Since the administration of George Washington two political parties have dominated the United States political system, but they have not always been the same two parties. The first two parties were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalists were those who supported a strong federal government and the Anti-Federalists were those who did not. The leaders of the Federalists were Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Both were from the Northeast where the Federalist line of thinking was strongest. Thomas Jefferson became the leader of the Anti-Federalists. These two groups really did not considered themselves parties.
The founders feared parties because they thought of them as factions. They were self centered and driven by ambition to forward their own self-interests. Thomas Jefferson organized his Anti-Federalist followers and they became known as the Jeffersonian Republicans. This organization of the Federalist opposition in the election of 1800 is what is known as the Revolution of 1800. The Federalists feared the Jeffersonians were out to undermine the government, while Jeffersons party felt the same about the Federalists. By the time Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800 his party was called Democratic Republican.
The Federalist Party disappeared as a political force by the 1820 election, mostly because of its opposition to the War of 1812. The fall of the Federalist Party left the country with only one major party, but only for a short time. During the 1820s Democratic Republicans began to split into two parts. The conservatives of the party favored a strong nationalism, a protective tariff, and a national bank. They called themselves National Republicans. The others stood for states’ rights, tariff for revenue only, and an independent treasury. They took the name Democratic and elected its leader, Andrew Jackson, to the Presidency in 1828 and 1832.
The party of Jackson is today’s Democratic Party. By the election of 1836 the National Republicans and other anti-Jacksonians had merged to form a new party, the Whigs. They lost to the Democrats that year, but in 1840 they succeeded in getting William Henry Harrison elected President. In 1844 the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, lost to James Polk, but in the next election Zachary Taylor won for the Whigs. This seemed to be a time of uncertainty in political direction. While this uncertainty was taking place, a social force greater than party loyalty was beginning to reshape American politics.
The slavery issue, with the passions it aroused in the North and the South, gradually compelled a realignment of parties. The Whigs party began to split in 1852. This was a result of the deep split in opinion over slavery. During the next few years most Southern Whigs joined the Democrats. Northern Whigs joined northern antislavery Democrats. In 1854 groups of northern men against slavery urged the creation of a new political party opposed to the continuation of slavery. This party has become todays Republicans. During 1854 to1860, the slavery issue became such a hot topic that even Democrats were becoming divided among themselves.
In 1860 four candidates ran for the presidency. Brekenridge was the Southern Democrats candidate, Douglas was the Northern Democrats candidate, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate, and Bell was the candidate for a third party. This was a very significant election because the parties were so divided on the single issue of slavery. Abraham Lincoln won with only 40% of the popular vote. What makes this even more amazing is that his entire portion of the popular vote came exclusively from the north. His name was not even on the ballot in the south.
It was shortly after this election that the American Civil War between the North and South began. The Republicans emerged from the Civil War with great political strength. The Democrats were seen as the party of slavery and secession. Republican control of the national government lasted for 72 years except for the 16 years when Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were in the White House. The Great Depression of the 1930s had a powerful influence on American politics. The economic disaster helped Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, get elected as President in 1932. His first administration developed what has been called the New Deal coalition.
Because of the New Deal social programs, millions of Americans were attracted to the Democratic Party. Blacks, whose loyalty had been with the Republicans since the days of Lincoln, shifted their support to the Democratic Party. In spite of the upheavals caused by slavery, the Civil War, and the Depression, the Democrats and the Republicans remained the two major parties. This Democratic Party continued to dominate the Presidency for seven years after Roosevelt’s death and, except for two sessions in 1947-48 and 1953-54 the Democrats controlled Congress through 1980.
The New Deal coalition diminished, but did not destroy Republican power. Beginning with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, the Republicans regained much of the public loyalty that was lost during the New Deal years. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee was elected President. The American two party system is unique from other two party systems. In Britain, for example, elections are held for members of Parliament. After the election, the leader of the winning party is named Prime Minister. This individual serves both in Parliament as a legislator and in the Cabinet as an executive and policy maker.
This cannot happen in the United States because of the constitutional separation of powers. A President cannot serve in Congress while in office. It is therefore possible for the Presidency and the Congress to be controlled by different parties, a situation that cannot occur in Britain. This control of the Congress by one party and the Presidency by another has generally been the case since World War II. The disadvantage of the American system is the deadlock that can develop between the President and the Congress over policy when each under the control of a different party.
The Democratic and Republican parties in the United States are unlike parties elsewhere in the world. It is because our party system is very decentralized in structure and does not contain rigid discipline and hierarchy. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the United States does not have two parties but 100, two in each state. The parties among themselves are very diverse and their agendas vary from state to state. At the base of each party are those loyal to their party, that is those who regularly vote for their party candidates.
The next level consists of local party officials. These officials choose the party’s state officers. Each state organization then names their states party representatives to a national committee. An executive committee is then selected from the members of the national committee. The national committee is headed by the national chairman, who is chosen by the party’s nominee for President, but must be approved by the national committee. Elected officials from the local to the national level exert considerable influence on the operations of local, state, and national party machinery.
In spite of the political domination of Democrats and Republicans, there have been several other party movements. Third parties have never succeeded in winning the Presidency or the control of Congress. There are several reasons why third parties have difficulties in building a strong following and getting elected. The most obvious is the strong hold of the other two. As a rule people resist change, and the positions the third parties advocate are usually later adopted by one or both of the major parties.
The larger two parties have become a melting pot of ideas and trends. They have done this to reinforce their strength, and build support. The legal obstacles in getting a name on the ballot also adds to difficulties. In most states it is required to have a significant percentage of the registered voters signatures, well in advance of the election, to get a candidate on the ballot. With the winner take all philosophy that most states have adopted for the Electoral College, it is virtually impossible to get even one of the states electoral votes for a presidential candidate.
Even if a third party candidate was to get the popular vote in a few districts, all the electoral votes for that state will go to the candidate that won the most precincts or districts. The election process and regulations make it prohibitive for a third party to succeed. Lastly, it is very expensive to run a political campaign. Unless a given third party received five percent of the votes in the previous election, there is no federal funding allocated. This, combined with the campaign contribution limits, restricts the opportunities for a candidate to fund a campaign. That is, unless you are extremely wealthy.
The purpose that third parties do serve is as a tool for awareness. They provide information and cause the American voter to think. By rallying support for their issues they force the other two big parties to recognize new ideas and issues. The American two party system is the result of a representative democracy. Unfortunately, todays voter turnout is typically less than 30%. I cant help but attribute that to the cynicism and distrust of our government. I believe if the people felt they had a reason to vote and that their vote really mattered, they would be more likely to get out and vote.
Others are disgusted with the popularity contest that the elections have become as a result of mass media and Gallop poles. In recent years, I think Ross Perot came closest to making a difference from a third party standpoint. The real problem I believe he had was the lack of detailed planning. With all his graphs and numbers he could sure tell us the problems. But he fell short of giving us any real solutions. I do not consider myself a Republican or Democrat and I would welcome an alternative. But looking around the world, I think the party system we have is the best thing going. Oops, there is that American Exceptionalism again.