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Remember that sick feeling we all got at the end of 2016? It settled in when we sat down and thought about the fact that more than 400 years of American living on this continent has finally been reduced to whatever a devil’s bargain and a Sophie’s choice produce when they meet for conjugal visits. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump totally represent the increasingly progressive-minded people of America, and neither one of them proposed the best version of American life we as a people can produce.

two party system

There are obvious ways to fix the problem. We need public funding of elections for candidates who meet minimum requirements. We need to replace winner-takes-all elections with ranked-choice voting. We need to impose greater oversight on the primary process.

But how’d we get here in the first place?

A Brief History of the Two-Party System in America

You’ll regularly hear Fox News pundits bleat about the fact that “Democrats” are people who “used to support slavery.” They are somewhat right about this, except they omit the fact that Republicans and Democrats have traded names and roles on at least one occasion.

How much more proof do you require that red and blue ties are a farcical version of real life, rather than its final form? A vast majority of the people serving in Congress who refer to themselves as “Republicans” and “Democrats” are in the pocket of one lobbyist or another, and will vote whichever way the money tells them to. Meanwhile, in an ever-larger number of American states, unaffiliated voters outnumber the registered voters of both parties. We all know it needs to change — but where’d this ridiculous system come from in the first place?

A vast majority of the people serving in Congress who refer to themselves as “Republicans” and “Democrats” are in the pocket of one lobbyist or another, and will vote whichever way the money tells them to.

The earliest inklings of the multi-party system in America showed up a while ago — 1792 or thereabouts — with the Jefferson Republicans and the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson was serving as Washington’s secretary of state at the time. Some had strong feelings that the Constitution had been a mistake to begin with. Some protested the formation of a national bank. Others already had worries about the direction tax policy was taking.

In Federalist Papers No. 10, James Madison argued against the idea of formal political parties, stated they aren’t necessary to begin with and defended the role of government in ensuring they don’t form.

But it didn’t really matter, because this fledgling country was too new, many of its ideas were too novel — and perhaps the architects themselves were too naïve. Madison’s followers themselves came to represent a sort of “political party of no political party” — a movement against the centralization of ideas into party doctrine. They wished to think of themselves, first and foremost, as servants of the people with no political aspirations or philosophies — certainly not one you’d have to think up a name for.

The Madison Federalists decried the Jeffersonians as an uncivilized and disrupting influence, and the Jeffersonians called out Madison’s Federalists as monarchic enemies of liberty.

It all sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Policy already didn’t matter. Their arguments had already alienated one another, not against specific ideas, but against an entire group of human beings. Both already believed the American “experiment” was in danger of failure because of hardline thinking, but both groups already practiced it regularly.

A second two-party system began to coalesce around the 1830s, which saw Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats at odds. This era also marked a huge influx of new voters. By 1830, most American states had removed or amended their voting eligibility requirements. Whereas membership in politics until this point was the sole province of white male property owners, poorer classes of white men began turning out to the polls — and in greater numbers than ever before.

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The Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats got worried about all this, so they began putting their efforts into maintaining their parties as, essentially, separate appendages of government. A cynical view of this is to say both parties got worried about having to herd different types of voters around by the nose, now that participation in democracy was not linked so much with economic status.

Jackson and his Democrats went on to sharpen to a fine point the “spoils system,” which is basically crony capitalism. And yet, even today, we argue about their motivations: Some believe this laid the framework for the GOP’s current behavior, which reveres political inexperience and looks upon foreigners and domestic elites with equal wariness. Others, however, see Jacksonians as motivated by the desire to “rotate government personnel” on a more regular basis, to lessen the chances of corruption taking place. Both philosophies, as we know, are equally guilty of fostering corruption.

Whatever they truly believed, however, the two Jackson administrations came to represent not necessarily a collection of rigid ideals, but instead a machine-like political coalition that survived until the Civil War.

What about the Republicans? In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the budding Republican party’s first successful presidential candidate — and the party would retain control of the White House in the name of business-friendly, anti-slavery elite, almost uninterrupted, until 1912. The Great Depression a few years later saw “populist-friendly” Democrats, like FDR, steal back power from the Republicans, who had long associated themselves with big business — now the face of the Depression.

To compete, the Republicans “rebranded” themselves. If Democrats thought they could win by turning government into a public-owned security and safety net, Republicans could win by tearing it apart. Their pivot marked the beginning of the GOP’s “slash-and-burn” philosophy: cut taxes to the bone, reduce spending, shift the burden onto the states and meanwhile tell everybody they will, as a result, enjoy greater liberty. With television added to the mix, it became even easier for both parties, especially Republicans, to convince the American people with soft voices and reassuring words that the slow destruction of the government is in their best interests.

Consequently, for the last 70 years or so, Americans have strongly come to identify with Democratic ideals in polls, even as they knowingly pull the lever for Republicans. And Democrats, resting on their laurels, now commit nearly the same number and types of legal crimes, including cronyism, flagrant conflicts of interest and a general disregard for working people.

So, it is true that the Democratic Party as Jackson knew it made allies of slaveholders in the South, as well as anti-slavery voices in the North. They brought economic elitists and economic egalitarians into the fold, in addition to Irish Catholics, recent immigrants and the working class.

Looking for the Moral of the Story

We’ve got no idea what the lesson is here, because the whole thing reads like a Rorschach test. Did Jackson’s idea of the Democratic party use the unification of “different types of people” — identity politics, as we call it today — cynically? Or did they have pure intentions? Why was the early Republican Party so quick to jettison its ideals in the face of their Depression-era defeat?

It’s true different American eras have produced partisan divides that answer the challenges of the time. In the earliest days, it was industrialization vs. slavery. Later on, it was the gold standard vs. fiat money. Later still, the two world wars divided us into isolationists vs. globalists.

We’re still having some of these debates, though, and still allowing them to combine in ways we find unsettling and unpalatable. Modern Democrats cannot simultaneously be champions of the working class and earn millions of dollars making speeches to Wall Street. Republicans cannot gnash their teeth about religious persecution while simultaneously making it central to their platform.

And Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, as institutions, are both enemies of universal healthcare. Both pursue unwinnable wars in foreign countries with mineral wealth. Both serve the interests of powerful lobbyists from Wall Street, Big Pharma and the NRA, among others. The modern history of the two-party system in America is pure duplicity.

There’s greater overlap between the parties than ever before. The only real difference appears to be the extremophiles who attach themselves at the fringes and drag us all into the mud. Asked about the issues one at a time, Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic, progressive and liberal. We appear closer to the early Democrats’ “all are welcome” vision of a sort of one-party system in America than ever. So where’d all this stupid, distracting noise come from?


Kate Harveston
Only Slightly Biased