Thursday, November 11, 2010

The American Two Party System - The Roots of Polarization


Did you ever wonder how a nation as powerful as America could be dependent on only two political parties to the exclusion of anyone who disagrees with them? Well it was not always that way. In fact there were no political parties back when we tossed out the English. Perhaps this history of the two party system will help you understand why it evolved and how it might have failed to meet the needs of today.

Following the publication of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and before the successful resolution of the War for Independence (1783), the American colonies decided it would be best to "confederate," at least for the purposes of entering into strategic alliances with European powers and perhaps waging war again with the mother country. This gave the U.S. the Articles of Confederation (1781), the first constitution of the "United States.” But the Articles were soon deemed inadequate and another Constitutional Convention was called (1787) which resulted in the U.S. Constitution (1789). But not without a fight.

The “Federalists” were of course instrumental in the movement for the new U.S. Constitution and for a stronger Federal role. The so-called Anti-Federalists were concerned that this new Federal government might over-power the states' sovereignties and abridge individual citizens' rights (most states had a long and proud history of individual rights). The passage of the Bill of Rights, as a permanent limit to the powers of the Federal government, answered much of that argument. Nonetheless, the struggle between a strong Federal government and state sovereignties has been an important thread in the play of our two-party system from the very beginning.

From that beginning in 1789, the U.S. didn't have a two-party system; it had George Washington, a President without a party. During his two terms, a rivalry grew between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both Federalists. Jefferson challenged Adams under the banner of the Democratic-Republican party. Interesting that this first real party, alone, should contain the nominal seeds of the present two-party system. The word Democratic implies will of the people, the word Republican implies rule of law (protection from a potential tyranny of the majority). The (mostly aristocratic and Virginian) Democratic-Republicans kept the Presidency from 1800 through 1828.

In 1828, the popular war-hero Andrew Jackson became the first President from a new party, the Democrats, the true party “of the people." With the exception of one term when the Whigs (a party whose name more clearly identified itself as the party of privilege than the Democratic-Republicans whom they replaced) won the Presidency, the Democrats held the White House until 1860.

The Northern Abolitionist Movement gave birth to a new party (1856), the Republicans. Abraham Lincoln was their first successful candidate for President (1860). The Northern, anti-slavery and pro-business Republicans held the White House thru 1912, with the exception of the Democrat Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms. 1864 really marks the beginning of the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans. From the beginning, the Republicans have been Northern and pro-business, the Democrats Southern and more populist. Woodrow Wilson was the only other Democratic President besides Cleveland before the Great Depression. So, for all intents and purposes, the Republicans held Presidential power for 72 years but for 16 Democratic years.

The Great Depression (1929 and forward) changed all that. As business had so completely failed the people, the party of the people, the Democrats, under Franklin Roosevelt, won the support of the majority of the voters. Indeed, they kept power through 1968 except for the two terms of Dwight Eisenhower, who won his elections not for his politics but for his stature as a war-hero. Pretty much the Democrats (FDR, JFK, LBJ) successfully defined themselves as the party of the people, of the poor and middle class, and of the large and growing labor movement.

The Republicans were pretty much forced to redefine themselves, not as the party of privilege but as the party of individual and states’ rights, and of tax cuts and reduced government spending. But this didn't win them elections (nor did it represent their real values). Most Americans since FDR have identified themselves as Democrats, a natural thing as most Americans are not wealthy. Ever since 1932, the Republicans have only won the Presidency when their candidate was more personable and more “Presidential,” not because of his positions on the issues. Poll after poll for the last 70 years show Americans identify with Democratic positions even when they elect a Republican. TV has been a potent force in this phenomenon, as has the increasing role of religion and ignorance in the American political scene.

The nature of the parties' differences has altered dramatically, if not fundamentally, since 1864. The initial differences were over slavery and industrialism and the dominance of the South (poorer and less populous) by the North. The differences in the 1890's, following a Depression, were over a Gold standard and whether debts were to be repaid by cheaper or more dear money. In the 1910's, party differences centered around isolationism and fighting World War I. In the 1930's, again following the start of a Depression, the Democrats became the party of the people and of the Labor Movement while the Republicans were seen as the party of the Wealthy.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, then, the parties have divided the electorate, for better or for worse, along economic class lines. How then, you ask, have the Republicans been able to win any national elections at all, as they are the party of the Sheriff of Nottingham, not the party of Robin Hood? The reason is not hard to see. The rise of the Independents, now larger than the registration of either major party, began during the Viet Nam era and has accelerated ever since.

Both parties have lost their identity and lost their commitment to principles long held sacred.  As the voter had a more difficult time distinguishing between the two, neither party could dominate as split power between the parties provided a viable check and balance for the people.

While the more aggressive conservatives in the Republican party, Liberals in the Democratic party, and Libertarians in the loose confederation of the Tea party get all the media attention, in truth all three are fighting it out for control of the middle ground in political philosophy.

Today America can be found where the conservative and liberal philosophies blend in the middle, where fiscal responsibility and limited federal government embrace certain social obligations while rejecting other social issues.  America is not about class separation and philosophical polarization, it is about individual freedom and equal opportunity.  Neither party holds the key to such a goal. 

No Republican wants to starve the poor or cut benefits for the elderly any more than a Democrat wants to wipe out the upper class or take over big business. The very concept of such thought is promulgated by the news media to increase TV ratings, sell advertising or sell newspapers. Oh yeah, and also to help all the news "contributors" and political pundits sell their latest book telling us what is wrong with our country but only from their perspective.

So that is an entirely over-simplification of the history and evolution of the two party system and it will hopefully give you some insight into how we got in our current mess.  Getting out may take a lot more work than we hoped.

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