The founders made some distinctions between republican principles and the democratic spirit. Republican principles—the idea that people should participate in civic affairs so that the government will act for the common well-being of the people, were considered good and the basis of any government that protected the people’s interests. The democratic spirit, on the other hand, was somewhat feared by the philosophers because of its susceptibility to passion and factional divisions. The framers of the Constitution built in many protections against direct democracy. Originally senators were not appointed by the people. Instead, they were appointed by state legislators. The electoral college is another way that the electing of the president was insulated from direct democracy.
This fear of excessive democracy, factions and political parties, and the divisiveness that might threaten the new republic are evident in George Washington’s farewell address as president. He warned against both geographical divisions, created by the coming together of very different states, as well as the challenges of the “Spirit of Party” which he believed must have limited influence for a republic to survive.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief, that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable.
No alliances, however strict between the parts can be an adequate substitute. They must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a Constitution of Government, better calculated than your former for an intimate
Union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its Laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty …
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations.
Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally. This Spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy …
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the Government itself through the channels of party passions.
Thus the policy and the will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true. But in those [governments] of the popular character, in
Governments purely elective, it is a Spirit not to be encouraged …
It was hoped that a well-regulated republic would avoid the excesses of total democracy. But the country’s founders espoused principles that naturally led to greater public participation. This has led to the democratization of the American government. Democratization means that processes have evolved to include rather than exclude more people in the operation of government. The increasing commitment to a democratic spirit has been an important part of American political culture.
The growth of the political community is an important aspect of this democratization. The idea “all men are created equal” has expanded to take on a more literal meaning beyond white males who own property; all are equal to participate in their government and influence its policies.
The expansion of voting rights is a primary example of democratization. The Constitution stipulated no significant barriers to participation for any citizen of the United States because voter qualifications were left for the states to decide. In the 1790s, suffrage, which is the right to vote, was limited to land-owning (generally defined as fifty acres) white males of at least twenty-one years of age. By the 1830s, the practice of “universal manhood suffrage” allowed any white male to vote, regardless of whether or not he owned land.
This expansion of the political community in the early republic did not include women.
Even as far back as the Revolution, the language of liberty and freedom caused some to question whether women could and should be included in the rhetoric. As Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband John Adams in the spring of 1776:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.
Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
The first stirrings of the battle for women’s suffrage were part of the abolitionist movement to end slavery. Many of its leaders were women who led the moral charge against labor practices. These abolitionists believed the oppression of African-Americans and women were connected because of their common lack of economic and political power. Both groups had limited access to education, and neither could own property or vote. The first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, 1848. The meeting drafted a document that mirrored the language of the Declaration of Independence and used its structure as the model. It demanded that the women be acknowledged as right-bearing individuals and respected by society.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer. While evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
After the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement faced many setbacks and divisions. The passage of the 14th amendment, while a victory for abolitionists, defined citizenship as “male,” adding that word to the constitution for the first time. Women, it was argued, were less intelligent and less able to make political decisions than men. Men could represent their wives better than the wives could represent themselves. Women’s participation in politics would lead to the end of family life. Some even argued there were too many voters already. For women’s suffrage to succeed, men would have to be convinced to vote for it.
The campaign became a state by state battle. and western states, wishing to attract settlers, were the first to allow women to vote. Suffragists countered the opposition with the idea that women would elevate politics, increase the power of the male voters in their families, and protect their homes and children with their vote. In the early twentieth century, Women’s suffrage became a Progressive reform. It was tied to ideas about reducing political corruption and increasing the power of the middle class. Finally, in the wake of World War I, the 19th amendment became law in 1920.
In the 20th century, the expansion of suffrage continued. When Native American tribes were given reservation lands, tribes were also made sovereign (self-governing) nations, and the 14th amendment was interpreted as not applying to Native peoples. As a result, many Native Americans were not considered citizens, and therefore not allowed to vote in federal elections. After thousands of Native Americans fought for the United States during World War I, the push came for the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted Native Americans full U.S. citizenship in addition to their tribal membership. However, the Constitution leaves it up to the individual states to decide who has the right to vote in each state.
Though some states allowed Native Americans to vote immediately, most waited—some even decades. Native Americans lived on reservations, which operate as separate nations. This was one of the reasons used to deny Native American suffrage. The last state to grant suffrage to Native Americans was New Mexico in 1962.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated poll taxes and literacy requirements that restricted some legal voters from voting. Additionally, because of soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam War, the legal voting age was lowered to 18 through the 26th Amendment. Long state residence requirements were also eliminated in the 1980s. This completed the broadest voting base the United States has ever had.
