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Political Parties in the United States



Political Parties in the United States, in general, the two-party system that has usually prevailed in the United States.


The framers of the Constitution of the United States made no provision in the governmental structure for the functioning of political parties because they believed that parties were a source of corruption and an impediment to the freedom of people to judge issues on their merits. James Madison argued in his “Federalist Paper #10” against a system in which “factions” (his word for parties) might be able to seize control of the government. George Washington, in accordance with the thinking of his fellow Founding Fathers, included in his Cabinet men of diverse political philosophies and policies.


Within a short time, informal parties did develop, even though their adherents still insisted they disapproved of parties as a permanent feature in American politics. One faction, commonly identified with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Vice-President John Adams, became known as the Federalist party. Federalists favoured an active federal government, a Treasury that played a vital role in the nation’s economic life, and a pro-British foreign policy. It drew especially strong support from merchants, manufacturers, and residents of New England. The other faction, whose central figures were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison, became known as the Republican party. The Republicans advocated a limited federal government, little government interference in economic affairs, and a pro-French foreign policy. They were particularly popular with debt-ridden farmers, artisans, and southerners.

The structure of government itself in the United States was conducive to the formation of political parties. The carefully elaborated system of checks and balances, established by the Constitution, makes executive and legislative cooperation necessary in the development of policy. Further, the division of legislative powers between the federal and state governments, as provided in the Constitution, makes it necessary for advocates of such policies as the regulation of commerce to seek representation or strength in both the federal and state legislatures. As these ends were too complex and difficult to achieve by impermanent groupings, the formation of permanent political organizations was inevitable.

The Republican party held power for 28 years following the inauguration of President Jefferson in 1801. During this period, the Federalist party became increasingly unpopular. It ceased functioning on the national level after the War of 1812, leaving the Republican party as the only national political organization.


Far-reaching changes in the US economy and social structure resulted in the gradual formation of new political alignments within a one-party system. The principal changes in these developments were the expansion of the country westwards, with an accompanying development of a large class of pioneer farmers, whose frontier communities represented a type of democratic society never before seen in any country; the agricultural revolution in the southern states, following the invention of both the cotton gin by Eli Whitney and textile machinery, which resulted in the dynamic growth of the slave system producing cotton; and a considerable growth in the wealth and influence of manufacturers, merchants, bondholders, and land speculators of the northern states. The ideas of limited government that became known as Jeffersonian democracy appealed strongly to the sectional and class interests of the western frontier and the South, and also to the growing class of urban workers. The policies once advocated by the defunct Federalist party, however, were still popular with the minority of Americans who favoured a more active economic role for the federal government.


The second two-party system developed gradually as Republicans began quarrelling over several issues. The followers of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, who asserted that the federal government should actively promote economic development, became known as National Republicans. Their opponents, who eventually united behind the presidential candidacy of Andrew Jackson, were first known as Democratic-Republicans, and by 1828 as the Democratic party.

During Jackson’s tenure as president, his controversial policies and contentious personality prevented any reconciliation with the National Republicans. By the middle of Jackson’s second term, his opponents began to call themselves the Whig party. Leaders of the party included Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

During the 1830s a radical splinter group of the Democratic party in New York, the Locofocos, opposed monopolies and private bankers. The name was derived from a popular brand of matches used by the group to continue a crucial meeting in 1835, at which pro-bank opponents turned off the gas. Later known as the Equal Rights party, the Locofocos were conciliated and reabsorbed into the Democratic party in 1838 with the election of Martin Van Buren.

The Democrats controlled the national government for most of the years between 1828 and 1860, although they lost two presidential elections to Whig military heroes. After 1840 the Democratic party became more and more the mouthpiece of the slaveholders. Northern Democratic leaders were often called “doughfaces”, or northern men with southern principles, by their opponents. Opposed to the Democrats were the Whigs and a variety of minor parties, such as the Liberty party, the political arm of the abolitionists, and the Free-Soil party.

In 1854 the party system dominated by Whigs and Democrats collapsed due to the controversy sparked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which made it possible to establish slavery in western territories, where it had previously been banned. This act outraged northerners and convinced many Democrats and Whigs in that region to abandon their parties. Many of these voters initially joined the Know-Nothing party, an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant organization whose antislavery reputation in the North helped it attract more than one million members.

The creation of a new Republican party was the most important result of the Kansas controversy. Organized in some places as early as July 1854, the party promised not only to prevent the admission of new slave states to the Union but also to diminish slaveholders’ influence in the federal government. The appeal of this platform quickly enabled the Republican party to overpower the Know-Nothings. Although the Republicans lost their first campaign for the presidency in 1856, they triumphed in 1860 with former Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The Republican victory resulted in part from the division of the Democratic party into northern and southern factions, each of which ran its own presidential candidate, and in part from their success at attracting Whigs and Know-Nothings who had opposed the Republicans in 1856. During the American Civil War, the Republicans temporarily called themselves the Union party in an attempt to win the votes of pro-war Democrats.


After the Civil War, as US industrialization proceeded at great speed, the Republican party became the champion of the manufacturing interests, railway builders, speculators, and financiers of the country, and to a lesser extent, of the workers of the North and West. The Democratic party was revived after the war as a party of opposition; its strength lay primarily in the South, where it was seen as the champion of the lost Confederate cause. Support also came from immigrants and those who opposed the Republicans’ Reconstruction policies.

