ON POLITICAL PARTIES.
A History of American Partisanship.
by Henry William Brownejohns
Democracy is a simple enough idea: all the citizens of the land put in their opinion on the preferred nature of their government, so that when it goes awry, there is no-one to blame but themselves. This is how we have been led to believe they did it in old Athens, and this is at least the name of the way we presumably do it in modern America.
We must wonder how it has come to be, then, that we should find it so difficult to explain our system of democracy to, say, a reasonably intelligent visitor from outer-space. Think how long it would take you to describe our system of government, how many gin-and-tonics you would have to buy your interstellar friend, just to give yourself time to get across the gist of our ‘democracy.’ In the course of giving such a description, you might even talk yourself out of your long-held belief that you even live in a democracy.
Perhaps you have been through this already and if not at a tavern with a space-man, then in a similarly enlightening conversation with yourself, or a time-traveller, or a curious visitor from another country. Recognizing the misuse of the word ‘democracy’ as a description for American government is really just the first natural progression in the development of the political realist; either your conscience, or your interlocutor, will whisper to you, “It sounds more like a republic, to me.” And indeed, the United States is a republic at best.
The distinction is tremendous. A democracy will accommodate as many points of view as there are concerned citizens, for each one of them will be directly involved in the legislation of the country; while a republic will approximate those opinions, and generalize them into a smaller number of broad philosophies. The people are given the leisure to live their lives, having placed in their trust a class of representatives, whose qualities of philosophical vagueness and moral flexibility are rewarded with popularity and election. In exchange, they sacrifice the precision of their beliefs to the generalizations of their faction.
In the present day, most Americans hold fast to the belief that the two primary factions independently represent those philosophical approximations. We are led to believe that Democrats are vaguely populist, vaguely ‘federal,’ vaguely anti-business; and that Republicans are the party of affluence, vaguely militaristic, and traditionally on the side of the states and local determination. It may not be so strange that these generalizations are widely held, because, of course, the parties themselves promote such belief. (Both modern parties claim to have been founded by Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century; both are, as we shall see, lying.)
The first-time student of American political parties will likely go in search of the origin in History of these leanings the ‘origins of party ideology’ will very probably be his angle, to use the jargon. He will look for the first time the Democrats overruled the states on a matter of national interest, or the first time the Republicans offered solace to big business in the hopes of activating the general economy. He will look for the first time the Republicans favored a fight and the Democrats sought peace. He will look, still further, for the deep-seated Democratic faith in the middle and working classes, and try and find a distinct historical basis for Republican interest in the well-to-do, as the patrons of society. And, though he may search, this student will find no such stuff. The American political parties have never stood for any of these things; their relative stance as it appears today is simply a set of hardened misconceptions about two political organizations that were each founded solely for the purpose of institutionalizing the political process, and for holding power. From election to election, the student of this history will see the party affiliations change with the favors of the electorate; he will see Democrats on both sides of the business question, and Republicans preferring whichever answer to the states-rights issue is more likely to win them popular favor. It is quite possible that the greatest weakness in the common American sensibility is the reliance on our perceptions of the parties if we were nimble-enough of intellect to realize they are amorphous clubs with no fixed ideology, we would surely be more careful in the casting of our ballots, and perhaps even more interested in the process, generally. ‘Democrats versus Republicans’ is not the summation of every American political campaign; somewhere within the two parties exist the whole broad spectrum of opinion that we would expect from such a huge and various nation as ours. It is a two-party system, indeed, but we give too much credence to what those parties are called.
While I am at the task of correcting the general wrong-headedness about our political organizations, I will also put forth the surprising idea that our major political parties are the oldest such organizations in the world. One might think the bickering, bewiggéd factions of the English Parliament, for example, would stake such a claim, but in truth those modern parties were formed in the mold of the Democrats and Republicans. There have been factions of ideology, certainly, since time immemorial; but it was the American genius for organization and institutionalization that has given us partisan politics and that not until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Let us bother first to consider a very general political principle, as it might be encountered anywhere in human history. In any given historical circumstance, we will find a ruling authority be it a king, dictator, chairman, or president and then we will have all those who are opposed to him. This is the condition most European parliaments entered the modern era in the English, for example, was comprised of Tories, who supported the King, and Whigs, who opposed him all of this regardless of political ideology. When a king ascended who was favorable to some of those who had been Whigs, they simply became Tories - the name of their affiliation was meant only to describe their position in relation to the ruling power. Power and its opposition: the two-party system.
In Revolutionary France at the National Assembly of 1789, monarchists and reformers were seated, quite famously, on the right and left sides of the meeting hall, respectively. It is less popularly known that the reason for doing so was based on the ancient superstition about these two directions: the right side was the side of honor, dextera, and the left the side of sin, sinistra. Look yourself at the Stations of the Cross, and see who gets the benefit of Jesus’ better side, and who is moping about on his left. The seating arrangement at the National Assembly, it should be apparent, was organized by the monarchists, who had for so many years previous been seated toward the King’s right hand, and now put their allies on that symbolic side, to keep them in the favor of God.
In combination, is established the multifaceted symbology of left/liberal/reformist, and right/ conservative/ monarchist, passed down to us from the political aboriginals of Europe. (The English Whigs had begun calling themselves ‘liberals’ in the nineteenth century, in contrast to the royal conservatism of the Tories, and because their previous appellation was just too semantically loaded with the flavor of aristocracy.) But in none of those old manifestations did any organized political party ever form. Rather, such generalizations were material enough for those European governments to carve out the multifarious factions and coalitions that served the legislators and the citizens as ideological frames of reference. The American political parties, we shall discover, rose out of a conscientiously nonpartisan system, and never adopted any such loosely referential titles. We have given them left and right hands, liberalism and conservatism, all by the strength of our own imagination, and only relatively recently.
In my diligent research on this subject, I have read many a long and tedious passage about how the Founding Fathers degraded the idea of political parties. Many a scholar has won his laurels simply listing quotations from Franklin, Washington, and every other seminal fop of the age, about just what a waste, travesty, sham, and horror is the organization of political bodies into ‘parties.’ I will spare my reader so much footnote-perusing, and simply assure them that not one of the American revolutionaries went into their new nationhood with a positive opinion on partisanship. The new republic was to be decidedly party-free.
This is not to mean that it would be free of factions, however. Prior to the Declaration of Independence, the colonial legislatures were divided between proponents of independence and adherents to the crown (known as Tories even in the colonies); after the Declaration, with the latter having been outmoded, the prior faction was split between the many views on just how independence ought to be managed. It may seem obvious, but I shall put it in print nevertheless: there is not a single instant in History in which every member of even the smallest group was in perfect agreement with every other. Factionalism is as inevitable as stumbling in the night. We need only take care to understand why, and whether, various factions take what names they do.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention, the States’ delegates were unsurprisingly divided as to the means of their governance. And while a whole variety of opinions were represented, from mon-archy to an-, the majority sentiment was that the new country ought to be a democratic republic.
Even this broad criteria was parsed to pieces by the human genius for disputation. Would the states be sovereign nations in treaty to one another, or would the whole be a nation, divided into relatively homogeneous provinces? Here was America’s first partisan dispute. The party though not a member of it would have called it thus except in the loosest sense that eventually won out was that of Alexander Hamilton, who had been aide-de-camp of General Washington. Hamilton believed strongly in the importance of a central power, which would at once guarantee the rights promised by the idealistic new government, and support the sort of economy necessary to nurture such a society. Washington and Hamilton were associated with the ‘Federalist’ opinion, and this remained the dominant stance through the first generation of American nationhood. It was by the term ‘Federalism’ that were described those delegates to the Constitutional Convention who were in favor of the document’s ratification, and Federalism that continued to be associated with the party of the Constitution. (It is only vaguely remembered that, after the actual composition of the Constitution, it was then brought to every one of the colonies, and voted on, like any snivelling candidate of the present day. In the nation’s first real political campaign, an ideological battle was waged between the Federalists in favor of ratification, and the various interests who thought the document was undesirable typically, because it favored central power over State sovereignty, which had a good many proponents. Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison campaigned, and successfully, for the Federalist position and we are where we are because of it.)
From this position came our unified currency, our national banks, and our innate sense of the primacy of the Federal Government over those of the States. Rather than a loosely bound agglomeration of small sovereign nations, the United States was a singular body. The encyclopedias of our modern era call Washington a Federalist President with the same gravitas that they label Reagan Republican. Such a device is merely convenient and hardly correct Washington’s Federalism was a basic description of his philosophy of government, and has no bearing on any of his moral positions or social affiliations. The latter’s Republicanism only tells us which camp of fundraisers he subscribed to, and gives us, via our own self-fulfilling prejudices, our opinion of his moral views.
