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When the U.S. Constitution was penned in 1787, political parties did not figure into the authors’ visions of the governmental order. The only real mention made of anything pertaining to a divided structure were indicated through constitutional arrangements such as separation of powers, checks and balances, and indirect election of the President by an electoral college. In spite of this, by the early 1800s, the United States had become the first nation to institute nationally organized parties, and was also the first to transport executive power from one faction to another by means of an election.
Many historians directly relate the formation of political parties with the eradication of the previously enforced requirement that voters be property owners. This of course, greatly increased the size of the voting population in the early 1800s. However, with the expanded electorate also came a strong need for organization; thus the creation of political parties became essentially inevitable.
The first party system, which existed from 1790 to 1824, was the Jeffersonian Republicans and the second was the Jacksonian Democrats. The Jacksonian Democrats advocated personal liberty and local rule, emphasized the freedom of the individual to follow his own interests, and appealed primarily to the common man. The Jeffersonian Republicans was the political party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that supported a weak central government, more power vested in the states, and a society and economy based on independent farmers.
By the 1830s political parties were a firmly established part of the political system. Subsequently the first documented direct primary, (the method of choosing party candidates for office by popular vote) was held by the Democratic Party in Crawford County, Pennsylvania in 1842. Most primaries through the end of the 19th Century were very localized.
Today, the primary process has become so crucial to secure the nomination, that in order for candidates to accumulate both monetary and political support, they find themselves obliged to the same party politics and special interests that the system was designed to avoid. Parties were eventually weakened by the direct primary, as well as progressive reforms and civil service reforms. In addition to the weakening of parties through deliberate reform, parties were destabilized by such factors as the increasing education and mobility in the electorate, the communications revolution and a plethora of technological developments.
Since the time of the first direct primary, opposing political parties have been considered to be at the heart of a true democratic society. After all, political parties are responsible for the nomination of candidates for government offices; the introduction of new policies designed to assist in solving the nation’s problems; the educating of voters through the sponsoring of public debates, and a myriad of other undeniably essential functions. Although American parties tend to be unified more by ideologies than pragmatism, they still play a crucial role in shaping public policy.
Currently, the Republican and Democratic parties almost completely dominate the presidency, Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. Minor parties have existed throughout American history and have occasionally contested for national office, but the two major parties have been the only ongoing serious contenders. Consequently, the only legitimate hope most candidates have at winning an election is to join forces with a major party.
Many Americans also complain that divided government is the reason behind the mud-slinging campaigns and political scandals that have pervaded American politics throughout history. Though the term “divided government” is generally used in relation to the 1980’s, it has actually recurred regularly since the 1940s. In only eighteen out of the past forty-six years has the same party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. The Nixon presidency, a period of legislative activism, coexisted with Democratic control of the House and the Senate. Divided government was also common during the nineteenth century.
Throughout most of the 1990’s, divided party control of the government caused incessant partisan conflict between Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress. Both the congressional Republicans and Democrats exhibited sharp policy variations and an unusually high level of unity within their individual parties. This, of course, created an extremely heated atmosphere of partisan conflict, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal so blatantly demonstrated.
Two-party electoral competition stands out as one of the political system's most significant and lasting qualities. Since the mid 1800s, the Republicans and Democrats have dominated electoral politics. This unsurpassed record of the same two parties continuously monopolizing a nation's electoral politics is evidence that both the structural aspects of the political system as well as the unique features of American parties are not as ill conceived as some critics would like us to think.
There are, after all, a number of good points to the two party system. For example, it filters out the extreme elements. The multi-party system allows the extreme, and often destabilizing, elements to infiltrate the political system. The last thing Americans want, despite their yen for an alternative political system, is for extremists like the Nazi party to gain credibility simply because neither of the major parties could gain a clear electoral victory.