The Spectacle Blog

The Limits of America’s Political Parties

By on 6.19.14 | 10:23AM

To fill the vacuum created by Eric Cantor’s sudden defeat as House Majority Leader, the Republican House Caucus will meet today behind closed doors to elect a new majority whip and majority leader. While the majority leader position looks to follow a natural line of succession, the race is heated for the whip spot and highlights the interior fault lines of the Republican base, as Tea Party elements camp contrapositive to an “establishment” core. Illustrating that party politics are not always about the other party, the race reveals that sometimes Republicans get to decide what it means to be Republican in an election that the electorate never touches. It is an unusual set of circumstances allowing for an interesting look at the interior dynamics and evolving values of a political party founded 160 years ago. 

As such, what happens Thursday is business as usual for American political history. Excepting George Washington’s confirmation as first president under the Constitution—and the fluke with James Monroe following the death of the Federalists—elections have been the proxy wars of competing parties for control of the country. Those parties have come and gone, changed, developed, abandoned old objectives, and become the pair that today, despite their best efforts, share power in this republic. It is precisely the position in which John Adams feared the country would find itself, writing, “There is nothing which I dread so much as the division of the republic into two great parties.” It is, nevertheless, reality, and a reality that arose quickly but has changed much in practice. While tomorrow will potentially alter House Republican management, neither party is what it was when it was founded and the idea of an “establishment” within either party is simply a description of the powerful rather than institutional internal factions.

The Democratic Party of today is proud of its age at over two centuries, but hardly proud of its heritage. Its website points out only four initiatives palatable to the modern member, all from within the last 100 years. Democrats today are happy to take full credit for women’s suffrage, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, and the Affordable Care Act. This ignores a history full of support for slavery, progressives’ relationship to Prohibition, or the fact that the Democratic aversion to war is a recent phenomenon, as Indian wars, the Mexican-American War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam were all presided over by Democratic presidents. The party of today is not the party of Jefferson or Jackson, developing as it seeks to keep power. Yet even today it is hardly homogenous, as fiscal conservatives within the party like the “Blue Dog Coalition” show.

The Republicans originated as an issues-driven party concerned with slavery and polygamy, primarily as practiced by the growing Church of Latter-day Saints. The GOP of today is far more likely to talk about its history of abolitionism than its past preoccupation with Mormonism. National parks were a Republican initiative under Ulysses Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, yet the GOP today is hardly the party associated with environmental issues. Advocacy for free markets and crony capitalism walk hand in hand in the contemporary Republican Party, something David Brat capitalized on in his defeat of Eric Cantor.

These parties that have become, seemingly by default, the only possible expressions of American political thought have shifted and contorted over time to become so. How two political parties became large enough to absorb the effective totality of U.S. politics is a question I’m unqualified to answer. They appear to have done so, and whatever division there is within them remains so—within and not expressed in terms of a third party. What happens today is just another example of internal politics that will affect external politics. Neither party is as homogeneous as it would like to appear with its platform, and the whip and majority leader race may reveal if that matters. The republic has been divided into two great parties, but there are parties within parties, factions within factions, and the parties of today will change. How, who can say?

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