That’s a question, not a conclusion. But it’s a question begging for an answer. It is a question that will make many Americans very uncomfortable. Truth be told, it’s a question that makes this writer pretty uncomfortable. But we seem to be at a time, not unlike other times in American history, when the question needs to be addressed. The last time a new, enduring major party emerged in America it proudly consisted of Americans who understood that their nation was losing its way. It was March 20, 1854, in Ripon, Wisconsin. Then the new third-party drew fellow Americans from all walks of life. There were African-Americans, many white Protestants, quite a few factory workers as well as their bosses, and many farmers too. It was called the Republican Party.
Political parties have been a part of the American experience almost from the very start of the new republic. George Washington, (still our greatest President) dreaded the formation of political parties because he knew they would inevitably become divisive, and work primarily to promote what was in the party’s respective best interest rather than what was in the nation’s best interest. History, of course, proved him correct.
The country managed to avoid the emergence of political parties during the Washington and Adams administrations, but under Jefferson and Madison, our third and fourth presidents, the Democratic-Republican party emerged and American politics has, ever since, devolved into a contest between factions or parties. The modern Democratic Party traces its roots to those Americans who coalesced around our seventh President, Andrew Jackson. The early Democrats embraced limited government, states rights, and yes, you guessed it, slavery. In fact, that pretty much characterized the Democratic Party through the nineteenth and quite a bit of the twentieth century, with southern Democratic-Party Jim Crow laws becoming the 20th century’s surrogate for slavery.
Federal entitlement programs really didn’t exist until the twentieth century, 1908 to be exact. That’s when the Federal Employers Liability Act was passed to provide benefits to injured railroad workers. And that pretty much described the nation’s safety net until the emergence of the Great Depression. Later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and his war on poverty along with the Civil Rights Movement began to change the character and the priorities of the Democratic Party. The Vietnam War greatly polarized the nation and when it ended, America got up, dusted itself off, and found itself politically divided into the camps that have lasted well into the 21st century.
The political camps were pretty definable, but both parties embraced varying degrees of welfare capitalism, in which either government or industry (by law) provides for certain defined basic needs of citizens. Laissez-faire (literally: leave us alone) capitalism, which characterized the 19th and early 20th century swiftly faded into a by-gone era, to which most thinking people were quite ready to say good-bye.
Throughout our history, though, both major political parties embraced certain fiscal or social ideals or positions and sought candidates for public office who espoused and supported those ideals or positions. Candidates, by and large, were chosen because voters believed they could best advance the ideals and positions of their respective parties. That being said, however, it would be naïve to pretend that there have not been periods in our history where the personality of the politician didn’t attract more votes than the positions espoused by the politician. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and, yes, Donald Trump have been the beneficiaries of voter swoon, as much as voter embrace of specific policies. Previously, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson were also the beneficiaries of voter swoon more than voter allegiance to policy initiatives.
Of the forty-five presidencies and the forty-four different individuals who have served as Presidents (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms as President, making him the 22nd and 24th President) the overwhelming majority of US Presidents have been elevated to the highest office because of voter support for the policies they embraced, or voter displeasure with the policies embraced by their opponents.
Today, there seems to be nothing resembling consensus with respect to challenging new ideas. Today, policies and positions seem eclipsed by the outsized influence of personality. Yes, we’ve embraced cult-of-personality politics before in America. Today, Republican politicians know they have very little room to openly deviate from what pleases President Trump without incurring wrath from the oval office that might, very well, prove fatal in the next election. Cautionary Republican voices with respect to such issues as deficits, debt, tariffs, and the proper role of government are essentially silent. Democrats, on the other hand, have either embraced the far left-wing (think Sanders) or, alternately, the structural-change advocates of their party (think Warren), or the anybody-but-Trump faction of their party (think Biden).
The coming campaign between Trump and Biden will offer little that is instructive to the American voter. The debates, assuming there are any debates, will not represent much of a learning experience for the American electorate or for the next generation of voters. There will be no real debate of ideas or of visions. The campaign will be a duel of a thousand cuts with character assassination and disparagement the blades of choice. In such a contest, President Trump has no peer, and Joe Biden lacks the swift tongue or the crass instinct required to parry with the President. The voter may not be able to look to either the Democratic or the Republican Party for a constructive way forward any time soon. That might take a new third party. If so, the sooner the better.