Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Origin of the Two Party System, Pt. 1

In my last essay I covered the effects of the American two party system of politics, most importantly the lack of real choice in presidential politics after WWII (when voters essentially had a choice between a center-right moderate and a center-left moderate until the move to the left by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and the nomination of conservative Senator Barry Goldwater by the Republicans in 1964) and today (when voters have the choice of a reactionary 'conservative' party who wish to undo all social reforms across the board and let corporations and religious fundamentalists run the country and a conservative 'liberal' party whose leaders wish to protect programs under attack by the right but have very few new ideas they are willing to pursue with vision and vigor). In this column I will begin to describe the process by which the system in place today evolved.

The very first 'party line' dispute in the history of the United States was far from inconsiderable or irrelevant, to be fair. The first 'political parties' in U.S. were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. For a period of one year (1787-1788), with no 'election' as we understand it involved, they disputed the single most important issue the country would grapple with for many years. The Federalists advocated the ratification of the United States Constitution and the Anti-Federalists opposed said document.

The Anti-Federalist argument is quite familiar today, even still quite in vogue in conservative political circles. The Anti-Federalists were opposed to the Constitution for one simple reason: an organized, centralized national government could grow strong enough to threaten the individual liberty of its citizens. When one considers the Patriot Act, the theory in the Bush administration that the President can do as he likes without consequence because he is President, and the rapid encroachment of federal law enforcement on personal freedoms during the Clinton era and states' right to legislate for themselves in the Bush era one starts to seriously see the Anti-Federalists' point. A powerful government is certainly very capable of threatening our liberty.

The Federalist argument, however, was crushing to any opposition. At the time of the debate over the Constitution, the United States had no genuine central national authority. The consequences were battering the country. The fiat currency issued by the Continental Congress had little to no real value. As a result, it was ignored in favor of money issued by the various states (which was worthless when one crossed from Massachusetts to Connecticut) and hard British currency (which was extremely rare and in very short supply); the results were brutal hyperinflation. The country's economic chaos meant that even those whose income and labor would have entitled them to a middle class or upper class lifestyle in England were living in effective poverty in the United States. A strong central government would have the power to take steps to end the economic crisis by minting coinage and issuing money with real value. Likewise, a strong central government would have the power to organize a military defense against any renewed attempt by outside powers to conquer the United States by force.

The Federalists won, the Constitution was ratified, and (in the only 'non-partisan' election in the history of the United States) George Washington was elected president. With the ratification of the constitution and Washington's elections, there were no longer 'political parties' in the literal sense of the word.

There was, however, a growing and divisive spirit of factionalism that would lead to the creation of the first true political parties in United States history. Alexander Hamilton, Washington's dynamic Secretary of the Treasury (who enjoyed something very close to a father-son relationship with the first president) had a broad and sweeping vision of what government could be and could accomplish. Hamilton was not a 'liberal' in the modern sense of the word. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he had made an eloquent but irrelevant speech in favor of a parliamentary monarchy on the British model. It did little to affect the final product of the convention, but served to cement his image in the minds of others as an 'aristocrat' and a 'monarchist.' He believed that interesting the wealthy in the succes or failure of the nation was critical, and that available capital would lead to a more diverse economy. Rather than the government subsidizing the rich, as the modern 'pro-business' politicians often appear wont to do, Hamilton's vision was of the rich investing in the government and the interest on the debt would generate capital that would keep the wealthy active in business for the good of all. His belief in the idea that 'what was good for business will be good for the country' was comparable to many of the neoconservatives and moderate Democrats of today. All the same, Hamilton's vision of government and his belief in a credit based economy driven by a funded national debt would become the basis of modern American political liberalism in the future.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, on the other hand, were very much alarmed by Hamilton's economic vision. They were southerners and they saw a credit-based, money-driven economy as a threat to the land-based economy of the southern states. It is ironic that the aristocratic, landed slave-owners of the South would attack Hamilton's economic policy as 'seeking to create an aristocracy' and his use of government power to establish his economic vision as 'monarchist' and launch their own political opposition in the name of 'the common man.' They believed, firmly, in limited government, literal interpretation of the Constitution, and states' rights. They saw the states as independent, sovereign entities and the federal government as a forum in which these separate entities agreed on common policy. They did not believe the central government had power over the internal affairs of the states (beyond that articulated in the Constitution) and their vision of a nation of yeoman farmers was incompatible with Hamilton's economic agenda. While the vision of the states as independent entities to which the federal government is subordinate ended with the Civil War, the Jeffersonian idea of limited government would become the cornerstone of American political conservatism for many years. This is the conservatism advanced by Herbert Hoover, Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater in their days and the conservatism of Ron Paul today. Its resemblance to the tide of religious and social reaction labeled 'conservatism' in the modern era can be debated both ways.

It should be noted that the aristocratic planters of Virginia and the rest of the South were anything but 'yeoman farmers' and that the self-made Hamilton, born illegitimately and into poverty, was anything but an 'aristocrat.' However, self-image and political perception can be very different than reality. Both sides very likely saw themselves as campaigning to save the country from the folly of the other and each certainly saw themselves as the champions of 'ordinary Americans.' Neither was entirely right. While Hamilton was certainly more of a 'common man' than Jefferson or Madison, his policies could easily be interpreted as favoring moneyed wealth over craftsmen and farmers. While Jefferson and Madison embarked on their crusade against today's conservatives call 'big government' in the genuine desire to protect what they saw as the rights of ordinary Americans, their vision of what the 'ordinary American' really was happened to be warped by their own experience as aristocratic scions of Famous Families of Virginia.

The pro-business, pro-bank, pro-national government party that grew up around Hamilton would take the name of the faction that had promoted the Constitution: the Federalists. The pro-agriculture, anti-bank, states' rights party founded actively by Jefferson and Madison would take the name 'Republican' and would eventually become known as the 'Democratic-Republican' party. The modern Democratic party's roots can be traced directly back to the Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson through clear lines of descent, but its modern ideological basis as developed by Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson is in the vision of Alexander Hamilton. The Republican party's origins are more difficult to accurately trace, but the bulk of their modern ideology as developed by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan owes its existence to the vision of Jefferson and Madison.

George Washington, in his famous Farewell Address, warned Americans to forsake the spirit of party. They didn't listen. The spirit of party would rule American politics for the administrations of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Its short term conquest in the 'Era of Good Feeling' of James Monroe's presidency would be proven to be a lull before the storm. That, however, is for a future essay.

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