The Enduring Two Party System


This is part 1 of 2 posts about third parties in American politics.  This part concerns the history of the two party system as it usually functions.  The next article will address attention to our current dismal prospects.

My high school government teacher, Gerald Pinkham,  once told us to find the section of the Constitution that deals with political parties. We went scrambling through the document while he watched from his professorial perch in the front of the room. Being a diligent student of government, I wanted to claim the honor, but like all the other students, I failed.

The Constitution, I learned and never forgot that day, says nothing about political parties. George Washington warned against political parties and factions in his Farewell Address, but he, himself, had sided with Alexander Hamilton and against Thomas Jefferson numerous times in a series of recurring political divides.  That was the background to the first two political parties, which were the Federalists, who claimed Washington and elected John Adams, and the Republicans, the party of Jefferson and James Madison.  The political tensions between Washington and Jefferson are the subject matter of Thomas Fleming’s excellent book The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.

James Madison was closer to the realities of political life when he discussed the inevitability of avoiding political factions in Federalist #10. Madison says that “faction is a part of human nature.”  While factions create strife in the body politic, the suppression of factions or differences is far worse.  If a student were to read and study only 1 of the 85 essays in The Federalist, number 10 would be the best choice.

Madison’s successor as President, James Monroe, enjoyed a brief political respite known as “The Era of Good Feelings” in 1820 when there was no opposition to his re-election.  One lone elector did refuse to cast his vote for Monroe on the grounds that he believed only President Washington was deserving of a unanimous electoral vote.  The unity and political harmony of this time was not to last.  It was, as the saying goes, the calm before the storm.

Four years later (1824), four men contended for the Presidency in one of the most bitter elections ever.   The candidates represented different sections of the country.  John Quincy Adams was from New England.  William H. Crawford was from Georgia, while Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson both represented the growing political power of the west.

Jackson, who could just as easily face a man in a duel as in a political race, won a plurality of popular and electoral votes.  Adams came in second, while Crawford was in third place.  Henry Clay was fourth, but he managed to play a key role in the post-election day events.  No candidate had won a majority in the electoral college, and the matter was then sent to the House of Representatives.  According to the Constitution, the House would chose from the top three candidates.  Crawford was basically ruled out due to being in third place and due to a stroke he had suffered.  Jackson felt confident that he was the true winner, but after the matter went to the House, Adams emerged as the winner.

In what was referred to as “the corrupt bargain,” Jackson accused Adams and Henry Clay of conspiring against him.  Clay held the powerful position of Speaker of the House, and then was picked by Adams to be the Secretary of State.  At that point in time, J. Q. Adams was the fourth President who had been Secretary of State. John Quincy Adams’ victory, with an assist from Henry Clay, gave him four unhappy years in the White House.

The 1824 loser, Andrew Jackson, basically restructured the party of Jefferson which morphed from being the Republican Party (not to be confused with the later party of the same name) to the Democratic Party.  The power base of the party shifted from the east coast to the west.  The farmers and workers of the country found a voice in the Indian fighter and the winner of the Battle of New Orleans.  Jackson’s populism won the hearts of much of the laboring and farming folk.

Jackson had the pleasure of crushing both Adams in 1828 and Clay in 1832 in further elections. At that point, the opponents of Jackson called themselves Whigs, which came from the British political party that stood in loyal opposition to the King’s Tory party.  As a political party, the Whigs were largely united only by their opposition to King Andrew, as they called Jackson.  For most of the elections from 1828 to 1856, the two parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

Elections either changed the country, or more likely reflected or corresponded with changes already surging.  On occasion, when the two major parties overlooked a political hot spot, other parties would rise up.  In ante-bellum America, nativism, which was an opposition to foreign immigrants, attracted enough support to field some candidates in a party known as the Know Nothings (who had one of the most apt names in political history).  After periods of division, the recurring pattern was always the return of the two party system. Although not in the Constitution and often challenged by events, the system is as much a part of the American way as are elections themselves.

This is because elections are always two-party events. You have a winning party and a losing party. You have a majority and a minority. All countries with elections end up with those in power and those out of power. One person once described the multiparty system in totalitarian countries as being one party in power and the others in jail.

Many European countries have multiple political parties. Those with parliamentary governments, often modeled after Britain, then have their prime minister and his or her cabinet chosen by a coalition that pulls together a majority vote. Coalitions are made up of different groups who agree to come together for limited specific purposes. Coalitions are inherent in human nature and society.

