“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
— George Washington in his farewell address, Sept. 17, 1796
Oh, George, if only they had listened to you. But, alas, we are tribal in nature. We seek out those with like minds, similar histories and features, and we make them our friends. And those who are different, or think differently, well, if you’re not my friend …
Perhaps it was Washington’s disdain for political parties that caused the United States to be different. Instead of a multi-party system that is more common around the world, we evolved into a two-party system that exists today. There are other parties, but Democrats and Republicans have essentially locked them out of power with ballot restrictions and the advantages of incumbency.
So instead of being in a political party where you know everyone agrees with you on most issues, we have two big-tent parties that try to be all things to all people.
Multi-party isn’t much different. There, you must build coalitions with other parties that agree with you on most issues, but you will still disagree on others. In either case, there is a constant struggle to find consensus.
The first political parties that emerged in our nation were the Democratic-Republican Party (yes, you read that right) — led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — and the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton. The great issue of that day was a strong central government (favored by Hamilton), vs. keeping power in the states (favored by Jefferson).
Jefferson and his Republicans would win the battle, but Hamilton and the Federalists would win the war. The Federalists began to decline after the election of 1800 and moved to new political homes 20 years later.
The Second Party System started in 1824, after the Democratic-Republican Party split into two, the Democrats (led by Andrew Jackson) and the Whig Party (led by Henry Clay). The main issue of the day was the same as before; Jackson viewed himself as the champion of the people vs. the corruption of Washington, D.C. He was fighting to keep power with the people and away from Washington.
The presidential election of 1824 was his evidence. Jackson won the popular vote, and had the most electoral votes, but not enough to win the election. The House of Representatives, led by Speaker of the House Clay, made John Quincy Adams the president.
The Democrats continued to build support, and Jackson would be president four years later. One of the reasons they dominated was that the Whigs could not take a position on slavery, since they relied on support from both the Northern elites and Southern Nullifiers (a smaller political party of the time).
The Republican Party emerged in the Third Party System and soon became dominant, with slavery as the main issue. Abraham Lincoln ended the Civil War and abolished slavery, but he also showed that the old argument — strong central government vs. state’s rights — was dead. The power was in Washington, and that hasn’t changed.
We have a strong central bank that sets monetary policy for the entire nation, and the Supreme Court has consistently told states that they must follow the same laws (allowing same-sex marriage and interracial marriage, ending segregation and legalizing abortion, etc.).
Historians say the Fourth Party System began in 1896 and lasted until 1932. It was also dominated by Republicans, but the glory days for Republicans was about to end. They would lose power, and it would be decades before they were the majority party again.
It started on the morning of Oct. 29, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday.
You can’t discuss what makes someone a conservative or a liberal today without talking economics, and The Great Depression is a great point to start that conversation.
The thinking of two economists would dominate the rest of the century, and their ideas are still in play today. I’ll talk about both men — John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek — over the next two weeks, starting with Keynes next week.
- Sain Column: 'This is what we believe'
- Sain column: We are all Keynesians still
- Sain column: Edmund Burke and the rise of conservatism
- Column: The idealist - John Locke, grandfather of the USA
- Column: Fathers of liberal, conservative thought not what you might think
- Column: Liberals & conservatives: How did we get here?