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Miles Smith IV is an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
Since 2004, the number of Americans who identify as political independents has skyrocketed. In the first decade of the 21st century, nearly two-thirds of American voters affiliated with one of the two major parties. Now, this figure is less than half, and there are slightly more political “independents” than either Democrats or Republicans.
“It was never unusual for younger adults to have higher percentages of independents than older adults,” Jeff Jones, an analyst with Gallup Polls, told Axios in April. “What is unusual is that as Gen X and millennials get older, they are staying independent rather than picking a party, as older generations tended to do.”
The rise in political independents is part of a larger trend. Jones argues that it’s due to a broad “disillusionment with the political system, U.S. institutions and the two parties, which are seen as ineffectual, too political and too extreme.”
Axios proposed that antsy, unsatisfied independent voters were the reason that control of the White House, Senate or House has flip-flopped between the two parties almost every election since just 2004. The American electorate’s disaffiliation from both major parties is not novel, but it’s an indication that the electorate is disenchanted with their present options.
While they’re not constitutional creations or even intrinsically necessary to the life of a republic, political parties serve an important purpose in the life of democracies as invaluable intermediary institutions in American political life.
As political philosopher Harvey Mansfield argues, although parties are not a part of the formalized constitutional structure, they “appear to be part of the Constitution in the informal sense.” General agreement among political philosophers and political scientists asserts that parties, although not mentioned in the Constitution, “are necessary to the working of the Constitution.” Parties, in the modern world, “are now accepted as legitimate, even respectable instruments of free government.”
While parties became a respectable part of American political life, their acceptance was not inevitable. The first so-called parties in the United States — the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists — were more like loosely affiliated clubs of politicians with broadly aligned political aims. They didn’t have headquarters or workers (let alone even mascots).
George Washington declared his ambivalence about parties, stating that although he wasn’t a party man, he hoped they would be reconciled if they were to become a fact of life in the American political system. Washington identified with the Federalists, but he worked to be seen as above faction.
The lack of formal parties didn’t mean that Americans lived in a blissful society without any political divisions. However, when Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800 ended over a decade of relatively unified control of the federal government by the Federalists, some commentators termed the switch in faction a de facto revolution.
In the formal, official sense, parties began during the Jacksonian era. Loosened voting requirements and the full removal of requisite land ownership meant that by the 1830s, most white men could have a say in their leaders at the national level. The old informal party structures of the Federalist era worked for the narrow electorate of the late 18th century but were made obsolete by the mass politics of the 19th century.
Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s vice president who succeeded him as president in 1837, wrote a treatise on parties and proposed that they form an organic part of political and social life in republics: “The two great parties of this country, with occasional changes in their names only, have, for the principal part of a century, occupied antagonistic positions upon all important political questions.”
Parties help make political traditions, according to Van Buren. Men of similar political dispositions, he argued, naturally joined together in political associations. Fathers gave their political beliefs to their sons, and those sons likewise joined the parties their fathers were a part of. Parties, therefore, were not only natural; they were also customary. Van Buren proposed that party identification was even deeper than marital ties or preferences of religious denomination. Devotion to parties had, he said, “as a rule, been a master-passion of their members.”
The post-Jacksonian legacy of parties indicated that they strengthened the political process by directing the energy of the party faithful. In the 1850s, however, both major parties broke apart over the primary issue of the era: slavery. The Whig Party — successor to the Federalists — fell apart because the Northern and Southern members couldn’t agree on slavery policy.
The party structure resettled in the late 1850s, with the Republicans largely replacing the Whigs, but the disaffiliation from the original major parties suggests many lost faith in the ability of such parties to do their job. A similar phenomenon appears to be occurring today.
It’s tempting to hope for a republic without parties. Yet a more realistic hope, and one that is consistent with American democracy, is for better parties that restore the voters’ trust in the democratic system.
Constant telemedia coverage and a primary process that rewards celebrity more than statesmanship hamper both major parties’ institutional control and party discipline. The perennial hope of third-party success has been proved illusory. The solution to a healthy party system and a healthy political system at large will need to come from one or both of our present major parties.