The Democratic and Republican Parties within the United States are probably more polarized today than they have ever been in modern memory. According to some studies, party identification within the United States is a more important predictor of values and behaviors than demographic factors such as race and gender (Westwood et al.).
The politics of division
The purpose of this sample political essay provided by Ultius is to critically evaluate the history of partisanship within the United States.
The essay will have five main parts.
- The first part will consider the original parties that existing in the Founding Era, as well as their development and dissolution.
- The second part will discuss the origins and development of the Republicans and the Democrats, which are of course the parties that dominate the political scene today.
- The third part will discuss the reasons why partisanship and division has become so bad today and when this trend really began to develop into what it is now.
- The fourth part will consider the role of third parties in these dynamics, as well as the possibilities (or lack thereof) for the United States to move away from its current two-party system.
- Finally, the fifth part will reflect on whether there is any hope of moving past current divisions, as well as the implications for the future of the nation if current divisions proceed as they are.
The key point that will emerge in this essay is that the two-party system has been an essential feature of American politics since the inception of the nation, and that there is little chance that the nation will move away from this model anytime soon.
Moreover, the Founders clearly saw the risks and dangers of what they called factionalism within American politics, and they attempted to set up safeguards against the reign of factionalism. However, the ultimate problem at present may consist of a simple lack of civic education: For a democracy can only be as good as its people.
The founding political parties of the United States
The original parties within the United States were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. After winning independence from Great Britain, the United States organized itself under the Articles of Confederation, which provided for interstate cooperation but did not establish a strong central government over and above the individual states themselves.
By 1789, the best minds of that generation realized that this would not be a sustainable model for the future growth and prosperity of the new American nation. That is why the Founders hammered out the new Constitution, which established a central government that was far stronger than anything that could be found in the Articles of Confederation.
However, a key point of contention from the beginning had to do with the relative power of the central (or federal) government in relation to the state governments. The Federalists are the ones who advocated for more power, whereas as the Anti-Federalists advocated for less power.
The Federalists made a strong case for a strong federal government in a series of articles that are today known as The Federalist Papers and are often considered to be some of the finest political writing of that generation. The Anti-Federalists also made their case in public, but the Federalists proved to be stronger: the new Constitution did in fact pass and become the enduring governmental structure of the United States.
The Anti-Federalists, though, won a crucially important concession: that would be the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the ones that guarantee things such as freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. The Anti-Federalists insisted on these protections in order to ensure that the strong federal government under the Constitution would not be able to encroach on the inherent rights of the American people. After having emerged from a monarchy, the Anti-Federalists were keenly aware of the dangers to liberty ingrained in the creation of a strong federal government.
The Federalist Party was formed under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, whereas the Anti-Federalists, now called the Democratic-Republicans, were closely associated with Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton
The Federalist Party was formed under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, whereas the Anti-Federalists, now called the Democratic-Republicans, were closely associated with Thomas Jefferson.
James Madison was a key advocate of the Federalist position, but he switched over to the Jeffersonian stance after the formation of the United States under the new Constitution. Interestingly, George Washington—of course, the first president of the nation—avoided both parties altogether, as he was nervous about the implications of the very existence of parties.
As Washington declared in his farewell address:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism” (paragraph 14).
This concern has proven to be prescient, to say the least.
The Federalist Party was in decline ever since the presidency of Jefferson, but it finally collapsed after the War of 1812. The Federalists had opposed the war but, when the war ended well for the United States, this helped to delegitimize the party as a whole.
The Democratic-Republicans owned the political scene until the year 1824, when Andrew Jackson entered the picture. Jackson was an uncouth man who was first outside of the founding “Virginia dynasty” to make a serious bid for the presidency.
This caused the Democratic-Republican Party to break apart, with Jackson’s party becoming the Democrats and the opposition to Jackson becoming the Whigs.
Andrew Jackson founded the Democrats, although the meaning of being a democrat has changed dramatically since.
Enter the Democratic and Republican parties into American politics
The party that calls itself Democrats today first came about as the coalition that supported Jackson. The Whigs emerged in opposition to Jackson and were afraid of the strength of the Presidency under Jackson and advocated instead for a strong Congress.
“Whig” is a reference to the original revolutionaries against monarchy in the founding generation. The Whigs existed in opposition to the Democrats until 1854. At this point, slavery became a key issue, and the Republican Party emerged primarily in opposition to slavery. The Republicans replaced the Whigs, and this was the beginning of the modern Republican Party.
