Ask most any American high school student to describe the political system in the United States and she’ll almost certainly mention our “two party system”. On the one hand, that seems a bit odd since the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of political parties whatsoever. But on the other hand, two broad-based political parties (the Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party) were founded in 1791 – 1792 and we have had political parties in the United States ever since.
The first major ideological division in the new republic was between federalists, who wanted to increase the power of the central government, and anti-federalists, who preferred to keep power in the hands of the states, local communities and the people. A compromise between these two factions gave us our Constitution, balanced by our Bill of Rights.
The first two formal political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, grew out of these two factions. In fact, it could be argued that the battle between federalists and anti-federalists never ended. It certainly took center stage at the time of the Civil War and, as we shall see, it is still the dominant theme in U.S. politics today.
While the identity of the political parties has changed over time, it is fair to say that in every era American politics has been dominated by a pair of political alliances that hark back to federalist/anti-federalist roots. It is not for lack of trying that third and fourth parties have not taken hold but rarely has one of these parties had a major, lasting impact on the course of electoral politics in the U.S…unless it became the ‘second party’ itself.
In 1829, for example, the Whigs split from the Democratic-Republican Party and instantly became the second party. Likewise, in the 1850’s the modern Republican Party appeared and quickly became the second party absorbing many Whigs in the process.
No matter how great the upheaval, the two-party system seems to be the state of equilibrium that the American political system seeks. What makes this state of affairs doubly curious is that it is not the global norm.
Many countries have multiple political parties. They have traditions of coalition building and/or systems of proportional representation that make such diversity work. Still other countries have single party systems and handle the permitted spectrum of ideological diversity under a single tent. In the larger cultural and historical context, the two party system seems to be odd man out.
Whenever we stumble on such an oddity, a ‘black swan’ if you will, it is wise to go back and check our assumptions. Earlier, we took it for granted that our high school student knew what she was talking about when she described our politics as a “two party system”. She did not!
Today at least, the two party system in the United States is nothing but an illusion, however popular and cherished it may be. Today at least, the United States is a classic one party state. Here we are not going to address the question of whether the U.S. ever had a two party system of government; we’re going to focus on the state of politics today and let our readers draw their own conclusions concerning prior eras.
On the surface, the notion that our highly competitive political process is actually a one party system seems patently absurd. To understand it, it is necessary to understand the true nature of a political party.
Whether a society has one party, two parties or many parties, the character of those parties remains the same. Structurally, they consist of men and women with broadly common interests. Organically, they work to translate those interests into a set of policy imperatives, an agenda. Socially, they seek to influence the course of government, the state, according to that agenda. This all parties in all political systems have in common.
When that definition of a political party is applied to the American political system today, it is clear that we have only one such political party, the modern Democratic Party.
On the surface, today’s Democratic Party constituents seem quite varied: civil servants, union members, entitlement beneficiaries, university professors, celebrities, trust fund babies and other folks with large amounts of surplus income. But on further scrutiny, it is clear that all of these groups have one major interest in common: the preservation and protection of the status quo.
Look close: these groups have little to gain by rocking the boat…and much to lose. They have arrived at their niche in society, however modest or lofty it may be; they have more fear of back sliding than hope of advancing.
So how does that translate into an agenda? Simple: nothing guarantees the status quo more effectively that a large and powerful government. As Karl Marx understood, the political state inevitably reflects the actual state of affairs in a society and, like all organisms, the state always seeks its own preservation above all else. The state exists first and foremost to protect and conserve what is because what is the basis of that state’s power and identity.
Whatever its origins or early aspirations, today’s Democratic Party is focused on swelling the size and power of government. Of course, no one would admit to such an agenda. The agenda is always expressed in terms of solving some worthy social problem. But here’s the tip-off to what’s really going on: no matter what the problem, the solution is always the same…more government.
Whatever the ideological justification, proposed policies always entail an expansion of government power. Increased spending makes government a more and more important economic player. Increased taxation gives government a larger and larger share of personal incomes and national wealth. Increasing social benefits makes individuals more and more dependent on government for their livelihood and well-being. Increased regulation gives government more and more control over commerce and enterprise.
