The Donkey and the Elephant

The Donkey and the Elephant

In the last four years, partisan politics have reached a new low in our nation. Everyone deplores this, but the American people made their preference clear in the last presidential election, with a landslide vote for Biden and the Democrats, against Trump and his party (whatever that is, the Republican Party or some nightmare of a Trumpist party).

Agonies in the Republican Party become more evident every day. Is it time for a new party? A third major party? The revamping of the GOP? For that matter, united as they seem to be, Democrats also have internal fault lines—progressive versus conservative—within their fold.

Since the 1850s, the Democratic Party—center left and liberal—and the Republican Party—center right and conservative—have formed our two-party system, with variations. (Third parties do operate in the United States and sometimes elect candidates to local offices, but have not made inroads per se nationally. The largest third party since the 1980s has been the Libertarian Party—founded in 1972 and bent on reducing mission size, influence, and expenditures in all levels of government. But they, the left-wing Green Party, the conservative Constitution Party, and other smaller parties receive minimal support and only appear on the ballot in a few states.)

The two ruling parties have institutionalized themselves in our political system. We learn about them in school. We think of them as a given. Campaign finance laws are skewed in their favor. They get preferential ballot access. Congressional leaders and members win legislative committee assignments. Executive branch appointments usually follow party lines. What’s more, taxpayers foot the bill for primary elections, notwithstanding the fact that legally, parties are private associations.

All this, despite the Framers of the Constitution having been intensely opposed to parties (factions, as they termed them), because they desperately wanted to avoid the divisions that had torn England apart in the civil wars of the 17th century, and many of them saw parties as corrupt relics of the monarchical British system. George Washington’s family had fled England precisely to avoid such wars, so it’s not surprising that he said, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely . . . , to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Alexander Hamilton called political parties “the most fatal disease of popular governments.” John Adams said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties.” James Madison wrote, “One of the functions of a well-constructed union should be its tendency to break and control the violence of factions.” Only Jefferson, returning from diplomatic service in France during the Constitutional Convention, came back without a clear record of his convictions. On the one hand, he claimed that if he were unable to go to heaven unless as a member of a political party, he would eschew going to heaven, but on the other he managed to create and lead a political party while insisting parties were evil agents. (Jefferson lived comfortably with lots of contradictions.)

Most historians divide the development of our current two-party system into eras: the first system consisted of the Federalist Party, which supported the Constitution’s ratification, and the anti-Federalists, who opposed the powerful central government the Constitution established when it took effect in 1789; the anti-Federalists, sometimes known as the Democratic-Republican party and sometimes called Jeffersonian Republicans, emerged with bitter partisanship. The Federalists had grown from a network begun by George Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, pushing for a strong united central government, close ties with Britain, a centralized banking system, and links between the government and men of wealth. As for Madison, although he wrote The Federalist Papers together with Hamilton and inveighed against political parties, he and Jefferson together forged the first opposition party in the United States, an audacious act that, in effect, invented a modern form of political behavior before any neutral vocabulary existed for discussing it. This was an alliance that John Quincy Adams would later describe thus: “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds on each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world.”

Jefferson and Madison were labeled traitors by the Federalist press; Jefferson was called a pagan, an atheist, a treasonable conspirator, a utopian, and an anarchist. Jefferson’s major focus, actually, was less on defining the powers of government than on the absence of any bill of rights–that is, identifying areas where government could not intrude. He didn’t think primarily in constitutional categories. But Madison did. And so the precarious balance, wherein the individual rights that so preoccupied Jefferson, and the new nation’s needs, which motivated Madison, came about.

Individual rights vs. the good of the whole. Our history shows repeated events in which the populace has tried to expand parties, combine them, or split them, to seize back control of the Republic.

