The nauseating staleness of partisan politics is a disgrace to the American intellect and a nation fond of thinking it’s great.
Whether one ponders the intransigence gripping the Capitol or the never-ending corruption strangling government at every level in Illinois, one sees the evils of a too-entrenched party system—a system that can only be shaken up by innovative third parties, bringing with them new ideological visions and the threat of competition.
Much of what appears on Our Polity springs from the conviction that our political parties are poorly positioned for the challenges the US faces. The parties are entrenched bureaucracies, most concerned about their own futures as institutions, with the fate of the Republican Party, in particular, now overshadowing its members’ patriotism and concern for the country.
Our political system need not remain in this state. Throughout time, the electorate’s loyalties have been organized around many other platforms, goals, and ideas. In the early part of our history, firm party loyalties didn’t even exist. Instead, coalitions of voters formed and re-formed dynamically around the most promising ideas and leaders. In the seventy-some years before the Civil War, many political parties and factions came to life, fluidly combining and recombining with others to advance some vital cause or interest, catapulting their standard-bearers to prominence before they died.
Many of our greatest statesmen, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Charles Sumner, and Abraham Lincoln, rose to power as the stars of parties that no longer exist. Instead, parties of adherents amassed around their far-seeing talent and ideas, giving them the political power and authority that they needed.
When I’m despondent about the state of American politics today, I think back to these other by-gone parties, which bespeak other ideological visions around which American politics could be organized.
What about the short-lived Whig Party, for example, which flourished in the early 19th century and was a bridge between the too-aristocratic Federalist party (d. circa 1820) and the anti-federal Republican Party (b. circa 1860) we have today? The Whigs were a progressive party: they were pro-business, but they saw federalism as a positive force necessary to bind up the wayward states into a nation that was both powerful and refined. Whigs were sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They stood in opposition to the Democrats, who were the states-rights, laissez-faire proponents of the time. The Whigs championed independence and personal prosperity, but they thought that individual opportunity could be best safeguarded and maximized through the agency of an active federalism. Yet they differed from present-day Democrats in being the foes of corruption and a patronage state.
The constellation of ideas that animated the Whigs is only one instance of a different ideology that Americans could be using to reorganize their politics now. The purpose of political parties is to organize large masses of voters around constructive and unifying national goals. Since both the Democrats and Republicans have lost their power to thrill, rising talents would be wise to conjure up new parties now.
Image: Friedrich Graetz’s 1882 lithograph, “The Political Sodom and Gomorrah Are Doomed to Destruction,” shows the angel of a new party leading political honesty and wisdom out of the fires of public condemnation consuming the Republican and Democratic parties.
From this source.