As the 2020 U.S. presidential election looms, the notion of voting along party lines continues to be a major discussion among the general public. Throughout the history of the U.S. government, much disparity amongst political parties has come and gone. Though the two-party system has mostly prevailed, many may not be aware of the tumultuous history and progression of the political party system in America.

Political parties were not mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the first appearance of something resembling party ideation happened in the 1790s, over a decade after the ratification of the Constitution and formal establishment of the U.S. government. Initially there was a fair amount of skepticism toward the idea of political parties; after all, America had been borne from a general mistrust of the British party system, which often pursued personal gain over the common good.

Nonetheless, the first iterations of the modern party system began to form, with the first parties splitting into the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. President George Washington warned against the potential pitfalls of such a system, admonishing citizens not to simply follow a party blindly or allow a party to lead to other government downfalls.

However, James Madison’s argument in favor of the party system stated that parties were a way to moderate the concept of factionalism, wherein no single interest could dominate. By fragmenting and distributing power, checks, and balances, Madison said, the fledgling American government could avoid the majority tyranny that they’d escaped from.

Initially the party system was set up as a moderating force, a way of preventing any one branch from achieving too much power and also a way to prioritize principle over personality. The idea was that party followers would unite under shared principles and a shared vision of government, rather than simply endorsing a well-supported or a personable candidate.

The modern two-party system as Americans know it now took longer to form. In between the founders and today, the “Era of Good Feelings” occurred, which is often looked at with rose-colored glasses as a time when everyone agreed to support one, unified vision. However this was not the case. In 1824, the “Corrupt Bargain” would eventually come to be known as one of the most contentious presidential elections in the history of the U.S.

With multiple candidates all competing for the same positions, much divide and conflict occurred. Instead of representing a unified national agenda, these candidates found themselves split on sectional interests, failing to achieve a majority and as a result further splintering the general population. The end result? Essentially, a lame duck president in the eventually-declared winner: John Quincy Adams.

President Martin Van Buren introduced the notion of a nominating convention for parties in the 1820s. This concept was brought about as a way to re-introduce the two-party system and re-establish the idea of unification while still taking into account differing schools of thought. From that point forward, a new age of party government began.

This party era was one of moderation. Presidential power was weaker because they were held to party obligations. Congress had stronger lawmaking powers. The personal ambitions of candidates were secondary, and gridlock was overcome by motivating voters to put a majority into the Senate, the House, and the presidency.

The next sign of a weakening of the party system as we know it came in the early 1900s, with the early emergence of the first signs of the Progressive party. Spearheaded by Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, and Woodrow Wilson, this new ideology aimed to prevent the corruption that had begun to proliferate again.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, encouraged the concept of “pure democracy”, one that was unfiltered by parties. He wanted more direct elections — direct primaries, the direct election of senators. His sentiments were validated when he received more votes than the incumbent William Taft, who originally shared the same party system before Roosevelt declared himself a Progressive.

These new Progressives said the party system was undemocratic and insufficiently nationalistic. By placing more power in the hands of the people through the use of direct elections, they believed the priorities of the country would once again come into sharper focus.

Today, the party system has come under much fire as election campaigns now tend to gravitate towards personal ambition and attacks on the character of opponents. This is a departure from the original intentions of such a system, which was intended to prevent personal ambition from being the central focus of a campaign.

Today we see an increasing number of candidates running independently, with a party label attached, which leads to further splintering of a ticket and its voters. An example of this can already be seen forming in the heavily saturated pool of Democratic presidential candidates hoping to unseat President Trump in 2020. As a result, more voter disengagement is happening, along with a severe disdain for the party system that was formed with the intent to unify the country.

The history of the U.S. party system is one fraught with change, conflict, and ideology. As we move towards another presidential election, it would be beneficial to revisit the roots of such a system to remind ourselves of the original intent of our government and how we can modernize with the best results.


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