It would be historically accurate to say that:
- One, the two major parties of the present day were in existence by the year 1854;
- And two, that the Democrats were founded by Jackson, and that the Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, this is an oversimplification, in that there has been a great deal of shuffling in the platforms of the two parties and their major alliances. For example, the Democrats used to be the party of the South, given that the South wanted to keep slavery and the Republicans were the enemies of slavery. But it would be accurate to state that the two dominant political parties in America today had wildly different values than they do today.
The landscape of political parties is always changing, furthering division
Today, of course, the South is dominated by the Republicans, whereas the Democrats have by and large become a northern and coastal party. It would thus be inappropriate to suggest that modern Democrats are the heirs to the legacy of Jackson per se.
As a matter of historical fact, that would be an accurate statement, in the sense that the Democratic Party that exists today did in fact first come into being with Jackson. But history is complex, and one should be careful about drawing direct implications for the conduct of Democrats today from this basic historical fact. The same is true regarding the relationship between Lincoln and the Republicans.
In general, the current dynamic of the Democrats being heirs to the Federalists—in the sense of supporting big government—could probably be traced back to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson that began in 1913.
Woodrow Wilson was a believer in big government, and federal oversight.
Wilson was known for pursuing strong social policies, including censorship during the era of World War I. There would seem to be a clear genealogical link between the meaning of the term “progressive” as applied to Wilson and the meaning of the term as it is used today. As the progressive ethos consists of trying to use the power of the federal government in order to engineer society and culture for the betterment of the people (Goldberg).
This continued during the New Deal Era in the 1930s under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when the Great Depression did in fact necessitate a concerted response of the part of the federal government. A similar dynamic ensued with the Civil Rights eras of the 1960s, where strong federal action was needed in order to end the legacy of slavery and ensure equal rights for Black Americans.
Cooperation between the two major political parties
Over the last several decades, there have been strong instances of cooperation occurring between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Such a thing has not always been unheard of. This can be seen, for example, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This passed the House of Representatives with a support of 61 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans; and it passed the Senate with the support of 68 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans (Jacobson).
Reversal of political values for both parties
This is clearly evidence of strong bipartisan consensus on a very important piece of legislation. It may surprise people today that the Republicans were more supportive of the law than the Democrats. This was because the great reversal had not happened yet: the Democrats were still the party of the South, and the Republicans were still closely associated with the legacy of Lincoln.
Likewise, until recently, the position of “conservative Democrat” was not considered to be an oxymoron.
As the Texas Politics Project has indicated:
“In 1994, a group of thirty-three conservative Democrats formed the Blue Dog Coalition. The Blue Dogs represent a stronger break from the national (more liberal) Democratic Party, and could be traced back to Democrats who crossed party lines to support some of Ronald Reagan’s policies in the 1980s” (paragraph 5).
Essentially, the platforms of the Democratic and Republican Parties were not as solid as they are today. In the past, it was possible to be a Democrat due to economic concerns while still holding conservative social values. Such subtleties would no longer seem to exist, which is part of why cooperation between the parties has become so rare and so difficult.
No more room for moderates
For example, within the modern Democratic Party, support for abortion has become a non-negotiable condition for being a part of the party, such that people who hold the pro-life position would have to be driven to the Republican Party as a matter of course. Even Bernie Sanders recently triggered outrage as a result of his support for a pro-life Democratic candidate in the state of Nebraska (Detrow).
Sanders reasonably pointed out that if the Democrats would like to be a winning party at the national level, then they would need to stop alienating pro-life Americans, of whom there are many, in such a radical way.
This is a good example of how the category of conservative Democratic—or for that matter, of liberal Republican—has vanished almost entirely from the current political landscape. The potentials for overlap and thus for cooperation have greatly diminished over time.
The Changing Political Landscape Source: PEW
Research conducted by the Pew Research Center has confirmed ideals are changing in no uncertain terms. This graph puts one in the mind of two mountains moving apart.
Over the past several decades, the Democrats and Republicans essentially switched constituencies, with the Democrats now being associated with the North and the cause of social justice, and the Republicans being associated with the South and the status quo (although even that schema has been complicated by the rise of Trump).
This also meant that there was a great deal of room for overlap between the two parties as this intermingling was going on. For example, Texas used to be solidly Democratic, and now it is solidly Republican, even as the Democratic minority within the state is a strong one.
Over the decades, though, it seems that the middle ground has steadily evaporated, such that to hold a liberal worldview means that one must be a Democrat, just as to hold a conservative worldview means that one must be a Republican. Ideology now maps onto party affiliation in a way that was just not as extreme in previous decades.
Is the two-party system broken?
