Monday, August 10, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part I

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

Back in June, Bill Maher was railing about the lack of options in the voting both, hyperbolically pointing out that "We don't need a third party, we need a first party." (Exaggeration aside, what he meant was we desperately need third parties.) He then went on to describe his ideal platform and driving principles for such a third party. Oh, if only such a thing as he desired existed! The thing is, what he described does exist. But Maher's complaint echoes often. Everyone seems to be asking, "Why doesn't someone start a third party that matches my goals?" And the answer, when one if given, is often the same: "Someone has."

For instance, most people—even those clamoring for "a new third party"—don't even realize how many candidates there were for president in 2008. Sure, everyone knows about Obama and McCain. But there were four other candidates who were on the ballot in enough states that they could potentially get the necessary 270 electoral votes to win. There were eight more who were on the ballot in at least one state. And there are dozens more parties in the country that didn't nominate a presidential candidate last election, but have recently nominated candidates for other offices. The problem, therefore, is not simply a lack of choices.

Bill Maher knows the Green party exists. But he also knows that they don't matter. It's a two-party system, and when people are railing how "someone" should just make a new party, what they really are crying out for is a change in the two-party system. The way I see it, there are two ways to meet that goal: the one I advocate for is a spoiler-free election method, which I believe would, by avoiding Duverger's Law, cause and end to a two-party dominated system. The other? History.

A Brief History of Political Parties in the United States

To know where you're going, first you have to know where you've been. Since the 1960s, political history in the US has been examined through a framework called the "party system", numbering periods of stability, separated by short spans of realignment. In other words, the times when the two parties at the forefront of American politics changed. There have been at least five such stable periods. There is debate to whether we are still in the fifth or are now in the sixth; or perhaps we are in an unstable realignment period, in which case the lessons to be learned are all-the-more valuable. (The following are chock-full of Wikipedia links, and I encourage you to read up on aspect which you find particularly interesting.)

First Cabinet Fight through Nomination Failure

The first party system, which solidified early in George Washington's first term from disagreements between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ended when, after twelve years of one party rule (Hamilton's Federalist party having become irrelevant after the War of 1812), the Democratic-Republican party split over a failure to settle on a single nominee for president in 1824, and so four candidates split the electoral vote. One faction, backing Andrew Jackson (who had led the popular vote and the electoral vote, but lost the election (if you thought Democrats were pissy about Al Gore, you ain't seen nothin')), became the Democratic party (from which the modern Democratic party draws its lineage). The other faction, backing John Quincy Adams and made up of many former members of the Federalist party and some long-time D-R members who opposed Jackson for their own reasons, became the National Republican Party (no relation to the modern party), which shortly reorganized as the Whig party.

So that's one way to shift the two-party system that's been shown to work; take an existing major party in wide-spread popular decline, resign to 12 years of defeat, during which you infiltrate the opposition, then use parliamentary shenanigans to exacerbate "intra"-party resentment, and be re-born with a slightly new direction. This also perfectly highlights one of the big drivers of the two-party systems: when there are more than two strong candidates, vote-splitting leads to unexpected (and unpopular) results.

More to Come in Part II!

1 comment:

  1. I think it shows that the strength of the US president has both tended to favor their being strong parties and made it harder for there to be a single party to remain in domination.