As an American citizen, I try to participate in the democracy that it is our privilege to embrace. I try to stay informed of world and national events and properly exercise my duty to vote and have my voice be heard. As we all know, the environment today is one of continual confrontations between the Republican and Democratic parties across the Executive and Legislative branches. While ideology is the underpinning of this conundrum, it is overt party politics that inform much of the dysfunctional maneuvering within Congress and the fight against the President. Issues are subordinated to political party control and the exercise of power.
Within this context, I still search for my positions and opinions on the challenges we face; but because of the nature of the political discourse I find myself determining the party with whom I align myself rather than making an informed set of judgments. Making matters worse, today’s polarized media do much to create a confusing landscape for the interested observer of the political scene. Fox, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Politico, the Hill, the Atlantic, the Nation, the National Review – all are partisan in nature and their readers and viewers are drawn into the vortex of news laced with party oriented opinion. In the face of extreme partisanship and the growing tendency of the electorate to vote the “party line”, I thought it would be instructive to my search to examine the history and legacies of the parties we adhere to today. The ironies are striking.
The American political party system has its roots in the opposition experienced by our Founding Fathers in the late 18th century. The Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans (known as the Republicans) were defined primarily by their distrust of a controlling government, support of the agrarian society and states rights. They feared the concentration of economic and political power and believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich (1). It’s important to note that this party morphed into the Democratic Party in 1832 with the election of Andrew Jackson as President, who embodied these principles. The party began to liberalize at the turn of the 20th century around the populism of William Jennings Bryan, which paved the way for the government ubiquity of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal beginning in 1933.
The Republican Party, by contrast, had its origins in the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. It evolved to the Whig party, in the early 19th century and emerged in its current form in 1854 in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska act that extended slavery into the territories. They also favored a program of modernization of the economy through industrialization. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the Republicans came to dominate the Presidency until 1932. The party was pro-business, favoring banks and high tariffs to grow industry faster and, in addition, had a progressive element typified by Theodore Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and, beginning in the 1930s, a strong evolving liberal faction located predominately in the northeast. Those liberal Republicans, such as Fiorello LaGuardia, Thomas Dewey, and later, Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay supported labor unions, government spending and the New Deal. Barry Goldwater, however, in the 1960 Presidential race emerged as a de facto Republican leader initiating a trend to subordinate the party liberals and launching a conservative platform.
While just a thumbnail sketch, looking back at party ideological history brings to mind certain ironies. The main tenets and identities of the parties’ historical platforms seem like a double helix when compared to today. And when surveying the political landscape as an interested citizen along party lines, as seemingly required, it is ever more difficult to reconcile todays partisan battles along historically accurate guidelines. In addition, in this partisan environment it is increasingly difficult to take a position on a particular issue without wandering into the ideological mix of party legacies and crossing over from one party to another.
But at the end of the day, it is my privilege to have the right to vote. We have already initiated the 2016 Presidential election campaigns and I am in a nightly funk as I attempt to understand the prospective candidates and their position on the important economic, foreign policy, and social issues. I am already getting the feeling that if I reject the notion of voting for a party and take the independent view of voting for a particular candidate based on their position of the issues, I will ultimately be compromised and disappointed. After all, issues do not, by and large, decide local elections. They are decided by voting the party line. In the case of Presidential elections today, voting the party line means alignment with a particular faction in the continuing battle of confrontation and power. It is unclear how the resolution of the issues will be put forth on a partisan basis, as the branches of government jockey for position and gain control over the domestic and geopolitical agenda.
In today’s environment, it is virtually impossible to be an independent thinker and voter. Individual issues are subordinated to the parliamentary battles between the Republican and Democratic Parties and casting a vote is not a decision to weigh in on an amalgamation of issues, but, rather, a decision to determine which side of a zero sum game you are on.