Despite Washington’s warnings, organized political parties became an integral part of the operation of government. As like-minded people exercised their right to assemble, petition, and rally for people and ideas that would push forward their agenda, political parties developed. Many of the early political battles echoed the same controversies discussed during the Constitutional Convention.
The Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, the first political parties, were relatively weak or entrenched in the political process as today’s parties. However, they did provide an opportunity for more active participation in the political process. The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. This is not the same Federalists that favored the Constitution’s ratification. The Federalists believed in a strong central government, a loose interpretation of the Constitution, and a strong economy based on finance and industry. Alexander Hamilton believed that government should be led by a privileged class because the illiterate masses could not be trusted to make important decisions. Hamilton felt these decisions should be left to the ruling elite, who would earn their position by merit. The Democratic Republicans were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They believed in strong state government, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, an America based on an agricultural economy, and government by the common man who could be trusted with the decisions of the republic.
With the election of 1800 came a moment of truth for the United States. Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson beat out Federalist President John Adams for the presidency. It was the first time in the country’s short history that power had changed parties, but despite the bitterly divided contest, the transition of power was peaceful. Thomas Jefferson called this the “Revolution of 1800.” This precedent set the stage for the political “battles” between parties that continue today. Each side agrees to the rule of law and does not attempt to subvert the election outcome.
Parties became a normal and important part of political tradition and the organization of government. Voters developed strong loyalties to certain parties. With universal manhood suffrage, all classes involved themselves in the workings of government. States did away with property requirements for voting, despite opposition from some who feared the expansion of the electorate.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson created the Democratic Party to work for his presidential election. He symbolized the rise of the common man. His party advocated strong state governments and strict constitutional constructionism which favored state supremacy. His main opposition was the Whigs, led by John Quincy Adams, who believed government’s role should be to help encourage finance and industry by building roads and canals and maintaining harbors. The Whigs eventually lost influence as they became divided over the issue of slavery and disappeared in the 1850s.
With the dismantling of the Whigs, a new party emerged in the early 1850s. With the slogan “Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men,” the Republican party positioned itself as the party of western growth, finance, and industry. They brought together anti-slavery forces and ex-Whigs to contain the expansion of slavery. Most of their supporters were in the North and West. The majority of supporters were not abolitionists, but saw slavery as a constitutionally protected state matter. In 1860, with Abraham Lincoln on the ballot, the Republican party won the White House with an electoral college majority but no support from the South. Before Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states seceded from the Union, and the Civil War began in 1861.
The Civil War ended slavery, solidified the position of the Republican Party as one of the two major parties, and established the national government over state government. After the war, Republicans stayed in power. There were only two Democratic presidents in this time period. The famous party symbols developed from Thomas Nast political cartoons—the elephant for the Republicans and the donkey for the Democrats. The images were meant originally as insults but eventually became party mascots. The South remained loyal to the Democratic Party, winning the nickname of “the Solid South.” Former slaves, whose political freedom was severely limited, allied themselves to the Republican party. Loyalty to the party reached its highest point in American history during this time, with voter turnout in the late 1800s reaching levels as high as 75–85%.
At this time, third parties held a significant level of influence in national politics. On the major issues of this period—tariffs, prohibition, and the money supply—the Republicans and Democrats were fairly evenly divided. This allowed third parties, built around specific issues or personalities, to champion causes The major parties avoided. During this era, the Greenback Party, Prohibition Party, Populist Party, Socialist Party, and Progressive Party all ran candidates and received a significant amount of public support. William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs were closely aligned with the third party movement. Though none of the third parties actually elected a president, they influenced the political debate and the outcomes of the elections.
The Great Depression created a national crisis. Because the Republicans were in power at the time, they were blamed for the issues (particularly President Hoover). The Depression caused a shift in party loyalties during the presidential election of 1932. Democratic nominee Franklin Roosevelt promised to use the power of the government to combat the national emergency, and built a new coalition of supporters. As a result of this loyalty shift, the Democratic Party gained support from voters outside the South—namely immigrants, Jews, and African Americans. This Democratic block of voters was referred to as the “New Deal Coalition.” Those who continued to support the Republican Party were mostly white-collar workers, big business, and large farmers. But during the Great Depression these were in the minority which helped Franklin Roosevelt win four straight presidential elections.
