The American Political Party System

In an election year, Christian citizens are confronted with choosing between candidates the two major political parties put before them. While some voters have enduring loyalties to one party or the other, voting consistently along partisan lines from one election to the next, it seems increasing numbers are dissatisfied with the options, wishing they could cast their votes elsewhere.

These voters wonder what, if anything, the parties still stand for—and whether they’re still worth supporting. How have the parties been influenced by a biblical worldview, and to what extent by the secular ideologies dominating the contemporary political landscape? With only months to go before the election, it’s worth looking into the parties’ histories, as well as the paths they’ve followed in recent decades. We will discover that, while continuing to bear positive features, both have failed to account for the diverse character of ordinary social relationships—or what I prefer to call the pluriformity of society.

History of the Two-Party System
The United States has been limited to a two-party system for most of its existence. In this respect the country is unusual, as most democracies can boast several parties vying for power and participating with others in governing coalitions. Typically the parties represent different ideological persuasions, ranging from conservative and liberal to social democratic and Marxist. Or they may represent farmers, workers, trade unions, and small-business owners. Often seated in a semicircular parliamentary chamber facing the speaker from different angles, they may be called right, center, or left—labels describing their respective political commitments, though the labels date only from the French Revolution of 1789.

How have [the political parties] been influenced by a biblical worldview, and to what extent by the secular ideologies that dominate the contemporary political landscape?

Unlike Europe, however, the United States was largely unaffected by the spirit of this Revolution and most of the ideologies it engendered, although some Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson, were sympathetic to the Revolution’s aims. Thus political parties, while polarized today, historically were committed to many of the same things—with huge overlap between their support bases. From the 1860s on, Democrats and Republicans were committed to the principles of liberalism, understood in the broad sense of free individuals as the source of political legitimacy. What separated them was less ideological than demographic. Each party claimed the support of particular interest groups, distinguished according to economic, ethnic, racial, and geographic criteria. The party itself was a broad umbrella, commanding the support of different regions, economic classes, and races. Of course, because the electoral system favored only two parties, some degree of cooperation among these groups was needed if candidates were to be elected to public office.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, the Democrats (the older of the two parties) stood for decentralized local governance, reflecting the priorities of Thomas Jefferson and his followers at the turn of the 19th century. Much later this emphasis would be articulated in terms of states’ rights, which became code for the rights of Southern states to maintain their notorious “Jim Crow” racial segregation laws. The Republican Party, founded as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s, succeeded in putting its presidential candidate in the White House in the 1860 election, thereby igniting four years of Civil War. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Republican Party was the centralizing party, favoring a strong federal government in Washington to hold together the union. By the end of the century, under William McKinley, Republicans would project American power into the Caribbean and Pacific regions, imitating the European imperial ventures of that age.

Despite contrasting tendencies within the two parties, each remained a loose coalition of ideological and economic groupings well into the late 20th century. Although the current generation may find it strange to contemplate, the so-called “Solid South” was once overwhelmingly Democratic, with Southern senators wielding great influence in the upper house of Congress, using the power of filibuster to stop civil-rights legislation for nearly four generations. Often in local elections, Republicans wouldn’t even bother to field candidates, so strong was the Democratic hold on the South. After immigration picked up in the years following the Civil War, the Democrats were able to capture the votes of new citizens in the urban centers, such as New York and Chicago. As most of these immigrants weren’t the teetotalers their prohibitionist Protestant fellow citizens preferred, Republicans accused Democrats of being the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” in the 1884 election. More nationalist in orientation, the Republicans represented Northerners with deep ethnic roots in the colonial era. When the Democratic Party adopted a pro-civil rights position in 1948, huge numbers of southern whites left, initially supporting third parties in that year and in 1968, but eventually finding a home in the once reviled Republican Party.

Both parties appealed to different Christian communities. The Republicans represented Northern Protestants through the 1920s. With increasing animosity between liberal Protestants and their more confessional rivals, the two groups still managed largely, if not wholly, to support the Republican Party. The Democratic Party tended to appeal to Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics. Members of historic black churches, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, initially supported the Republican Party due to its anti-slavery record, but eventually moved almost entirely into the Democratic camp, where they remain today. While neither party could be called Christian Democratic in the European sense, there was considerable Christian influence in both, even in a country boasting a separation of church and state. Although there was no established church, most Americans saw themselves as in some sense Christian—loyal to their respective Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations, with Jews constituting a prominent minority, especially in the larger cities. By the 1950s, after the defeat of Nazism and during the tensest period of the Cold War, Americans were so confident of their own religiosity that they were willing to insert the now-familiar phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. During this era, the parties were largely united in their foreign and defense policies; even some of the 20-year-old institutions of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had bipartisan support under the Eisenhower administration.

Dividing Decade
This support began to change around 1960.

