In an era when the United States Congress is unwilling to compromise to provide basic relief to American citizens, when Supreme Court justices are argued and voted upon party lines, and when even basic elections descend into partisan lawsuits and name-calling, it’s hard not to feel that the United States is more divided than ever before. No matter how dysfunctional the American two-party system may seem, it doesn’t look like it will be changing any time soon. But it begs the question: Why are we stuck with only these two major parties? How did these specific parties come to be? And are these political parties even necessary for the American government to function?
These may not be simple questions, but they are important ones. American political parties, and the two-party system they populate, began in the late 1790s and have persisted into contemporary politics in the 21st century. The main two parties have grown, changed names, realigned values, and sometimes disbanded while ushering in new parties to replace them, but the divisiveness between whichever the big two may be has remained the same for more than 200 years. Though it sometimes seems the contention between two factions is the source of America’s problems, the parties have their place in democracy, and arguably, may be a healthy sign of a working republic.
Notable Founding Fathers Knew Factions Could Be Dangerous And Even Warned Against Them
The Founding Fathers of the United States warned against the creation of political parties. George Washington, first president of the United States, claimed they were dangerous to democracy in his farewell address to the nation. Washington urged Americans to compromise on their differences rather than allow factions to potentially dominate the political field:
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. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
The first noticeable appearance of political parties was in the 1796 election. This was after George Washington served two terms and decided to step aside. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans were the names of the two parties that formed. Many notable Founding Fathers had chosen sides. Thomas Jefferson aligned with the Democratic-Republicans, while Alexander Hamilton sided with the Federalists.
Other notable Founding Fathers also spoke of the political party system. James Madison, despite later becoming a Democratic-Republican, argued that political factions would prevent tyranny in the United States. But he also said it could be a source of another form of despotism. He recognized that factions would likely become a big deal and recognized that mitigating their effects would be the best plan of action:
The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.
Madison believed that the United States was so large that it would be difficult for one party to gain too much control. Madison argued for political pluralism and suggested it would provide a check for political parties:
Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.
While Madison did see some inherent value in political parties for certain situations, he warned the people of the United States to be cautious of any faction capable of gaining a majority for they may "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens."
Political Parties Are Inevitable Within A Democratically Elected Government
With the United States government framed the way it is, some people have argued that political parties were inevitable from the start. For example, James Madison argued that coalitions are a natural part of democracy and to prevent them from forming a government would destroy the liberty necessary for democracy to function. "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire," Madison wrote, "an aliment without which it instantly expires." Some scholars have argued that political parties are good, while others have argued that they are bad. So, which is it?
Political parties - large and small - are essential to a healthy democracy. The two-party system appears to be deeply rooted in American politics and is not going anywhere soon. The dueling parties provide a check-and-balance system. The smaller parties highlight issues they believe are important, which the larger parties have overlooked. In order to survive, political parties have to build a broad enough platform to cater to their constituency, while people join political parties because they cater to their needs and beliefs for improving democracy, thus creating a coalition around similar beliefs and a platform to express collective needs.
Ultimately, some people argue the modern political system could exist without political parties, but others say it is not possible. Political parties allow for structure within the electoral process and government. They can be useful in many ways when power is divided evenly. Unfortunately, modern political parties have become increasingly polarized since the 1990s, and though not inherently bad, that has had some harmful effects on American political and social systems.
Early Political Parties Were Loose Political Coalitions Based Around Narrow Issues Or People
Early political parties began as coalitions of people that agreed on narrow issues and supported certain people. A coalition is defined as an alliance of groups around a central issue. These issues often lead the group to form a party. As a party, people have more power to make change on a local, national, or global scale.
The Founding Fathers argued over whether the United States should have a strong central government. The early political coalitions or parties formed out of two factions: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists supported ratification of the Constitution, while the Democratic-Republicans opposed a strong central government. The early factions and political parties were more concerned with local politics, while national politics were not quite as important. Essentially, political parties implemented a “bottom-up” approach when it comes to elections.
Later examples of political parties that formed around certain issues include the Populist Party, the Progressive Party, Dixiecrat Party, and the Reform Party. Formed in the late 19th century, the Populist Party lobbied for “the people." Populist ideology has adapted over the years and still exists today. The Progressive Party formed in the early 20th century and lobbied for social reform. The Dixiecrat Party was a party in the 1940s that argued for states' rights. Finally, the Reform Party was known for wanting widespread reform.
Political coalitions and parties support a wide variety of causes. Through lobbying and third-party campaigns, they are often able to force the two major parties to acknowledge issues they deem important.
Larger 'Catch-All' Parties Began To Develop When More People Gained Voting Rights
The Republican Party was founded on March 20, 1854, in Wisconsin. The Republican Party essentially replaced the Whig Party after it dissolved in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. The Republicans rapidly gained success across the United States - winning the presidency in 1860. The politics of American slavery was a divisive point for the two major parties. The South seceded and the American Civil War was fought. The Union won and slavery was abolished by law.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, voting rights were extended to more groups. African Americans, Native Americans, and women were all given the right to vote in all elections. Suffrage for these groups was a long and hard-fought process.
Larger political parties began tailoring their platforms to win the votes of these groups. "Catch-all" platforms are typically very broad. Larger “catch-all” parties often focus on a handful of central points. As more people gained voting rights, it was a logical solution for the larger parties to expand their agendas. This presented voters with a choice - choose the larger party with a broad platform or the smaller party with a narrow platform. Thus, the “catch-all” parties present a problem for the smaller parties. An example of a “catch-all” party was FDR’s New Deal coalition in the 1930s. The Democratic Party was able to rally farmers, laborers, and workers to their cause, while also appealing to many different ethnic groups who were previously excluded from the political system.