Potential solutions that might not require additional governmental intervention or, God forbid, that might actually reduce government’s role in society are never seriously considered. They reside outside the universe of acceptable political discourse; they live in the rarefied air of Washington think tanks…and neighborhood bar rooms.
According to the theory of one party rule, it is the role of the party to pressure the state on behalf of those individuals and groups disadvantaged by the status quo. The party is a watchdog, keen to ferret out injustice in every crag and cranny of society, and a pressure group, aggressively advocating reforms that will improve peoples’ lives. No doubt, most modern Democrats see their party just this way.
But as we all know, in politics practice is often at odds with theory. In fact, political parties in one-party states inevitably become advocates for the state itself. Instead of maintaining a healthy tension with the powers that be, the party and the state come to live symbiotically, reinforcing one another at every turn. Consider the People’s Republic of China, for example.
I anticipate two major challenges to this thesis. First, over the past 50 years, Democrats have been in forefront of a number of civil rights struggles. They have challenged the status quo time and again and often they have successfully overturned it. How then can anyone say that their party’s agenda is the preservation and protection of the status quo?
Like all institutions, political parties are made up of human beings, not abstract ideologies. Human beings bring with them more than just economic and social self-interest. They also bring values. Political parties have ideologies that define them…but they also have cultures. The two have little or nothing to do with one another.
Consider a sports team for example. It has a culture but that culture doesn’t tell you anything about how the team performs on the field. Or a church: the culture is often unrelated to the doctrines that define its religion. So it is with political parties.
Take the Democratic Party. This was not the party of civil rights in 1860 or in 1912. In fact, it was not until Hubert Humphrey’s speech to the Democratic Convention in 1948 that civil rights began to be an important Democratic value. That speech, of course, caused a schism in the party that was not truly resolved until the late 70’s.
Today’s Democratic Party effectively champions the rights of various minorities but the economic policies the party advocates often do not benefit those constituencies. There is a disconnect between the values the party sincerely preaches and the policies it necessarily promotes. Those policies, at the end of the day, preserve and protect the status quo.
Second, what about the Republican Party? Is that not a worthy second party? Worthy, yes – Republicans have controlled government about 50% of the time since 1980. Party, no – the so-called Republican Party is not a political party at all but simply a coalition of groups whose interests are opposed to the increasing power of the state.
Small business owners, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, social conservatives, libertarians, all find shelter in the Republican tent, even though they agree on almost nothing…except their opposition to expanding the role of government in society. There is no hope of merging these interests into a consensus agenda.
Take Obamacare for example. Virtually every so-called Republican in against it. Yet in the 6 years since it’s passage the party had not even once proposed a comprehensive alternative. “Repeal and replace!” Good enough…but with what?
It is commonplace to decry the Republican Party as “negative”, “obstructionist”, “the party of No!” And so it is. That is, in fact, its proper role in American politics. In or out of power, the Republican Party is in permanent opposition. As such, it is not a political party at all.
Conversely, even when the Democrats are out of power, it is still their agenda that dominates the political discourse. Even when it is in power, the Republican Party is still the opposition party and so it typically governs badly.
We often hear that the Democratic Party is a big tent…and so it is. But unlike Republicans, Democrats, no matter how apparently diverse, agree on most everything. Dissent, if any should arise, is quickly resolved. In truth, it is not hard to enforce such ideological purity because all Democratic constituencies share a common interest: the preservation and protection of the status quo through growth in government.
Republican constituencies, on the other hand, only share a broad discomfort with things as they are: taxes are too high, regulations too tight, opportunities too scarce, security too lax, morals too loose. No polling question is more favorable to Republicans than the famous, “Do you feel that America is heading in the right direction?”
Almost without exception, Republicans have a vision of something better for themselves, for their families, for their communities, for their country. They put hope of advancement ahead of any fears. Resisting the growth of government power, and even rolling it back where possible, is usually not an end in itself for these constituencies but a common means to very disparate ends.
Politics is befuddling for most Americans, so much so that it turns them off. We hunger for substance but get nothing but slogans, clichés and personal attacks. The illusion of a two party political system prevents us from understanding the true nature of our politics and the true significance of our electoral choices. But when we reframe our understanding and acknowledge that we live in a one party state with a loyal opposition, things become a great deal clearer and the political process becomes interesting again.