(It is also only right to mention that the election of the Constitution, while symbolically democratic, was in fact conducted by only 5% of the free population. This tiny contingent went to their ballot-houses and found their options to be Federalism and ratification, or Anti-federalism, and another go-round. The overwhelming majority of eligible free voters withheld its opinion, in a show of electoral apathy that, despite all the wailing of the modern age, has not been surpassed since. Check that: the election of delegates to the first government - those men who ultimately chose General Washington to be the President drew out only 3.5% of the eligible free population. This may seem like an attempt to stifle the patriot’s pride in his nation’s founding; instead, as we shall come to see, it is an early illustration of just why political parties came to exist in the first place: as staggering as it may seem, it was to make the political process more democratic.)
During the early Presidential terms of Washington and then John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, consolidated the power of those who had lobbied for the ratification of the Constitution, and made great strides in the centralization of power with the Federal government. It is not too rarely stated that Hamilton wielded more power in these years than even Washington; and it cannot be said often enough that he remains to date the most powerful Secretary of the Treasury to ever have served.
We have seen how the fundamental political dynamic, from tyranny to anarchy, is that between those in power and those who aren’t. And so with Hamilton and the Federalist hegemony came the backlash, among still those illustrious names whom we have since come to believe all agreed with each other on everything. On the contrary; Hamilton’s colleague in the very same administration, Secretary of State Jefferson, and his former staunch pro-Constitutional ally James Madison, Representative from Virginia, formed a coalition of opposition to centralized power. While they had both been in favor, ultimately, of the Constitution’s ratification (Madison, particularly, took the trouble to add his ten amendments all of which take rights away from the central government and give them to the People or the States - and then throw his support their way), they had come to believe that Adams, Hamilton, and Washington had swung too far in the direction of authoritarianism. The better students of history will also recall that by now the Revolutionary fervor had passed through France and Europe, and there were few more abject Francophiles than Thomas Jefferson. He thus dubbed the opposition to Federalism, “Republicanism,” after the ideal of the new Gallic state. In 1792, he supported New York governor George Clinton who had been opposed to the ratification of the Constitution, on grounds that it took too much power from the individual states for President. We all know, or ought to, that Clinton was soundly defeated by John Adams but thanks to the loose factionalism of the Congress of the age, and the then-current process of Congressional appointment of the Vice-President, Jefferson himself became Adams’ second, in a check to Federalist dominance.
It was Jefferson and his ‘Democratic-Republicans,’ as they came to be called, who were first disturbed by the puny numbers of voters who were participating in the new democracy. The Hamiltonian Federalists were in power largely on the merits of their affiliation with the Revolution and the Constitution the first war heroes in office, really. But they were elected only by a miniscule percentage of the population those urban intellectuals and gentleman farmers who knew them personally and held dear the principles that had spawned the Revolution in the first place. The rest of the former colonial population was content to just have the King of England off their backs, so that they could go about the business of living. Politics was of little interest.
But to Jefferson, such a condition was the antithesis of all that had been fought for. The Democratic Republicans and this group, too, was in more respects a school of thought than a working organization felt that only by encouraging the engagement of the majority of the population, would the better idea of America come into being. Without popular involvement, the new nation could not claim to be either democratic, or a republic.
Amid all of this politico-philosophical action and re-action, we must always remember that none of the members of the government identified themselves under any party name they offered their allegiances, their stands on various matters, but none was bound to a whole bundle of ideologies. A ‘Democratic-Republican’ could be a State-sovereigntist and a national bank man. And a ‘Federalist’ might even just be as much of a sovereigntist with a deathless devotion to General Washington, as he might be a true Constitutional Federalist. They were all aristocrats and elites; and even Jefferson’s apparent populism did not penetrate the general sentiment that the United States ought to be governed by the select. The People would choose among the aristocracy’s finest who should speak for them. There was no Mr. Smith in anybody’s conception of American government.
Jefferson’s outreach earned the Democratic Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives in 1793, even as the Presidency and the Cabinet remained generally Federalist. President Adams, it has been said enough to repeat, was deferential to Hamilton as a sort of philosophical mentor, but the whole group is still littering the quotation books with screeds against partisanship. Still, this first generation of American politicians was beginning to revel in the power of names. Now that Jefferson had dragged the common rabble into the electoral process, the politicians began marketing themselves under less and less appropriate labels. Most offered themselves to the public as ‘Federalists,’ to share some of the glory of the aging Revolutionaries; but ‘Federalism’ as a philosophy was growing more and more radical, partly in response to the Jeffersonian opposition. This new Federalism was manifest in the Sedition Act of 1798. This legislation quite baldly aimed at stamping out any opposition to the Federalist’s hold on power, and the popular participation in government that the D.R.’s had incited stated among other things that a man must have fourteen years’ residence before he is offered American citizenship, and that it would thereafter be a crime to publish false or malicious material about the sitting president, the government, or the U.S. Constitution. This would make it conveniently impossible for an opposition party to even suggest an alternative to the sitting president.
The Western frontier of the United States was, by now, speedily expanding, and we would be negligent not to mention that practically every political dispute of the next several generations was in essence founded on the two fundamental factions’ desire to be the Faction of the Frontier. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican popular sovereignty was an effort to seize the latent power of the whole disinterested Western territory, and the radical Federalists’ Sedition Act was an attempt to nip rampant, ungainly populism in the bud. Jefferson, however, had gotten the word out first, and so by the time of the Sedition Act, enough of the territories’ citizenry had come to believe the Federalists were taking something away from them (though five years prior, they hadn’t even known what it was they had), that the next American election would see a decidedly popular turn, and the end of the Federalists’ appeal. After the Sedition Act was passed, Jefferson and Madison composed a manifesto delineating the basic tenets of republicanism, with a lower-case R: “It is now well understood that two political sects have arisen in the United States, the one believing that the executive is the branch of our government which most needs support, and the other that like the analogous branch in the English government, it is already too strong for the republican part of the Constitution.”
Nothing is being said that a remedial poli-sci student shouldn’t be muttering in his sleep. There is power, and there is dissent. This is the two party system.
A detailed exposition of party and factional dynamics through the entirety of American history, as entertaining as it may be to the reader, would be just too taxing to your author and his type-setter, and so I confess here that I will resort, at those points I think most appropriate, to the methods of the devil of Summary. The wake of Jefferson’s election to the Presidency, as the figurehead of the philosophy of Democratic Republicanism, is one of these points. Jefferson would be followed by Madison and Monroe, all like-minded D.R.s, and all Virginians, in what the pithy scholars like to call the Virginia Dynasty. It was a period of loose affiliation, and somewhat reluctant partisanship on the part of the participators. While the administrations came and went with all their requisite disagreements and coalitions, none among them were willing to go ahead and formally organize a political party.
By the 1820s, however, the conditions in the United States had changed just too profoundly for the ambitious man to ignore. The land area of the nation had more than tripled, and the population had expanded exponentially. Even the most inclusive Democratic Republican had to cope with the perfect fallacy of true American populism; the men in power were the self-conscious elite, and each one of them knew that he could not rely on the support of so many millions of citizens in whose parlor he had never dined. Politics would need to be a profession, and not a hobby.
The epoch of true American partisanship might be said to begin with the election of 1824, and the victory of John Quincy Adams. Adams actually earned fewer votes in the popular election, but was appointed President by Congress in a runoff compelled by the early machinations of the electoral college. A deal was brokered whereby the vaguely Federalist Adams would become president so long as Congress was allowed to install the notorious sovereigntist Henry Clay as Secretary of State.
A Senator from New York one Martin van Buren - took particular offense to these proceedings (though not because he saw a breach of Democracy, or Republicanism but because the whole thing left him out of the loop of power), and embarked on an organizational campaign that would culminate in the foundation of the Democratic Party. He gathered the disorganized political forces of the now-vast Western territories, and promoted a familiar Jeffersonian populism over the exclusive machinations of the North and East. Van Buren’s master-stroke, however, was in his presentation of the new party’s political philosophy nothing at all. Rather than rally around an ideology, the nascent organization would be nothing but an organization designed to win power. Its members, banded together, would merely be guaranteed the privilege of being on the winning side. What Van Buren sought was a figure to rally all this new organized power around.
This would be Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, who had been a national hero after his exploits in the War of 1812, and who had found himself on the crest of a wave of private enthusiasm among some of Tennessee’s wealthiest citizens. They gave him to Van Buren, and in 1828 Jackson ran a popular campaign without an intelligible platform. He simply became the “people’s” candidate, and all who rallied behind his party would be certain to share in victory. It was a fundamental appeal to the common citizen’s desire not to make social or political change, but simply to be a winner.
The campaign of 1828 was thus framed as a debate between “Jackson men” and “Adams’ men.” The whole political discourse of the age was comported in such terms, and while no-one was exactly sure what it meant to be a “Jackson man,” it did mean success. It might have been the seminal moment in American history where one’s label finally meant more than one’s substance.
