Our Two-Party System
In the United States' current political landscape, you may find yourself with more questions than answers: What exactly is a political party? What makes someone a Democrat? Who are these Republicans I keep hearing about? Well, if so, you certainly are not alone. This article looks at the history of major political parties in the United States and how they formed.
A political party, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is a group of people who join together over common beliefs and values in order to exercise political power. The people of the United States of America have largely conformed to a two-party system, where the process of making laws is expedited compared to the multi-party systems employed in most democratic countries.
Over the course of our country’s history, however, a multitude of political parties have developed and deflated. Back in 1788, the year our Constitution was ratified, political parties were avoided due to their tendency to partition rather than progress the country. George Washington warned against the malevolence of political parties, which, he cautioned, ultimately “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government” (“Washington’s Farewell Address”). However, Washington’s warning soon faded into memory as the first American political parties began to flourish in the late 1700s. Though Washington never joined a political party, his Vice President, John Adams, was a member of the Federalist Party, the country’s first major party. Lasting successfully from 1789-1801, the Federalist Party competed mainly with the Democratic-Republican Party, which continued to take a central role in the government until 1825 (“The Federalist and the Republican Party”).
While the Federalist Party favored a large federal government and loose interpretation of the Constitution, the Democratic-Republican Party followed the Constitution's every clause and, therefore, stressed the idea of a smaller central government. These two parties formed the foundation of American politics and set the precedent for a two-party system. As the Democratic-Republican Party’s pro-France attitude and broad appeal forced the Federalist Party to crumble, however, the Democratic-Republican Party became the sole political party in the early 1800s, until division unsurprisingly split it apart.
The Election of 1824 showcased the feelings of dissociation between factions in the party, as, for the first time, all of the five major presidential candidates were Democratic-Republicans. Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee, received a plurality of the electoral and popular vote, yet Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, led a coalition to catapult John Quincy Adams, of Massachusetts, to the White House, in exchange for Adams choosing Clay to serve as his Secretary of State (“The Election of 1824 and the ‘Corrupt Bargain’”). Deemed a “corrupt bargain,” this pact between Clay and Adams enraged Jackson and his supporters, who promptly formed the Democratic Party, which began an immediately hostile campaign to take back the presidency in 1828, where Jackson easily defeated Adams (“Democratic Party”). Those remaining in the failing Democratic-Republican Party formed the Whig Party. With the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Democratic Party and Whig Party, the United States witnessed the second two-party system.
Though these two parties disagreed on certain policies, such as the Second National Bank and Indian Removal Act, the major debate which dominated the 19th century Democrat and Whig Parties was the debate over slavery. However, there was no clear differentiation. While the Democrat Party constituency was mostly centered in the southern United States, northern democrats opposed slavery. Similarly, while the Whig party originated in the northern United States, their southern constituency supported slavery. As the debate continued deep into the 1800s, the downfall of the Whig Party lied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and allowed each new state to decide whether or not to allow slavery. Alarmed at the prospect of the institution of slavery thriving in the west, the Whig party imploded and the Republican Party was born, electing Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican President in 1860 (“The Origins of the Republican Party”). The Republican and Democratic Parties formed the third and current two-party system in the United States.
Before the Civil War, the Democratic Party commanded the south, while the Republican Party was popular in the North. However, with slavery abolished and thousands of southerners without employ, many moved to the North to seek work. Conversely, Republicans in the North who were already established and successful, migrated to the South for a cheaper cost of living, and economic opportunity (“Carpetbaggers and Scalawags''). While the Democratic Party prided itself as the party of small government, the Republican Party continued to promote an expansive federal government. As we emerged into the 20th century, however, the party lines began to blur. It wasn't until 1930, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested his New Deal, that the Republican Party stood in firm opposition to Roosevelt’s proposed federal growth, and became known as the party of smaller government (“Roosevelt’s Critics”). As the 1900s progressed, the two parties continued to squabble and solidify themselves.
Today, our modern government is still controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties. Those who choose to join neither party are referred to as independents. These independents usually prefer a certain party; however, they choose not to affiliate with one. As of September 2020, 28% of Americans identified as Republicans, 42% identified as independents, and 27% identified as Democrats (Gallup). Clearly, the group of independents hold great influence in elections.
The Democratic Party of today is considered left of center, and promotes liberal values and a stronger federal government. The constituency of this party is focused in urban cities and the coasts. Recently, a progressive wing of the party has grown and produced a group of politicians promoting socialist-esque values like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the defunding of the police force. Notable members of this progressive wing include Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14), Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN05).
On the other side of the spectrum, the Republican Party asserts itself as the party of small government and conservative values, centered in more rural areas, the South, and the Great Plains. Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, undeniably transformed the Republican party, with his unapologetic attitude and more libertarian views.
Regardless of the political party one affiliates with today, it’s hard to deny the increasing polarization of the country as we witness both parties rush to appease their more radical and reactionary members. George Washington’s immortal words regarding the “potent engines” of political parties continue to warn us about the dangers of partisan politics. It would behoove us to remember them.
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