In 1872 Republicans dissatisfied with the re-election of President Ulysses S. Grant formed the short-lived Liberal Republican party and nominated as their candidate the journalist Horace Greeley. Although he was also endorsed by the Democrats, Greeley was defeated, and his new party collapsed.

The chief political tactic of both parties during the post-war period was “waving the bloody shirt”, by which Republicans in the North and Democrats in the South charged that a vote for the opposition was unpatriotic. Serious policy issues also separated the two parties. The most significant points of disagreement included the advocacy of high tariffs by the Republicans and low customs duties by the Democrats, and the emphasis laid by the Democrats on the rights of states in contrast to Republican nationalism.

A number of minor parties emerged during the post-war period. In the long years of agricultural depression, from the conclusion of the Civil War to the end of the 19th century, discontent among farmers, particularly in the western plains but also in the South, constituted a fertile source of political activity, giving rise to the Granger and Populist movements. From these movements evolved a considerable number of organizations, constituted for the most part on a regional and state basis. In industrialized regions, a large class of wage workers developed, whose protest against poor working conditions, low pay, and discriminatory and abusive treatment induced the formation of other parties independent of and opposed to the dominant Republican and Democratic parties. One of the first was the Socialist Labor party, founded in 1877 but unimportant until it came under the leadership of Daniel De Leon. Of far more significance was the Socialist Party of America (SPA), founded in 1901 by socialists unable to accept the autocratic De Leon. The greatest leader of the SPA was Eugene V. Debs. In 1919 a split in the SPA led to the formation of the Communist party (CP), which had close ties with the Soviet Union. Although small, the CP had considerable influence at times, especially in the labour movement during the 1930s. These parties of agrarian and working-class protest frequently raised issues that were taken up in subsequent years by leaders of the major parties; their own successes in elections, however, were mostly local and minor.


The various movements to improve industrial working conditions and curtail the power of big business, known by the early 20th century as Progressivism, caused divisions within both parties between Progressives and conservatives. The most serious split occurred in the Republican ranks, where the renomination of President William Howard Taft in 1912 caused Progressives to bolt and form the Progressive party, which nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt. Although he lost the election, Roosevelt polled the highest percentage of the vote ever attained by a third-party candidate. The Republican split in that contest helped Woodrow Wilson become only the second Democrat to win the presidency since the Civil War. The Progressives made another strong bid for the presidency in 1924, when their candidate was Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, a veteran of the 1912 campaign, who won about 16 percent of the votes.


Although the Republican party regained control of the presidency during the 1920s, complex changes in political alignments were wrought by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Democratic party, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the sponsor of the most far-reaching social reform legislation in the history of the United States, the New Deal. Many of its policies were supported by representatives of the Republican party, as well as by those who had previously supported La Follette. The attraction of Roosevelt’s party was so great that such nominally independent political organizations as the American Labor party and the Liberal party in New York State became, in effect, mere adjuncts of the Democratic party.

Roosevelt managed to break the stranglehold that Republicans had held over the presidency by drawing various new forces into the Democratic party. These included blacks, who traditionally had voted Republican because that party had ended slavery, but now supported the Democrats out of gratitude for New Deal unemployment relief. The other key addition was organized labour, which recognized that New Deal policies had helped unions achieve a status unprecedented in US history.

When Roosevelt died in 1945, he was succeeded by Vice-President Harry S. Truman. Democratic unity appeared to unravel, however, when two dissident groups opposed him in the 1948 election—the anti-cold war Progressives under Henry A. Wallace and the anti-civil rights Dixiecrats under Strom Thurmond—but Truman won despite them, and the Democrats remained in power until 1952.

The Republicans were returned to power that year, carried to victory by their popular candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. During Eisenhower’s two terms, his moderate supporters came into conflict with the more conservative Old Guard Republicans. From 1955 onward the Democrats were in control of Congress, and their leaders often cooperated with the moderate Republicans.


The New Deal combination of the South and the industrial North came together again to win the presidency for Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960 and again for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but widespread dissatisfaction with Johnson’s military intervention in Vietnam brought the Republicans back into office under Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Although he was re-elected with strong support from the South and West in 1972, Nixon was later forced to resign as a result of his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy. The Democrats bolstered their declining strength in the South by nominating the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, in 1976. Carter defeated the Republican president Gerald R. Ford in that year but failed to win re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Under Reagan’s leadership, conservative Republicans were firmly in control of their party in the 1980s, and the Republicans held a majority in the US Senate from 1981 through 1986, when the Democrats regained control (they had maintained their majority in the House since the mid-term election of 1954). After Carter’s defeat and the apparent breakup of the New Deal coalition, the Democrats did not have the strong national leadership necessary to regain the presidency during the 1980s.

Third-party movements were significant in 1968, in 1980, and especially in 1992, when a billionaire businessman, H. Ross Perot, drew almost 19 percent of the popular vote, the highest for a third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s run in 1912; however, despite Perot’s appeal to voters disenchanted with “politics as usual”, he gained no electoral votes, and Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President George Bush. The Clinton administration was undermined, and Democratic control of Congress lost, in a backlash against the Democrats in midterm elections in 1994. The party system itself seemed to have been weakened, as voters became disillusioned with politicians and appeared to be influenced more by a candidate’s overall message or positions on the issues than by party affiliation. Campaign techniques were changed by the increasing use of television advertisements and appearances. Media advisers became more prominent, often eclipsing traditional party leaders. In addition, the role of party conventions in selecting candidates was reduced by the growing prevalence of primary elections.

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