GAMBIER — Whenever the thought of political parties comes to mind, voters often think of a two-party system and the two dominating components: Democrats and Republicans. Although in the nation’s history there have been many third parties within the political arena, a two-party system continues to maintain a stronghold within the government.
Many third parties, such as The Know-nothings, Progressive, Populist and Greenback, have come and gone; some have merged with the two major parties, but none have stood the test of time.
“The only other major parties to come up, but have since died, were the Federalist and the Whigs. And in part, the Whigs died and was replaced, in a sense, by the Republicans,” said John Elliott, political science professor at Kenyon College.
Today, parties such as the Socialist, Constitutional and Libertarian parties exist, but it was only in the past 50 years that they were founded.
The nation’s history has seen the two-party system persevere even in demanding times.
“In the election of 1860, we actually had four presidential candidates because the political system was so broken apart with different parties in the South as opposed to the North,” said Elliott, whose area of expertise is in American politics. “But essentially from 1864 on, almost always, we’ve had just two parties — the Democrats and the Republicans. These are very old political parties, and are commonly thought of as the oldest political parties in the world.
“The continuity of the two-party system has been for most of our history, and it’s been the same two parties since 1864,” he continued. “Every once in a while a third party will come of significance, or a party will break down and subdivide, but basically it’s a two-party system of Democrats and Republicans.”
Although the origins of the Democratic Party trace back to President Thomas Jefferson, the organizer of the Democrat-Republican Party, the Democratic Party arose in the 1820s with its first President, Andrew Jackson, being “simply” a Democrat. The Republican Party began in the 1850s; the election of 1860 voted in President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president to bring the party to the forefront of the political arena. Each party has had its periods of decline, but neither party has diminished from the political scene.
Political parties have their role in the elector system, and are considered by Elliott as a “linkage institution.”
“It’s linking leaders and followers,” he explained. “Followers who have political beliefs and interests need leaders to advance their cause, and there are always leaders looking for followers. To some degree these leaders want to get elected, want to hold a public office, and want to advance their particular goals and interest, but leaders have to find followers and followers have to find leaders. ... So parties are formed partially from the bottom up and partially from the top down.”
Although the Democratic and Republican parties have their role in the political arena, it may be debatable whether they maintain their original purpose.
“When the parties trace themselves back to their founders, they tend to like to argue that they’re the same thing that they were in the beginning,” said Elliott. “The Democrats in the beginning were in some degree the party of small farmers, and what they can still say is that they’re the party of poorer people — they are the egalitarian party — and in one sense, they were in the 1800s.
“But the Democrats aren’t the party of small farmers as they once were in those days, and they haven’t been that since the 1930s,” he continued. “So now the Democrats are more the urban party while the Republicans are more the rural party. In one sense, the Democrats have changed incredibly from what they were, but in another sense they haven’t, and so they can make claims about what the advocacy of the small farmer was in the beginning — suspicious of the power of big business is the same ideal as today. And they were the party of states’ rights and weak national government, and in the 1930s that utterly flipped, becoming the party of a stronger national government.”
By the 1930s both parties had changed, adapting to the growing country, Elliott said, but for the Democrat Party true change came during the period of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
“During this time, the Democrats decided that a strong national government is the way to help poor people, and the national government can provide Social Security, can help workers organize with the Wagner act [The National Labor Relation Act], all sorts of national legislation, and national government programs,” said Elliott.
Changing its platform with the ideals of reform through a stronger national government transformed the Democratic Party, and it began to distance itself from the Republicans. Elliott said that often the line that separates the two parties is the idea that Democrats are liberal, left wing, while the Republicans are conservative, right wing.
The Republicans opposed the idea of a stronger national government, and claimed the title of “champions of liberty” tracing their policy back to the beginning of that liberty when Lincoln freed the slaves.
“If you look at their histories, there were times when both parties changed and in some cases stayed the same,” said Elliot.
There were times when political parties, in general, lost their popularity in the public eye. This, Elliott said, was partially due to the evolution of the parties and partially due to the course of change within the nation.
“The Democrats started as the party of small farmers and if you’re a party of small farmers in 2010, you would be a very small party. The country changes, cities grow, suburbs grow, so the parties are going to have to adapt as the nation changes,” said Elliott.
Elliott allegorized the political parties’ history to that of a roller coaster in which one party may have a majority over another or vice versa, dominating the scene for a period of time.
“We’ve seen so many shifts, so many predictions of doom for one party or the other,” he said, adding that one party on a national level may even get “slaughtered” in a particular election, and there would be cause to think it would fade away, but then it bounces back after one or two elections.
Because the adaptation sometimes can be a slow process, Elliott said, political parties can fail to readjust when national key issues arise.
“When the country changes and new problems come up, and neither party seems to be dealing with them, people become less loyal,” he said. “And we tend to see more third-party movements based on the idea, ‘Well, neither party is serving our needs or meeting our concerns.’”
Elliott said that oftentimes what has happened in history, one of the main parties will make a major realignment, most likely through a new president, in order to revamp their positions.
“They do have to adapt and respond; if not, they’ll die,” he said.
Although third-party movements can be strong in certain areas of the country, Elliott said, they often fail to gain national recognition, thus losing to the established powers of the Democratic and Republican parties.