A Brief History of the American Two Party System

Following the publication of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and before the successful resolution of the War for Independence (1783), the American colonies decided it would be best to "confederate," at least for the purposes of entering into strategic alliances with European powers and perhaps waging war again with the mother country.  This gave the U.S. the Articles of Confederation (1781), the first constitution of the "United States.”  But the Articles were soon deemed inadequate and another Constitutional Convention was called (1787) which resulted in the U.S. Constitution (1789).  But not without a fight.  The “Federalists” were of course instrumental in the movement for the new U.S. Constitution and for a stronger Federal role.  The so-called Anti-Federalists were concerned that this new Federal government might over-power the states' sovereignties and abridge individual citizens' rights (most states had a long and proud history of individual rights).  The passage of the Bill of Rights, as a permanent limit to the powers of the Federal government, answered much of that argument.  Nonetheless, the struggle between a strong Federal government and state sovereignties has been an important thread in the play of our two-party system from the very beginning.

From that beginning in 1789, the U.S. didn't have a two-party system; it had George Washington, a President without a party.  During his two terms, a rivalry grew between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both Federalists.  Jefferson challenged Adams under the banner of the Democratic-Republican party.  Interesting that this first real party, alone, should contain the nominal seeds of the present two-party system.  The word Democratic implies will of the people, the word Republican implies rule of law (protection from a potential tyranny of the majority).  The (mostly aristocratic and Virginian) Democratic-Republicans kept the Presidency from 1800 through 1828.

In 1828, the popular war-hero Andrew Jackson became the first President from a new party, the Democrats, the true party “of the people."  With the exception of one term when the Whigs (a party whose name more clearly identified itself as the party of privilege than the Democratic-Republicans whom they replaced) won the Presidency, the Democrats held the White House until 1860.

The Northern Abolitionist Movement gave birth to a new party (1856), the Republicans.  Abraham Lincoln was their first successful candidate for President (1860).  The Northern, anti-slavery and pro-business Republicans held the White House thru 1912, with the exception of the Democrat Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms.  1864 really marks the beginning of the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans.  From the beginning, the Republicans have been Northern and pro-business, the Democrats Southern and more populist.  Woodrow Wilson was the only other Democratic President besides Cleveland before the Great Depression.  So, for all intents and purposes, the Republicans held Presidential power for 72 years but for 16 Democratic years.

The Great Depression (1929 and forward) changed all that.  As business had so completely failed the people, the party of the people, the Democrats, under Franklin Roosevelt, won the support of the majority of the voters.  Indeed, they kept power through 1968 except for the two terms of Dwight Eisenhower, who won his elections not for his politics but for his stature as a war-hero.  Pretty much the Democrats (FDR, JFK, LBJ) successfully defined themselves as the party of the people, of the poor and middle class, and of the large and growing labor movement.  The Republicans were pretty much forced to redefine themselves, not as the party of privilege but as the party of individual and states’ rights, and of tax cuts and reduced government spending.   But this didn't win them elections (nor did it represent their real values).  Most Americans since FDR have identified themselves as Democrats, a natural thing as most Americans are not wealthy.  Ever since 1932, the Republicans have only won the Presidency when their candidate was more personable and more “Presidential,” not because of his positions on the issues.  Poll after poll for the last 70 years show Americans identify with Democratic positions even when they elect a Republican.  TV has been a potent force in this phenomenon, as has the increasing role of religion and ignorance in the American political scene.


The nature of the parties' differences has altered dramatically, if not fundamentally, since 1864.  The initial differences were over slavery and industrialism and the dominance of the South (poorer and less populous) by the North.  The differences in the 1890's, following a Depression, were over a Gold standard and whether debts were to be repaid by cheaper or more dear money.  In the 1910's, party differences centered around isolationism and fighting World War I.  In the 1930's, again following the start of a Depression, the Democrats became the party of the people and of the Labor Movement while the Republicans were seen as the party of the Wealthy.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, then, the parties have divided the electorate, for better or for worse, along economic class lines.  How then, you ask, have the Republicans been able to win any national elections at all, as they are the party of the Sheriff of Nottingham, not the party of Robin Hood?  The reason is not hard to see.  First, the Christian Right has delivered tens of millions of votes to the Republicans every year, as it has served the interests of dozens of Pentecostal movements to be on the side of Wealth and their followers have, of course, followed them.  And the poor, who are somewhat often under-educated, are sometimes easily swayed to vote against their own interests.

Ever since the debacle of Vietnam divided the nation, Democrats have lost their moorings, their identification with the poor and the unprivileged.  Nowhere is this more clear than in Al Gore's mention of "hard-working middle-class families," never once uttering the word “poor.”  And Clinton himself never pretended to be "that kind" of Democrat.

So, as Democrats move more and more to the political Right, sparring with Republicans over who is more for tax cuts in a time of gargantuan Federal and state deficits, now may be the time for the emergence of a third-party, representing the interests of the poor and increasingly disenfranchised middle-class, reducing the debt, making the tax structure more equitable and listening to science, Cassandra-like, warn us of planetary catastrophe 

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