Can someone briefly explain the evolution of American parties?

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    Let’s see if I have this right…

    The first party was the “Federalist Party” and this party was started by Alexander Hamilton and its purpose was to promote the current policies (economic and foreign) that were being implemented or soon meant to be implemented by the Washington administration, (but largely influenced by the advise of the treasury secretary – Hamilton himself.) Then came the “Anti-Federalists” (or were they called Republicans?) …and their main agenda was to oppose the Washington administration (more specifically the Hamiltonian influence within it.)

    Is the above true?

    And if so… after that, what? How all, and why, have parties changed up to our current Republican/Democrat two-party system?


    I’ll take a stab at this. The above is seems basically true.

    As for how and why the parties have changed up to our current Republican/Democrat two-party system, political scientists speak of “realignments,” electorial realignments where this or that constituency shifts between the parties, often due to a dynamic process (a party recognizes the potential of appealing to a given constituency that formerly had primarily voted for the other, and adopts policies aimed at appealing to that constituency, or a constituency sees the potential in leaving the former party it had given its allegence to, and ‘taking over’ the other, or gaining influence in it).

    People speak of all sorts of re-aligning elections/moments, but really the prototypical one – the one that still shapes the parties to this day – was the election of 1896. I thought that even before I listened to Rothbard’s lecture; this whole series (start at the bottom and work your way up; they’re in reverse order) is really good at explaining the development of America’s political-economy, including the party system. If I remember correctly, this one specifically talks about the shift in constituencies, both elite and popular, and the reasons for them. None of the re-alignments since 1896 that political scientists and historians talk about have really come close to that one in significance; most of them have just represented an extension and deeping of the logic of the 1896 realignment.

    Really that’s the “backbone” of America’s party structure to this day; Williams Jennings Bryan and so on gained control of the Democratic Party, but did not win the election. Wilson succeeded in winning. The FDR “realignment” did involve shifts in some constituency groups, but really, ideologically, represented the triumph of the 1896 ideology, “Democrat-wing.”

    The Reagan Era saw a partial re-alignment, but really it was a shift of some constituencies, but not a ideological shift. I may get in a bit of trouble here, but the impact of neoconservative intellectuals on the conservative movement is, in this respect, often overblown. Rather, they were influential because as Scoop Jackson/JFK Democrats, they were the intellectual wing of the “Reagan Democrat” voter. The typical Reagan Democrat was not convinced of small government/Washingtonian Foreign Policy. They remained “Jacksonians” (in Walter Russell Mead’s breakdown of the four types of American policy views). (Note I know some people here won’t like WRM, but his breakdown still has analytical value, IMO).

    “Jacksonians” were as described in some of the America Since 1877 lectures here – particularly the ones on the Vietnam War: they turned against the war because it did not seem that we were willing to do what they believed it would take to win it, but they despised hippies and “peace activists” (many of whom were, lets be honest now, really “victory for the other side” activists). They were not convinced militarism was wrong, they were just convinced that the Democrats were no longer a home for people who believed in a “Big Stick” foreign policy.

    Similarly, they despised the excesses of the Great Society…but they were never convinced that small government and mutual aid societies were the way to go in general; they just disliked programs for the undeserving poor, but felt programs that “helped the common man” were just fine – they even liked medicare for grandma, social security, and the “social safety net, just not the hammock.”

    In addition, there were the “values voters” who were turned off by increasing Democrat secularism and anti-virtue campaigns, which culminated in this election where the Democrats explicitly endorsed the slut vote. They saw the New Left Democrat Party as deliberately aimed at destroying their social and cultural structures. And they were not wrong (many libertarians – not Tom, I think – but many – think that people should ‘de-emphasize” social issues; but it is the left which has always been the aggressor in the “culture wars,” while the right has simply been trying to defend itself and its institutions from these aggressions, which, again, culminated in the “gimmiedat or you’re waging war against me” election memes). However, the unfortunate thing is that many, many of these voters do not see the connection between non-agression on social/cultural issues and non-agression on economic ones; in fact, many of them are on the left economically (just read most of the posts that touch on economic matters at, for example, What’s Wrong With the World to illustrate this point).

