Thursday, March 15, 2012

The End of the Third Party System, Part I: A Short History of Political Parties in America

This took longer to set up than I thought it would, so I suppose I will have to continue it later.


I am beginning to suspect that the Third Party System may well be coming to an end.

Most of my students are surprised to learn that the political parties we have now haven’t been around since the dawn of the republic, that there were other political parties that once roamed the earth like dinosaurs before dying out. They’re even more surprised to learn that the ones we have now haven’t always been the way they are today – that they have evolved over time, which is an ironic fact given current platform of one of them.

But indeed, these things happened.

When the Constitution was written in 1787 there were no political parties at the national level. This was not simply because there really hadn’t been anything like a national level to have parties in prior to that, although that was part of it. The Articles of Confederation government that had more or less ruled the United States from independence up until that point was a singularly powerless body, handicapped by an insistence on state sovereignty that the Constitution was specifically written to overturn, and there really was no reason for parties in a government that weak. There were parties in some of the states prior to that – Pennsylvania, for example, had something approaching a party system as early as the 1760s, for various reasons, and New York was also working its way toward that. But these were the exceptions, and were viewed as aberrant.

More importantly, the classical republicanism upon which this nation was founded (and which died out after the War of 1812 – nobody is running on that platform today and nobody would vote for them if they did) viewed political parties as a sign of corruption and decay. Classical republicans believed that there was a single, easily observable Public Good, and that it was the duty of all responsible citizens to subordinate their petty private interests to it. Political parties – “factions” or “juntos” in the language of the time – were groups that placed their private interests above the Public Good, and were thus a symptom of the impending death of the republic.

Nevertheless, within a decade of the Constitution the United States had its own fully functioning national parties, which historians call the First Party System. These were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. The Federalists tended to be Anglophile in their foreign policy, urban and cosmopolitan in their outlook, and inclined to value a strong, active federal government capable of vigorous leadership based on a Broad Construction of the powers given to the federal government under the Constitution. The Democratic Republicans started off as a subset within the Federalists but quickly became their own party. They tended to be Francophile in their foreign policy, more rural and localistic than their Federalist counterparts, and inclined to favor a fairly limited federal government bound by a Strict Construction of the Constitution, with most of the political power in the new nation devolved down to the states.

Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist. Thomas Jefferson was a Democratic Republican.

This system collapsed in the late 1810s after the Federalists managed to discredit themselves entirely during the War of 1812. By 1820, James Monroe could run for president as a Democratic Republican completely unopposed. But during the 1820s the Democratic Republicans themselves splintered into factions, factions that eventually morphed into the Second Party System.

By this point classical republicanism was dead and Lockean Liberalism had triumphed. Liberalism – the basic form of politics followed by almost all Americans today on both right and left – does not believe in a unified Public Good. There is only private interest, and only by following their own private interests can citizens push their nation toward progress. Public good, in other words, is little more than the aggregate value of private interests. Parties – engines of private interest – therefore were good things, and Americans flocked to them with abandon.

When the dust settled in the 1830s the US was left with what historians call the Second Party System. On the one hand you had the Whigs, who tended to favor the Broad Construction of the Constitution that the Federalists once championed – indeed, who shared much of the hierarchical social and political vision of the Federalists, though not all. And on the other side you had the Democrats, very much the heirs to the Strict Construction of the Democratic Republicans, with a new and much more radical emphasis on leveling egalitarianism so long as you only included white people.

This is why the Whigs were generally anti-slavery while the Democrats were not, ironically enough. It all came down to where to put the slaves if you freed them, combined with a virulent shared racism that crossed party lines. The hierarchical Whigs had a place for freed blacks – at the very bottom of the social pyramid along with all the other undesirables, like the Irish. The egalitarian Democrats would have had to admit freed blacks as equals to whites, and this they absolutely refused to do – so they classified blacks as sub-humans and championed slavery.

It’s interesting what you end up with when you follow the logic.

The Whigs and Democrats are generally regarded by historians as modern political parties in a way that the Federalists and Democratic Republicans are not. Where the Federalists and Democratic Republicans were little more than clubs for like-minded gentlemen and their supporters, Whigs and Democrats were organizations. They had agendas, platforms, tactics, and an existence outside of and above their individual members, one that demanded party loyalty even at the expense of personal beliefs. No political leader of the 1790s would have put up with that, but it was standard practice by the 1830s.

Abraham Lincoln was a Whig when he started out in politics in the 1830s. Andrew Jackson was a Democrat.

The Second Party System collapsed in the 1850s over the issue of slavery. Southerners began to value their sectional allegiance to slavery over their national allegiance to party (or anything else connected to the United States as a whole), and the Whigs shattered on that rock. The Democrats nearly did as well, and only by becoming a wholly Southern party did they survive the 1850s – a strategy that backfired when the treasonous South seceded in 1861.