With the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, party loyalty shifted again. As the Democratic Party began to be seen as allied to the struggle for equality and political power for African Americans, the Republican party began to make inroads into the “Solid South” and became the dominant party. The New Deal coalition built during the Roosevelt years broke up because Democrats began looking for supporters among minority, urban, and progressive voters.
In general, the United States has seen a decline in political party loyalties and a rise in political party independence. People in the U.S. do not vote in the numbers they once did. Voter apathy, reduced party loyalty, frustration with the political system, lack of inspiring candidates—all have been suggested as reasons for lower participation rates. There is an increasing number of independent voters, implying that people voted more for the candidate than for the party. There is an increasing significance of ideological labels rather than party labels to describe political philosophies.
A two-party system, a result of democratization, has two main political parties vying for control. These large parties seek broad voter support in order to win elections and control public policy. The tradition of the two-party system developed in the United States for a number of reasons. First, there was the Constitutional requirement of the electoral college for choosing a president. So a candidate must garner more than half the total Electoral College votes, not just a majority. Three or more major parties vying for the electoral college votes would frequently result in no candidate getting a majority. The election of the president would then be turned over to Congress and the people would have less say on who would be elected. Second, there is a strong tradition of constituent representation in the United States.
The two-party system perpetuates itself. First, existing parties make the rules to perpetuate their power. The “Winner-takes-all” rules exist because of this. Because there is only one winner and the loser gets nothing, there is “strategic voting” and the “wasted vote” theory. Voters choose not to support parties that they do not view as “viable.” The lack of voter support discourages formation of minor parties. Fewer parties flourish, so existing parties make the rules to perpetuate their power, and so on.
Representatives are expected to represent a specific district, and it is expected that these representatives will be elected by a majority of the popular vote in those districts. The organization of Congress also depends upon the two-party system: the Senate Majority Leader is the head of the party with the most people in the Senate and the Speaker of the House is the head of the party with the most people in the House of Representatives. Political parties also provide leadership and cooperation in the executive branch because members of the cabinet are often chosen from the same party as the president. There have been very few times in American history when the party in office for president also held the majority in Congress. This means that there has to be cooperation and compromise between the legislative and executive branches, forming a check and balance on each other so that one party does not gain too much power.
Third, there are the election laws and finance laws that have been put into place to protect the two-party system. The election laws in many states only allow candidates from parties that ran candidates in the previous election. This makes it difficult for third-parties and independents to run. The finance laws are equally exclusive. If a presidential candidate represents a political party that received at least 2% of the popular vote in the last election, they will receive money from the national government for their campaign. However, it is highly unlikely that any member of a third party will receive that percentage of the vote when facing the two major parties.
Third parties, however, do provide a forum to alternative voices. These upstarts seldom get their candidates elected, but they can affect the outcome of elections and push their ideas into the political conversation. Third parties develop when segments of the population feel locked out of the political debate by the two major parties. Abolition of slavery, prohibition, monetary policy, income tax, government regulation of transportation and communication systems, the eight-hour day, and protecting the environment all came from third party efforts.
In the American political tradition, there are three types of third parties. The first is a party built around a specific issue. The Republican Party began as a third party dedicated to limiting the expansion of slavery. The Anti-Masonic Party was dedicated to keeping political control out of the hands of the Masons. The Greenback Party of the late 1800s urged the government to manage the money supply by printing paper money. The Dixiecrats of 1948 were opposed to Harry Truman’s efforts to desegregate the military and other civil rights measures. One of the most successful issue parties was the Populist Party of the 1880s and 1890s. They worked to give the people more of a voice in government and protect the people from the capitalistic power of monopolies and trusts.
Another type of third party is the personality party. These parties are built around the personality of a charismatic leader rather than party or issues. Examples of personality parties are Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, George Wallace’s American Independent Party, and Ross Perot’s Reform Party.
Finally, there is the ideological party. These include the Libertarian, Green, Socialist, and Communist parties. These parties are based on social, economic, or political ideologies that are too far to the right or left to fit into mainstream American politics. Although ideological parties have never been very successful at getting candidates elected, in periods of economic and/or social stress they have received significant voter support.