Jackson’s appeal was modern, if we consider it in the callow terms of our contemporary cultivated political personalities. From Tennessee, he was geographically convenient to the great provinces and territories, where political fortune could be won; as a war hero and a household name, he had an advantage in an age when communication was still terribly slow across great distances; and as a non-politician, he had that Reaganesque attribute of carte-blanche he could be whomever the voter wanted him to be. By now, the generation of the Founders had passed, and America seemed to be ascending into a new era Van Buren calculated that he could use to his advantage a certain anti-nostalgia that existed among the present generation, something like what a youngster of today feels towards Mr. Brokaw’s sentimentalized “Greatest Generation.” John Quincy Adams, who had depended until then on his famous name, was suddenly running against his own inheritance; Americans were told that they should want their own heroes, not their parents’. Jackson men knew this. Jackson men were the modern incarnation of Jeffersonian democratic-republicanism; they were populist and new-fangled.
And, at this dawn of organized partisanship, they were witness, also, to one of the most vicious campaigns yet witnessed by any general public. The Jackson-men’s apparent mass-appeal gave to the American political landscape an immediately fractious feel. Maybe there had always been two great camps of opinion but now they had been named, and the debate, clearly drawn, spilled into every conversation. Over the course of the election season, John Quincy Adams was accused by the Jackson men of gambling inside the White House, and procuring amorous company for the Tsar of Russia; while Andrew Jackson was called a murderer and his wife charged with bigamy. (Frankly, the men of the age knew how to have a scrap in a way our sheepish modern politicians cannot even conceive. I shall celebrate the health of the American system the moment one of our present candidates accuses the other of anything so wonderfully moustache-curling as murder or procurement.) In any case, this seems to be the end of even the illusion of political agreeability in the United States.
Jackson won in ’28, and brought Van Buren aboard as his Secretary of State. The former Democratic-Republicans, who were in fact the remnant of the Federalist generation, were utterly at a loss for the organizational prowess of the new party, and the government of ’28 was overwhelmingly comprised of Jackson men. Again, it must be said that out of the whole lot of these candidates, a legible political stance could not be discerned; only the personal popularity of the figure of Andrew Jackson, and the general sense of American righteousness that he emanated, might be called this new party’s platform. But whatever they all believed, they all belonged to what was by now known as the Democratic Party.
And the Democratic Party was power, which meant that its opposition, no matter how multifarious it might be, was due to organize against it. Disenfranchised Democrats, nostalgic Democratic-Republicans, obsolete Federalists, and a hundred other factions thus banded together in the early 1830s to form a nebulous opposition party, to be known as the Whigs. (The name was taken from the parliamentary opposition to the King of England, and, while the English Whigs had abandoned their too-aristocratic sounding name, the American Whigs felt the word still resonated with the spirit of dissent.) In the election of 1832, the Whigs ran three different candidates, trying to match, for each of the regions of the nation, the cult of personality that Jackson had achieved in his singular person.
The Democrats in 1832, however, had enjoyed a considerable head start in their organization, and 1832 saw them consolidate themselves by holding the nation’s first national party convention. The Democratic Convention of 1832 was a spectacle of stability and strength and a celebration of ‘popular’ power; up against which the three bickering Whig candidates looked like veritable crackpots. While they had set out to unify all in opposition to the Democrats, the Whigs instead proved themselves to be a coalition in the most granulated sense, and were destined to spend another term sulking and voting in minority dissent. In 1836, Martin van Buren, the architect of Andrew Jackson and Democratic power, ascended from the Vice Presidency to the Presidency.
But in 1840, the Whigs had figured out the formula for success, running their own war hero, William Henry Harrison, also without a platform of ideas, but one of sheer sentiment. They had finally held their own national convention solidifying the tradition that has come down to us to this day and found it a marvelous way to mend the intersectional rivalries that had rent the Whig party apart in the past. Rather than seeking and finding a philosophy that appealed to a great mass of voters, they simply found a way to conceal the differences of opinion amongst their members, and to look like winners. Thus Harrison led the Whigs into their own short period of influence.
The credit for the eventual success of the Whig movement must be placed at the feet of Henry Clay of Kentucky, whose personal dislike of Andrew Jackson was towering, even in the great spiteful history of our politics. Clay’s great gift was that of Compromise, the welding together of perfectly opposed viewpoints into an agreement that defied everything but reality. Only such a conciliator as Clay could bring together Northeastern elites and Western frontiersmen and make a viable political party out of them. When he died in 1852, it was only a matter of time before the Whigs all realized they had nothing in common but Clay.
The 1850s also posed the first moral questions to the political establishment, and in doing so would challenge all the coalitions that had until then relied on just their mutual desire to win. The Whigs would be dissolved into their prevalent factions; but the Democrats would also find themselves divided from within by the nagging problem of real problems. The most apparent of these was that of slavery in the South, and the question of its expansion into the rapidly coagulating West. Political parties could no longer rely on their appearance of competence the electorate actually expected their candidate to stand for something. It was a problem none of the parties was prepared to handle.
Western Whigs gravitated toward the American Party, and left just a remnant of the original Whig party, which variously promoted the interests of the territories, and any of a number of positions on the slavery question. The Democrats, whose original foundation had been in the populist, nonindustrial interests of the South and West, leaned toward these same positions, and became the party affiliated with Southern discontent. And the Whigs of New England and the North seized the second of Jefferson’s monikers and remade themselves into the ‘Republicans,’ and campaigned on a platform of blatant divisional rivalry, Northern selfinterest, industrial favoritism, and even intellectual elitism. The Republicans formalized themselves in 1854, in hasty response to pro-slavery legislation that was being put through Congress by Western Whigs and dominant Democrats. If there were roughly two answers to the question of slavery at the end of the 1850s, they were Democratism and Republicanism.
The Republicans in 1860 intended to put forward the New Yorker William Seward for the Presidency, and only at the convention thought better of identifying themselves so clearly with Northern elitism, and instead nominated Mr. Lincoln of Illinois, for purely geographical convenience. If the Republicans owned the populous North, they would only need to win a handful of Western electoral votes to ensure a good majority. Ideology may have been the spur for the party’s formation, but nothing shall ever trump the primacy of winning.
The Democrats of 1860, however, were splitting hairs over their answer to the Question; the Democratic Convention ended in a walk-out, and subsequently two different Democratic conventions were held, in Richmond and Baltimore. One of them nominated John Breckinridge, whose contingent supported a strict reading of the Constitution, and, therefore, a total fidelity to the recent Supreme Court decision in Dred Scot. The other nominated Stephen Douglas, Mr. Lincoln’s legendary sparring partner, who held to the old Democratic principle of popular sovereignty suggesting that the West (and the South) should be left to their own devices in answering the slavery question. When the general population was called out on election day, they found they had three choices and two of them were promising to do exactly nothing but leave the issue alone. Only the Republicans included any action in their platform. With the Democratic split, Lincoln was handily elected, and the Republican party the party of the North, of abolition, of industry, of intellect was ascendant. The consequences of Lincoln’s election, of course, are easily recalled. With the secession of the Democratic South, the Republican majority in Washington was virtually absolute less than a decade after its very inception. Now the party would only have to deal with its own internal divide, between Lincoln’s staunch Unionism and the alternative, placation of the South and acceptance of the Confederacy, as the fastest route to Northern peace and prosperity.
In order to maintain the sympathy of my reader, I will here insert the aside that, during my school-days, I did not ever sleep so soundly as when I slept through the overwrought discussion of the American Civil War. Whether it was the fault of disinterested teachers or my own perception that there was nothing particularly compelling about this conflict, I have long harbored a bit of reflexive narcolepsy whenever the subject comes up. But as we learn we improve ourselves and grow to tolerate, and even revel in, those things which bored us in our youth. As such I have realized that, particularly as regards the history of American political parties, the Civil War is such a monumental paroxysm that its effects on our political society are felt to this day. The climate of the Civil War lingered over the nation for a century afterward, and more, and even today, our demographic circumstances are what they are only in reaction to those effects of the War which continue to echo.
Certainly the enslavement of human beings in the South during that time proves a hefty portion of the continuing recovery from those events; but possibly more resonant still is the institutionalization, during and after the Civil War, of regional rivalry. In America today, great swaths of people look with suspicion and bewilderment at their fellow countrymen, whose only flaw is that they live in a different part of the country. If, during the Westward expansion and the Jacksonian Democrats’ first mass political appeal, it seemed that the whole of the United States could one day see eye to eye, by the middle of Lincoln’s first term it had become certain that the country would indeed never be a union in anything but economic and broadly political terms.
