With the government shutdown now over, it is historically intriguing that one of the central players, President Donald Trump, with help from the Democrats, is helping to destroy the political reality that his hero, Andrew Jackson, helped create–legitimate political parties.
The Founding Fathers all abhorred the idea of parties. George Washington made parties the subject of his farewell address, as he left office. Yet, as Washington preached against them, they were forming around him. The way the president was chosen in the original Constitution demonstrates that the Founders hoped to avoid parties. For the first four elections, the winner of the Electoral College became president while second place became Vice-President. Under this system Trump would be president and Hillary Clinton would have been his vice-president.
One reason the Founders detested parties is that parties are more concerned with the party’s welfare than the nation. A great example of this is that our current parties were more interested in claiming a political “win” over a border wall than they are at compromising and helping government workers get back on the job. Democrats are now claiming “victory,” and the media can report that Trump lost. Turning this into a win or lose situation will not help either side when it comes to the next big issue.
Another issue for the Founders was parties were not seen as legitimate. In other words, the opposing party was not seen as acceptable and their policies would destroy the experiment called “America.” Those calling themselves Republicans (while believing parties were wrong) believed the Federalists wanted to turn America into a monarchy, while the Federalists believed the Republicans wanted to start a “Reign of Terror” similar to France.
This is not like today’s rhetoric, such as, “If Trump wins, I am moving to Canada” and then no one actually leaves because they know America will survive until the next election. We know that parties are legitimate. They did not. I have written about the 1800 election and why I think it’s the most important ever–this was the first election we see some legitimacy in the opposing party.
We really do not see full legitimacy until the Jacksonian Era. During this time leaders, such as Jackson, argued that parties are not only legitimate, but positive. The man who deserves the most credit for this change is the brains behind Jackson, his second VP and eventual presidential replacement, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren began by building his own party, the Bucktails, in New York and eventually turned it into the Democratic Party. The new party organization helped Jackson win two elections and solidify his strength. The Democrats were so successful that the Whig Party was forced to follow suit if they ever hoped to win.
Van Buren believed parties benefitted Americans by having a side to choose on issues and the parties could contend against each other in an orderly manner. He also saw parties as the glue that would hold the nation together. As long as there were northern and southern Democrats and Whigs, he thought, America would not have a Civil War. But none of this was possible unless everyone saw parties as legitimate.
Today we are losing the idea of legitimate discord. Parties have always fought each other but, except on a few occasions, they have always been able to work out compromises. Recently, it seems that Democrats attack any proposal from the Republicans for the sole reason that Republicans proposed it, and vice versa for Republicans against Democrats. Past Democratic leaders made statements and speeches about border safety similar to our current president. So why are Democrats now suddenly against it?
With the Democrats in control of the House both parties chose “the wall” to make a stand on. Instead of truly working together to find a solution, they delegitimized the other party, and refused to budge an inch in order to claim victory. Yesterday was the wall, who knows what it will be tomorrow. Yet whatever it is, the parties will not care about the issues half as much as who will “win” the fight and hold the upper hand going into the next election.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.