There has also been evidence of a single party challenge to the American two-party system. A single-party system is when one party dominates and controls all policy; this is not always a dictatorship, nor does it mean that there is no political conflict. It just means that one party has come to dominate elections. In some areas one of the two major parties has been discredited to the point that a true two-party system does not exist. A demonstration of this type of single-party can be found on local ballots for county commissioner, clerk, and assessor positions. This can be a dangerous situation as the ruling party can ignore its constituents because it can depend on their support. The minority party also ignores the voice of the people because it can never gain enough traction to gain political power. Without two healthy competing parties, the voice of the people can be stifled. These one-party political systems are often regional rather than national challenges, but they also form an important part of American political culture.
There are other types of party systems in place around the world. The most common alternatives are single party systems and multi-party systems. These alternatives may seem obvious, but they too have developed out of the existing political culture to meet the needs of people in certain situations. A single party system is where only one party exists, as in a dictatorship for example, or where only one party can get enough support from the people to win elections and influence policy. A multi-party system has three or more parties, each with a chance of winning elections; these are most often found in parliamentary systems where parties are awarded seats in parliament based on a percentage of votes cast rather than on which party receives the most votes in a particular area.
“Conservative” and “liberal” are ideological labels. The policies and issues that a conservative or liberal believes in today may be quite different from what they believed eighty or ninety years ago. Also, ideological labels are not inherently connected to political parties. As we look back through history or at present conditions in many countries, those who supported popular government and the Free Market economy were often called the liberals because democracy and the free market represented a change from tyranny and oppression. In other words, the conservative party in one time period could become the “liberal” party in another. Throughout much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic Party was considered to be the conservative party and the Republican Party the liberal party. To gain an understanding of the role political ideology has played and continues to play in American politics, it is important to start with generic definitions of the terms.
The generic definition of conservatism: disposition in politics to preserve what is established. If conservatives advocate change, it is usually a change to return to traditional ideas, values, and institutions. Those who supported the tyrant and defended the rich against the poor were called the “conservatives” because tyrants and the power of the rich had been the status quo of the world. Not all conservatives are equal in their defense of the status quo or in their desire to return to the policies and practices of the past. Conservatives differ from each other based on their level of commitment to issues, ideas, and ideological principles. Reactionaries, or extreme conservatives, will sometimes use force and violence if necessary to promote their goals.
The generic definition of liberalism: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. A great example of this type of liberal thinking would be Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to the Great Depression. Hoover was more constrained in his policies because of his conservatism; FDR was more willing to try new ideas, programs, and policies because of his liberalism.
Conservatism and liberalism can be represented on a continuum, with the conservatives on the right and the liberals on the left. When the two ends of the ideological continuum are put together, a clearer picture of the entire scope of political ideology in the world and in our own country becomes apparent. Notice especially the position of the ideologically “moderate” on the continuum.
Some historians and political scientists like to draw the Ideological Continuum as a circle instead of a straight line because the goals at the extremes are different, but all extremists resort to the same methods to obtain their goals. Some examples of these extreme methods are warfare, terrorist activities, and assassinations. Extreme groups may use violence, force, and fear to obtain their goals.
Internationally an example of this extremism using similar methods would be Stalin and Hitler. Hitler was a reactionary (conservative) who used violence and intimidation to gain and maintain power while Stalin was a revolutionary (liberal) who used violence and intimidation to gain and maintain power.
In nations where dictators or chaos governs, extremism is a way of life and is the foundation of political traditions and governing power. In many democratic nations of the world, active politicians with political clout and influence can also be extremists. Political traditions in these countries, although strongest in the center, are also shaped, molded, and influenced by extremist political parties and groups.
In the United States, our political traditions have been pushed more towards the center. The operation of the two-party system, and the compromise it requires, tends to lock out extremists. Extremists exist but don’t have significant influence on government policies. The American political character has a strong commitment to the Rule of Law—to fairness and justice—that allows us to come to a consensus on basic political principles and to ensure that the rights of everyone are represented. The nature of the Constitutional system in America requires compromise in the process of lawmaking and policy. And the two-party system makes it so that both parties must seek support from as many Americans as possible.
Today the Democratic Party is usually considered to be the liberal party in America because liberals feel more comfortable there, but the Democrats often attract those who consider themselves to be moderate conservatives. The Republican Party is often referred to as the conservative party today because conservatives feel more comfortable there, but the Republicans often attract those who consider themselves to be moderate Democrats. In fact both parties seek to attract those in the middle rather than on the fringe right or left because there are more moderate voters in the center than there are at the extreme right or left.
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