In 1863, even Lincoln’s Republicans were so distraught with their first president and his conduct of the War a conduct which seemed single-minded and destructive that the Republican delegates at the National Convention chose for him a Democratic Vice President, in Andrew Johnson. (So-called ‘running mates’ were chosen, all the way up until the second administration of Franklin Roosevelt, in this manner, as a further opportunity for party organizers to broaden their appeal. Johnson, it should be noted, was among a contingent of ‘War Democrats,’ who saw a need for some moderation between secessionist Confederates and Union Republicans we shall see that Lincoln, himself, was something of a War Democrat in his positions.) The hope was that the influence of a War Democrat would keep Lincoln popular among those citizens who were growing tired of the fighting, by suggesting the possibility of reconciliation without the full cost of completing the war. Lincoln was really only saved from party mutiny by the fairly sudden and dramatic success of General Sherman in 1864, and thereafter the execution of the war by General Grant.
Lincoln saw the war through fully enough to have drawn up his plans for reunification, and, contrary to the Republicans’ rediscovered Union fervor, Lincoln’s intentions were strikingly similar to the Democrat Johnson’s. The South would be pardoned, and the Democratic politicians who had seceded and served in the Confederate legislature, would be allowed back into Washington, unpunished. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was impeached for instituting this very agenda, even though it was that of a Republican president. (Johnson was impeached, technically, for breaching the Tenure of Office Act, which was passed by his Congress, overriding his veto, more or less because the Congress knew he would be doing what the Act said he wasn’t allowed to do, and could be impeached for it.)
After Johnson, General Grant came to the Presidency as a Republican on the merits of his war-heroism and the certainty this status provided toward his election. That U.S. Grant was, until his campaign of 1868, a Union Democrat, is only another fact obscured by the modern myth of partisan ideology. He was selected by the Republicans because he could not lose, and his election bolstered the Republican reputation of being the Party of Victory.
Across the nation, the very name ‘Democrat’ had come to be associated with rebellion; and while the North and West swayed to the ‘victorious’ Republican position, the South, almost vengefully, became a one-party region. Southern ballots (in those days of even looser electoral standards than the present) were printed with only Democrats’ names upon them; and the famous and brutal electoral disenfranchisement of the liberated black population after the fourteenth amendment was conducted largely to squelch any support of Republican policy. (Grant’s former Democratic allegiance was obviously obscured in the South by his position at the fore of their conquering army.) Republicanism was, after all, closely linked in these days with Lincoln’s emancipation, and it would only have been natural for those citizens he had emancipated to vote Republican. But the Southern Democratic Party, itself persecuted in the halls of power, simply wouldn’t allow those votes to ever be cast. This was the case well through the middle of the twentieth century, when the intimidation of black voters continued into the age of the “Dixiecrat” Democrats, and we may even safely say, continued to the present day, though the complicit parties have changed.
It is of some interest also that, during the course of the War, the Republicans had been dubbed ‘Unionists,’ after Lincoln’s desire to preserve said union; but once the War had been won, and the too-lenient Lincoln had been replaced with U.S. Grant and the fiercely sectional Northeastern Republicans, it was the Democrats who came to be known as ‘Unionists,’ because of their desire for the pardon of the South, and the preservation of a more equal union. After Southern secession had failed, Northern Republicans - without the guiding conscience of Abraham Lincoln - essentially kicked the South out of the country anyway.
The Congressional elections of 1866 are notable for the Democrats’ fairly successful efforts to recast themselves from rebels to a real opposition party, just a year after their humiliating readmission into the United States. Certainly, the Republicans won tremendous majorities in every department; but it must be acknowledged as some feat that the Democratic Party wasn’t dissolved altogether after the War. The Democratic platform was established as that of States’ rights “States are all States”; as the platform against the dominance of the executive “we regard the judiciary as the shield of the people against the unwise arbitrary acts of popular or official passion”; and the old fall-back of rural populism “frequent innovations upon our laws are pernicious, as tending to confuse the minds of the people and destroy the reverence for legal authority which is essential to the perpetuity of the State.” (A rather fascinating sentiment, this last one. Could it be the first time in American history in which politicians have made an appeal to the common rube’s distrust of intellectualism? It would not be the last. It seems every subsequent election has become a competition between Ivy League graduates claiming to be more stupid than the next, and thus more like You and Me. We may thank the Civil War for this insulting innovation, too.)
Against these positions were pitted Grant’s reformed Republicanism, which catered to Northern industrialism and Federal power - particularly that of the executive. A man like Grant was used to being obeyed, and his party did so without shame. We have in him the seed of political militarism, in which authority is little questioned, particularly when the executive claims to be guiding us through a time of crisis. Leaders were to be subordinated to, to be allowed to act, and only in afterthought to have their work judged. Grant brought his generalship to the presidency in a way that not Washington nor even Jackson had done before. In countless ways, our presidents have held on to this artefact of Reconstruction. We are reluctant nowadays to think of the executive as anything less than a general, even if the first century’s worth of our forebears understood the President to be much more of an advisor-in-chief; and we have probably suffered a good deal for it.
The Republicans in power during the process of Reconstruction abandoned Lincoln’s plans at peaceful reunification and in doing so largely preserved the Democratic Party’s influence in the South. And not merely because the Southern population very quickly resented the punishment levied on them by the party in power, but also because Reconstruction Republicans exercised their majority so remorselessly toward Northern sectionalism, toward urban concerns over rural ones, and toward industry as opposed to agriculture.
But the political hegemony they had attained, and the inherent contradictions within the Republican party under Grant (it was comprised, as was Grant himself, of various former Democrats escaping the stigma of that affiliation, of other Lincolnian Republicans who were in dismay at the reactionary tack the Party had taken, and of the multifarious Western interests, who liked the Republicans’ rough treatment of the South, but felt betrayed by their nepotism to Northern and industrial interests) quickly caused the unchecked Republicans to become a notoriously corrupt bunch, and furthered the Democrats’ return to viability. The Republican Party split three ways, though gave no outward sign of doing so. Within the halls of power, however, politicians referred to themselves as either ‘Stalwart,’ ‘Half-breed,’ or ‘Independent.’ And the Democrats, by 1872 a fully resuscitated organization in favor of nothing but Opposition to Republicanism, capitalized by annexing the Independent and even part of the Half-Breed factions.
The Republican newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, of New York City, led these factions under the banner of Liberal Republicanism, and the Democrats liked his chances so much that they nominated him as their candidate for President. Mr. John Sherman, editorializing on the ’72 race between Grant and Greeley, wrote “The Republicans are running a Democrat, and the Democrats, a Republican, and there is not an essential difference in the platform of principles” between them. The Democrats made another great stride toward national reacceptance in this campaign, though Grant won again based on his suggestion of ‘victoriousness,’ and on the favorable demographics of north versus South. For almost a century after this campaign, the nation would fall roughly in the same pattern: a solidly Democratic South, a Republican North, and each courting whatever were the present interests of the West, to complete their majority. If we compare this to the electoral map in our own subconscious, we can see just how fallacious is the parties’ claim to any historical philosophy under the false moral code of modern Democratism and Republicanism, it is the conservative South that thinks it is best represented by the Republicans, and the ‘liberal’ North that has become the bastion of the Democrats. Let this lesson wipe out these impressions.
In something of an epilogue to the electoral narrative after the Civil War, where Democrats at first merely survive, and then clamber back into legitimacy, we have the election of 1876. Greeley and the Democrats had made a significant gain against Grant and the Republicans, but had lost largely because not enough of the population could discern between the broad coalitions of the two parties, and simply chose their hero Grant again. In 1876, however, the Democrats essentially completed their return, running the former governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, on a platform of more distinct reform. Republican corruption had by this time become national common knowledge, merely a part of the political atmosphere. Tilden, who was a former corporate lawyer, a Northerner, and well-connected to Northern business, seemed like the Democrats’ ideal man to at once claim the South by party affiliation and enough of the nation’s embarrassed Republicans, by running against Rutherford B. Hayes on the issue of government honesty.
In a story we have ourselves heard enough of after the debacle of 2000, Democrat Tilden won the popular vote, but by the calculus of the Electoral College, was one vote shy of victory. The issue went to the Republican Congress, where a committee was formed to solve the conundrum; eight Republicans and seven Democrats were chosen to finalize the election, and they did so as their party bosses demanded. Hayes became President, but the Republican Party’s reputation for underhanded high-jinks was embossed into the public’s conscience. The Democrats, in the meantime, won their first majority in the House of Representatives in any body of government since the outbreak of the Civil War. Tilden, meshing the Reconstruction populism of the Southern Democrats with his personal qualifications as a Northern businessman, had made being a Democrat as viable a means to power as any other. The two parties, once more, could and would ‘stand’ for anything that won them the most votes.
