Today we look at the history of political parties and their influence over our government. For almost all of our history, our politics have been dominated by two parties.

Interest groups seek to change policy, they will work with any political party to accomplish their goals. Political parties seek power through winning elections. They will adopt almost any policy as long as it is popular enough to keep winning elections for them.

New rules and court decisions like Citizens United allow for the formation of PAC’s (Political Action Groups) who can raise money without having to report the sources and who can then spend that money in the service of multiple candidates. For example, KochPAC was formed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and raises money which it then gives to the campaigns of conservative politicians. KochPAC can also advertise directly in support of a candidate. PAC’s exist outside of the restrictions that are placed on candidates.

The data comes from the summer of 2016 and you can see how much each candidate depended on PAC’s (like Ted Cruz) versus independent small donors (like Bernie Sanders).

Parties need to review the records of their candidates (a process called “vetting”) to make sure there are no conflicts of interest. Candidates themselves have to be charismatic enough to raise the large sums of money needed to compete in American politics. Even for local races, tens of thousands of dollars will be required.

Because the party nomination process (the “primaries”) draws a lot of media attention, we can start to think that these elections are governed by state or federal law, like the general elections. Primary elections are completely controlled by the party that is holding them. The rules, which can be quite complex, are created by party committees, not by legislators.

Historians categorize the rise and fall of the various political parties in America by grouping these time periods into “Party Systems”. The First Party System began in the 1790’s and lasted until the end of the War of 1812 (about 1815). Federalists were members of a party that wanted a strong federal government and a lose interpretation of the Constitution. Federalist support came mainly from city dwellers, bankers and the wealthy. The Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution rebranded themselves as “Democratic-Republicans” and were in favor of a strict interpretation of the Constitution and in favor of government powers staying mainly with the states. Their support came from slave owners and farmers.

The Federalists opposed the War of 1812 and favored reconciliation with Great Britain – a very unpopular view given Jackson’s dramatic victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The Federalists faded from prominence pretty quickly after that. As for Jackson, he became the embodiment of the “Common Man” – self-educated and self-made. The removal of property restrictions on voting in the 1820’s coincides with (and helps) Jackson’s rise to power. By the 1830’s, a new party – the Whigs – has formed, dedicated to opposing Jackson.

We often think that the Republicans began as the anti-slavery party but there was a continuum of belief within Republican ranks. Some thought slavery should be abolished while others only wanted to stop the spread of slavery. Other single-issue parties included the “Know Nothings” who were focused in restricting immigration.

The Second Party System was in place for most of the late 1800’s and saw Republicans emerge as the dominant party in the North and the party of Big Business. Democrats in the South were intent on protecting the Jim Crow system and new groups like Populists (small farmers) and Progressives (urban poor and workers) became more influential.

The Progressives began as Republicans in the early 1900’s but by the Great Depression, had moved to the Democrats. The Great Depression helped the Democrats form a winning coalition made up of urban intellectuals and working class people of all ethnic backgrounds. This grouping is powerful and results in Democratic dominance in politics at both the state and federal level. This becomes the Third Party System.

In the 1960’s, the Democrats split along north-south lines because of civil rights. The Republicans fracture along east-west lines, over differing views of the role of government. Western Republicans see government as the problem while the east coast liberal Republicans see government as the solution.

The Civil Rights movement divides and cripples the Democratic Party. In the 1970’s, working class white Democrats leave the party in large numbers over issues like school integration and forced busing. This “white backlash” cripples the Democrats and ends the Third Party System.

The current Republican formula for success is: 1) View government as a bad thing, a negative 2) Fire up the base with strong positions on moral issues like abortion and 3) Focus on “law and order” and being tough on crime (this includes the “War on Drugs”). These positions are popular with working class white Americans, especially amongst those with no college education. This is the same demographic that was critical in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.


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