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Political Parties in American Public Life

The rise of political parties and partisanship in the United States.
Story Series
Simply Civics

Not a day goes by in the world of American politics without stories about policy differences and angry debate between the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. We are now a nation of what is commonly called extreme partisanship — strongly held beliefs by political leaders and their supporters that at this stage in our governing system are so entrenched that efforts to achieve compromise and consensus in a non-partisan manner are nearly impossible. The Democrats and the Republicans are without question the main source of our current national divide and political polarization.

In many respects this division and polarization is not a new development. From the earliest days of our country leaders like George Washington and James Madison warned about the potential problems that would be created by what then was called “factions.” George Washington in his Farewell Address in 1796 warned that political parties or “factions” not be allowed to form and operate in the public arena. The concerns of Madison and Washington, however, were not followed in the years ahead as political parties formed and flourished as their leaders sought to control the policy process to advance their vision of America.

In these early days of the Republic the Federalist faction of Washington and Madison who favored strong central government eventually evolved into the Whig party, while leaders like Jefferson and Jackson who favored state power formed the Democratic-Republicans (later to become the Democrats). It was not until the pre-Civil War era that a Republican Party headed by Abraham Lincoln emerged and created a two-party option for the American voter. In the post-Civil war period, the Republicans became the party of big business and strong government largely in the North while the Democrats became the party of the rural South, accenting states’ rights.

In the 20th century, especially during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and later Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party split became more pronounced with the Democrats taking on a more national and progressive appeal using government as a force for social and economic change while the Republicans held fast to their pro-business, anti-regulation, low tax positions. The failure of the Republicans under President Herbert Hoover to avert a devastating depression in the late 1920s opened the door for the Democrats to control the reins of government from 1932 through 1952. Franklin Roosevelt’s big government New Deal and his presidency during World War II left the Republican Party on the fringes of American politics. It was not until Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, was able to capture the White House in 1952 and move the Republicans back into the mainstream. Yet Republican control only lasted eight years as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson continued the Democrat model of big government programs like Medicare into the 1960s.

A major shift in political party politics occurred as Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. With the Democrats embracing civil rights laws and the Black vote, the Republicans developed a “Southern strategy” that weakened the Democrats’ hold on the South and swung the white vote in that region to the Grand Old Party (GOP). The Reagan revolution allowed the GOP to control political power, especially in the Congress. The Democrats did win the White House with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the 1980s and 1990s, but the Republicans were able to win control of the Congress and make Democrat public policy initiatives difficult if not impossible to pass. Clinton was able to pass welfare reforms but only after considerable compromise and Obama got his health care program through Congress by the narrowest of margins. The Republicans sensed that they could limit the influence of the Democrats by creating a coalition of southern and midwestern whites, rural residents, evangelicals, and small and big business, while the Democrats became a coastal political party made up of educated suburbanites, women and minorities. These regional, educational and socio-economic separations became the basis for political party partisanship, ideological polarization and national division that eventually led to the election of Donald Trump. Trump became a dominant force in the Republican Party as he appealed to his conservative base and made it nearly impossible for more moderates in the party to challenge his popularity.

In today’s political arena the two major political parties are locked in a hyper-partisan battle over policy differences — debt, inflation, regulation and the size and role of the federal government. There is little interest in finding middle ground, and few instances of friendly debate. Sadly, this hyper-partisanship exists within the context of two presidential impeachments and criminal indictments of a former president. The political parties are at the center of this political conflict as they jockey for political leverage to either support the criminal charges made against Donald Trump or to aid in his defense. There is little room for honest debate, only charges and countercharges.

It is important to note that the two parties have evolved over time. While in the early days of our country the parties were loosely organized “clubs” that ran candidates for national elections and advanced the policy interests of recognized leaders, it was not until the post-Civil War and turn of the century era that political parties took on a more local and regional character. Party bosses like Boss Tweed in New York and James Michael Curley in Boston emerged on the scene to run cities or states, control the reins of the bureaucracy, provide jobs for loyal members, and amass considerable power to ensure the financial rewards that accompanied governmental control continued unabated.

In the current era the parties are not as central to the political process as social media, corporate donor support, huge private staffs, public opinion polling and personalized campaigning have taken center stage in the national and local political process. Moreover, increasingly Americans are shedding the Democrat and Republican labels and registering to vote as Independents. Candidates for public office still call themselves Democrats or Republicans, convene conventions and maintain party organizations, but labels and major gatherings have become less important. In today’s America, personal qualities or perceived strengths, campaign consultants and speech writers, media optics and private fund raising are more important than whether a candidate is a D or an R.

Political parties are not going to disappear from the public arena and many Americans will continue to define candidates by the traditional labels, but the fear of “factions” that Madison and Washington worried about is less important than how candidates for public office are viewed on the Internet and television, how much money they collect and spend and whether their campaign consultants and staff have fashioned a winnable strategy. Political parties have in a real sense become modernized.