It is remarkable to the modern sensibility that throughout this late period of American politics, there still seems to be little or no concern for moral or social questions. There was no such thing as an ‘issue,’ in the exhausting sense there is today. The only question at stake was who would hold power, who were their friends, and who were their opponents. Van Buren and the Jackson Democrats - and later Henry Clay and then the Lincoln Republicans merely discovered that power could be won by conveniently appealing to public whims. But their campaigns did not suggest that their candidate held a better view on any particular topic than the other; rather, the essence of politics was to persuade the people that your candidate was by and large a better man than the other. Andrew Jackson didn’t stand for anything other than Americans’ desire to be like Andrew Jackson; and Abraham Lincoln won by virtue of his upbringing in Illinois, which made Western voters think he was probably more like them than the other guy.
Social issues didn’t exist even in the mainstream of society, at least until the economic conundrum of slavery was turned, by a few farsighted Northern clergymen, into a problem of humanity, foremost. This coincided, in the middle of the nineteenth century, with a general, global adjustment in the dynamic of human society. The advent of industrialism turned the percolating conflicts of feudal society into a stark conflict between the weak and the powerful. Socialism and revolutionism swept Europe, while Darwinian science undermined the old presumptions upon which the hierarchy of power had been based. Overall, a renewed sense of democracy was to be discovered in the increasingly literate and informed working classes; and in the United States, the atrocities of the Civil War shaped an entire generation’s morality into a sort of universalism where the actions of men very far away might have a tremendous impact upon one’s own life.
American morality, and the introduction into politics of real social problems, might be credited to these aforementioned factors. If Lincoln first realized the possibility of social reform by political power, the American public was reluctant to accept the possibility until much later in the century. The political parties continued to run those men it thought would appear most genial, heroic, and electable, but they also began to convene in earnest to establish themselves, from election to election, as the party of this and the champion of that. By 1904, a presidential campaign might almost be recognizable to one of our own jaded age.
The effectiveness of a candidate who might be said to stand for something was tested out in a laboratory only History could construct. William McKinley, a Republican elected to his second term in 1900, was promptly assassinated, and replace by his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a Republican from New York who had a legend as a war hero attached to his name after his soundly battered regiment of Marines got some glowing press from the Hearst newspapers during the Spanish-American War. Thus he was simply being primed for his own presidency, and found himself in the job a few years early, and, to the minds of those Republicans who still considered themselves Stalwarts of the old school, a bit underripe.
He was a staunch military man, and a great proponent of business, which had already begun to suffer from the outrage of the Progressive age and the anti-trust movement. But Roosevelt also was developing a sort of ultra-populist position against the judiciary branch of the government, wherein the public could, in a referendum, overrule a judge’s decision. (Look to the Democrats’ Reconstruction platform for the contrasting view on the role of the judiciary. The parties shall forever be trying to out-democratize each other further evidence that these organizations put the acquisition of votes well above their adherence to principle.) Roosevelt had an ear for the ideas of the increasingly faddish Progressive movement, but, under the influence of the party organizers, pretended it was deaf until his easy election in 1904, on his own heroic persona, and his inheritance of an assassinated man’s office.
Roosevelt was too forceful a personality to be a good party man. His conscience too often contradicted the purely statistical concerns of the party organizers, and his second term, while productive, was not as Republican as the Republicans would have liked. In 1908, the Stalwart William Howard Taft was nominated (on Roosevelt’s suggestion) and elected President. The party once again was in control of their man, and could move as nimbly as the public demanded.
But that public was becoming more and more conscientious, and by 1912 the Progressive, Labor, Socialist, and assorted other movements had become dominant enough to compel the parties to consider their impact. As abolition had been suddenly made a political topic before a reluctant electorate in 1860, now women’s suffrage, labor rights, and government and corporate reform were thrust into the debate, and the parties were obliged to build their platforms accordingly.
The Republican convention of 1912 saw William Howard Taft, the incumbent and Stalwart favorite, pitted against the Progressive Republican candidate Robert LaFollette, of Wisconsin, a stringent anti-corruption and anti-corporate reformist. Among a crowd of delegates who could not agree upon which course the party should take, there appeared a contingent in favor of the renomination of Theodore Roosevelt, as a sort of middle ground between fashionable Progress and the traditional strengths of the Republican Party. This contingent became large enough, and determined enough, to walk out of the Convention and announce themselves as a new party. Officially, this became the Progressive Party of America; but in a nod to the all-important personality at the center of the organization, it became known commonly as the Bull Moose Party, after their stocky, bellowing candidate. They had the traditional attribute of a popular public figure at their head, who could attract votes from that great mass of citizens who chose their candidate solely on subjective personal preferences; but for the first time they also ran their campaign on the strengths of their moral positions. They ran in favor of the establishment of a Federal income tax; on the right of women to vote; on the direct election of U.S. Senators (who had previously been chosen in a manner like to the Electoral College); on the issue of judicial recall; and on the normalization of the national ballots (which were still, in many states, printed by the parties themselves, without any federal guidelines). This last was a Progressive position intended to weaken the parties’ hold on the national elections, and Roosevelt came to its support only after the Taft Republicans stubbornly saw him out the doors of the Convention.
Roosevelt himself brought some of his personal convictions to the platform, including a very un-Progressive resistance to government regulation of industry, and a fairly weak approach to labor problems. The Progressive Party likely traded a few of its moral supporters for those who would just follow Roosevelt wherever he went.
On a three-party ballot in the election of 1912, Roosevelt and Taft nullified one another, and left the majority to go to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In creating the condition for the election of the theologian Wilson, the Progressives were successful in permanently introducing moral and social concerns into American party politics. Most of the planks in their platform would become law in the course of the next administration, even though the Bull Moose Party, and the Bull Moose himself, would not last through the decade.
It must be noted that, simultaneous with this excruciating American evolution of the parties, the British had seen the effectiveness of such organization and copied it within their own system. They also went a step further and a generation faster by the twentieth century, the major parties within the British parliament had indeed written themselves a bevy of manifestoes delineating just what each party would represent, and allow the politicians to gravitate into the appropriate camp. Moral and social issues had been divisive enough in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century that the progressive transformation of politics only lately occurring in the United States had already taken place in Westminster. And Woodrow Wilson, now Democratic President of the United States and an admirer of British politics, determined to import this system of principled politics to Washington. As well as the office of President, Wilson seized the leadership of his party, and he coerced and cajoled his majority Democrats in Congress to enact as much social and moral legislation as the nation had ever seen. A good deal of it turned out to be that litany of progressive issues that had become so á la mode, and a good deal more of it was relevant to the new international threats of the nineteen-teens. Wilson translated his moral stance into political principle by laying out a foreign policy of altruistic intervention, believing that the United States had a moral and humane responsibility to participate in global conflict on the side of ‘right.’ This was a modest, yet profound, alteration of the foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt, which had been that the United States need only intervene in international affairs when the United States’ own interests were at stake. Never before had purely moral concerns dictated a national position as tremendous as war and peace. (Against these two different rationales for intervention altruism and self-interest were contrasted the isolationism of the Progressive Party under LaFollette, and that of the traditional Republicans, like Taft and now Henry Cabot Lodge. Both believed the United States was better off staying out of international affairs but the Progressives rationale was that this was for the good of the sovereign nations of the earth, and humanity in general; and the Lodge Republicans believed this was the only way to serve the United States best.)
It was for this presumably humane reason that Wilson brought the United States into the war in Europe, envisioning from the beginning that the end result would be permanent peace. And it was toward a similar goal that he led his Democrats in Congress, practically preaching his own principles into the Party doctrine. In 1920, Wilson also presaged the candidate’s authority over his own candidacy by choosing his own Vice Presidential running-mate, the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he saw as a sympathetic spirit more than a political attribute. But two years into his second term, in 1918, the Congressional majority went to the Republicans, who reacted to Wilson’s strong party affiliation by resisting everything he put before them. This included the ratification of the League of Nations, and, by default, Wilson’s whole vision of American intervention for the well-being of humanity. Upon this defeat, the Republicans brought Warren Harding to the Presidency, and inaugurated an age of renewed isolationism, bent on nurturing American prosperity without regard to international affairs.
But morality had entered American politics, and it is notable that New York’s Al Smith (a charismatic Irish-Catholic immigrant’s son) ran as a Democrat, playing on that party’s new ‘ownership’ of morality among the morally conservative and socially progressive Catholic and minority populations in the Northern cities. Smith, on his way to defeat, was the first Democrat to dominate the cities, North and South. Only because the industrial prosperity of the 1920s was still, apparently, at its height in 1928, did the Republicans hold their offices with the victory of Herbert Hoover. He was not in office a year, of course, before the Republican claim of financial responsibility blew up and spiraled into the Depression. The relative stances of the parties was due, once more, for a drastic revision based on circumstances.