The post–World War II wave of prosperity was reaching its zenith, and baby boomers were making their way through the country’s educational institutions. Many young people were beginning to look at the world in ways strikingly different from their parents. African American leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., were engaged in a struggle to secure civil rights for their people, a century after the abolition of slavery. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted Americans and people around the world to the need to protect the physical environment, which had suffered the ravages of the industrial revolution. Women were being admitted to professions previously restricted to men. Many Americans hoped Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs would end the age-old scourge of poverty. Urban renewal and the interstate highway system held promise for a progressive future. The ’60s were heady times for many young people. Things that had seemed impossible a short time earlier now looked to be on the horizon.

The 1960s were heady times for many young people. Things that had seemed impossible a short time earlier now looked to be on the horizon.

Yet the decade had a definite negative side. Post-war consumerism, disseminated by the new medium of television, had produced a sense of personal entitlement, fueled by the older generation’s desire to give their children what they lacked during the lean years of the 1930s and ’40s. Cushioned by the decade’s material bounty, young people were in an experimental mood, less willing to be bound by their parents’ social mores. Liberalism was moving into a new stage, which I have labeled the “choice-enhancement state.” While previous stages in the liberal project had sought a wide space for exercising personal freedoms, this new stage saw increasing numbers of people experimenting with nonmarital intimate relationships, as the Sexual Revolution picked up from where it had left off in the 1920s. Experimentation extended to the use of so-called recreational drugs, such as marijuana and LSD. The legal ramifications of this development included no-fault divorce laws and loosening restrictions on abortion, capped by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The net effect of all these changes was to divide American culture, much as the French Revolution had divided European culture. On the one side were those who saw in the 1960s the progress of the human spirit and the advance of personal freedom, now defined as the fulfillment of desire. Accompanying this was a markedly more secular attitude toward life, as seen in Time magazine’s famous April 8, 1966, cover story, “Is God Dead?” In Norman Lear’s iconic television show, All in the Family, the bigoted Archie Bunker was portrayed as a believer in God, while his irascible but more progressive son-in-law was an atheist. On the other side were conservative Americans, content to stick with the old ways—churchgoing, patriotic, hardworking, and long-suffering. Unapologetically tuning in to The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday evenings, they saw the progressive upstarts as ungrateful for the blessings they’d received from their country. These conservatives were the bedrock of Richard Nixon’s silent majority, perplexed by what was happening around them, yet willing to shoulder the burdens of citizenship to the best of their abilities.

In the beginning, the divide wasn’t a partisan one. Southern segregationists, big-city bosses, industrial workers, and northeastern liberals coexisted in the Democratic Party for decades, willing to cooperate to see their candidates get into office. Farmers, large- and small-business owners, suburbanites, progressive New England Brahmins, and economic libertarians shared the Republican Party machinery. The cultural divide engendered during the 1960s cut down the middle of these groupings. Pro-choicers and pro-lifers could be found in both parties. Devout Christians could vote for either Democrats or Republicans, confident their concerns would be reflected in some fashion in the policies each party pursued. Both parties adhered to the principles of liberalism as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in English philosopher John Locke’s (1632–1704) Second Treatise on Civil Government.

Turbulent Changes During Turbulent Times
So what changed? Three developments are worth noting.

First, the turbulence of the 1960s, which had seen race riots in large cities and antiwar demonstrations on university campuses, culminated in that pivotal year of 1968. The promises of John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s War on Poverty had run aground, resulting in a massive wave of discontent descending on the political parties. On the Democratic side, Johnson had decided in March not to run for a second full term, clearing the way for other candidates untainted by his embattled legacy. Robert Kennedy seemed headed for the nomination when he was assassinated in June. By the time the party’s convention was held in August, there was no evident frontrunner. But delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t entered a single primary election and thus appeared to be an imposition from the top. This move set off a firestorm of controversy, which concluded with the party adopting reforms that effectively made its presidential nominee dependent on its grassroots membership. The Republican Party soon followed suit. The net result was to encourage the nomination of Napoleonic figures beholden to a shadowy entity called “the people,” but insufficiently accountable to ordinary officeholders with genuine authority in the party. This would tempt a sitting president to bypass Congress and to overuse executive orders, something of which America’s 18th-century founders would’ve obviously disapproved.

Second, in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission repealed its nearly 40-year-old Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that to acquire and maintain their licenses, broadcasters must be evenhanded in presenting controversial pubic issues, airing both sides in a balanced fashion. A typical radio or television station would present an editorial on, say, the wisdom of an across-the-board tax cut, while allocating time for rebuttal. This was intended to maintain a certain measured tone to political discourse, to avoid sowing distrust, and to prevent needlessly raising the temperature of public debate. When the FCC reversed this Fairness Doctrine, it argued that the policy had unreasonably limited the debate and stood in conflict with First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Many observers believe that the rise of talk radio and the one-sided harangues associated with it have polarized the American political landscape, and that they stem in part from the demise of the Fairness Doctrine.

