The Dynamic History of U.S. Political Parties and Tendencies

The following interview, conducted in October 2012 by journalist Arash Azizi, was originally published in the Farsi-language journal Mehrnameh, the leading journal of humanities in Iran. In it, John Peterson gives a basic overview of the history of political parties and class interests in the United States, which shows that the U.S. political spectrum has not always been "the same," and that things can and do change, often dramatically.

Q: Formation and nature of political parties and tendencies in United States seems to have had a very peculiar character to it that separates it from most other countries. In its about 200 year of post-revolutionary history, different ‘parties’ come to represent different things. Looking at what is usually called the First Party System, how do you explain the essential differences between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson? Can one be called more progressive than the other? Can either of the modern Democrats and Republicans claim to represent the legacy of any of those two?

Given its tumultuous rise to world prominence over a period of less than two centuries, it is no surprise that the history of political parties in the United States is equally effervescent. There has been a continuous and contradictory process of rise and fall, development, decay, and renewalof economic possibilities and interests, which is also expressed in politics. Today's dominant parties have not always had their current grip onpolitical power, and there have not always been just two major parties. At various times, third, and even fourth viable parties have emerged, sometimes succeeding in supplanting the parties of the day, sometimes appearing as just an blip in U.S. history.

All political parties express the concentrated economic and political interests of one or another class or layer of society. Where only one party exists or has predominance, those interests will eventually and inevitably be expressed within that single party. In other cases, there are multipleparties defending the same fundamental class interests in differing ways, appealing to different layers of the ruling class, and leaning on this or that layer of the population for support. In the case of the U.S. today, there are formally two major capitalist parties, but if you look at their actual policies and methods of governing, the line between them is increasingly blurred, despite the election year bluster. To better understand how we arrived at this situation, it is useful to go back, as you say, to the First Party System, i.e. the first set of political parties that held sway over the country's political life.

The two dominant classes in the early United States were the merchants, bankers, and small manufacturers on the one hand, mostly concentrated in the Northeast, and on the other, the owners of large-scale plantations, mostly concentrated in the South. Sometimes their interests coincided; at other times they clashed, often violently, most notably during the U.S. Civil War. There was no working class as such at that time, although there were many independent yeoman farmers ("husbandsmen") and artisans ("mechanics"), as well as a small but growing manufacturing base, particularly in the Northeast.

The early political parties, broadly speaking, expressed the interests of the embryonic capitalists vs. slaveholder agrarians. As remains the case today, the vast majority of the population were without direct political representation -- if they were even allowed to vote at all -- and had to choose between these options. In one form or another, this basic set up would continue until the Civil War and beyond, although the voting base did eventually broaden somewhat with westward expansion. Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party represented the rising bourgeoisie, whereas Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans represented the powerful plantation owners. There were, of course, supporters of both factions throughout the country, but the North-South divide was already markedly pronounced.

Now, capitalism at that time was a historically progressive system. The American Revolution swept aside the elements of feudalism that had been implanted on the North American continent by the British. It drove out the monarchy, expropriated the wealth of the fleeing Tories, including millions of acres of land which were divided among small holders, and established a bourgeois constitutional republic that guaranteed many personal and political liberties, at least on paper. This was something new in the world, particularly as the experiment was unfolding on a vast continent, which opened up many possibilities for its future development. But there were profound disagreements as to what direction that development should take.

Alexander Hamilton was a clever and ruthless proponent of early capitalism. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, he drove through policies designed to centralize power in the executive branch of the federal government, enrich his friends and allies, and to facilitate the development ofU.S. capitalism. He was a proponent of a strong standing national army and an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. Hamilton also had something of a monarchist streak in him, preferring the stability of the British system to the French Enlightenment and Revolution. Had he not been killed in a duel by his New York rival Aaron Burr, he would have been happy to set himself up as an American Napoleon, had the opportunity arisen.

Jefferson's party opposed the core of Hamilton's Federalist policies, preferring power to be more dispersed, concentrated in the legislative branchand among the states. An ardent supporter of the French Revolution, and the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, he was a champion ofthe rights of man, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (again, at least on paper). The anti-Federalists, as the Democratic-Republicans were known in the early years, were responsible for the U.S. Bill of Rights -- the first ten amendments to the Constitution -- which guarantee certain liberties and check the power of the executive branch and the federal government.

These two parties emerged from the cauldron of the early nation, polarizing its politics for over two decades, although the Jeffersonians gained the upper hand after 1800. However, after the War of 1812 and into the 1820s, there was a growing sense of "national purpose" and a desire for greater unity across partisan lines. This "Era of Good Feelings" was the era of the Monroe Doctrine, of the early beginnings of a feeling ofnational identity (vs. a state or regional identity). The Federalists faded from the scene (in part due to a major scandal), and the Jeffersonian camp fell into in-fighting and disarray. The different class interests in the young republic came to be expressed in the main split-off from the Jeffersonian party, which emerged as the Democrats, led by Andrew Jackson, and the anti-Jackson Whigs, led by Henry Clay, which continued many of the Federalist policies in a somewhat new form.

Q: How about the Second Party system of Jacksonian era? Is it correct to seek the roots of the current Democratic Party to the 1830’s andlegacy of Andrew Jackson?

Yes, it would be correct to trace the genesis of today's Democrats to the Jacksonian era, though the Democrats have taken many forms since then. Rising immigration to the U.S., combined with westward expansion into the territories of the Louisiana Purchase, the new lease on life given to Southern plantation slavery by the invention of the cotton gin and the industrial revolution-led textile industry in Britain, the rising economic power of the Northeast, accelerated by the building of the Erie Canal, all led to intensified contradictions and a new political dynamic in the still-young nation. Above all, the question of slavery continued to divide the nation throughout this period, culminating with the Civil War.