    So Tom Woods et al look negatively at, say, Reagan, for his actions not following through on his better rhetoric of small government. And they have a point. And people have a point about how worthless and counter-productive the existence of the Republican Party is. But they’re not leading people down the garden path. Neocons aren’t manipulating an electorate that otherwise would not be militaristic and would not support FDR-TR style government programs. Neocons et al are just the intellectual spokesmen of that view. The 1980 Electoral Realignment just represented the Republican Party taking on the role of the pre-New Left Democrats, while the Democratic Party continued it’s shift towards the Progressive Ultras. Reagan himself embodied this shift in the phrase “I didn’t leave the Democrats, the Democrats left me” – and millions of voters looked at things the same way. (the Overton Window has continually shifted Left throughout this century.*)

    What would happen if, say, the Republicans of today were to follow the “wise” advice many are giving them in the wake of this election? That they de-emphasize social issues and emphasize libertarian economics? That they drop, say, opposition to abordion and don’t make a big point of churches and private people being forced to pay for Sandra Fluke’s lifestyle choices? Well what would happen is a large constituency would either not vote at all, or would decamp back to the Democrat Party, because the reason they are Republicans has nothing to do with a sound grasp of economics, but with opposition to what they see as infanticide and cultural degeneration. So the Republicans are locked in a vice.

    Now, it is true that the Ron Paul movement, IMO, does represent the way the freedom movement should go: it is able to reach a large number of young people, by being frank and honest. But it does that by being persuasive. People – at least some of them – will listen to the message. So one of the failures of the Republican Party in our time (the last generation or so) has been that it lacks people who use the platform available to them to speak persuasively about freedom in all facets of life. Rather they are dominated by drones with their fingers in the wind, who are at best apologetic about the beliefs they supposedly stand for, and at worst don’t really hold those beliefs themselves but think they have to utter them in order to appeal to their base (most if not all of the apparatchiks – campaign managers et al, fall into this category; they hate having the electoral base that they have, which is an embarrassment to them at cocktail parties in DC, NYC, LA, and other circles of the fashionable. Indeed, the idea that Progressivism represents “the people vs the powerful” is and always has been a cruel joke; it’s not hard to tell which beliefs are fashionable in high social circles, and have been since at least 1896. And those beliefs aren’t Jeffersonian-libertarian. Oh-ho, no. It’s also a cruel joke, a mockery, to believe that the Democrats are somehow ‘anti-big-business’ – they never have been; indeed, the biggest businesses are generally Democratic, the biggest financial houses are generally Democratic; the moderately-big are generally Republican, but really both parties have their big-business supporters, it’s just that it’s one faction vs another, rather than “we’re sticking up for the little guy and sticking it to the rich” – it’s a cruel mockery to write a book, like one historian recently did, “FDR – traitor to his class” – portraying him as somehow for the working man, when really he was just the exemplar of one class of wealthy progressive elitists, using power to enrich his allies and crush his opponents).

    Now, I myself rip the current party structure up and down. And I think there is a bigger constituency for liberty than hacks realize – when it is articulated, and articulated sincerely. But really there’s a lot of work to be done persuading people. Maybe the majority “really does, if they think about things properly, support liberty and oppose statism,” but they need to be persuaded to see things that way and to identify the problem with the things they think they believe work: that they want X, but the way they’re going about it (supporting policies N) do not produce X, but instead produce Y outcomes, which they do not like, and they ought to support policies L instead.

    *Yes yes I agree with people who think the left-right spectrum is not analytically accurate, that there may instead be a three-dimensional spectrum, or an up-down spectrum; up being freedom and down being statist control. But for the purpose of this post it is useful to speak in terms of left-right for clarity.


    Btw, “Jacksonian Americans” – in WRM’s description – towards whom I have a lot of sympathy (probably too much), are nationalists who want to be left alone, but believe in bombing the crap out of anyone who they think is messin’ with them (Ron Paul’s arguments on foreign policy *might* reach them, but generally they think that if someone pokes us in the eye, that’s not our fault – the pokers are agents, too); they’re not too careful about sorting things out; they admire, rather than despise, the tactics of William Tecumseh Sherman (except to the extent to which many, many Jacksonians are Southerners, and don’t like that these tactics were used on their kin – but they’re not unhappy using them on others); the quickest way to end a war with miniumum blood shed of the people they care about is decisively. They do believe in “the big stick” approach. They don’t – generally see that as the source of some of their problems because they see themselves as decent people wanting to do well by others, and are open to appeals along the lines of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, including here, so if we don’t take X out, X is a threat to democracy here.”

