment, when those new partisan coalitions decide which ideas and beliefs they stand for—when, in essence, they party platforms catch up to the shift in party voters that has already happened.

The type of conservatism long championed by the Republican Party was expected to fall. Who could rally its voters without being beholden to its donors, experts and pundits? The opposite appears to be being built right before our eyes with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The 2016 presidential election may be a strong sign that American politics is changing in profound and lasting ways. One thing is for sure: The 2020 presidential election is going to be quite interesting.

Social issues spurred a partisan realignment in 2016 by changing who considered themselves to be Democrats and Republicans. Over decades, socially conservative working-class whites migrated from the Democratic Party to join the Republican Party, especially in the South. Socially moderate Republicans, especially on the East Coast, shifted to the Democratic coalition. Blacks have begun to migrate to the Republican Party. Now, there’s little disagreement within each party on social issues. Some say it has blurred the lines. Can this be a precursor to increased bipartisan cooperation? I’m hopeful but not convinced.

The midterm elections were chock full of rather vicious campaign ads. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate for governor, Scott Wagner, unloaded the following rant on Facebook, directed at the incumbent Democrat: “Governor Wolf, let me tell you, between now and November 6th, you better put a catcher’s mask on your face because I’m gonna stomp all over your face with golf spikes because I’m gonna win this for the state of Pennsylvania, and we’re throwing you out of office because you know what, I’m sick and tired of your negative ads.” Is it just me, or just that sound just a bit like irony?

Perhaps we’ll begin to see a number of senators and congressmen and congresswomen defect from the Democrats and Republicans in search of independence from the two-party system over the coming election cycles.

LET'S GET A DIALOG GOING ON THIS

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