In 1932, we may look at the political landscape once more as being reducible to a binary state: there was the party in power, and the party in opposition. Regardless of moral concerns, beyond personal preferences, the electorate was asked to choose between the men in charge and those who claimed to be their opposites. The Democratic heir to Wilson’s former glory was his own hand-picked replacement, who had had to wait a decade for his ascension this was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He enjoyed the benefits of his uncle’s recognizable name, even if he was a member of the opposite party, and furthermore he reveled in Hoover’s and the Republicans unfortunate luck in holding power during the worst crisis in American history.
After Woodrow Wilson and Al Smith, however, Roosevelt was also able to refer to his own strong personal principles, and safely apply them to a reformed Democratic platform. He could appeal to the morally conservative urban minorities, the desperate rural agrarians, socially progressive immigrants and intellectuals, an even enough formerly Republican business interests (FDR had been governor of New York State, and was a member, himself, of the aristocracy), to easily sweep up a huge electoral majority. He lost only in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire - that old core of Northern Republican strength, that had not yet seen the dust rising off the prairies and did not believe their industrial wealth could ever dissipate. (Southern blacks, for the first time, swung overwhelmingly toward a Democrat in Roosevelt, after generations of failing to be allowed to cast votes for Republicans, the party of their emancipation. We may speculate endlessly as to why, but a few reasons may be eventual historical amnesia, the palpable sense of Roosevelt’s - like Wilson’s - morality, and even the loosening grip of the Southern Democrats’ segregationist stance. Indeed, while civil rights was never a part of Roosevelt’s agenda, he did try, in 1938, to purge the Democratic Party of its traditional Southern delegation, believing they only represented the potential for an eventual split on moral grounds. The purge was largely unsuccessful, and it tended to alienate just those old Southern Dems who, twenty years later, would form the core of the so-called Dixiecrats, who would indeed run on a separate platform, and eventually be annexed by the Republican Party.)
With such a mandate as that which he won in 1932, Roosevelt was not bashful about announcing his political philosophy, and even declaring that this would be what the Democratic Party was hereafter devoted to. He offered what he called a new kind of liberalism which strived to be both central and ‘federal,’ and individualist at once. This was the “New Deal,” which, as much as it was a comprehensive reform of Federalism, was even more so a re-establishment of the Democratic Party. Under Roosevelt, the Democrats may have had attributes in common with Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren; but they also had as much in common with Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. A century of partisanship as a purely convenient means to win elections had given way to an establishment of truly philosophical factionalism. It may have been as convenient, for the moment, to be the Party of Recovery, but Roosevelt would solidify the Party’s reputation, for decades hence under his philosophy’s name. As just a singular example, Roosevelt followed through on Wilson’s intention, and named his own running-mate the former progressive Henry Wallace - in the 1940 election, taking ever after the old conventioneers’ role of electing a ticket-mate after nominating their candidate. And in his selection of Henry Wallace specifically, he essentially concluded the transfer of social politics from the Republican Party which had nurtured Progressivism when it was a fad and a useful political strategy to the Democrats, where it became part of the Party’s publicized ‘identity.’
As had been the case after Jackson and Van Buren realized the efficacy of party organization as a means to popular mobilization, the opposition took a few years to catch up to the Democrats in effectively marketing themselves as representative of anything. The Republican Party, before it could find its own contrary philosophy to brand itself with, would need, first, for the Democrats to divide themselves along old fault-lines, and for the circumstances of international politics to provide impetus for another American doctrine other than liberalism.
The Democratic division occurred after Roosevelt’s death, and the accession of Harry Truman Vice President after Wallace to the Presidency. Truman had won his office because even Roosevelt, after three terms, was compelled to play more moderate politics. The New Deal, while it had been a resounding success in practice, found itself on the losing side of its various constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court. Thus it is that only a few of its programs Social Security among them have come down to us today. And so Roosevelt chose the more moderately liberal Truman to share his ticket, and subsequently to hold his office.
As surely as the two-party system is the inevitable embodiment of the condition of Power versus Opposition, we can see that the party in power will tend to harbor a triangular division between those in favor of the traditional stance that had won that power to being with; those who felt the party should use that power to make progress to the next ‘inevitable’ stage of its philosophical development; and those who thought the party must compromise between its own two extremes if only to remain unified, and powerful. We saw it happen to the Republicans after Lincoln and Grant, and after Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, and now it has come to pass upon the Democrats, in the latter days of FDR’s influence.
The traditionalists within the Democratic Party were the Southern Democrats, by now calling themselves the ‘Dixiecrats,’ and largely preserving their old faith in agrarianism, anti-industrialism, bitter Southern sectionalism, and official disinterest on all moral questions. The forward-minded faction was under former V.P. Wallace, and represented the newest ideas of Roosevelt’s liberalism. And the leader of the faction that would try and reconcile these two disparate positions was Harry Truman.
The international circumstance that ultimately rent apart the Democrats and offered to the Republican opposition their new reason for being was the post-war threat of Soviet Stalinism conveniently if erroneously called Communism by the ascendant Republicans, who sought to place the liberal Democrats ideologically in between themselves and the Russians. Within the Democratic Party, the progressive faction under Wallace held that the best way to preserve peace was simply to establish good relations with the Soviet Union, and not pose as a belligerent opponent to this recent ally, which had not, incidentally, yet developed an atomic bomb. But Truman and the Southern Democrats saw in the USSR a threat to American economic hegemony and also the opposition’s strategy within the U.S. of equating Democrats with Stalinism, and so under Truman the Marshall Plan was instituted, and the Cold War inaugurated.
But the liberal Democrats (largely under the influence of Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota) inserted a plank into their platform which called for universal civil rights, finally and completely alienating the party’s old Southern delegation. In 1948 the Dixiecrats would run their own candidate Strom Thurmond on a platform of old, asocial Democratism, which explicitly included a continued resistance to the burgeoning problem of civil rights, and won four states in the general election. Hoping to steal a bit of the Republicans’ imminent strength of unity, some liberal Democrats even suggesting running the war hero General Eisenhower in 1948, and returning to the pre-Roosevelt strategy of choosing whomever was more likely to win, instead of the candidate who ‘stood’ for what the party ‘stood’ for. Eisenhower declined the offer, apparently, and Truman won at least another term; but the Republicans got Eisenhower in 1952, and on just that old model of personal magnetism here described, won back the presidency after twenty years of Democratic rule.
Dwight Eisenhower, as it has been said, was one of those great American candidates who didn’t stand for anything but the vicarious respect of the larger number of participating voters. Throughout the nineteen-fifties, in fact, Ike let alone the fiscal policies of the Roosevelt era, and basked in the prosperity they and the post-war boom brought. But the Republican organizers saw more and more clearly that the American public’s cultivated fear of the Soviet Union could be turned into a party ideology as powerful as Roosevelt’s liberalism had been at the outset of the Depression. The Republicans, through the fifties, became the party of the Cold War. And for the next fifty years, the Cold War would be the defining ‘issue’ in American electoral and partisan politics.
In twenty years of dominant Rooseveltian liberalism, the Democratic Party, perhaps to the detriment of its eventual success, became so absolutely associated with that philosophy that it seemed unlikely it could ever go back to the old sport of choosing whichever war hero or popular figure was most convenient and most likely to win. Roosevelt had been so popular and so successful, that Democratic voters ever after expected to get someone of equal merits. The problem was that Rooseveltian ideologies were incompatible with the political landscape, as it was defined by both Truman Dems and Eisenhower Republicans, at the end of the forties and the beginning of the fifties. The ‘beliefs’ of both parties were fixed by Roosevelt and the Soviet Union, respectively, and it is upon these general frameworks that both parties still build their platforms. Rather than adapting themselves to the whims of popular opinion, the parties began to imply to the people what the people should believe. If you hated Communism and believed in American supremacy and national self-interest, you should be a Republican. If you liked your Social Security and you believed the government should cater to the popular wont and need, you ought to be a Democrat. The only problem with the latter was that you were left open to being labeled as a socialist or worse; which in the climate of the day, was as good as being a sodomite or an axe-murderer.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy eked out just enough favor from his fellow Catholics and those Republicans who simply didn’t like the way Vice President Richard Nixon looked on TV to usher in a little renaissance of Rooseveltian liberalism, but was obliged throughout his term as was his successor, Lyndon Johnson to temper his domestic liberalism with staunch anti-Communism. And such a position was not necessarily a consistent one to take the liberal belief in interventions for the sake of international well-being didn’t meet well with the Cold War policy of intervention for American interest, and the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were to prove it. By the end of this renaissance, quite a few Americans would be hard-pressed to even realize that Lyndon Johnson was a descendant of Roosevelt.
