Dixiecrats, Know-Nothings, Free-Soil, Prohibition: These are but a few of the many political parties that have played a role in American presidential elections. The diverse conditions of historical eras, and differing ideologies of America's people, gave rise to various political parties, founded to advance specific ideals and the candidates who represented them.
Today, America is a multi-party system. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are the most powerful. Yet other parties, such as the Reform, Libertarian, Socialist, Natural Law, Constitution, and Green Parties can promote candidates in a presidential election. It is likely that political parties will continue to play a major role in presidential elections. Do you think our party system has strengthened or weakened our election process? Do you think the American people will seriously look outside the Republican and Democratic Parties to elect a president some day? What might cause this?
No Parties Here
The founders had seen vicious fighting among political interests in Europe, and wanted to avoid this in the new nation. As the framers of the Constitution, they were very concerned about not creating crippling dissension within our political system. On Saturday, June 2, 1787, Ben Franklin took the floor at the Constitutional Convention as a skeptic. Franklin feared that greed-driven competition for the presidency would divide the new American government into factions. He warned,
There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. ...Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places ...renders the British government so tempestuous...[and is the true source] of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation [and] distracting its councils.
On Wednesday, June 6, 1787, just a few days later, James Madison weighed in by saying that if unregulated,
All civilized societies would be divided into different sects, factions, and interests, ...of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, ... the inhabitants of this district or that district, the followers of this political leader or that political leader, the disciples of this religious sect or that religious sect. In all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.
Ironically, political factions sprang up right away to support the Constitution and to oppose it. By the presidential election of 1796, political parties were firmly in place in America. The Federalists followed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The Democratic-Republicans (also called the Jeffersonians) followed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- the very James Madison who had earlier warned against factions.
Political parties, and policies espoused by the parties, changed over the decades. By the twentieth century, the two dominant parties were the Democrats and the Republicans. Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, sister of Theodore, cited notable differences that she saw between the two parties in a speech titled "Safeguard America!":
I am one who believes that the Republican party and the Democratic party have different ideas. And I believe that the issues of the two parties are not as blurred and as indistinguishable as is sometimes said to be the case.
Today the party system seems firmly entrenched. Some Americans might argue that there is no real difference between the ideals and political stances of today's parties. Other Americans routinely vote a party ticket in their belief that a particular political party will best represent their wishes for governing the nation. In light of the role played by today's political parties, do you think the founders' concerns about creating factions was warranted?