That brings use to the situation today, where the Democrats and the Republicans will barely even talk with each other, and where the notion of them cooperating seems almost like a utopian dream.
As the discussion above has shown, cooperation is now almost not even possible on principle, because the two parties have just come to be associated with radically different ideologies of what it means to be an American and what is best for the United States.
The effect of political divide on the law
This can be seen in the increasing importance of politics for judicial nominations, specifically with the United States Supreme Court. In its original conception, the judicial branch of government was supposed to be apolitical, simply applying the laws in a far and equal way. But now, the Democratic Party has become associated with the “living Constitution” doctrine of interpretation, whereas the Republican Party has likewise become associated with the “originalist” position (Strauss).
If this is the case, then that literally means that Democrats and Republicans can no longer agree on the applicable meanings of the laws of the land. It is almost like they are speaking very different languages.
In principle, cooperation suggests that opposing groups do in fact have shared goals that they would like to achieve, and shared values that can enable them to deal with each other in an effective way, despite the differences that they may have.
It is not at all clear that this is still the case within the contemporary United States. It is hard to find anything of substance that the Democrats and the Republicans actually agree on. They have different moral codes, different conceptions of the law, different life experiences, and different ideas of what it means to be an American.
Not even the ritual of the Sunday football game can be call neutral anymore. And of course, Sunday church is already associated far more with conservatives than with liberals. It would seem that the two parties just want to go in such different directions that cooperation would be impossible even at the strictly logistical level.
Nathan J Robinson has put the matter well:
“Disagreement implies that there could be a compromise. It also contains a subtle relativism: I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to, let’s call the whole thing off. People who demean entire ethnic groups are not people I have a disagreement with. They are people whose value systems I find horrifying. I want to see those values disappear” (paragraph 4).
Most people probably would agree with this comment when it comes to serious racism. But what happens when liberals and conservatives feel this way about each other on just about every issue under the sun?
It would not seem there could be compromise or cooperation regarding an issue such as abortion rights. Rather, it very much seems like the one side just wants the other to disappear. This is not because of some stubborn or silly refusal to engage in disagreement, but rather because the relevant values themselves are so far apart from each other that cooperation would be a literal impossibility.
Why the two parties are so divided today
The problem of political polarization within the United States has been going on for some time. The current direness of the situation likely picked up under the presidency of Bill Clinton. The impeachment of Clinton in connection with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal was generally perceived by Democrats as a grossly partisan move on the part of the Republicans.
In 2000, George W. Bush winning the presidency instead of Al Gore, through all the shenanigans of the recount, added insult to injury and gave Democrats the strong sense that the Republican victory was an illegitimate one.
Things got worse from there as the nation strained under the pressures of 9/11 and the Iraq War.
Then, Barack Obama won in 2008, becoming the first Black president of the United States. This itself may have been polarizing for those Americans who still harbor racist sentiments, no matter how unconscious. Past that, though, Obama also clearly threw himself into the culture wars in a way that clearly did not help the cause of American unity.
Barack Obama Becomes The 44th President
Although Barack Obama was extremely popular, some felt his policies were hard stances for the left.
For example, it was probably in poor taste for him to light up the White House in rainbow colors after gay marriage was legalized across the nation, given how many Americans have sincere reasons for believing that gay marriage is not legitimate. In general, Obama definitely moved the Democratic Party in a leftward direction, and this alienated many conservative or even moderate Americans.
And of course, in one of the greatest political upsets in the history of the United States, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The fact that Trump even had a chance testifies both to how disliked Clinton was, and how polarized the nation had become under the Obama presidency.
Donald Trump Becomes The 45th President
Donald Trump is proving to become an even more divisive President than Jackson.
Donald Trump has sometimes been compared to Andrew Jackson. Like Jackson in his day, Trump is widely seen asa vulgar loudmouth by his opponents, and even members of his own party. Jackson also had traumatic effects on the existing party system, which is similar to the crisis that Trump has caused by essentially taking over the modern Republican Party.(Jacobson and Waychoff)
The Democrats, have appeared to suffer from something akin to a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of the election. Many of them refuse to cooperate with Trump as a matter of principle. This is evident, for example, in their self-stylization as “the Resistance:” that evokes resonances to the Nazi occupation of France, not to the legitimate role of an opposition party within a functioning democracy.
Lobbying is making the divison wider
The growth of lobbying has at least something to do with the rampant polarization of American politics. Lobbying clearly exacerbates Washington’s concerns regarding factionalism, in that the purpose of a lobby is to advocate for a single narrow self-interest, ignoring and possibly at the expense of any notion of a greater good.
