Books/Alvena Bieri

On Political Parties

Primary elections and the whirlwind of campaigning have focused our attention on just how it is that Americans choose their President. Politics, American Style: Political Parties in American History by Isobel V. Morin (21st Century Books, 1999) is short and clearly written, but the subject, America’s varieties of political beliefs, is complex.

Some of our early leaders such as Jefferson and John Adams didn’t even think that parties were desirable in the new democracy. However, that didn’t prevent the Federalists and anti-Federalists from facing off. The Federalists were for a strong central government while their opponents wanted more power for the states. It’s interesting that in the election of 1800 Jefferson’s party, by then called the Republicans, in the words of the author, “dominated the federal government throughout the first two decades of the nineteenth century.”

Then we learn that President Van Buren helped lay the foundation for the modern Democratic Party as he tried to put together an alliance between the planters of the south, the workers of the north and the pioneers of the west.

The Whigs came along about 1832, the party of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. They were against the leveling out of the economic system toward the common people favored by the Jacksonists. We read that as the Whig Party broke up, the Republican Party was starting in Ripon, Wis., as an anti-slavery group. Morin has a whole chapter on parties during the Civil War.

Then there is the issue of third parties. They tend to form when the two major parties seem to be neglecting an important issue. The perfect example is the Populists. Morin’s chapter on it is called “The Age of Reform: The Populist and Progressive Parties.”

She explains how the Industrial Revolution caused great disparities in income, leading to the formation of the People’s Party, which ran a presidential candidate in 1892. But by 1896 they were supporting the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Some of the ideas of the Populists were carried forward by the Socialists and the Progressive Party. Theodore Roosevelt was actually a progressive in many ways in his attitude toward trusts. And the second Roosevelt, FDR, made the Democratic Party into a revolution maker with the advent of the New Deal.

Right now parties are still changing. Here’s a 2000 quote from John Nichols: “The Republican Party—as recently as two years ago the dominant political force on the planet—is a divided and dysfunctional remnant of its former self.”

As an ordinary citizen looking at the political scene now, it seemed to me there are some more reasons to improve our system. We need better campaign financing, abolition of the Electoral College, and attracting more than 50% of eligible voters to turn out. Last, I’m just afraid that we are all going to get plain bored with all these candidates long before the election in November.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074; email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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