Playing the opposition in search of a coup, even the Republicans had some difficulty reconciling their newfound purpose with the realities of the electorate. They had been adopted by the former Dixiecrats, who saw in their default opposition to liberalism a kinship on socially conservative matters. The Republican Party reluctantly accepted the old segregationists of the Southern Democratic Party, simply because it meant that geography would be delivered to them come November. And they found that consequently, by standing in for social conservatism, they stood to gain the support of the increasingly populous and affluent Western states, who saw the liberal upheaval of the nineteen-sixties as an affront to plain human decency. Being the party of anti-Communism, and by extension anti-hedonism (what were the hippies, after all, if not sympathizers for the North Vietnamese?), the Republican Party had sort of stumbled into the role of ideological conservatism. And still furthermore, by lucking upon this body of support, the Republicans made themselves the party of the military, whose members were stranded in Southeast Asia by the Democratic schism between officialdom and the liberal activists.
In the late nineteen-fifties and sixties still another facet of opposition was polished and enjoined to the larger glom of anti-liberal Republicanism, and this by a young, urban contingent of intellectuals. These were economists and pundits, laden with doctorates and debts to their affluent, liberal parents, whose greatest critique of liberalism was its girth. These new idealists, after founding any number of quarterly journals and cocktail clubs began to argue against the economic Federalism of the liberal tradition. It was the same argument, in many ways, that had been waged between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and in a similar manner, these ‘small government/ free economy’ republicans joined the de facto opposition party. And so intellectual anti-liberalism was joined to Southern social conservatism, Western libertarianism, and generic, propagandistic anti-communism.
This is worth mentioning, because it gives us a picture of the disparate ideological coalition that was the Republican Party by the nineteen-seventies. Such an agglomeration has only held itself together by that first rule of partisan organization the Party comes before principle. First we must take power, and then parse our differences. Republicanism stood, first, for disagreement with liberalism; even as Democratism had been abandoned, in the late sixties, by its liberals, in response to its halting efforts at mass-appeal in the Cold War era.
It is worth pausing here near the modern day, in a political landscape which at least begins to look familiar, to look back over this sprawling, too-short history and consider what it is even a history of. Any political organization in a society as vast as our own is going to be a big ungainly beast, at best. Before completing this account and deluding ourselves that we have understood our subject, we must fairly consider what we mean when we speak of someone ‘being’ a Democrat or a Republican.
In truth, only a very small cadre of individuals can rightly call themselves one or the other these are the upper-echelon organizers of the parties, those select few members of, in the modern system, the so-called National Committees, who balance the sport of politics with the real business of being a popular party. These rare specimens are the ones who plug a particular ideological position into their equation of electoral success and determine if their party could and should adopt it.
In a long train of descending and expanding tendrils, the party organizations are then filled out by the thousands of part-timers, middle-managers, and footmen who may also call themselves real party members, and who perform much of the manual labor of testing their superiors’ demographic hypotheses, and selling ‘memberships’ to the general public. This population at the base of both parties is so enormous that it inevitably contains scores of its own mutant ideologies, quite unrecognizable as any variety of its presumed parent. Among these party drones the business of the party - mass-mobilization is predominant, and the ‘beliefs’ of the organization’s head are most often invisible. Political partisanship, on the scale of the American system, is a pyramid scheme, and the ‘product’ offered by so many of these low-level patrons is usually intangible, but exists, in promise up above, on some more aerie plane. And through the whole history of the parties, there is probably a library’s worth of diverging, roundabout narratives within this general body of party action the stories of state and local bosses, regional dynamics, neighborhood feuds, and a million other splinters on the broad rough edges of both great parties. These organizations are gigantic animals, and an author, in as unenviable a position as yours, must choose to either study their head or their many feet; I have chosen to keep my eyes upon the head, and trust that, in at least a very general way, the feet have followed the same route.
The last group who might call themselves by their affiliation’s name are those ordinary citizens who are merely ‘registered’ under one banner or another. Now and then, a negligible number of these people will come forth and volunteer time or donate money toward the progress of their party, thus momentarily constituting a sort of intermediate class of bottom-level patrons. But the great mass of Americans, after a tradition they have been handed, but about which they understand almost nothing, will simply call themselves “Democrats” or “Republicans” simply because, by holding a certain set of beliefs, they think they are members of some sort of ideological army. They ‘register’ with that army, and expect to share in its success and guard against its defeats. This delusion is carefully cultivated by the parties themselves.
The best example of this can be found in the primary and caucus system, which is the only time most of these party soldiers actually fire any live rounds in their faction’s name. The primary was first tested in Florida in 1906, and one was used by the Republican organizations in fourteen states in 1912, as something of an informal poll among self-styled Republican civilians to determine who they thought would be the best candidate for nomination that year (the year, incidentally, that Teddy Roosevelt walked out of the Convention which ultimately nominated Taft the people’s choice carried no mandate with the delegates). The most stunning fact of all may be that the party leaders didn’t realize the marketing appeal of ‘including’ their members this way until after 1952.
Up until then, every state organization sent a mystically predetermined number of delegates to the National Convention, where they would bicker over the best candidate for the party; those delegates were chosen by local party leaders and state bosses that upper-middle class of professional party members. At the dawn of the Age of Mass Marketing the Fifties - it became apparent what a populist windfall it would be to have the general public choose those delegates (the delegates - not, directly, the candidate), and so each party hustled to institute their primary system. The leg-work was left to the individual state organizations, however, and so by the middle fifties, there were forty-eight different sets of rules for the conducting of primaries or caucuses. Remarkably, there still are and this has become the fixed means by which the parties choose their respective figureheads. Prior to 1952, the national conventions were open debates, and often scores of voting rounds would be needed before consensus was reached upon the nomination of an individual as candidate. Since 1952 and the advent of primary elections, no national convention has needed any more than one ballot to decide who it would send forth into the campaign. The primary is essentially still just a nonbinding poll of citizens who identify themselves as a member of one party or another, but its outcome has made the national party conventions completely redundant. And while giving the party ‘commoners’ greater say in the selection of a candidate would seem a great advance in democratic rule, it must also be understood that the primary ‘season’ becomes entirely favorable to the candidate most able to sustain a public marketing campaign. An Abraham Lincoln might only be able to emerge from the national convention system. Candidates of modest personal fortune, unconventional manner, and indeed less-than-appealing looks will be eliminated by the ‘democracy’ of the party primaries.
The primary has also been exercised as a means of calcifying party fealty. Many state party organizations have stumbled upon the innovation of requiring party membership of a voter, before allowing them to participate in the primary, and thus the selection of the major candidates. This has served to force those citizens who, in the haze of their ideological immaturity, identified themselves as a philosophical Democrat or Republican, to remain permanently within that affiliation. The permanence of the concept of ‘registration,’ while it is in reality a meaningless membership, obliges all but the most politically active individuals to stay set within their party’s traditions. The primary system, in constructing a seemingly impermeable wall between the common members of the two parties, makes it daunting to ‘switch’ as rapidly between affiliations as the parties’ inconsistencies might otherwise inspire, and as voters in every previous generation could do unabashedly. It is essentially a resurrection of that nineteenth century practice wherein the parties printed their own ballots, with only their own candidates’ names on them.
So, with that glimpse of the scaly, warted, obese bodies of these immense organisms, I am free to return to my consideration of their heads; if only so that I may guide this history into the present moment, and discover, if there is anything left, how we have come to perceive the very most modern incarnations of the parties and their effigies.
In 1964, the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater for the presidency, believing, after much debate and internal friction, that he was the best representative of the party’s various new ‘beliefs.’ Goldwater was an Arizonan, and was part of a growing contingent of wealthy Westerners who had come to resent the Rooseveltian federal influence in a territory so far from the seat of power. (Recall, if you’ve got the strength, how the Jacksonian Democrats once exploited the same sentiment.) In Arizona and the other picturesque former frontier states, the Federal government owned an enormous amount of land, as the result of both Theodore Roosevelt’s requisition of the National Parklands, and Franklin’s federal recovery projects. FDR and JFK had given the impression that the Democratic Party and liberalism in general had resituated itself permanently in the Northeast, and from there had levied taxes and rationed out natural resources. Goldwater’s was a libertarian streak, and was joined with the trendy fierce anti-communism of the age, and its subsequent militarism. Of all the federal land in the West, after all, not a little of it was underneath sprawling military facilities this was the only sort of Federal presence the Goldwater contingent approved.
Goldwater’s social conservatism sort of an affectation, really, meant to jibe with his projected image of a desert frontiersman, even though he was the scion of a department-store fortune, and the descendent of immigrant East coast Jews, who had converted in adulthood to Episcopalianism - finally and completely appealed to the old Southern Democrats, who had stopped trying to be Democrats at all by now. And those urban intellectual conservatives, who were mostly concerned with the Soviet threat and the economics of Rooseveltian federal authority (which they equated, sinisterly, with the Soviet model), came naturally into place beside these other anti-Democratic forces. Quite a few of these latter young pundits, such as the National Review’s founder William Buckley, even had an affinity for Goldwater’s play-acted frontierism, as their own family fortunes were not uncommonly derived from the Texan and Californian oil rushes.