The origins of primary elections, for example, can be traced to the progressive movement in the United States, aiming to take the power of candidate nomination from party leaders to the people. Sounds like a good idea, yes? Most other countries rely on party leaders or paid-up party members to select candidates, as was previously the case here. There are generally two types of primaries: closed (or internal primaries, or party primaries), in which only party members can vote, and open (in which all voters can take part and may cast votes on a ballot of any party). But wait. Political parties still control the method of nomination of candidates for office in the name of the party. Aha.

Other methods of selecting candidates include conventions. The formal purpose of a convention is to select the party’s nominee for election as President, as well as to adopt a statement of party principles and goals known as the party platform and adopt the rules for the party’s activities, including the presidential nominating process for the next election cycle. But since 1972, delegates have been mostly selected in presidential primaries state by state. So the nominees have already been decided well before the conventions, which wind up being garish, inebriated displays of self-congratulatory patriotism, ego-flaunting speeches bombastically delivered by minor politicians, and the ghastly sporting of bedecked hats, shirts, buttons, and other party insignia. Sometimes I think that when George Washington, in his farewell address, wrote “Let me now warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” he wasn’t referring to factional nastiness at all but had in mind the apparel and behavior of delegates to national political conventions.

By the way, the Republicans got their elephant logo from a political cartoon by Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly, and when Andrew Jackson’s political opponents called him a “jackass,” he embraced the insult and put a donkey on his campaign posters; Democrats have used it as their symbol ever since. (Such a display of elegance on both party’s accounts!)

Defenders of political parties claim that their main job is to help voters understand the basic beliefs of a candidate, and to streamline the voting process for voters. They note that political parties also provide support activities for candidates: that parties hold fundraisers, distribute literature (and money!), and encourage people to register to vote; near election time, they perform polls and make phone calls to get out the vote. And of course, they advertise ADVERTISE ADVERTISE. In fact, because of our pathetically weak campaign finance laws, ad companies rake in gazillions from elections. Defenders also claim that two political parties help keep our country from splitting into multiple parties, which would be detrimental to running the government efficiently, though parliamentary democracies would disagree.

Opposers of the two-party system, like Lee Drutman, wrote last year in The Atlantic that the Framers thought they were using the most advanced political theory of the day to prevent parties from forming: by separating powers across competing institutions/branches, they thought a majority party would never come together. Furthermore, Madison supported the idea of an “extended republic”–a strong national government as opposed to 13 loosely confederated states. He reasoned that in a small republic, factions could more easily unite into consistent governing majorities, but in a large republic, with more factions and more distance, a permanent majority and a permanent minority was less likely. Or so it was presumed. But (according to Drutman) modern mass democracy requires parties, and partisanship has become a strong identity that can jump across institutions and branches and eventually collapse the Republic’s diversity into just two camps. Drutman noted that “for much of American political history, the critique of the two-party system was not that the parties were too far apart. . . . [but] too similar, and stood for too little. . . . But this was before American politics became fully nationalized.” Drutman argued that the Framers also could not have known that plurality elections (whoever gets the most votes wins) tend to generate just two parties, while proportional elections (vote shares in multi-winner districts translate into seat shares) tend to generate multiple parties. The only electoral system in operation was the 1430 innovation of plurality voting, which the Framers imported from Britain without debate.

And meanwhile there’s a whole other third force. The Independents.

According to polling, citizens are disavowing party affiliation in droves. In 1950, almost 85 percent of voters identified with one of the two major parties. Today, barely half the nation identifies with either of the parties, and the trend has accelerated recently. Currently, Independents can’t vote in some primaries, which is a real problem. But the Independent vote is approaching that of being greater than the Democratic or Republican votes. So far, it’s a swing vote, and in the 2020 elections, it swung toward Biden. That, and the emergence of a stronger than ever gender gap, plus the shift in demographics toward black and brown voters in the South and Southwest, presages changes in the two-party system that are difficult at this point to conjure.

Entrenched party resistance would be a formidable adversary. And the sheer power of inertia whispers that we will stay with what we have for as long as possible, if for no other reason than pure sloth.

But one can never be certain. The only thing we can be sure of is that things will change.