Out of this came the Third Party System.

The northern Whigs joined together with a host of minor parties that had sprung up as the issue of slavery got more intense, absorbed the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” party, and became the Republicans. They remained Whigs in most essentials, though, advocating a hierarchical social vision and a strong national government based on a Broad Construction of the Constitution. The Democrats somehow managed to survive the Civil War and emerge more or less where they left off – a Southern-based party of Strict Construction, state sovereignty and equality for white men.

Neither of these parties stayed that way, though. The Third Party System has seen its parties shift dramatically in their positions over time.

During the Gilded Age – the Gold-Plated Age, for those of you not familiar with the term or too familiar with it to question it (it was not given as a compliment, let’s put it that way) – that followed the Civil War there was very little difference between the two parties. The Republicans quickly abandoned Lincoln and the Whigs and joined the Democrats in championing laissez-faire capitalism, ineffective national government, Strict Construction and racism. Both parties were challenged by Progressive wings within their own organizations in the early 20th century – Theodore Roosevelt leading the Republican Progressives, Woodrow Wilson the Democratic ones – but by 1920 the Progressive movement seemed to have run its course and the Gilded Age had largely returned.

This changed with the Great Depression.

The Republicans, who had largely expunged their Progressive wing in the 1920s and advocated what we would now call a platform of 1% values and social conservatism, stayed loyal to their Gilded Age vision of laissez-faire capitalism and Strict Construction. The Democrats, whose Progressive wing had been eclipsed but not removed, changed utterly. In response to the greatest economic debacle in Western Civilization’s history, their Progressive wing took over, championing both a Broad Construction activist federal government and an egalitarian social view that for the first time showed signs of including nonwhites.

World War II only confirmed the transformation of the Democrats, but it forced Republicans to shift dramatically. The largest collective human endeavor in history had been efficiently and effectively undertaken by governmental power, often in the face of entrenched opposition from corporate interests, and this led to a weakening of the far right wing of the Republican Party and the emergence of Eisenhower Republicans – fiscally conservative, but at peace with some level of active federal government in the name of social progress. It is not an accident that the right-wing extremists only take over the Republican Party again when the WWII generation that remembered this had largely died off.

The Democrats have pulled back from their New Deal and Great Society Progressivism over the last few decades, for a number of reasons I’m not going to go into now. They are now further right than they’ve been since before WWII. (You know who Barack Obama would be if you put a uniform on him? Dwight Eisenhower.) But they remain recognizably the party of Broad Construction, egalitarianism and inclusion that was forged by the New Deal.

The Republicans, however, have transformed yet again into something utterly different in the last thirty or forty years. Captured by far right extremists in the wake of the shift in American politics from something money-based to something values-based, they have lurched so far to the lunatic fringe that they can no longer be regarded as a serious party on any terms other than raw power. They advocate as a matter of platform policies which would have been regarded as bizarre by Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Calvin Coolidge. And it didn’t used to be that way.

All of this is to say that things were once different.

All of this is to say that the current situation has a history.

There was a time before things were this way, and – by implication – there will be a time after it. There is no logical necessity for the continued survival of the Third Party System. And, increasingly, it seems that there is no viable path for that survival either.


Eric said...

Another great post, David, though I think I would have chosen Bryan as the exemplar of end-of-the-Gilded Age/turn-of-the-20th Century progressives. An imperfect figure, to be sure--particularly since we tend to mostly remember his involvement in the Scopes trial these days (though I think Stephen Jay Gould was likely right that Bryan was motivated by an honorable, if misguided in execution, loathing of Social Darwinism).

Still, I wanted to give you a round of applause for this one! Thank you!

Eric said...

(Progressive Democrats, I meant to say; TR is, of course, a perfect example of the Gilded Age's progressive Republicans. Argh.)

David said...

Thanks, Eric!

I went with Wilson (another imperfect figure, if you think about it) rather than Bryan precisely because Bryan tends to be remembered as a culture warrior rather than a Progressive, while Wilson is remembered in the opposite manner. Either label could be applied to either man with justice, really, but I wanted to stick as close to politics as I could.

Plus Wilson won the presidency, something Bryan never managed to do, and Bryan's most well-known run for the presidency (1896) came on what amounted to a Populist rather than Progressive platform of free silver.

You can make a good case for Bryan, but it would rely on more complex reasoning than I wanted to get into there - I just wanted to get across the point that Progressivism was bipartisan.

Nathan said...

Your last paragraph is one of the most encouraging things I've read in weeks.

John the Scientist said...

Thanks for that. My understanding only when as far back as the 1860s, and I had a fuzzy notion of the Whigs as a cheap imiation of their identically named British counterparts. This helps a lot, and suggests further reading.

Eric said...

I kind of figured it was along those lines, David (almost exactly, down to the fact Bryan never won the White House).