Among Goldwater’s delegates at the convention was the young George Bush, who fit perfectly into the seemingly incongruous mold of the latter-day Goldwater Republican: son of an Eastern intellectual with Western wealth and frontier affectation, and whose only socio-economic belief was that Rooseveltian liberalism was simply too like Soviet socialism to let it eat away at the bones of the good old U.S.A. And the convention’s star was the reformed New-Deal liberal Ronald Reagan, who delivered a speech that would win him the Republican Party’s offer of a chance at the California governorship. Reagan, too, had come to view his formerly beloved Rooseveltism as just too Red to trust; and as a widely-recognized b-movie star, he had become magically-sympathetic to the American soldiery and the nationalist agenda. (He was also more instantly recognizable to large sections of the public than any real war hero.) Both of these looming figures had their philosophies and their political alliances shaped in the Goldwater movement, and would do so much to set in stone the American idea of Republicanism to the present day.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, felt obliged to shed its affiliation with Roosevelt after the last stand of the liberal wing of the party, under George McGovern’s losing campaign in 1972. Too many of its presumed proponents had been alienated in the confusion of the sixties, and while the Republican Party was coalescing around its multifaceted new identity, the Democrats were dissolving. By 1976, desperate to recover its long lost strengths, it nominated the Southerner Jimmy Carter, and ran on sheer morality. Carter brought God into the political arena in a way no-one, not even the pious Woodrow Wilson, had before. The election was held still in the wake of the ethical vacuum of the Republican Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes, and it was a toss-up over which party could put forth the more angelic and at once Cold War-ready candidate. In 1976, the Democrats succeeded by running on all the strengths of the Republicans Southern conservatism, moral superiority, and national self-interest. But by offering bald religion into the debate, the strategy would quickly backfire, because the Republican ideological coalition ultimately owned the faithful. Ronald Reagan, his Vice President George Bush, and of course our present Evangelical executive have since played religion, and all its inherent fears and misanthropy, masterfully against the opposition. Who would debate god? It is the same strategy employed with centuries of success by the Divine Rightists of the feudal age.
The relentless escalation of the Cold War and the impending, if meaningless, turn of the calendar to the year 2000 had produced a spasm of apocalyptic piety in the United States that hadn’t been seen since the days of the pioneer cults of the nineteenth century. Jimmy Carter was the Democrats’ devout answer to just one electoral cycle; but with the inherent permission to speak about the once-private issue of religious faith in the public political forum, the Goldwater Republican consortium was bound to dominate all that electoral geography it needed, and then some. After twelve years of resounding failure, the Democratic Party returned to the Carter formula having opened a can of theistic worms and ran another pious Southerner in 1992, Bill Clinton. The whole Party platform of the campaign of 1992 could have been that of a post-Eisenhower Republican the reduction of the Federal bureaucracy; the legislation of moral behavior; the granting of free reign to industrial and corporate powers; and the stubborn posturing against all international movements that in any way resembled Marxism, that poison seed of the Soviet Union.
It is a peculiar effect of the modern system, as I have earlier described it, wherein the party identities have become so fixed in the public perception, that even as the softly conservative Bill Clinton ran and won, the nation’s registered Democrats cheerfully believed they were getting a return to philosophical liberalism and the Republicans feared the same thing. But by sealing the border between the factions, neither has been able to realize that philosophical liberalism has been abandoned by both parties, even if it has not by the voting-eligible public, and the two major political organizations now stand to topple over themselves for lack of any convicted membership. It is quite as if the heads of these monsters are leaning so far in the direction they believe they ought to be going, that they do not see the apathy of their feet is bound to have them keeled over, baseless.
A survey of the history of our political parties teaches us nothing but to discard what we think we know about the political parties. To be a Democrat or to be a Republican is as meaningless as to be a Yankee fan or for the Dodgers; neither of these parties stands for anything absolute except the potential for power. One side shall surely win; the other side will thereafter be in opposition. If the two-party system seems dreadfully faulty as a depiction of our diverse political perspectives, it remains the ideal realization of the basic principle of human politics: there is Power, and there is anti-Power.
We must then ask why we have earned such permanent-feeling beliefs about the two party’s ideologies. Is it merely the effort of propaganda or the effect of historical amnesia that we think of Democrats as being ‘popular’ and Republicans as being ‘corporate.’ Are the two parties’ stances on States’ rights against those of the Federal actually embedded in historical fact, or are they the stances the party leaders simply think will win them the most votes? The Republicans, in this day, sell themselves after Goldwater as the modern party of States’ rights and local control; but the Bush Administration swings to outright centralized autocracy on any question of ‘morals,’ such as reproductive freedom or the liberty of the press. The answer, then, is a resounding yes; the parties pander wherever the misshapen whims of influence and convenience make them, and they rely on the public’s fixed perception of their ‘philosophy’ to conceal it.
This being answered, let us ask further why it has become so calcified, this apparent (but fallacious), ideological divide. Why does it seem irrevocable? For who among us, after all, can foresee Republicans breaking up corporate monopolies, seeking peace instead of war, or fighting for the rights of the individual over those of the institution? And who can imagine a world in which Democrats are renowned for reducing the influence of the Federal government rather than expanding it, or legislate theistic morality? It can happen; it has happened. Why are we so reluctant to believe in it?
It is the late process of party registration, and the consequent exclusivity of the primary system, which has seemed to solidify the parties’ identities. Were the selection of each party’s candidate open to the general electorate, we would see a more accurate reflection of Power versus Dissent in our choice of candidates. Surely, such a condition would lessen the many-headed extremism which has become the necessary attribute of any winning candidate, and would never again threaten the nation with a governorship by a mathematically fortunate zealot.
Keeping in mind this first principle of two-party human politics, it would make sense that, in the primary that decides who will run as the representative of the Opposition, all those who count themselves in opposition ought to participate in the selection of their candidate. In 2000, this would mean that all those who found themselves displeased with Al Gore, Clinton’s heir apparent, would have been statistically more effective if they had cast their lot in with the party of opposition. For example, if every registered member of the Green Party, and any other dissident against Clinton and Gore, had voted in the Republican primaries, then Al Gore’s opponent would have been a truer representation of the national dissatisfaction with Al Gore. This mystery candidate would have been the manifestation of democratic expression. What he believed in would not have had anything to do with Goldwater Republicanism or Marxist Democratic Socialism. As abhorrent as it may sound to a Green to do his work within the Republican ranks, it might be better to think of it as registering “Opposition,” and understanding that this is the only distinction the American system is capable of responding to. The mystery candidate who would be born out of such a process would not be any voter’s savior; but he would represent a shift in the public conscience, and when it was his turn to be judged against the Opposition, the public would guide the nation another way or the same.
Instead, we know too well that Mr. Bush is only the choice of the well-organized extremists at the fringe of his own party, and he has found himself in his position because in the Republican primaries, where he was chosen to be the Opposition candidate for the year 2000, only registered Republicans could vote. He is the choice of a faction of a faction. This is where the voice of the populace is warped; the presidential primary is an echo-chamber of factionalism. Likewise, if every party selected its candidate based upon the common democracy, and therefore by the inevitable principle of Power against Dissent (in this year’s instance, the Democratic candidate, as the Opposition choice, would simply be the nation’s preferred alternative to George W. Bush, and not the exclusive favorite of only those registered Democrats who cast ballots in the primary system), then the deceptive affiliation of every politician would be translated into the truly democratic question of “for or against.”
Such a situation is not unattainable. Armed with the confidence of History’s own fickleness, perhaps enough Democrats could register themselves as Republicans, enough Republicans as Democrats, and enough of the otherwise disenfranchised would register with whichever party they more desire to change, then some foreseeable American election would not be between such undesirable individuals as we are accustomed to. If we recognize that the primaries have preempted the general elections as the instant of greatest democratic effect, then it is in the primaries that we ought to apply our efforts to. It ultimately makes more statistical sense that an ideological liberal should participate in Republican politics, if it is conservatism that he most wants to change. In choosing our party affiliation, we have been duped into thinking the best course is to try and steer that party which seems closest to our own beliefs. The nearest thing to salvaging Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicanism, however, would be to throw our weight against what we oppose, instead of pitching in our pennies in with the side we vaguely favor. Over the course of generations, Democrats and Republicans would become interchangeable (as they have previously been and the primary system, thus short-circuited as a means of fossilizing ideological partisanship, might even be opened up and abandoned), and the only thing which would determine the ideological constitution of our politicians would be public sentiment.