When one part of the coalition breaks with the other, elections are called for and a different coalition takes office.

The two main parties in the United States are the Democratic and Republican Parties. This has been the case since 1856. Prior to that, it was the Democratic and Whig Parties. The Republican Party of today arose out of a coalition of Free Soilers, opponents of slavery (including both abolitionists and those who mainly opposed the spread of slavery), Know Nothings (who had the neatest name in political history), and northern Whigs. (In 1860, a group of southern Whigs, known as Cotton Whigs, competed in the election by running John Bell for President.) The Whig Party itself was a fragile coalition of interests that only elected two Presidents, both of whom died in office. Their greater leaders, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, never won the high office. Interesting side point:  Both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln were Whig party members in the years before the Civil War.

Both the Democrat and Republican Parties are coalition parties.

                                                Democrats have a coalition of African-Americans, union members, certain ethnic groups like Jews,                                                                                    and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

                                           The Republican coalition consists of conservative evangelicals, pro-business conservatives, supporters of a strong military,                                            and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

This next point is not original, and I am not sure from whom I learned it: In Europe, political parties form coalitions and govern after an election. In America, political parties form coalitions before an election.  This forming of a political coalition is what is fought out during the primary and caucus season.  The conventions in the summer are designed to further meld the coalitions together.  Party unity is a prime feature of both parties’ election plans and hopes.

For these reasons, political Presidential candidates play the primary roles in uniting their parties. Much of this coalescing comes in the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to help keep the south in the Democrat column. In 1968, Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew to help cement southern conservative support. In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, then a moderate, chose the more liberal Water Mondale. Reagan the more western and ideological outsider chose George H. W. Bush, who had strong ties to the more eastern and establishment wings of the party. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts chose Lloyd Bentson of Texas, hoping to replicate JFK and LBJ’s 1960. Bob Dole chose former political rival Jack Kemp, more of a favorite of Reaganites. Barack Obama, with his ties to the more liberal wings of the Democrat party,  chose Joe Biden, whose strengths were found in the traditional labor union, blue collar Catholic Democrat voters.

In painful contrast to those examples, Senator Barry Goldwater, having won the nomination in a fractious convention, chose the unknown conservative Congressman William Miller for his Vice Presidential candidate.  He should have chosen George Romney of Michigan or William Scranton of Pennsylvania.

While Presidential candidates might prefer choosing a political clone, they often look for the person who in some way balances the ticket geographically, temperamentally, or ideologically. For this reason, voters are often more happy with the Vice Presidential candidate than with the Presidential candidate, or visa versa. It’s not just politics; rather, it is smart politics.

This brings us back around to the place of third parties. There have been a number of third parties that have impacted elections, but none have won. (One might argue that the newly formed Republican Party won in 1860.) Often third parties threaten to deny any candidate a majority in the electoral college and thus throw the election to the House of Representatives. (Go back to the election of 1828 to see how that works.) If a third party candidate gets enough votes to deny either major party the 270 electoral votes, then the House picks a winner. Each state gets one vote, and with the Republicans in control of the House currently, the winner this year would most probably be the Republican candidate.

In American election history, third parties have usually divided the votes between the two candidates who are closest and given the election to the remaining party. In 1912, William Howard Taft, Republican incumbent, and Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican President then running on the Bull Moose Ticket, split the Republican votes and gave the election to Woodrow Wilson, Democrat. Wilson won the election with fewer votes than the previous and losing Democrat candidate had received.

In 1968, George Wallace appealed to enough southern voters to threaten Richard Nixon’s chances of winning the Presidency. Enough voters who leaned toward Wallace feared that a vote for him would put Democrat liberal Hubert Humphrey in the White House. In 1992, many Reagan Republicans defected from their party to support Ross Perot’s independent bid. While Bill Clinton might have won without the Perot candidacy, it sure didn’t hurt him.

Most third parties, such as Ross Perot’s American Party, fizzle out after an election or two and their main issues are absorbed by one or both of the main parties. This, by the way, is what zapped the Socialist Party in America when Franklin Roosevelt came to power.  Richard Nixon worked hard within the parameters of his Southern Strategy to pick up the vote in 1972 that went to Wallace in 1968.

If a third party gets traction, one or both of the major parties pick up on the issues that are getting attention.  The result is usual the quick death of the third party, or its being reduced to irrelevancy.  Once again, the pattern continues.  In America, we build political coalitions before an election.  In Europe, the coalitions are formed afterwards.

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