    They also prefer to be left alone by government, especially revenuers, but believe in getting a hand up; they’re not against programs that help decent folk in need. Here the best way to persuade them is that they won’t ever be left alone by a government given the powers to “help” you, and we’d all be better off going back to mutual aid.

    There’s a good article here on these fine people (and I don’t mean that snidely at all), and this here is basically written from this point of view and attempts to explain the partisan-ideological breakdown not just in America but the West as a whole.

    I make a big point of the Jacksonians because 1) basically these were the people the Liberty Movement/Ron Paul movement needed to persuade, and 2) basically these were the people that the Ron Paul movement attempted to persuade, with varying degrees of success.

    The (true) Jeffersonians are already liberty-movement people; the Wilsonians and Hamiltonians are basically a hopeless, lost cause, except to the extent to which they’ll hop on the liberty movement if – and only if – it starts to look like the Strong Horse, because there’s one thing Hamiltonians and Wilsonians admire above all, power. Functionally Tom Woods’s books have also been aimed at persuading Jacksonian Americans for the same reason – Hamiltonians and Wilsonians love power over others too much because they are convinced they know better how others (especially Jacksonians) ought to live their lives, so the H & W faction is unconvincable. But Jacksoinans don’t like being manipulated (er, nudged and goaded along) by busybodies, so they can be persuaded of liberty, with the right arguments.

    Of course, now that new voting constituencies (Vote Banks) have been imported, the old Jacksonian Americans are diminishing in electoral significance, and being (consciously) marginalized by the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian Alliance. To the extent to which Jeffersonians have supported this in the name of “freedom!” they’ve also taken themselves out behind the barn and shot themselves in the back of the head.

    They needed to first create a regime of liberty, and only *then* welcome anyone who wanted to share in that (and, as Hoppe suggests, shun anyone who does not). Instead they tried the reverse, and got self-marginalization (the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian Alliance was much shrewder about what the outcome would be. They started gloating decades ago, and are now able to be openly gleeful about how successful their transformation has been).

    But at least voluntarism lives on in some spheres.


    I am making a PowerPoint on the Civil War. Here is the slide on political parties over time. The left side shows the centralists, the right side the decentralists. They switched views in 1912:


    Note that Jefferson was called a Republican back in his day, but historians today call his party Democratic-Republican to distinguish them from the Republican Party of Lincoln. Or they call it the Anti-Federalist Party, because most historians have a bias in favor of the Federalists.


    Are you sure it’s that simple? I read a book recently (can’t recall which off the top of my head) stating that the anti-federalists, Jefferson included, called THEMSELVES anti-federalists. The author used this as one potential reason that they ended up losing the argument over the ratification of the constitution – poor marketing. That even back in the 18th century, people were more likely to support causes that were FOR something rather than against something.

    Of course, the author also pointed out that a much more correct label would be for the federalists to be called nationalists (because they favored a strong national government with diminished state power) and for the anti-federalists to be called federalists (because they still favored a national government, just a very weak one, the articles of confederation were a federal system too).


    During the ratification debate, George Mason called himself a Republican and decried the nationalists for calling themselves “Federalists.” Elbridge Gerry later said that there really had been two parties during the ratification debate “rats and anti-rats.”

    The first party under the US Constitution was the Republican Party — if we want to call it a party. At least, political scientists by the early 1990s had identified a couple of dozen members of the House who consistently voted with James Madison across a wide range of issues. This group congealed into a party. Seeing how they were organizing themselves, Alexander Hamilton organized his Federalist Party in support of the Washington Administration.

    Historians of the 1790s most commonly call the Madison-Jefferson party the Republican Party, even though it might more accurately be called a proto-party. More confusing for students is that the party Hamilton organized took the same name as proponents of ratification had used only a few years before.


    Yeah the naming of the earlier parties gets confusing; I never fully understood it until taking these courses.

    Appreciate the replies, peeps.

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