In principle, lobbies generate a spirit of antagonism, in that they are almost by definition just in it for themselves. The National Rifle Association, for example, only cares to preserve the gun rights of Americans. It has no interest in broader concerns of public safety, national culture, and the like.
When any one interest is isolated from the more holistic picture in this way, it can cause enormous strife. Lobbies reflect egotism, and egotism is not congenial to the spirit of cooperation.
Social media and “fake news”
Another key cause of polarization is the much-discussed echo chamber that is produced through social media in particular.
As Karsten and West have indicated,
Social media tends to produce the phenomenon of users largely just seeing and being exposed to views that confirm with what they already believe, as opposed to getting exposed to a broader and more panoramic picture of reality.
The result is that every person can now live within his own custom-made version of reality, more or less divorced from the public sphere at large. This leads to increased polarization, given that lack of exposure to opposing viewpoints makes it much easier to demonize those who hold them, and increases fear in the very presence of them. Some of these viewpoints are held on reports or stories that are 100% false, or as Donald Trump likes to say “fake news”.
After the 2016 Presidential election, many people questioned the role “fake news” sources played in the outcome. A Buzzfeed analysis found that the most popular fake news stories generated more online activity than the top legitimate stories from reliable outlets (Silverman, 2016). The same study found that the top twenty performing legitimate news stories elicited slightly over seven million shares while the top twenty performing fake news stories generated almost one and a half million more.
Third parties and alternative ideas
Third parties, such as the Green and Libertarian Parties, have always existed in the United States, but they have also generally been ignored at best and more often derided as “spoilers.”
Political experts suggest Al Gore would’ve defeated George W. Bush in 2000 if it weren’t for Ralph Nader.
Does a third party actually hurt an election?
This happened with the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. It is generally believed that if Nader had not run, then Gore would have defeated Bush, since many of the people who voted for Nader would have likely voted for Gore over Bush if those were the only two options.
Likewise, Green candidates are generally understood as hurting the Democrats, and Libertarian candidates are understood as hurting the Republicans. This is because an ironic fact of the two-party system within the United States is that the third party candidate will hurt the major party candidate to whom he is ideologically closer, because he will siphon away votes primarily from that candidate.
This is the meaning of the “spoiler effect”, and it is large part of why third parties have always lacked respect within the United States.
The very structure of American electoral politics, along with the institution of the Electoral College, almost ensures that the United States will have two-party system. It has been this way since the inception of the nation. This is also why the major parties tend to contain such diverse coalitions of interests.
For instance, the modern Republican Party now includes Evangelicals, economic populists, neoconservatives, the alt-right, and many other sub-groups. In order for other parties to get a foothold within American politics, it would be necessary to shift to a more parliamentarian system of proportional representation. But this probably could not happen without revamping the whole structure of American politics altogether, and that is not likely to happen any time soon.
What is more likely is that the major parties will transform from within (as has happened with Trump and the Republicans as well as Sanders and the Democrats), or else just implode and make way for new major parties.
The future of political parties in America
The future regarding political polarization within the United States looks quite hopeless. This is for the simple reason it would appear that the United States is no longer a single unified nation. A nation is traditionally defined as a group of people who share values and a way of life.
There is no meaningful sense in which liberals and conservatives across the nation any longer share that. There are at least two radically different cultures at work within the modern United States, and they are only growing farther and farther apart from each other.
Given what Democrats now believe and what Republicans now believe, there is almost no way to imagine how any sort of reconciliation would be possible, unless the one side or the other were to just collapse altogether.
The basic problem could very much be considered in the terms of a marriage. When two people are married, they may encounter rough patches and try to work out their differences. But those differences may become so intense and irreconcilable that they decide that the only productive course forward would be divorce.
This is not meant to sound like some doomsday prediction of the separation of the United States back into its constituent elements. What does seem clear, though, that something will have to give, and probably in the near future. It is simply not possible for a nation to hang together indefinitely when the deviating forces at work are so much stronger than the centralizing forces.
Nations—great nations, even empires—have been known to fall apart over time. Even a cursory examination of history would thus be enough to confirm that the ongoing unity and prosperity of the United States should not be taken for granted. It is important for all Americans to reflect hard on what it means to be an American, and whether there is still an American identity that we all share, irrespective of and deeper than any differences of ideological or political creed.
What is clear is that the United States cannot go on with half the country sincerely believing that the other half is un-American. If that kind of mentality is upheld, then it is difficult to imagine how the polarization of politics could be reversed, outside of perhaps a great crisis worse than collapse itself.
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