Many observers believe that the rise of talk radio . . . has polarized the American political landscape, and that [it stems] in part from the demise of the Fairness Doctrine.

Third, many Americans began to see themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Ross Douthat chronicles this development in his Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. A heretic isn’t simply one who denies cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. The heretic, rather, is one who retains the right to decide as an individual which doctrines he or she will accept. The truth of these doctrines becomes subordinate to the inclinations—perhaps even mere tastes—of the spiritual seeker. As the post-war consumer society seeped into the American religious landscape, it rendered such concepts as obedience and discipline increasingly suspect. Large numbers of people were claiming the right to chart their own spiritual course, free from both the standards imposed by a religious community and the ordinary social norms intended to support cultural stability. Some gravitated to Eastern religions, as recounted in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Others, unwilling to give up their connection with Christianity, embraced some form of the prosperity gospel, with its promises of health, wealth, and the good life. But obedience to authority, whether ecclesiastical or scriptural, was increasingly alien to many Americans.

All these developments influenced the health of the two political parties. With the demise of the Democratic South, the Democrats became home to a certain brand of progressives—to those wishing to expand the individual right to choose, full stop. Under the choice-enhancement state, the apparatus of government continually expands to enable individual choice, but at the expense of non-state communities with more traditional standards of life and behavior.

Armed with John Stuart Mill’s harm principle (“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”), such progressives try to import it into as many areas of life as possible—and are prepared to impose it on the reluctant through the coercive arm of the state. Moreover, though the state may refrain from judging the goodness of different life choices, it cannot decree that these choices will have equally good consequences. When some choices bring negative results, rather than changing their own behavior people tend to call on the government to compensate for the damage. Thus, rather than calling on people to curtail promiscuous sexual conduct, the government is called on to fund research on cures for sexually transmitted diseases. This isn’t, of course, to say that such research is wrong; it’s to say that, when the government is constantly expected to compensate for the harmful consequences of unwise choices, it is stretched beyond its normative limits.

When the government is constantly expected to compensate for the harmful consequences of unwise choices, it’s stretched beyond its normative limits.

The Republicans have similarly taken the libertarian element to the nth degree, focusing especially on economic life and the market. Generally skeptical of government regulations, many people in the party seek to unleash what they see as the economic dynamism of the American people, liberated from the heavy hand of government bureaucracy. They’re not departing from the liberal tradition, but they’re attempting to turn back the clock in its development, embracing either the night-watchman state or a modest form of the regulatory state. As long as they persist in affirming an individualistic approach to society, they will continue to facilitate the very conditions that produced the expansive state in the first place, as Patrick Deneen has persuasively argued: “Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state.”

Early and late forms of liberalism try to extend the voluntary principle into as many communities as possible, including such basic institutions as marriage, family, church, and the state itself, little comprehending that it can’t be stretched indefinitely. In the Republican Party, this takes the form of an effort to pattern society after the economic marketplace.

As long as [conservatives] persist in affirming an individualistic approach to society, they will continue to facilitate the very conditions that produced the expansive state in the first place.

Ordinary human associative activity consists of a plurality of authoritative agents, both individual and communal, coexisting and interacting on a continual basis. No one plans this, least of all the state, but the state does guarantee the legal space for this variety of social forms. Some of these forms are simply associations that bring people together voluntarily for specifically designated purposes, such as garden clubs, amateur baseball teams, bowling leagues, and birdwatching societies. Some are more tightly organized and have an enduring lifespan over many decades or longer, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Chicago Tribune, and the AFL-CIO. The most significant of communities we rightly label institutions, which play a central role in our lives. These include marriage, family, the state, and (yes!) the gathered church.

A biblical understanding of these institutions recognizes their distinctive characters. In many respects, we have duties to them that exist prior to our ability to choose. We’re born into citizenship in a particular state, and with that comes certain obligations, such as the vote, payment of taxes, and the common defense in wartime. The state is not a contract among sovereign individuals, as liberalism holds, but is a divinely ordained institution (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2) charged by God with doing public justice in the diversity of social forms found in society. Marriage isn’t a voluntary contract between any two (or more) persons, as contemporary opinion would like to make it, but a lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman capable in principle of producing and nurturing the next generation. We’re born into a specific family, bearing responsibility for its members, especially the youngest and oldest (Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4; Ex. 20:12). Except in the case of converts to the Christian faith, we’re born into a particular church community, our parents or sponsors making vows on our behalf at either our baptism or our dedication. These vows are binding on us into adulthood. The institutional church isn’t at base a voluntary association, but the covenant community of those called by Jesus Christ into a relationship with him.

The institutional church is not at base a voluntary association, but the covenant community of those called by Jesus Christ into a relationship with him.

David Koyzis

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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