Q: Coming to the Civil War era we see the rise of the Republican Party and election of its first President, Abraham Lincoln. While many leftist historians like Howard Zinn seem to write off lincoln as just another racist and elitist, you have resolutely defended the Lincoln legacy in your work. How is it that the Republican Party seems to start with a revolutionary project but ends as the bastion ofconservatism?

Yes, it is often surprising for people nowadays to learn that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President. It does seem an inexplicable contradiction that the party that freed the slaves now leans on institutional racism to keep its grip on power throughout much of the country. But conditions and parties change, as we shall see. That's the dialectic of history!

Although he has provided a tremendous service by opening millions of people's eyes to the unknown side of U.S. history, Howard Zinn was not a Marxist. I am. This explains our differing attitudes towards "The Great Emancipator." We should be clear. The U.S. Civil War was not about states' rights. It was not about slavery as an abstract moral concept. At root, it was a question of Northern capitalism, industrialism, and free labor, vs. Southern plantation agriculture and chattel slavery. Which class in society would dominate the national government and its treasury in the era to come? Both systems are based on the cruel exploitation of human labor for the profit of a minority. But capitalism was still a historically progressive force at that time. It was economically superior to the slave system and it was a foregone conclusion that sooner or later, it would get the upper hand.

Lincoln was no saint and had his profound contradictions. But by pursuing the Civil War to the end, when others may have reached an accommodation with the South that could have allowed slavery to continue for decades longer, he "cleared the decks" for the untrammeled development of capitalism. Why would a Marxist (including Marx himself) support this? Because the development of capitalism leads ultimately to industrialization, urbanization, the strengthening of the working class, the rise of powerful unions, dramatically increased productivity of labor, and an increase in the material wealth of society. In short, capitalist development has laid the foundations for a new, superior form of human socio-economic-political organization: socialism. 150 years since the Civil War, the capitalist system is no longer progressive. The material, objective conditions are rotten-ripe for socialism. What is lacking is the subjective factor, a truly revolutionary Marxist leadership that can lead the working class to end this system once and for all. But that is perhaps a topic for another interview.

Having won the Civil War, pursuing Reconstruction in the South, and adopting many of the modernization policies of the defunct Whigs, the Republicans dominated U.S. politics into the 1890s. Contrary to today, their strong base was in the North and Midwest, while the Democrats dominated the South, especially after the betrayal of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Many people forget that the Democrats were the original party of racist "divide and conquer." For decades, the "Solid South" was controlled by Democrats. It was only under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and with changing demographics that the Democrats came to be associated with more "liberal" or "worker-friendly" policies, and the regional base of support for the two main parties flipped. The Nixon Republicans "sealed the deal" by consciously adopting the "Southern Strategy" and appealing to racists in the South. But these geographic blocs are not eternal, as demographics continue to change, and discontent with both major parties is growing.

Q: Since 1930s and the New Deal, the Democrats have been seen as the representative of the Left in the United States electoral politics. Most trade unions have always been aligned to them and a left-wing alternative has almost never risen to its left. Even the Communist Party has a history of defending them. But you and your political tendency has never called for even a critical support of the Democrats. Why is that? Also, you have quoted approvingly Gore Vidal’s dictum that the Democrats and Republicans are really two wings of the same right-wing party. Looking at the current electoral campaign, can you really make the case that there are no discernible differences between Obama and Romney? Is the historical roots of the two parties different in a way as to make one more progressive than the other?

I think it is clear from this brief overview of the historical genesis of these parties that both of them have always defended the propertied classes (be they slaveowners or capitalists). They may demagogically lean on the masses to win votes, but they have never truly represented the working majority of this country. They cannot serve two masters. Nowadays, both of these parties defend the interests of the capitalist class, albeit with different methods and policies ("modern" liberalism vs. "neo-classical" liberalism, Keynesianism vs. Monetarism, social liberalism vs. social conservatism, this sector of industry or finance vs. another, etc.). But at root, both parties represent capitalism. They both support austerity and the slashing of what remains of the welfare state. They both support U.S. imperialism abroad. In the final analysis, they both defer to Wall Street.

FDR was forced to implement the policies of the New Deal in order to avoid a more profound social explosion in the 1930s: a revolution. He was a clever representative of the bourgeois, and did what he had to do to save the system. However, the New Deal served only to buy the capitalists time; it did not and could not resolve the contradictions of the system. It was World War II that "got the U.S. out of the Great Depression" -- at a cost of millions of lives and devastation worldwide. A prolonged boom followed the war, which took the edge off the class struggle for an entire historical period. However, capitalism's contradictions remain and were only exacerbated by the unprecedented expansionof credit and globalization. The crisis that began in 2008 is far from over.

In the absence of a viable mass alternative, the workers are trapped in a vicious "greater vs. lesser evil" cycle. They tend to vote for one party or another based on social issues or the abstract hope of "change we can believe in." But a record 40% of voters do not identify as either Democrats or Republicans. Barely half of eligible voters bother to vote at all, and millions of other voting-age Americans are disenfranchised. As a Marxist, I understand that the interests of the capitalist class and their parties are diametrically opposed to the interests of the workers. This is why I am in favor of a political expression for the working class, which does not yet exist in this country. This is why I am a strong advocate of a labor party based on the power and resources of the unions. This is why I argue that such a party must go beyond the limits of capitalism andprivate property of the means of production and implement socialist policies that can truly address the needs of the majority. That, in a nutshell, is why the Workers International League and our magazine Socialist Appeal would never give support to either capitalist party, and why we fight for a mass labor party armed with socialist policies.

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